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Napoleon Chagnon: The Fierce Sociobiologist
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

The first time I met Napoleon Chagnon, I asked him why he became an early advocate of human sociobiology.

“Because it told anthropologists to study reproduction instead of pottery! “ he retorted.

Nap’s answer took me aback, because it signified that the central insight of sociobiology for a cultural anthropologist such as Nap was more basic than the issues that preoccupied me. As a PhD student at the University of Michigan in the 1960’s, his mentors placed an emphasis on culture and resisted the idea that human behavior might revolve largely around genetic reproductive success. That made Nap’s PhD research on the Yanomamo tribe of South America both groundbreaking and controversial. In addition to revealing the importance of genetic relatedness, Nap showed that Yanomamo men earn a special status by killing their enemies and that such men had more wives and children. Natural selection was favoring the kind of belligerence that earned the Yanomamo the name of “The Fierce People” –the title of Nap’s classic ethnography.

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Nap’s battles with his colleagues in cultural anthropology were also fierce, as he recounts in this fascinating interview with Catherine Salmon (see also her interview with William Irons, Nap’s “lifetime best friend” who was a partner in arms). He recounts how HBES was initially just a get-together of a few people, with no one imagining it would grow into a society with hundreds of members.

Times have changed for the study of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective, thanks in part to Nap’s pioneering spirit. In his interview, he describes his more nuanced studies of kinship in which he was among the first cultural anthropologists to record the latency of response of his informants as an indication of their certainty of the kinship relation. During the 1993 HBES meeting that I hosted in Binghamton (see my interview with Barry Kuhle), Nap presented a series of photographs of Yanomamo men that I remember to this day.

“How many people do you think he has killed?” Nap asked of the man in the first photograph, who was clearly a warrior displaying his belligerence. This went on for three or four photographs, until he came to the last photograph of a man who looked as beatific as a Buddhist monk and hadn’t killed anyone. Nap then recounted how the Yanomamo had been studied primarily along the banks of a river, which provided the easiest access. The tribe extended away from the river into the highlands, however, and Nap had only recently gained access to these villages by helicopter. Men from the highland villages were much less belligerent than men from villages along the river. Heterogeneity in belligerence existed even within this single tribe.

Even the idea of a culture as like a single organism coordinated by symbolic relations, which was the paradigm that Nap rebelled against in the 1960’s, is beginning to make sense from an evolutionary perspective through the work of HBES pioneers such as Peter Richerson, who is also featured as part of this series (forthcoming) and who refers to human cultures as “crude superorganisms”. E.O. Wilson, whose book Sociobiology became the lightning rod for controversy in 1975, compares human societies to social insect colonies in his 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth. Human behavior from an evolutionary perspective is a multi-stranded topic. Nap’s interview reflects one of the most important strands and the series of interviews on the Origin of HBES provides an invaluable oral history of the tapestry under construction.

Watch more:

On The Origin Of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: David Sloan Wilson

On The Origin Of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: Steven Pinker

On The Origin Of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: Bobbi Low

On the Origin of Human Behavior and Evolution Society: Mark Flinn

On The Origin Of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: Randy Thornhill

On The Origin Of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: Doug Kenrick

On The Origin Of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: John Tooby

On The Origin Of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: Leda Cosmides

On The Origin Of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: Martin Daly

On the Origins of Human Behavior And Evolution Society: William Irons


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