by Lorna Salzman

(first published in Humanist Perspectives, Issue #186, Autumn 2013)

If you thought Marx's economic determinism (economic relations determine the rest of human relations) was old hat or was not a serious topic of debate outside arcane academic journals, you'd be wrong. The musty century-old theories of a Victorian philosopher have been raised from the dead by post-modernists and transformed with the flick of a leftist wand into cultural determinism, which wields, potentially, a much broader socio-economic brush.

The first to take up this brush, or at least the most aggressive, were the cultural anthropologists who chose Nurture over Nature and followed in the footsteps of people like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead and Ashley Montagu (born Israel Ehrenberg). The academic post-modernists followed and were the first to blast modern scientists as compromised and in the intellectual pay of exploitive capitalism and corporations, going so far as to claim that there was no such thing as objective or impartial truth because of the innate biases of scientists.

Today, they and the cultural anthropologists are making a second career of trying to destroy the credibility and legitimacy of those who, horror of horrors, suggest evolution and our genetic inheritance influence human behavior and social institutions. Since the publication of Edward O. Wilson's "Sociobiology", the cultural determinists have been on the war path against sociobiology and its successor, evolutionary psychology.

Actually, this charge of bias is applicable to the cultural anthropologists (CA) themselves, using the same criteria to judge them as they use against scientists and in particular against Napoleon Chagnon, an evolutionary anthropologist who lived with and wrote about the Yanomamo tribes in Venezuela and northern Brazil. The CA clan, in its Charge of the Left Brigade, has unwittingly revealed its hand and its own political bias against Nature and in favor of a Marxist Nurture. Seldom has such a a plot been so clearly exposed, a plot to inculcate Marxist determinism into the social sciences and relegate Darwinian evolution to a sidebar. Anyone who doubts this can research the social science curriculum of the 20th century: evolution, natural selection and Darwin are virtually absent.

Chagnon's crime for them was multifold: first, he was an evolutionist; second, he applied and used scientific and statistical methodologies as well as first-hand observation and came up with the unremarkable conclusion that the strongest and most militarily successful males had greater access to females and thus were contributing their aggressive qualities significantly to the Yanomamo gene pool. Chagnon did not inflate or deflate the human qualities of the Yanomamo and was quite explicit in noting that they shared many habits and behavioral traits with "civilized" societies....including aggression of course, but on a different scale and (ostensibly) for a different purpose.

This clashed with the hand-me-down wisdom of the social sciences, namely that humans, despite their primate ancestry, are, because of culture, no longer subject to the laws of Nature or natural selection. In addition, some anthropologists who studied tribal societies became convinced that modern industrial society had actually corrupted the "Noble savages" who had dwelt in peace and harmony until they came in contact with the developed world. Accordingly, the notion that primitive societies did not possess any innate aggressive tendencies became almost a cliche in social science circles. And Chagnon's studies of the Yanomamo raised a storm of anger and protest, accompanied by slanders, lies, distortions and a propaganda campaign of huge proportions, intended to destroy Chagnon's career and reputation.

Outside academia, books, articles and films were created to discredit Chagnon. Patrick Tierney's mendacious "Darkness in El Dorado" was hailed as a definitive body blow, and was seconded by a long article in the New Yorker, which made no effort to fact-check his book. A Brazilian filmmaker, Jose Padilha, got his "Secrets of the Tribe" screened at the Sundance Festival and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH, long a hotbed of cultural determinism). Then Chagnon's new book, "Noble Savages" hit the bookstores and the battle spread out of control.

The treatment of Chagnon by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) was shabby, vicious and mean, thanks to Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, and also Marshall Sahlins, who recently resigned from the National Academy of Sciences in protest against Chagnon's membership, among other things. But eventually the AAA conceded Tierney's lies, and a well-researched comprehensive history of the saga by Alice Dreger has put the accusations against Chagnon to rest. However, the battle in academia continues, and it is an important one for at least two reasons.

First is the threat to scientific and academic inquiry, that is, the freedom and ability of scientists to pursue their studies without regard to whose sensitive feet might be stepped on. The fact that there were any feet at all is profoundly disturbing, because it demonstrates the persistence of political bias and how it can be wielded against those who do not share the same philosophy. This is the Marxist philosophy of cultural and economic determinism, in which all of human behavior and institutions are considered blank slates, to become reality only when humans chalk them. Of course, the left does not consider the possibility that a nonMarxist polity could take control and impose ITS own mark and agenda on society.

The other threat is equally onerous, the one which throws evolution and Nature out the window, which asserts that humans are above Nature, not subject to her laws, have no evolutionary history, no genetically conferred attributes...in essence a view of humans and the earth that is not only purely materialist but which then opens the earth to exploitation and commodification. This is in fact the condition we live under today, and it is not an exaggeration to connect it directly to the domination of the cultural determinists in the social sciences who have controlled the curricula in our universities for nearly a century.

It is not farfetched to trace the present unravelling of the earth's systems and rapacious resource exploitation back to those who deliberately threw evolution under the bus and elevated humanity to the pinnacle of life on earth. All belief systems and economic philosophies have their precedents, and the Marxist theory of economic determinism was neatly re-jiggered into cultural determinism, squashing the dimensions of philosophy and ethics that struggled throughout the 20th century and are still struggling against the mindless destruction of the earth's natural systems.

The ugly campaign against Chagnon is eerily reminiscent of the ideological purges of Stalin, where deviation from the official line ended sometimes in exile but more often in execution. Lysenko's theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics became Stalinist doctrine and Soviet science suffered painfully for decades as a result. Cultural anthropologists may not have the same vaulting ambition of Stalin but they have no hesitation in promoting their views in academia so as to impose their Marxist cultural determinism. Perhaps it should be called "the inheritance of acquired ideology".

This war against sociobiology and its successor, evolutionary psychology, is an urgent kind, not just an obscure debate about the mating habits of bonobos. It goes to the heart of what we have taken for granted since the Enlightenment: freedom of inquiry and dissent, of the very practice of science and in particular the science that is most needed to reconcile humanity to its role and future in Nature. The revival of the "Nature red in tooth and claw" slur by the post-modernists plays on the good intentions of compassionate liberals who commiserate with the "primitive" peoples who, they are told, struggle against colonialism...even when they are living out their lives remotely and freely like the Yanomamo.

Unless we acknowledge the supreme importance of evolution, we will never solve the problems of ecological degradation much less social injustice. The pretense that after humans pulled away from their primate ancestors they were free to make the world in their image is at the root of the global crisis. We must be on the front line and, along with Chagnon, face down those who would destroy science in the name of ideology.

Taking all these things together, it becomes clear that the rescue of both academic and ecological integrity requires a reintegration of humanity into Nature, a reassembling of the pieces shattered by not just irresponsible corporations but by the intellectually irresponsible cultural determinists who are busy undermining the very thing that we need to save the earth: the discipline and independence of science, of free and fearless investigation unconstrained by aberrant political theories of no relevance, and the integration of evolutionary studies into the social sciences. In this context, Napoleon Chagnon's work and courage deserve commendation as well as a commitment to defend other scientists against the regressive forces of Marxism and post-modernism.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.