First, the big shakeup. (These first two paragraphs might seem dry, but it always gives me a thrill of hope when someone, especially someone as respected as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, says: There is some shit I will not eat!)
The eminent University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins resigned from the National Academy of Sciences on Friday, citing his objections to its military partnerships and to its electing as a member Napoleon Chagnon, a long-controversial anthropologist who is back in the news thanks to the publication of his new book, Noble Savages.
Membership in the NAS is considered highly prestigious, and public resignations are rare. In an e-mail to a number of his colleagues, which was forwarded to Inside Higher Ed, Sahlins wrote, "I have submitted my resignation to the National Academy of Sciences (US) because of my objections to the election of Chagnon... and to the military research projects of the Academy."
Back when I (very briefly) studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, we thought of professor Sahlins as a cross between a sage and a rock star. At 70-something years old (at the time), he was a phenomenally intelligent anthropologist who had the battle scars of fieldwork and the fierce theoretical/political struggles he'd fought in over the years.
He had seen intellectual fads come and go and had no taste for them, even though the grad students (and many of the professors) were herniating themselves trying to be the most au curant kid on the block.
Not to say he was ossified or inflexible. He understood those fads more deeply than most and was an ace at identifying their weaknesses. He had a reputation for being deeply principled—and very funny. (You can see some of his anthropological/theoretical sense of humor in the pamphlet Waiting for Foucault, Still published in 2002, based on a speech he gave in 1993.)
It's a pity that Napoleon Chagnon is better known, mostly for his work with the Yanomami in South America, which became a cornerstone of undergrad anthropology courses across the country. But Chagnon has long been considered a sensationalist hack—of the white-guy-in-pith-helmet variety—who took a little data and extrapolated it into wild, global theories about human behavior.
Later, it came out that Chagnon and his cohort may have done some monstrous things—scientifically and ethically—while conducting their fieldwork.
The upshot: The National Academy of Sciences has some partnerships with the US military and invited Napoleon Chagnon to come on board. That was too much for old Sahlins, who announced his resignation. Sahlins explained his twofold reasoning:
First, that Chagnon's "'scientific' claims about human evolution and the genetic selection for male violence ... have proven to be shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological discipline. At best, his election to the NAS was a large moral and intellectual blunder on the part of members of the Academy."
Second, because of "the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples... the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war."
At 82 years old, Marshall Sahlins is still kicking ass.
And you can guess who the anthropologist (and noted anarchist, as well as founder of Occupy Wall Street) David Graeber is rooting for:
"Chagnon's defenders operate almost entirely by diversion," countered David Graeber, reader in social anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "[T]hey never seriously engage with the core objections to what Chagnon did, which is to vilify a group of human beings so that enormous violence could be unleashed on them.
"Marshall Sahlins is a man of genuine principle," Graeber continued. "He's never had a lot of patience for shirtless macho Americans who descend into jungles, declaring their inhabitants to be violent savages, and then use that as an excuse to start behaving like violent savages themselves — except with command over infinitely greater technological resources."