Human Science

Marshall Sahlins

In late February I resigned in protest from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on two grounds. The first was the academy’s recruitment of anthropologists to do research designed to improve the combat performance of the US military. One project would study the tactical operations of small units and their leaders in a variety of contexts including ‘major combat operations’; a second would develop methods for predicting individual and collective performance with a view to drawing up research agendas for the US Army Research Institute.

It turns out that in objecting to the complicity of the NAS in the operations of the US armed forces – which had inflicted so much harm on Iraqis, Afghans and Americans themselves over the past decade – I was naive. The only research under NAS aegis I had ever participated in concerned the fishing rights of native Alaskan communities. I didn’t learn until recently that the research arm of the academy, the National Research Council (NRC), had been established by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to study military preparedness.

The second of my grounds for protest was the election to the academy of Napoleon Chagnon. The serious harm Chagnon’s research has inflicted on native peoples of Amazonia through his discriminatory dealings with them and distorted representations, as well as his baseless claims that he practises a scientific ethnography, made my membership in the academy an even greater embarrassment. Chagnon has asserted that belligerence among the Yanomami is evidence of primordial human nature, a biological disposition of the species. In a notorious article published in Science in 1988, he set out to demonstrate the existence of natural selection for lethal aggression by showing that Yanomami warriors who had earned the coveted title of ‘killer’ had more offspring than those who had never slain an enemy. Among several methodological flaws invalidating this conclusion, Chagnon had omitted killers who were no longer living from his sample: the fact that, as he himself noted, killers are ‘prime targets’ for revenge means that their reproductive careers are often cut short. In any event, his claim that the Yanomami exemplify the original condition of mankind is preposterous. The Yanomami mode of existence in settled communities practising a mixed economy of agriculture and hunting is one or two million years removed from human cultural origins – though not altogether removed from the more recent influences of Andean and European civilisations. One could have chosen any number of equally bad examples, including Australian Aboriginals, Kalahari Bushmen or Malaysian hunters, for whom as it happens, killing is not an estimable value.

Apparently unrelated, the two reasons for my resignation are in fact profoundly connected, insofar as Chagnon’s sociobiology of the selfish gene and the American global project of making the world safe for self-interest would impose cognate versions of Western individualism on the rest of humanity.

Chagnon poses as a champion of science and contemptuously dismisses his critics as ideologically driven. It’s once more to the epistemological breach: as they have periodically since the inception of their discipline, anthropologists are again abusing one another over whether or not they practise a natural science like physics or evolutionary biology. Those who believe they are engaged in a rigorous quest for objective truth accuse colleagues who think otherwise of indulging in postmodern babble or some other variety of soft-mindedness. The truth is, however, that the supposedly idealist anthropologists are just as committed to empirical investigation and to conclusions that will stand up to it, but their methods differ insofar as the cultural practices they study are different from the brute objects of the natural sciences.

When native Australians or New Guineans say that their totemic animals and plants are their kinsmen – that these species are persons like themselves, and that in offering them to others they are giving away part of their own substance – we have to take them seriously, which is to say empirically, if we want to understand the large consequences of these facts for how they organise their lives. The graveyard of ethnographic studies is strewn with the remains of reports which, thanks to anthropologists’ own presuppositions as to what constitutes empirical fact, were content to ignore or debunk the Amazonian peoples who said that the animals they hunted were their brothers-in-law, the Africans who described the way they systematically killed their kings when they became weak, or the Fijian chiefs who claimed they were gods. We have to follow the reasoning of those Australian Aboriginals for whom eating their own totem animals or plants would be something like incest or self-cannibalising, even as they ritually nourish and protect these species for other people’s use. We thus discover a society the opposite in principle of the bellicose state of nature that Hobbes posited as the primordial condition – an idea which is still too much with us. Of course the native Australians have known injurious disputes, most of them interpersonal. Yet instead of a Hobbesian ‘war of every man against every man’, each opposing others in his own self-interest, here is a society fundamentally organised on the premise of everyone giving himself to everyone.

In the earlier Germanic version of the natural science controversy, this human science alternative was called ‘understanding’, the implication being that the subject matter at issue was meaningfully or symbolically constructed, so that what was methodologically required was the penetration of its particular logic. The human scientist is not in a relation of a thinking person to a mute object of interest; rather, anthropologists and their like are of the same intellectual nature as the peoples they study: they are our alters and interlocutors. Indeed, inasmuch as these peoples are meaningfully making their modes of life, and inasmuch as we share the same capacities of symbolic invention and understanding, we have the possibility of knowing the cultures of others in ways that are in some respects more powerful than the ways natural scientists know physical objects. Radical as this claim may sound today, it goes back at least to the early 18th century, to the principle of ‘the reciprocity of the made and the true’ as formulated by Giambattista Vico: what humans have constructed they can know truly, as opposed to natural things that are the work of God and are his alone to know. Or as Lévi-Strauss put it for his own discipline, ‘Of all the sciences, anthropology is without a doubt unique in making the most intimate subjectivity into a means of objective demonstration.’

By contrast, the more the natural scientist discovers about things, say the table at which I am working, the less such things are like anything in human thought or experience. Physics shows that there are spaces within and between the molecules of which it is constituted; and beyond that, at the level of quantum mechanics, our knowledge of things defies all common sense of space and time and can be expressed only in complex equations. We must accept, to take an elementary example, that the same object can be in two different places at the same time. ‘If you are not shocked by quantum physics,’ Niels Bohr is often quoted as having said, ‘you don’t understand it.’

I don’t really understand it. Yet I do know that many peoples consider that brothers and sisters are composed of the same ancestral being. Actually, given our symbolic capacities, it’s easy for us to be in two different places at the same time. All you have to do is daydream. You could even share substance with or be related to yams, supposing, say, that they were growing in the same place as your ancestors were buried.

Natural science starts out with what is familiar and ends with something altogether remote; human science works the other way around. One may well begin with something so distant or unpleasant to us as cannibalism in the Fiji Islands in the 19th century, yet end up finding it ‘logical’ – which is, after all, a mental state of our own. In 1929, the British anthropologist A.M. Hocart recounted the formal speech of a Fijian chief presenting a reward to the carpenter who had built him a fine canoe. The chief apologised that he could not offer the carpenter a ‘cooked man’ or a ‘raw woman’, for Christianity, he explained, ‘has spoiled our feasts’. The ‘cooked man’ refers to an enemy cannibal victim, the ‘raw woman’ to a virgin daughter of the chief offered as a wife. One immediate anthropological question this poses is why the woman should be equivalent to the cannibal victim? The brief answer is that they have the same end or function, which is the beneficial reproduction of the society: the woman directly by bearing children, the cannibal victim as a sacrifice whose consumption in concert with the god procures divine benefits, notably in agricultural and human fertility. But then, the canoe for which these are appropriate payment is itself a sacred (taboo) vessel, carrying a temple on board as it is sailed in quest of foreign bodies in war or prized valuables in trade. Further, given the relationship of raw women to cooked men, one can understand why in some parts of Fiji a fine war club is a mandatory betrothal gift, in effect compensating the family for the future loss of their daughter by the anticipated gain of an enemy victim. Enough said? This cannibalism is becoming logical, and logic is something going on inside ourselves. A custom that at first seemed strange and remote has been assimilated and internalised, as our own good sense.

Since cultural practices are meaningfully constructed, and since we too are symbolising beings, we have the privilege of knowing others by reproducing in the operations of our own mind the ways they are culturally organised. The method and content of investigation are one: the most intimate subjectivity becomes the means of objective demonstration. Of course, this is not the only way of knowing others. We can also use our symbolic capacities to treat them as physical objects; and, as in archaeology, we can know them by their physical works. But we won’t get the same knowledge of the symbolically ordered ways of human life, of what culture is, or even the same empirical certainty.