Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

This is a “big” book – it covers Chagnon’s long career and deals with big ideas – including culture, science and professional standards. It’s also a long book, but it held my interest. I remember seeing one of the early popular articles based on Chagnon’s field work when I was a teenager. Was it in National Geographic? I was intrigued.

So why, 35 or 40 years later, did my friends seem so surprised that I was reading a book about anthropology? After all, I took an anthropology course in college (just one). Didn’t we all read Margaret Meed and fantasize about running off to Samoa? 

So much can be said about this book. First, Chagnon asserts his identity as a scientist and rejects “advocacy” as the proper role of the field anthropologist. 

I’m struck by the fact that the Yanomamo culture was/is so “successful”. These people, who only rather recently came into contact with the wider world, lived lives we might consider violent and “dirty” (I simplify here), but they fed themselves, were possessed of language, myths and goods, and their population was slowly increasing. Chagnon spent time recording genealogies and observing changes that occurred as group size increases.

The Yanomamo had no particular reason to help or even tolerate anthropologists. In some sense, all information was “purchased” with trade goods, ranging from fish hooks to machetes. Chagnon formed friendships that ranged beyond the mercenary, in some cases extending for decades. He worked under rigorous and often dangerous conditions.

The possibility for trouble during contact between staggeringly different cultures always looms. Chagnon explores and documents two deadly issues – firearms and measles. 

Chagnon’s difficulties in getting along with others in his profession provide an interesting window on growth and change in the social sciences. He describes the extent to which his colleagues clung to preconceptions. Many were unwilling to accept his assertion (based on years of observation) that the Yanomamo fought over WOMEN (not over resources needed for subsistence). They considered his characterization of the Yanomamo as “fierce” to be inaccurate and prejudicial, although he was quite certain they would have felt complimented.

I was surprised to find extensive discussion of E O Wilson’s Sociobiology, which burst on the academic scene while Chagnon was fighting with his fellow anthropologists. Chagnon and Wilson both use the scientific method and evolutionary theory to investigate what it means to be “social”. 

If you are interested in how social sciences are taught in American colleges, you should read this book. If you like lively autobiography, don’t miss it.

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