Sunday, March 10, 2013

In Which a Newspaper Article Makes Me Angry

I know, it happens all the time, to everyone. 

I'm still going to write about it, though.

The article that bothered me was this one in today's Kansas City Star, about the controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon joining the University of Missouri's anthropology department as Distinguished Research Professor and Chancellor's Chair for Excellence in Anthropology.

Napoleon Chagnon, if you didn't know, is famous (or infamous) for his research on a group of Amazonian indigenous people called Yanomami. He called them "the fierce people" (which he says is a translation of what they call themselves) and said that their way of life was especially violent, characterized by constant warfare and abduction of women from other villages. 

A Yanomami shaman and spokesman, Davi Kopenawa, says that Chagnon's depictions of his people are false, and that he has harmed the Yanomami by making everyone think of them this way [PDF]:
For us, we Yanomami who live in the forest, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon is not our friend. He does not say good things, he doesn't transmit good words. He talks about the Yanomami but his words are only hostile. He is angry and says, 'The Yanomami are bad, the Yanomami fire arrows at one another because of women. The Yanomami beat one another.' He has always thought that. 
Young American men and women think, 'Napoleon knows a lot and transmits true words --- the Yanomami are very bad.' I am not happy about this.
But that wasn't the thing that bothered me about this article; the article actually does address the arguments that Chagnon's research was shoddy, that he mischaracterized the Yanomami, making them out to be far more vicious than they are, and that his activities in the Yanomami villages may have harmed the people he set out to study*.

No, what bothered me was the reductive way they framed the story, as another battle in the ongoing war between partisans of Nature and Nurture.

You often see that in articles about evolutionary psychology, especially when the person or idea being discussed is the subject of controversy.

Here are a couple of examples from the article:
Chagnon ... has been a lightning rod at the center of an academic tempest over evolutionary anthropology. In Darwin's world (and Chagnon's), where the fastest, fiercest, smartest, and perhaps cruelest, survive to pass on their genes, what does that mean to human nature today? 
Those arguing against this sociobiology fiercely contend our behavior and culture are rooted in our environment --- or, at least, one cannot credibly discern the effects of a "mean gene" from a war-ax-wielding ancestor in the family tree. 
[Quoting MU Anthropology Department Chairman R. Lee Lyman] "... The Darwinian perspective might give us unique insight. Chagnon was one of the founders of that approach. Unfortunately, it became a political issue as opposed to a scholastic issue. It was heresy."
(That's a rhetorical trick that particularly annoys me: if someone has a problem with your research or your ideas, don't engage the substance of their critique, just dismiss it as politics. You see this in discussions of gender differences, too. A feminist points out that gender might be more complicated, and more malleable, than the hard-wired "pink brain, blue brain" model popular today, and people roll their eyes at her for letting her politics get in the way of Serious Science**. That maneuver also makes the person whose ideas are being discussed into a heroic figure who is being unfairly silenced, rather than an ordinary researcher whose methods, data, and interpretations of said data are being criticized by other researchers.)

The article [that Chagnon published in Science in 1988 (PDF)], summed up as "killers have more kids" by some, rattled or outraged many in his discipline. Suggesting that brutality might be embroidered into our genes by evolution seemed a slippery slope toward racism or a step backward toward eugenics that saw the forced sterilization of thousands. 

"This is no longer thought to be true. There are, of course, a few holdouts," explained Bill Irons, Northwestern University professor emeritus and a Chagnon ally. "Many anthropologists and many on the political left as well preferred to believe that human behavior was shaped completely by culture."
The article makes it sound like there are only two choices for what to believe about human nature and evolution: that human nature is innate, heritable, unchanging and inherently violent, selfish and sexist, or that there is no such thing as human nature, and that people will be whatever the culture around them shapes them to be.

This leaves out a growing body of research within anthropology, primatology, evolutionary  biology and related fields that deals with other factors besides male-on-male conflict that have shaped human evolution.

Examples of people doing this kind of research include: 

1) Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who has studied mating behavior, female reproductive strategies and social organization in langur monkeys, and has developed a theory that kinship networks and shared child-rearing ("alloparenting" or "allomothering," she calls it) were necessary for early humans' survival.

Here is a snippet from an interview she did with Scientific American blogger Eric Michael Johnson, in which she briefly addresses the notion that killers and rapists have more kids, and why she thinks that's not true:
[A]mong hunter-gatherers, the way to breed successfully is to have alloparental help and provisioning help from others. Anybody who goes around killing off his wife's relatives and stealing women is going to have a lower chance of rearing offspring. These warring bands of brothers didn't emerge until fairly recently, after people started to become more sedentary. 
Part two of that interview is here.

2) Frans de  Waal, who studies cooperation, communication, empathy, conflict resolution, reciprocal altruism (i.e., trading favors) and sharing in chimpanzees, bonobos and capuchin monkeys.

3) Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist whose research has mostly dealt with the physiological effects of stress, but who has also studied social hierarchies and aggression in two troops of savanna baboons in Kenya, where he saw the level of violence in one of those troops drop off dramatically when the biggest, meanest dominant males were all killed in an outbreak of tuberculosis. The troop has kept up this more peaceful way of life even now, over 20 years since the dominant-male die-off, when probably every single (current) member of the troop was born after it happened, and every adult male has come from another troop. 

4) Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist who has studied reciprocal altruism, sexual selection, and parental investment in offspring. He wrote an article in 1971 called The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism (PDF), in which he argued that animals who repay other animals' helpful acts were more likely to keep getting help throughout their lives, and thus were more likely to survive longer, have more offspring survive to adulthood, etc.

That's not an exhaustive list, just the names that I, a non-anthropologist who has never taken an anthropology class, know.

*The name they gave him, Shaki, which the article's author translates as "annoying bee," does not suggest that they thought very highly of him, or found him very pleasant company.

**See Simon Baron-Cohen's review of Cordelia Fine's book Delusions of Gender, in which he uses words and phrases like "polemic," "barely veiled agenda," "blurring science and politics," and "extreme social determinism" to describe Fine and her book, when she's really more like a gender agnostic than a proselytizer.


Anonymous said...

The world of people is not a nice place. Never has been, never will be. I am not informed enough to talk about other animals but humans are indeed a competitive species. In my own life I see all sorts of competitive behavior and NOT just physical violence! When people have the freedom to choose their partners, there is going to be competition. I do see your concern because you think that these evo-psychologists are encouraging bad behavior.

Anonymous said...

i have a question "PDD-NOS at age 5" you say do they do that now
when i was yong (have to admit i'm a bit older than you) adhd and add were the only thing i could get diagnosed with b4 the age of 18
(my apologies using this i could not find your email)

Lindsay said...

Hi Anon #2 - yes, they will diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorders (that's what they're called now ... when I was a kid the choices were pretty much Autistic Disorder or PDD-NOS; I was evaluated before Asperger's was added to the book, otherwise I'm sure I would've been diagnosed with that) in very young kids. They're actually tending to diagnose younger than five now; they're researching ways to identify autistic traits in kids who couldn't even talk yet if they were on a typical developmental path --- something to do with where their eyes go.

That's interesting that you, a person older than I am, was diagnosed with ADD when you were a kid! I thought ADD was relatively new, like just starting to be diagnosed in kids in the '90s or so.

And don't worry about using the comments to ask questions; that's what they're for!

Anonymous said...

i like everything/one that is difrent
i'm a sociopath myself and ppl sometimes mistake me for have a little bit of autism (the lack of empathy and getting bored with ppl i think)
i think at one point psychopathy was on the autism spectrum in the dsm
what are your idees on that

Anonymous said...

aspie question does the alien feeling have to do with empathy or emotions? what do you think and do you have it?

Lindsay said...

Hi, Anon #4 - I'm not 100% sure what you're talking about with the "alien feeling," but I have felt alien. (Not literally like "I am a space alien from planet Xykon", but more generally like, "I don't understand people" or "I must be profoundly different from most people."

Some of it does have to do with emotions, yes. It's not that I don't have them --- I do! But I may not feel the same things in the same circumstances that most people would, and I also haven't been able to *express* emotion very well for most of my life.

An example: I don't usually "catch" emotion from other people. So if a discussion --- say, about religion or politics --- is becoming emotional, I may not notice this. There was one particular instance in my life that made this clear to me: my boyfriend and I were watching the Richard Dawkins documentary, "Root of All Evil?", in which Dawkins, an atheist, goes around talking to religious leaders and believers to try and understand religion. At one point he's talking to (I think) a very orthodox Jewish rabbi, and he gets very upset about something. My boyfriend could see this, and it made him uncomfortable to watch that scene. I could not see it; all I could see was that Dawkins wasn't asking questions or making interesting observations anymore, he was just making simple, antagonistic statements. I could tell that the quality of the discussion had declined, but I couldn't see why.