Moving Inland

Ongoing Research

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An apology to Dr. Napoleon Chagnon

As part of ongoing research on transsexualism, RA Fleming recently read 'Galileo's Middle Finger' by Dr Alice Dreger. The book discusses several controversies in which decent, professional scientists had had their lives ruined by individuals with ulterior motives, often with the collusion of other academics.

Fleming came across Dreger's investigation into the controversy around Dr Napoleon Chagnon. The same Dr Chagnon of whom we had commented disparagingly in a footnote on page 259 of Why Men Made God.

When we wrote the relevant comment, we had fact-checked it. Chagnon was indeed barred from research in the tribal area he had made his name in. He had indeed been censured by the American Anthropology Association. He had indeed 'taken early retirement to work on his memoirs' -- which is academic speak for 'he was chucked out.' And so we published.

Dreger examined the case against Chagnon and, with ferocious scholarship, debunked it as a pack of lies and innuendo, the product of an individual supported by -- wait for it -- the Catholic Church, which resented Chagnon exposing the damage it did to native culture.

Dreger tracked down witness after witness who said they had been traduced, misled or coerced into saying things that had been used against Chagnon. Even worse, large sections of the 'evidence' were shown, by Dreger, using public sources, to have been invented. It never existed in the first place. Other evidence was 'quote-mined', especially Chagnon's own words, to make it look as if he had intended things he had not.

Put bluntly, a small group of politically-motivated people used their contacts and influence to attempt to destroy a scientist, because they don't like the science. There is a legitimate way to debunk science, and that is to do better science. It is never acceptable for science to be suppressed because some people dislike it, no matter their reasons.

We accept that Chagnon was working with a people -- the Yanomamo -- which exhibits every indication of being a patriarchal society. Chagnon, it is clear, did not make them so -- even if he appears to have rather revelled in the fact that they were so.

Chagnon's discoveries about the Yanomamo set them at odds with other tribal people in South America. We, the authors of 'Why Men Made God' must accept that, amongst tribal peoples, there are both matriarchal and patriarchal societies. We do not know if these are chronologically related -- that is to say, whether one morphed into the other, nor if they did, why, although response to violence seems likely to be involved.

We can argue with confidence that Western culture, which we trace from its beginnings in Sumer, does have its roots in a matriarchal prototype. But that may not have been the only model around. For example, the site at Jericho exhibits signs that could easily be interpreted as showing that it was made by a patriarchal culture, a point we make in the book. We document the fact that patriarchal warfare was endemic throughout Mesopotamia by the end of the third millennium BCE; that patriarchy had to have come from somewhere.

There is much we disagree with Chagnon about. He was a founder of 'sociobiology', a largely discredited discipline that in our view is a pseudo-science. But that does not make his field observations false, nor the accusations against him either true or justified.

We owe Dr Napoleon Chagnon an apology. And we owe Dreger gratitude, because she has spent years doggedly following the shadowy footsteps of people who have done everything they could to cover them up and hide their misdeeds.

Future editions of 'Why Men Made God' will be updated to reflect the sentiments above.