Discord Over Scholar's Tribal Research

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The battle among scholars over an American anthropologist's research on an Amazon tribe has spread to the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's most prestigious scientific body.

Marshall D. Sahlins, a social anthropologist at the University of Chicago, resigned from the academy on Saturday to protest its decision to admit the researcher, Napoleon A. Chagnon. "Noble Savages," Dr. Chagnon's widely reviewed new memoir about his 35 years of work with the Yanomamö tribe, takes an unsparing view of his fellow anthropologists.

In a statement, Dr. Sahlins called Dr. Chagnon's election last April "a large moral and intellectual blunder on the part of members of the academy" and added, "so much so that my own participation in the academy has become an embarrassment."

The two men have been at odds for decades over the validity of sociobiology, the idea that human social behavior is shaped by evolution and culture, not culture alone. Dr. Sahlins's 1977 book "The Use and Abuse of Biology" says sociobiology is "completely unable to specify the cultural properties of human behavior."

Dr. Sahlins's principal criticism of Dr. Chagnon concerns a well-known article published in Science in 1988 in which Dr. Chagnon reported that the men of the Yanomamö tribe who have killed others in battle father three times as many children as those who have not. This claim has "proven to be shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological discipline," Dr. Sahlins said in his statement.

Dr. Chagnon said he was familiar with those criticisms but called them invalid and said none had been published in a peer-reviewed journal. 

science

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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