Today we learn of the death of Napoleon Chagnon at age 81. Dr. Chagnon was a cultural anthropologist whose extensive field research in the Amazon with the Yanomamö tribe made them famous and produced his early monograph, The Yanomamö: The Fierce People (1968). His conclusion that frequent warfare among the people supported a theory of violence as an evolved human reaction to threats by neighbors drew criticism from other anthropologists. His work is widely considered a classic in anthropology and is still read and assigned.
Dr. Chagnon was a member of the National Association of Scholars and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2012.
In 2013, Carol Iannone had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Chagnon for an essay in Academic Questions.
This article appears in the fall 2013 issue of Academic Questions (volume 26, number 3), the journal of the National Association of Scholars.
Iannone: How did your interest in anthropology begin? What made you want to be an anthropologist?
Chagnon: My original major as an undergraduate in a local two-year college—Michigan College of Mining and Technology—was physics. At that time I had never heard of anthropology. I transferred to the University of Michigan after my first year and discovered that “physics” was in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and I would have to take courses in each of these fields. The only thing I could fit into my schedule for the social science requirement was a course in a field called anthropology. It was taught by a man who was very prominent in the field, Elman R. Service. I enjoyed it enough that I took another course in anthropology the next semester, this time from a man who was even more prominent than the first: Leslie A. White. I immediately changed my major from physics to anthropology after Prof. White assured me, when I visited him during his office hours, that I could “make a living” at being an anthropologist. Anthropology dealt with questions about humans and human nature that were, to me, far more interesting than, for example, the laws of nature or the physics and chemistry of life.
Iannone: Can you give us a general sense of the state of the field when you entered, as it seemed to you then, the major figures, methods, issues, controversies? Were you especially inspired by anyone?
Chagnon: The dominating figures in the late fifties and early to mid-sixties were Margaret Mead, Claude Levi-Strauss, George Peter Murdock, Julian Steward, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Raymond Firth, Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Bronislaw Malinowski, Edmund Leach, Meyer Fortes, and both Service and White at my own university, but many others were emerging as prominent “theoreticians” in the field and some of the ones just mentioned were waning in influence. Also, disagreements had by the 1960s divided the field into “cultural evolutionists,” “structuralists,” “functionalists,” “ecological and environmental determinists,” “personality and culturists,” “cultural materialists/Marxists,” and a half-dozen other “ists.” Major problems revolved around questions such as: How is history different from evolution? How are cultures held together as they grow? Can the function of institutions be understood from their structure? In what way are civilizations more complex than tribes? Does the biology of humans have any relevance for understanding the nature of culture? Is there such a thing called “human nature”?
Iannone: What made you decide that you would research the Yanomamö, a tribe in the Amazon who had very little contact with the outside world?
Chagnon: I had originally chosen to study a different tribe in Brazil, the recently contacted Suyá, but a military coup happened in Brazil after I was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health but before I left for the field. I therefore chose to study the Yanomamö, who were then very poorly known. The Yanomamö resided in a border region between two countries—Brazil and Venezuela—so I assumed that if one of the countries had a revolution, I could study the same tribe in the other country.