X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Please note: Previously subscribers used a 'WebID' to log into the website. Your subscriber number is not the same as the WebID. Please ensure you use the subscriber number when you link your subscription.

Status anxiety

The left’s own war on science

The witch hunt against Napoleon Chagnon shows us what happens if scientists challenge the core beliefs of ‘progressives’

9 January 2016

9:00 AM

9 January 2016

9:00 AM

How much longer can the liberal left survive in the face of growing scientific evidence that many of its core beliefs are false? I’m thinking in particular of the conviction that all human beings are born with the same capacities, particularly the capacity for good, and that all mankind’s sins can be laid at the door of the capitalist societies of the West. For the sake of brevity, let’s call this the myth of the noble savage. This romanticism underpins all progressive movements, from the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn to the environmentalism of Caroline Lucas, and nearly every scientist who challenges it provokes an irrational hostility, often accompanied by a trashing of their professional reputations. Indeed, the reaction of so-called free thinkers to purveyors of inconvenient truths is reminiscent of the reaction of fundamentalist Christians to scientists who challenged their core beliefs.

One such Charles Darwin figure is the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. He has devoted his life to studying the Yanomamö, indigenous people of the Amazonian rain forest on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border, and his conclusions directly challenge the myth of the noble savage. ‘Real Indians sweat, they smell bad, they take hallucinogenic drugs, they belch after they eat, they covet and at times steal their neighbour’s wife, they fornicate, and they make war,’ Chagnon told a Brazilian journalist. His view of the Yanomamö people is summed up by the title he gave to his masterwork on the subject: The Fierce People.

[Alt-Text]


Chagnon is a key figure in a new book by Alice Dreger, an American academic who has spent the last few years investigating attacks on heretical scientists by the grand inquisitors of the left. Dreger used to be something of a Torquemada herself. To defend the interests of people born with both male and female genitalia, she used many of the same questionable techniques to discredit opponents in the medical establishment. Then, in her words, she became ‘an aide-de-camp to -scientists who found themselves the target of activists like me’.

In 2000, in a book called Darkness in El Dorado, the journalist Patrick Tierney accused Chagnon and his collaborator James Neel of fomenting wars among rival tribes, aiding and abetting illegal gold miners, deliberately infecting the Yanomamö with measles and paying subjects to kill each other. Shockingly, these charges were taken at face value and widely reported in liberal publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times. (A headline in the Guardian read: -‘Scientist “killed Amazon Indians to test race theory”.’) Many of Chagnon’s colleagues turned on him, including the American Anthropological Association, which set up an task force to investigate. Chagnon was not allowed to defend himself and this task force published a report ‘confirming’ several allegations. As a result, Chagnon was forced into early retirement. In her book, Dreger summarises the thought crime that turned him into such a plump target: ‘Chagnon saw and represented in the Yanomamö a somewhat shocking image of evolved “human nature” — one featuring males fighting violently over fertile females, domestic brutality, ritualised drug use and ecological indifference. Not your standard liberal image of the unjustly oppressed, naturally peaceful, environmentally gentle rainforest Indian family.’

In a 50,000-word article published in 2011 in a peer-reviewed journal, she painstakingly rebutted all the charges against Chagnon, detailing the various ways in which Tierney had fabricated and misrepresented the evidence. Chagnon has now been exonerated and resumed his career.

Dreger has not abandoned her own liberal convictions. She believes the search for scientific truth and social justice go hand in hand and ends her book with an plea to academic colleagues to defend freedom of thought. But her title, Galileo’s Middle Finger, suggests the progressive left may not survive these clashes with heretical scientists. In comparing Chagnon to the Italian astronomer, she implies that the church of progressive opinion will face the same fate as the theologians who insisted the Earth was the centre of the universe. Eventually, the truth may prove too much. I recently interviewed Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, and he’s confident that the liberal left can survive without the myth of the noble savage. I’m not so sure.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close