Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomamo: Some Lore, Curious but not Quaint

Napoleon Chagnon is one of the most controversial figures in anthropology. You can find a little background on him, and his work among the Yanomamo, in this post by Chris Campbell, which opens thus:
When I first began studying anthropology it was de rigueur to have an opinion about Napoleon Chagnon and his work on the Yanomamo. We couldn’t just read Yanomamo: The Fierce People and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his theory and approach. We couldn’t just debate the ethnography for what it was or was not. Instead, we were invited to stake out a position that mirrored the tendentious and political debates that swirled around Chagnon. It was, on the whole, a shameful affair that discredited most who were involved. Incredibly, Chagnon still rouses ideological passions among (mostly older) anthropologists.

In the long meantime, those of us who don’t buy into the false dichotomies of cultural-biological, nature-nurture, and science-humanities have assimilated Chagnon’s work and moved far beyond those unproductive debates.
Campbell says a bit more. The object of his post, however, is to introduce a symposium in which Chagnon talks with Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, and Daniel Dennett. It's a fascinating discussion. Here are a few excerpts, and a comment or two.

Culture and Cognition

Here's one bit, in response to Steven Pinker, that speaks to one of my hobbyhorses:
... now that you've got me thinking about it, I think there's a general correlation between native peoples in the Amazon, or in South America in general, and the sophistication of their numbering system. And the degree to which they intellectualize and have concepts of, say, the stars in the sky, and they have constellations, or the complexity of their baskets. And I think numbering systems tend to be correlated with complex basketry and complex cosmology. Now, I don't know a good example from my work among the Yanomamö that illustrates that, but …
Makes sense to me. It's not that I see any direct connection between basketry, cosmology, and number systems but rather a looser connection. This is related to the conception of cognitive rank that David Hays and I have outlined.


Danniel Dennett asked about humor among the Yanamamo. Yes, they tell jokes. And when they tell stories, the go all out:
CHAGNON:  For example, their myth world, their telling of myths is just rich and replete with all sorts of antics of them going through the motions of such and such a character in the myth. I mean it will entertain the whole village just watching how well a particular Yanomamö can imitate or little nuances that he adds in the imitation that nobody has witnessed before.
First, note that he talks of being able to entertain the whole village. Story-telling among the Yanamamo is public theater. Everyone is there to see and hear the story.

And the telling is not a bland recitation. It is acted out, with voices for different characters and with gestures and movements. The oral "text" is thus a very rich text and is meant to be seen as well as heard. Much of the "information" in the text is non-verbal.

Metalingual Awareness

Another hobbyhorse, concerning concepts about language. We know what words and sentences are, even syllables. Such things are easy and obvious to us. But then we are literate. We have had to learn how to spell individual words, and, for that matter, how to list them alphabetically and how to read through alphabetic lists. Reading and writing force such things on us.

The Yanamamo are illiterate. How do they think about language?
DENNETT: In your book you mention that, although they have words, the idea of a word was not obvious to them, and that you had to go through some effort to get them to break their language up into their words, into nouns, verbs, and so forth.

CHAGNON:  You must have read something I wrote about this, because that's exactly what happened. The biggest difficulty I faced in doing my field research is to get them to realize the notion of a word and where one ended and the next one began. They intuitively knew that, but they didn't know how to explain that to me. They'd make a statement to me that would go on for five pages, and it was because I didn't know where one part of the statement ended and the next began. And I finally trained one of them, right, got one of them to understand what I was trying to do. I wanted him to say a word as a discrete component in a more complex collection of words, and I thought this was a major breakthrough, and it was.

PINKER:  That's true in non-literate peoples in general, and in children. What intuitively seems to us like a word is actually the product of  active meta-linguistic awareness:  reflecting back on language as an entity. Until the late Middle Ages there weren't even spaces between words in print. Language was just written as one long sequence of sounds, which literally is what it is. If you look at an oscilloscope tracing of speech there are no little breaks between one word and the other.
Think about that. The speech stream is physically continuous, but we hear it as a series of discrete chunks. At least when listening to a language we understand. If we don't understand the language, then the speech sounds like a continuous albeit complex stream of sound.

Learning to be Human
DENNETT:  I've got one more question for you. Back again to what they thought of you. What did they think you were doing? Why did they think you were there? It wasn't to hand out medicine and fishhooks.   Did you try to explain why you would come and do all this?

CHAGNON:  No. They arrived at their own conclusion, which I thought was very logical: I'm trying to learn how to become human.
And that, of course, is even true of us, in an odd sense. Note also that the Yanamamo have the notion that one must learn to become human. That, presumably, is what their myths are about, how the original ones–whatever they're called–did in point of mythical fact, learn to be human.
CHAGNON:  But as far as the Yanomamö are concerned, they were the first people ever born, ever created, and when they see foreigners come back in wooden things that we call canoes, they realize that they, too, have been consequence of the Great Flood, and they're coming back as second-class Yanomamö. So foreigners have come in, and now they recognize them as almost human, but not quite, and their name for foreigners, they have one word for foreigners, "Nabä."
Violence: Like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of my favorite texts–see the post Being in Crisis and the Ontological Text, not to mention various other posts. The text is framed by the Beheading Game: I'll let you take a wack at my head with an ax if you agree to then allow me to take a wack at your head. Very strange. Very ritualized, of course.

Here's the Yanamamo version. Not beheading, though. More like skull-splitting. But still ritualized. No flinching.
CHAGNON:  But then they also have a kind of club called a "himo," it's a hardwood palm club that's sharp as a razor—you can make palm wood really sharp—and if you get hit on top of the head with one of those, it's lethal; it's like getting hit on the top of a head with a heavy club.

WRANGHAM:  And this is a case where the one guy is just allowed to take a swipe at the other one and then waits for the other one to come back.

CHAGNON:  Right.

CHAGNON:  And the guy that he's hitting on top of the head has to remain fixed and …

WRANGHAM:  And bad manners to dodge.

CHAGNON:  Right. Except if he starts swinging sideways. You're not supposed to do that.

WRANGHAM:  Oh. Okay.

CHAGNON:  It should be up and down.
As violence is one of the things that particularly interested Chagnon, and his work among the Yanamamo has played an important role in more general discussions of human violence, you'll find a good deal about violence in these discussions.

Beware of the Neighbors
And this sounds a bit like the territories of street gangs in American cities:
One example I give from my travels across the United States: I happen to have been invited on a trip into the Grand Canyon by the man who was then Governor of Arizona, Fife Symington, and we had the park ranger, the archeologist for the Grand Canyon area, along with us, and he took us into parts of the Grand Canyon that most tourists don't see. One of the most astonishing things we saw, Pueblo houses built into the edge of the Grand Canyon, with a 1,000-foot drop below, and these houses were occupied by prehistoric Indians who were so terrified of their neighbors that they'd climb down vines and ropes with their kids on their back, and firewood under their arm, and the day's catch in their baskets, because they were just terrified of their neighbors. And that's the way the Yanomamö live. Even the missionaries who have lived among the Yanomamö the longest have pointed out repeatedly to me and other people that these people are terrified of neighbors. It's like Hobbe's war of "all against all" in many respects, and Rousseau is way off the mark.

PINKER:  Maybe not every man against every man, but …


PINKER:  … but every village against every village.

Love and Marriage

And you'll also find a fair amount of discussion about relations between men and women.
PINKER: ... Do you get a sense—having lived with them for many decades—that their general range of emotional experience was similar to ours? Different from ours?

CHAGNON:  I think it was quite similar to ours, with some major differences. For example, I don't think romantic love exists among the Yanomamö, even though Helen Fisher, for example, and people like Helen who do that kind of research...

PINKER:  Yoni Harris reviewed the literature in her UCSB dissertation and claimed that romantic love was a human universal. Wasn’t she a student of yours, or of your colleagues Donald Brown or Donald Symons?

CHAGNON:  Well, we had a knock-down, drag-out argument on her dissertation. Well, first of all, the Yanomamö are so inbred that when they marry a wife she's very often related to the husband by a factor of a coefficient of relatedness that's much closer than first cousins. So kin selection theory, and affection, and obligation to a close kinsman becomes entangled with notions of romantic love. Secondly, if romantic love really existed in societies like the Yanomamö, why do the Yanomamö refuse to marry their parallel cousins, who are as related to them as their cross-cousins? And in fact, they regard their parallel cousins as sisters or siblings, and there's no affection whatsoever; in fact, it's a taboo relationship. So culture and classification of kinsman interferes, to a certain extent, in the emotions that they might have. And finally, marriages among the Yanomamö are like political marriages—like the hierarchy in the aristocracy in England.  They are for alliance purposes, and villages can only be a certain size if the right individuals in that village, the headmen, for example, choose their mates or have their mates provided to them by special other people. So there's a very political dimension to the Yanomamö marriage.
FWIW, I'm sympathetic to the notion that romantic love is not a human universal and so I find Chagnon credible on this point. It is, however, a complex and much contested matter.

Finally, an interesting observation on monogamy, polygamy, and polyandry, all of which exist among the Yanamamo.
WRANGHAM:  Do men ever marry older women?

CHAGNON:  Oh, yes.

WRANGHAM:  Why would that be?

CHAGNON:  Can't find one that's suitable, and more attractive. They'll marry anybody.

You can't really classify the Yanomamö as monogamous, polygamous, and polyandrous. Nor do I suspect you can do that with any society, or at least societies of the sort that you're interested in, like hunters and gatherers, transisting from hunting and gathering, to agriculture; or early agricultural societies like the Yanomamö. You have to look at marriage as a life history event. So when you're young and don't have a lot of kinsmen, the best game in town might be sharing a wife with your brother. So at that point your marriage is polyandrous. Then as you age, or your kinship fortunes increase—like more of your own kinsmen move to your village—then you might be able to do a wife all by yourself. And then if you become politically important and have a lot of relatives and lots of sisters to give away in marriage, you might end up with two or three wives. The most wives a Yanomamö I know has ever had is six at the same time.

One of the papers I'm going to do is how many spouses each sex has throughout their lifetime; just to try to add some dimension to this argument about polygamy, polyandry, and monogamy.

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