(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman
"Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthropologist ..." — Richard Dawkins, from the Introduction
Thanks to Steven Pinker for initiating and facilitating this Edge Special Event with Napoleon Chagnon, the last of the great ethnographers.
Chagnon's extraordinary body of work will long be mined, not just by anthropologists but by psychologists, humanists, litterateurs, scientists of all kinds: mined for . . . who knows what insights into the deep roots of our humanity?
Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthropologist, he is brave on two fronts. As a field worker in the Amazon forest he has lived, intimately and under conditions of great privation, with The Fierce People at considerable physical danger to himself. But the wooden clubs and poison-tipped arrows of the Yanomamö were matched by the verbal clubs and toxic barbs of his anthropologist colleagues in the journal pages and conference halls of the United States. And it is not hard to guess which armamentarium was the more disagreeable to him.
Chagnon committed the unforgivable sin, cardinal heresy in the eyes of a certain kind of social scientist: he took Darwin seriously. Along with a few friends and colleagues, Chagnon studied the up-to-date literature on natural selection theory, and with brilliant success he applied the ideas of Fisher, Hamilton, Trivers and other heirs of Darwin to a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world. It is sobering to reflect on how unconventional a step this was: science bursting into the quasi-literary world of the anthropology in which the young Chagnon was trained. Still today, in many American departments of social science, for a young researcher to announce a serious interest in Darwin's dangerous idea—even an inclination towards scientific thinking at all—can come close to career suicide.
In Chagnon's case the animosity spilled over from mere academic disagreement to personal slander, which was not merely untrue but diametrically opposite to the truth about this ethnographer and his decent and humane relationship with his subjects and friends. The episode serves as a dark lesson in what can happen when ideology is allowed to poison the well of academic study. While it is thankfully in the past, it blighted Chagnon's career, and I don't know whether the lesson for social science has been adequately learned.
Chagnon came along at just the right time for the Yanomamö and for scientific anthropology. Encroaching civilisation was about to close the last window on a tribal world that embodied vanishing clues to our own prehistory: a world of forest "gardens", of kin-groups fissioning into genetically salient sub-groups, of male combat over women and trans-generational revenge, complex alliances and enmities; webs of calculated obligation, debt, grudge and gratitude that might underlie much of our social psychology and even law, ethics and economics. Chagnon's extraordinary body of work will long be mined, not just by anthropologists but by psychologists, humanists, litterateurs, scientists of all kinds: mined for . . . who knows what insights into the deep roots of our humanity?
In his unique role as salon-host and impresario for science, John Brockman has performed what will come to be seen as an enduring service, by bringing Napoleon Chagnon together with four of today's leading Third Culture intellectuals: Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and David Haig. Separately and in teams, these penetrating minds, combining deep scholarship with a rare ability to communicate and entertain, converse with Napoleon Chagnon and shed and reflect light on the life-work of a great anthropologist and a brave man.
RICHARD DAWKINS, evolutionary biologist, is Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth; The Selfish Gene. He was recently ranked #1 in Prospect Magazine's poll of "World Thinkers 2013".
I first walked into the Yanomamö village thinking I was going to do the perfunctory one-year field research or maybe less, go back to my university, write my doctoral dissertation, publish a book maybe, after two or three years of thinking about it, then return to the tribe ten years later and do the expected thing about, "Woe is me, what has the world and technology done to my people?" But the minute I walked into my first Yanomamö village I realized that I was witnessing a really precious thing, and I knew I would have to come back again and again. And I did.
The Yanomamö are very valuable now as a commodity. They are the largest most interesting and romanticized tribe in the entire Amazon basin, maybe in the world. They live in an area that is threatened by ecological destruction, so there are people who are interested in saving the rain forest, and people who are interested in saving the natives. And these groups collaborate with each other. Everybody wants the Yanomamö in their portfolio.
What I've discovered is that life was very much filled with terror of your neighbors, constantly in a position—sort of like Hobbes’ argument—foul weather is not a shower or two but a tendency thereto for months on end. So you always have your eye open to the frontier and try to make sure that the guys out there are on the other side of the moat.
Big villages lord over small villages. So if you're seeking an ally who will protect you from the buggers up the hill who are bigger than you, you're at a disadvantage because in order to get allies, you've got to give women to them. It’s an economics game where the smaller village has to pay up front for the privileges of the alliance, and the bigger village tends to default on many of its agreements. So big villages tend to exploit small villages. It's always a good idea to live in a big village; however, it's like living in a powder keg.
NAPOLEON CHAGNON is a renowned anthropologist who is most widely recognized for his study of the Yanomamö tribes in the Amazon. He is a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri; Author, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.
STEVEN PINKER, psychologist, is Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angles of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
RICHARD WRANGHAM is Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at Harvard University; Author, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human; (coauthor) Demonic Males: Apes, and the Origins Of Human Violence.
DANIEL C. DENNETT is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, & Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking; Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.
DAVID HAIG, evolutionary geneticist/theorist, is Associate Professor of Biology in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, with an interest in conflicts and conflict resolution within the genome, and genomic imprinting and relations between parents and offspring; Author, Genomic Imprinting and Kinship.
Feynman once told me, "Whatever you do—you're going to have to do crazy things to think about quantum gravity—but whatever you do, think about nature. If you think about the properties of a mathematical equation, you're doing mathematics and you're not going to get back to nature. Whatever you do, have a question that an experiment could resolve at the front of your thinking." So I always try to do that.
LEE SMOLIN is a founding and senior faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. He is also Adjunct Professor of Physics at the University of Waterloo and is a member of the graduate faculty of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Toronto. His is the author od Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe.
THINK ABOUT NATURE
The main question I'm asking myself, the question that puts everything together, is how to do cosmology; how to make a theory of the universe as a whole system. This is said to be the golden age of cosmology and it is from an observational point of view, but from a theoretical point of view it's almost a disaster. It's crazy the kind of ideas that we find ourselves thinking about. And I find myself wanting to go back to basics—to basic ideas and basic principles—and understand how we describe the world in a physical theory.
What's the role of mathematics? Why does mathematics come into physics? What's the nature of time? These two things are very related since mathematical description is supposed to be outside of time. And I've come to a long evolution since the late 80's to a position, which is quite different from the ones that I had originally, and quite surprising even to me. But let me get to it bit by bit. Let me build up the questions and the problems that arise.
One way to start is what I call "physics in a box" or, theories of small isolated systems. The way we've learned to do this is to make an accounting or an itinerary—a listing of the possible states of a system. How can a possible system be? What are the possible configurations? What were the possible states? If it's a glass of Coca Cola, what are the possible positions and states of all the atoms in the glass? Once we know that, we ask, how do the states change? And the metaphor here—which comes from atomism that comes from Democritus and Lucretius—is that physics is nothing but atoms moving in a void and the atoms never change. The atoms have properties like mass and charge that never change in time. The void—which is space in the old days never changed in time—was fixed and they moved according to laws, which were originally given by or tried to be given by Descartes and Galileo, given by Newton much more successfully.
Prospect Magazine has published its annual world thinkers poll. "World Thinkers 2013" is based on more than 10,000 votes from over 100 countries, "Online polls often throw up curious results," the editors write, "but this top 10 offers a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age." In it's coverage of the event, the Guardian noted:
When Prospect magazine listed Britain's leading public intellectuals in 2004 and invited readers' votes, it was Richard Dawkins who emerged as No 1. Nine years on, the biologist, author and campaigner has bettered that by topping its "world thinkers" rankings, beating four Nobel prize winners (and another contender regarded as certain to receive one soon) in a poll based on 65 names chosen by a largely US- and UK-based expert panel.
Joining him in the top 10 are the psychologists Steven Pinker (3) and Daniel Kahneman (10), the economists Paul Krugman (5) and Amartya Sen (7) and the philosopher Slavoj Žižek (6), who all, like him, figured in the magazine's first list of world-class thinkers in 2005.
A late run by the octogenarian British physicist Peter Higgs (8) secured him a place in an elite squad containing three other scientists, while the remaining slots are taken by academics turned politicians from the Middle East: Afghanistan's Ashraf Ghani (2), an economist who served as finance minister after the US-led invasion; Iraq's Ali Allawi (4), another ex-minister and author of The Occupation of Iraq and The Crisis of Islamic Civilization; and Egypt's Mohamed ElBaradei (9), prominent in the Arab Spring and now in opposition to Mohamed Morsi.
To qualify for this year's world thinkers rankings, it was not enough to have written a seminal book, inspired an intellectual movement or won a Nobel prize several years ago (hence the absence from the 65-strong long list of ageing titans such as Noam Chomsky or Edward O Wilson); the selectors' remit ruthlessly insisted on "influence over the past 12 months" and "significance to the year's biggest questions". ... ("Richard Dawkins named world's top thinker in poll", by John Dugdale, April 25th)
Among the leading 65 public intellectuals on Prospect's long-list are a number of Edgies. Indeed, four out of the top twelve — Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond — are among the long-time core contributors who have helped establish Edge, in the words of the Guardian, as "the world's smartest website".
Prospect also published a related article on the role of public intellectuals by Edge contributor AC Grayling.
FAREED ZAKARIA GPS (CNN):
BOOK OF THE WEEK
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