Marxists, Missionaries and an Anthropologist

Marxist theory pervades all domains: There were some Malayali film critics who saw every movie using the class struggle lens; most of Indian history was written by Marxist historians. It seems American anthropology too is influenced by Marxist theories and when Napoleon A. Chagnon refuted it with empirical evidence, Catholic missionaries joined forces with the Marxists to discredit him.

A repeated theme in his book is the clash between his empirical findings and the ideology of his fellow anthropologists. The general bias in anthropological theory draws heavily from Marxism, Dr. Chagnon writes. His colleagues insisted that the Yanomamö were fighting over material possessions, whereas Dr. Chagnon believed the fights were about something much more basic — access to nubile young women.

In his view, evolution and sociobiology, not Marxist theory, held the best promise of understanding human societies. In this light, he writes, it made perfect sense that the struggle among the Yanomamö, and probably among all human societies at such a stage in their history, was for reproductive advantage.

During his years of working among the Yanomamö, Dr. Chagnon fell into cross purposes with the Salesians, the Catholic missionary group that was the major Western influence in the Yanomamö region. Instead of traveling by canoe and foot to the remote Yanomamö villages, the Salesians preferred to induce the Yanomami to settle near their mission sites, even though it exposed them to Western diseases to which they had little or no immunity, Dr. Chagnon writes. He also objected to the Salesians’ offering the Yanomamö guns, which tribe members used to kill one another as well as for hunting.

The Salesians and Dr. Chagnon’s academic enemies saw the chance to join forces against him when the writer Patrick Tierney published a book, “Darkness in El Dorado” (2000), accusing Dr. Chagnon and the well-known medical geneticist James V. Neel of having deliberately caused a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö in 1968.[An Anthropologist’s War Stories]