In 1964, Napoleon Chagnon was a 26-year-old anthropologist at the start of his career, going to live among the Yanomamö Indians, 20,000 people living in around 250 small villages in “an unexplored pocket of the Amazon Basin.” He became one of America’s best-known anthropologists, and one of the most controversial. Chagnon’s 1968 bestseller, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, was attacked for its conclusion that the Yanomamö were naturally warlike and violent, with lives largely defined by a link between fighting and reproduction; Chagnon found that the most prolific killers among the tribe tended to have more wives, and three times as many children, as the more peaceable tribesmen.
Chagnon pressed back against accusations that he was portraying his subjects as pure savages by countering that his enemies were suckers for a romantic idea of the “noble savage,” living an idyllic life uncontaminated by the corrupting influence of civilization, that prevented them from evaluating the evidence dispassionately. In retrospect, that may have been the high-water mark for Chagnon’s relationship with his colleagues. In 2000, Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness In El Dorado accused Chagnon and his colleague James Neel of several abuses of science and ethical violations, the most serious of which was the later-discredited charge that they deliberately started a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö to study its effects.
Chagnon isn’t a live-and-let-live guy, and his biography, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö And The Anthropologists, which was almost 15 years in the writing, fairly hums with its author’s raging fury at those who he feels misrepresented his findings and slandered his name. Chagnon has said the book took him so long to finish because he didn’t want it to just be “very depressing or very angry.” And he postpones directly addressing the damage done to his reputation until the last hundred pages or so, at which point he comes out guns blazing. But even in the first part of the book, describing the technical challenges his work presented to himself and his family, he often alludes to what’s to come. The tone resembles that of a wrestling announcer reminding viewers to stay tuned, because the match at the end of the program is between two guys who really don’t like each other.
There’s some humor, a surprising amount of it self-directed, in Chagnon’s account of his early years in the field. Apparently the Yanomamö welcomed him into their community by punking him relentlessly. They would play practical jokes on him like telling him they had names that translated as “Hairy Vagina” and “Asshole,” then sit back and look forward to the moment when he would share his research with someone who had a more comprehensive grasp of their language. Looking back, Chagnon is willing to see this sort of thing in a spirit of good fun. He almost portrays the Yanomamö who tried to murder him in his sleep in a spirit of good fun, too. As bad as the Indians could be, he’ll take them over his fellow anthropologists.
Chagnon sees himself as a victim of academic political correctness before there was a term for it. He casually labels all his enemies as “Marxists,” though when he admits to being confused as to why Marxists are so threatened by “sociobiology,” he fails to consider that he’s using the preferred buzzword of reactionaries who don’t like academia. The fact that Chagnon is so comfortable turning most of the members of a complicated profession into a cartoon may give readers pause about whether he might have done the same thing to the Yanomamö. His vision of a “natural” life based on simple, violent conflict—a vision based on his findings that 25 to 30 percent of Yanomamö men came to a violent end—may be just as romantic, and reductive, as the idea that the Amazon ought to be the Garden of Eden. Noble Savages is a lively contribution to one of the great scientific shitstorms of the past several years, but the definitive account of Chagnon and his tormentors is yet to be written, probably by someone who can think about the whole case without his blood pressure soaring into the red zone.