“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Land of the Lost Ironies: He Borara: Chapter 3


            “It’s not always like this,” Chuck says as he completes the last of some running strides to catch up with Lac, who has charged ahead of him on their way back along the trail that first delivered them from the riverbank to the shabono. After talking with the Yanomamö men for a couple of hours—and being forced on half a dozen panic-stricken occasions to quietly await the outcome of a quick investigation of some section of the encampment wall—they’re now heading back to the rowboat so they can cross to the opposite bank of the Orinoco. “I mean, I’ve heard them talking about raids and fights like this before, but we seem to have walked right into the middle of some dangerous tension.”

Lac resists interjecting, “Obviously.”

They walk several more paces before Chuck adds, “I think it was just a matter of some seriously bad timing.”

The missionary’s tone is apologetic. Lac, ignoring the invitation latent in the ensuing silence to absolve him, wonders why Chuck is forbearing to use what they both just experienced as an opportunity to preach on the depraved state of man in the absence of Jesus. “You came here to study their way of life,” Lac imagines him gloating. “I came here to teach them a new way of life—to save their souls. After what you just saw, you tell me which of our missions’ ought to take precedence.”

As they thread their way along the trail through neck-high sawgrass, though, the only voices to be heard belong to the monkeys high in the distant canopy. Their whooping howls feature in the raucous theater of Lac’s agitated mind as long cylindrical tubes extending from their o-shaped faces, waving about against the deepening blue of the sky. Somehow, the image inches him closer to the brink of fury, as if the howlers were a chorus of obnoxious street barkers. He spent so much time preparing, planning so meticulously, anticipating every eventuality. What he walked into back there—that shouldn’t have happened. He shouldn’t have been the first to waddle through that entrance. The men would have recognized Clemens, so he would have been in danger a few seconds less, those crucial few seconds while Lac himself was a twitch away from being turned into a porcupine. He shouldn’t have arrived empty-handed. Proffering gifts in his outstretched hands, he would have posed less of a threat, and hence been less likely to provoke a preemptive attack. Most importantly, he shouldn’t have left his shotgun with the rest of his supplies and equipment back at Tama Tama.

The grass and tall weeds vanish abruptly as the two men plunge back into the dark understory, as barely any light from the sun makes it through the dense foliage overhead, even from directly above this pathetic excuse for a trail. The gnats, whose biting had never really seemed to abate, nevertheless return to their greater numbers and heightening frenzy as the men continue their march back toward the river.

“You okay, Shackley?” he hears Clemens say behind him.

Stopping to turn around and face the missionary, he opens his mouth to complain about being so grossly misled, but catches himself before saying a word. “I can’t say I was ready for that,” he admits instead. “It’s making me wonder…” He trails off, leaving Clemens to guess what it is he’s wondering, before turning back to continue along the meager trail.

Returning to his full, aggressive stride, Lac feels his unvoiced ire shifting toward the more deserving culprits, the ones whose knowledge and expertise he counted on, admired even, whose every word indelibly lodged itself in his brain, whose example shaped his every lofty vision of his own career. If anyone is to blame, he thinks, it’s my professors. It’s Dr. Sabine. It’s Dr. Hiddleson. All of them. They should have at least warned me of the possibility that the wild Indians would be hostile. All this crap about cultural relativism and not being the evil white man, the lone ranger lording it over the savages, the colonizer, the imperialist, the goddamned racist—they’ve got us so browbeaten and guilt-laden that we completely forget that the fucking Indians are human too, in every sense of the word. And sometimes humans kill other humans.

            He cants his head to call over his shoulder, “Okay, Clemens, tell me something. You’ve been wandering around in your rowboat on all these rivers and tributaries for more than fifteen years looking for uncontacted Indians.” He stops and turns before asking, “How often do they shoot arrows at you and chase you off?”

            “You hear lots of stories,” Chucks says as he draws near to where Lac is standing. “And it’s not just arrows. Some of the tribes bash each other’s heads in with clubs.” The trail is hardly more than a strip, not wide enough for them to walk two abreast. Chuck steps into the underbrush to sidle around Lac, saying, “I’ve actually only made first contact with one group—and you just met them.” Setting the pace now, he continues speaking over his shoulder, as Lac did a moment before. “When they first saw me, they were definitely scared. I think they were too shocked and, well, curious to respond violently. I was probably lucky. The other missionaries are always talking about close calls.” Ducking under a tangle of lianas, he grunts and takes a fortifying breath before continuing. “The thing is, it’s hard to say if you’re ever really making first contact. The Yanomamö already had machetes and axes when I got here. They were worn down to the nub, but they were also being used quite a bit. You have to remember too it hasn’t been that long—maybe a generation—since the rubber barons were down here killing and enslaving and torturing thousands upon thousands of the Indians. The Yanomamö may have traded for those machetes with the Ye’kwana. But even now there are often run-ins between ranchers and Indians. Loggers too—they’re probably even worse.”

            “You think they’re hostile to outsiders because of earlier attacks? That’s not what we walked into back there, was it? You said the fight was with another Yanomamö village.”

            “That’s true. And I can’t say what a war party from another village would have done to us. Maybe nothing. Of course, we may have been killed in a crossfire even if they weren’t trying to shoot us—they dip their arrows in poison when they’re hunting. I guess my point is just that it’s different out here. We may as well be a million miles away from any working justice system. It takes a certain kind of person to go into the jungle in the first place. Once you’re in it, well, it may be that you go a little crazy because it gets so intense—the discomfort, the constant threats, the endless insults to your person, the boredom—and you’re so far removed from anything you’re accustomed to. Anyway, it’s hard to tell how time in the jungle will affect a man. It changes people. I’ve even seen it happen to men with the New Tribes, good men. And God knows what the Indians have been through. I can’t say I really know much about how violent most indigenous tribes are before they meet anyone from civilization—I figure you’d know more about that than me. Either way, out here you have to be on your guard around people of pretty much any sort.”

            Lac detected no hint of sarcasm in Chuck’s suggestion that he ought to know more about what the Indians are like. It rankles nonetheless. Shooing the bareto away from his mouth, he inhales sharply, calming himself. The missionary’s words send his mind traveling back to a time when he and his dad were hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, along with his older brother and his uncle.

Lac would have been around thirteen, he figures, and after a few days wandering through the forest he was starting to get bored—in spite of the weeks of lobbying it had taken to get his dad to agree to let him tag along. At one point, as he was going about whistling and clownishly dancing around, he lifted his gaze to see the three older men crouching alongside a fallen tree. His dad shot him a look that struck him like a hard palm to the temple. Lac immediately fell silent, dropped to his knees, and crawled toward the cover of the wide trunk. Peering over it, he saw two men, both with rifles slung over their shoulders, making their way along a valley that was barely visible in the distance. Lac watched them for several moments until his dad pulled him down by the back of his vest.

“What’s the big deal?” he whispered.

His dad lifted his finger to lips, a gesture as peremptory as any command issued beside a raised hand. They waited in near complete silence for what seemed to Lac like an hour, until the men had long since disappeared into the forest. Even after he and the older men started moving again themselves, Lac sensed that a decision had somehow been made to keep silent, and to give the two strange men a wide berth. After what felt to the teenage Lac like hours, but may have been little more than twenty minutes, he opened his mouth to begin peppering his dad with questions. That’s when Uncle Rob swatted him hard on the back of the head. Lac turned to face his uncle, opening his mouth yet again to complain. The look on his uncle’s face was no less peremptory in its command to keep quiet than his father’s had been. They walked on, barely making a sound beyond the crunch of leaves and the snap of twigs beneath their boots, until the sun was nearly down and they wordlessly agreed to begin setting up camp, Lac fuming all the while.

“Those two men,” Uncle Rob said to him as they worked together running a rope for the roof of their tent. “Did you see their clothes?”

“Not really. They were wearing old jackets I suppose.”

“They were wearing tatters. Which tells your dad and me they’ve been out here for a long time.”

“So what?”

“So we’re in a different world out here. We’re a long way from any roads or any phones. It’s hard to tell what a man will do when he can be sure no one will know he’s doing it. Those two guys, we may have waved to them, shouted our hellos, and they may have waved and said hi back. Just as likely, though, they’d play friendly until they got close enough to shoot us. Then they’d rifle through our pockets and backpacks looking for money or anything they could sell. Men start to forget all about the rules when they’re a hundred miles from any police, a hundred miles from all the things that might remind them who they are. You gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest.” 

Lac hasn’t recalled this exchange, or thought about Uncle Rob, since he was still a teenager. At the time, he’d remained sulky, thinking his dad and uncle were being paranoid. Or delusional even, pretending to be commandos on some secret mission. How the two men they saw traversing the valley would have reacted upon being alerted to their presence remains an experiment yet to be conducted. But Charles Clemens of the New Tribes Mission, who ought to be plenty qualified to remark on the matter, apparently agrees wholeheartedly with old Uncle Rob that you gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest, or in his own words, that out here you have to be on your guard against people of pretty much any sort.   

Those times with his dad and brothers out in the Michigan wilderness had seemed so distant, from another lifetime. The last thing he expected venturing into the rain forest of Venezuela was to be reacquainted with anything from that period of his life. While the nostalgia is less than pure, he does manage to avoid delving into the myriad complications marring his reminiscences of that time, when he was both bullied and protected by men who were larger than life, when he still had the entirety of his adult life beckoning him onward with promises of boundless possibility. The memory effects a transformation, stripping away the dread that has been hanging from the trees like some pestilential fungus, suffusing the air with its spores, infecting his thoughts and weighing down his every step through the scrub. An actual breeze weaves its way through the shadowy undergrowth, a cleansing stream of thick, oxygen-rich air. For the first time in days, Lac experiences afresh the exhilaration of being beyond the reach of the workaday world, the thrill of impending discovery, the lure of the unknown on the other side of this thick teeming wall of green. The cooling and smoothing of the air speaks of their closeness to the river, but Lac feels like the breeze could almost be coming in response to a shift taking place in his own mind.

As they drag the rowboat from where they’d tucked it amid the latticework of kapok roots, Lac forgets his reasons for locking his thoughts away from the missionary, as though the farther away from the familiar world they travel, the more useless their so-called education proves, and the more pointless their competing agendas seem.

“When I was a kid,” he begins to say as they slide the rowboat down the bank through the suctioning mud, before being interrupted by a caught shoe. Bracing himself on the side of the boat, he lifts it free, producing a loud, almost comical gagging sound. “When I was a kid,” he begins again, “I loved adventure stories. I didn’t care if they were true or if they were fiction. Back then, there didn’t seem to be such a sharp distinction between the two. I was just as excited about Expedition Fawcett as I was by The Lost World. In college, though, that all changed. It was reading Darwin that made me want to go into anthropology.”

He glances over at Clemens as they swing the boat out into the water to see if the voicing of this blasphemous name induces any contortion of his sweat-soaked, washed out visage, but his face registers little aside from an intense focus on the delicate task at hand. “After Origin of Species,” Lac continues, “I turned right away to Voyage of the Beagle. After about a year I damn near had the whole book memorized. Then one of my professors used the section where he writes about the Indians of Tierra del Fuego as an example of nineteenth century racist attitudes.”

Clemens, with a hand on each gunwale, is already lowering himself into a seated position. It’s Lac’s turn to step aboard. His shoes trail thick streams of mud through the air, and his last awkward lurch sets the rowboat to tottering precariously. “He called them ‘poor wretches,’ Lac says as they steady the rocking, “with ‘hideous faces,’ whose ‘violent gestures were without dignity.’ I remember going through a crisis after that class. It was the last time I ever opened that book. I never read anymore adventure novels or expedition chronicles again either. Unless you count Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski.” 

The missionary hands him a paddle; the journey across the river will be too brief to warrant the use of the outboard. A few strokes on either side and they’re a quarter of the way to the opposing bank. Gazing mystified at the swirling eddies produced by each dip and pull of the paddle, Lac hears Clemens say, “You know, for me it was David Livingston and Albert Schweitzer.”

“Of course it was,” Lac says, chuckling. Clemens laughs along with him. “The irony,” Lac adds, “is that guys like Darwin and Livingston stand as icons of this evil imperialist drive to subjugate and enslave, but they were both staunch abolitionists.”

As they approach a clear spot on the bank, Clemens takes up the theme. “Schweitzer too. He wrote that part of his mission to build the hospital in Gabon was to make up for the crimes Europeans had committed against ‘the coloured races.’ A lot of his writings were criticisms of colonial oppression.”

We look back with such disdain for these doctors and missionaries and activists who did so much for indigenous peoples, Lac thinks, sussing out all the markers of their deep-seated racism, all the while declaring that our civilization’s supposed history of moral progress is but a myth. And no one notes the contradiction.

Their first task after hauling the rowboat up yet another soggy embankment is to find a clearing in the scrubland where Clemens says there’s an old hut they can hang their hammocks in to keep them out of reach of the ants and various other crawling insects. As they slog on, spiritlessly swinging their machetes, exhaustion beginning to set in, Lac turns his attention to the loud buzzing in the back of his mind, the insistent clamoring shame of his monumental error. He remembers once lying awake in his dorm at U of M and trying to mentally catalogue the elements common to all of his formerly beloved adventure tales, an exercise in cynicism and budding disillusionment. You start with a mystery and a hero. The mystery takes you to an exotic locale, leading to an ominous arrival. Now the quest begins. Along the way, you have an inventory of lethal threats, a certain fraction of which the characters will subsequently encounter—the disease-bearing insects; in the water, the piranha, the electric eels, those nightmarish, urethra-burrowing candiru, the anaconda; in the jungle, the venomous snakes, the wild boar gnashing and goring with their tusks, the jaguar, the hostile Indians. The characters nearly succumb before the mystery is finally unveiled and the object of the quest—the people of the lost civilization, the legendary monster, the secret medicinal plant—arrives on the scene to rescue them. But somehow the mystery then becomes a moral dilemma. Now that we know it’s here, how will we absorb it into our lives—without destroying it? Without destroying ourselves. But it all somehow redounds to the benefit—the development, the edification, the entertainment—of those of us carrying the torch of western civilization.

            Lac stops to watch Clemens hacking his way through the brush, engulfed by the darkening green immensity. Even if you decide to quit now, he thinks, you’ve still got quite an ordeal to go through before you make it out of here. Swiping away some of the sweat from his forehead and flicking away the bugs in one practiced motion, he takes again to the path carved out by the missionary, shrugging to adjust his pack. He realizes they’ve barely made it twenty yards from the top of the riverbank.

Before reading Darwin his freshman year at Sault Ste. Marie, Lac had perused scores of books about jungles and animals and geography, but they all unfurled as papery lists of lifeless, disconnected facts and details. In Darwin’s hands, on the contrary, every living creature on earth burst vividly to life on the page. His had been a synthesizing mind, not one geared toward mere observation. Origin unfolds as part chronicle of an idea’s incubation, part systematic weighing of evidence, and part exuberant celebration of the wondrousness of discovering how one simple theory could explain such infinitely diverse complexity. Lac absorbed it greedily, letting the points, the systematic style of reasoning, the character underlying it all, letting all of it permeate his thoughts, transforming them.

“I want to do something like that,” he’d said to himself after reading the final page and clapping the covers shut. This was the beginning of his self-imposed discipline, his ceaseless efforts to marshal his attention and corral his thoughts. First, master the details, and then progress to searching for the thread that binds them all together, the dynamic principle that sets them all in vital motion.

 But there was something else about Darwin’s style of thinking and writing and arguing, something he would come to associate with the project of science more generally. Lac had all his life felt bound to Port Austin, to Northern Michigan, to the struggles with his dad and his brothers and sisters, the smothering weight of the future’s most pressingly practical of considerations. Darwin’s was a mind unbound, a playground for fascination unfettered. Whereas most people’s curiosity before the natural world flashes for a fleeting moment before thudding into the wall of daily banality, the soaring wonder of great scientific minds again and again breaks through, like a freight train charging forth along the twin rails of pattern-seeking and prediction. The future-directedness of science was for Lac simultaneously a ticket to an unrestricted world and an escape from the mundane, a way to brush up against the eternal, the sacred even. People he knew growing up sought solace and spiritual uplift by muttering their futile prayers while kneeling beside their beds or by going to church and being led through the mindless motions. But religion obsesses over the past, trapping you there. Science looks out over the horizon, beckoning like a liberation. That’s the part he kept firmly in his grasp even after turning away from Darwin’s grand view of life at his professors’ behest.

“This is it,” Clemens says. “A guy from the Malarialogìa built this a few years back. It should keep the bats out of our hair.”

Lac scans the area, his eyes lighting on the ramshackle hut in a clearing in the brush. “The sun will only be up for a little while longer,” Chuck says as he clears the last of the sparse branches and vines in their path. “Not much point in trying to do anything but sleep after it gets dark.”

Inside the modest but blessedly empty hut, the missionary pulls his hammock from his bag and removes it from its rubber bag. Lac catches a whiff of the old sweat and stale wood smoke odor coming off the mildewed cotton. Recoiling, lifting his hand to his nose, he thinks: Even the damned missionaries are filthy down here.

“When we get back to Tama Tama,” Clemens says, “I’ll try to write up a list of common words and phrases. It took me months to start really picking up the language, but I can at least help get you started.”

Lac doesn’t tell him the issue is moot, because he won’t be returning to this place. Even now, he’s working out the logistics of his return trip to Puerto Ayacucho. Still, he can’t help wondering why this missionary is being so patient and helpful. It dawns on him, as it should have weeks ago, that Clemens knows he’s supposed to be writing a book, his dissertation, on the Yanomamö’s culture—a book that can be passed around to any other New Tribes missionary who follows him into the jungle in search of souls wilting for lack of Christ’s nourishing light. Disgusted, Lac finishes tying his own fresh hammock to the support posts and lies down, just in time to hear his kindly bald companion’s snoring begin in earnest. It’s not quite dark yet.

“Strange bedfellows,” he mutters, looking up at the underside of the thatched roof, wondering why he didn’t take a minute to check it for vermin but too exhausted to get up now. His legs and feet throb. His skin tingles and aches from the constant sweating and swelling. He can’t remember the last time he was this uncomfortable. But all the bodily insults are a mere backdrop for the chaos swirling in his mind. In spite of it all, however, he knows in a few moments he’ll be as deeply asleep as Chuck. Placing a cracker in his mouth and sipping from his canteen to wash it down, he smiles at the realization that he’s almost too tired to finish chewing. 

Also check out:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium



Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"


Check out Napoleon Chagnon's original account of when he first met the Yanomamö (see particularly the section "The Longest Day: the First One" beginning on page 2).

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why Tamsin Shaw Imagines the Psychologists Are Taking Power


Tamsin Shaw’s essay in the February 25th issue of The New York Review of Books, provocatively titled “The Psychologists Take Power,” is no more scholarly than your average political attack ad, nor is it any more credible. (The article is available online, but I won’t lend it further visibility to search engines by linking to it here.) Two of the psychologists maligned in the essay, Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, recently contributed a letter to the editors which effectively highlights Shaw’s faulty reasoning and myriad distortions, describing how she “prosecutes her case by citation-free attribution, spurious dichotomies, and standards of guilt by association that make Joseph McCarthy look like Sherlock Holmes” (82).

Upon first reading Shaw’s piece, I dismissed it as a particularly unscrupulous bit of interdepartmental tribalism—a philosopher bemoaning the encroachment by pesky upstart scientists into what was formerly the bailiwick of philosophers. But then a line in Shaw’s attempted rebuttal of Haidt and Pinker’s letter sent me back to the original essay, and this time around I recognized it as a manifestation of a more widespread trend among scholars, and a rather unscholarly one at that.

Shaw begins her article by accusing a handful of psychologists of exceeding the bounds of their official remit. These researchers have risen to prominence in recent years through their studies into human morality. But now, instead of restricting themselves, as responsible scientists would, to describing how we make moral judgements and attempting to explain why we respond to moral dilemmas the way we do, these psychologists have begun arrogating moral authority to themselves. They’ve begun, in other words, trying to tell us how we should reason morally—according to Shaw anyway. Her article then progresses through shady innuendo and arguments based on what Haidt and Pinker call “guilt through imaginability” to connect this group of authors to the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation,” i.e. torture, which culminated in such atrocities as those committed in the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Tamsin Shaw

Shaw’s sole piece of evidence comes from a report that was commissioned by the American Psychological Association. David Hoffman and his fellow investigators did indeed find that two members of the APA played a critical role in developing the interrogation methods used by the CIA, and they had the sanction of top officials. Neither of the two, however, and none of those officials authored any of the books on moral psychology that Shaw is supposedly reviewing. In the report’s conclusion, the investigators describe the responses of clinical psychologists who “feel physically sick when they think about the involvement of psychologists intentionally using harsh interrogation techniques.” Shaw writes,

It is easy to imagine the psychologists who claim to be moral experts dismissing such a reaction as an unreliable “gut response” that must be overridden by more sophisticated reasoning. But a thorough distrust of rapid, emotional responses might well leave human beings without a moral compass sufficiently strong to guide them through times of crisis, when our judgement is most severely challenged, or to compete with powerful nonmoral motivations. (39)

What she’s referring to here is the two-system model of moral reasoning which posits a rapid, intuitive system, programmed in large part by our genetic inheritance but with some cultural variation in its expression, matched against a more effort-based, cerebral system that requires the application of complex reasoning.

But it must be noted that nowhere does any of the authors she’s reviewing make a case for a “thorough distrust of rapid, emotional responses.” Their positions are far more nuanced, and Haidt in fact argues in his book The Righteous Mind that liberals could benefit from paying more heed to some of their moral instincts—a case that Shaw herself summarizes in her essay when she’s trying to paint him as an overly “didactic” conservative.
Jonathan Haidt

            Haidt and Pinker’s response to Shaw’s argument by imaginability was to simply ask the other five authors she insinuates support torture whether they indeed reacted the way she describes. They write, “The results: seven out of seven said ‘no’” (82). These authors’ further responses to the question offer a good opportunity to expose just how off-base Shaw’s simplistic characterizations are.

None of these psychologists believes that a reaction of physical revulsion must be overridden or should be thoroughly distrusted. But several pointed out that in the past, people have felt physically sick upon contemplating homosexuality, interracial marriage, vaccination, and other morally unexceptionable acts, so gut feelings alone cannot constitute a “moral compass.” Nor is the case against “enhanced interrogation” so fragile, as Shaw implies, that it has to rest on gut feelings: the moral arguments against torture are overwhelming. So while primitive physical revulsion may serve as an early warning signal indicating that some practice calls for moral scrutiny, it is “the more sophisticated reasoning” that should guide us through times of crisis. (82-emphasis in original)

One phrase that should stand out here is “the moral arguments against torture are overwhelming.” Shaw is supposedly writing about a takeover by psychologists who advocate torture—but none of them actually advocates torture. And, having read four of the six books she covers, I can aver that this response was entirely predictable based on what the authors had written. So why does Shaw attempt to mislead her readers?

            The false implication that the authors she’s reviewing support torture isn’t the only central premise of Shaw’s essay that’s simply wrong; if these psychologists really are trying to take power, as she claims, that’s news to them. Haidt and Pinker begin their rebuttal by pointing out that “Shaw can cite no psychologist who claims special authority or ‘superior wisdom’ on moral matters” (82). Every one of them, with a single exception, in fact includes an explanation of what separates the two endeavors—describing human morality on the one hand, and prescribing values or behaviors on the other—in the very books Shaw professes to find so alarming. The lone exception, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, wrote to Haidt and Pinker, “The fact that one cannot derive morality from psychological research is so screamingly obvious that I never thought to explicitly write it down” (82).

Yet Shaw insists all of these authors commit the fallacy of moving from is to ought; you have to wonder if she even read the books she’s supposed to be reviewing—beyond mining them for damning quotes anyway. And didn’t any of the editors at The New York Review think to check some of her basic claims? Or were they simply hoping to bank on the publication of what amounts to controversy porn? (Think of the dilemma faced by the authors: do you respond and draw more attention to the piece, or do you ignore it and let some portion of the readership come away with a wildly mistaken impression?)
Paul Bloom

            Haidt and Pinker do a fine job of calling out most of Shaw’s biggest mistakes and mischaracterizations. But I want to draw attention to two more instances of her falling short of any reasonable standard of scholarship, because each one reveals something important about the beliefs Shaw uses as her own moral compass. The authors under review situate their findings on human morality in a larger framework of theories about human evolution. Shaw characterizes this framework as “an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology” (38). Shaw has evidently attended the Ken Ham school of evolutionary biology, which preaches that science can only concern itself with phenomena occurring right before our eyes in a lab. The reality is that, while testing adaptationist theories is a complicated endeavor, there are usually at least two ways to falsify them. You can show that the trait or behavior in question is absent in many cultures, or you can show that it emerges late in life after some sort of deliberate training. One of the books Shaw is supposedly reviewing, Bloom’s Just Babies, focuses specifically on research demonstrating that many of our common moral intuitions emerge when we’re babies, in our first year of life, with no deliberate training whatsoever.

            Bloom comes in for some more targeted, if off-hand, criticism near the conclusion of Shaw’s essay for an article he wrote to challenge the increasingly popular sentiment that we can solve our problems as a society by encouraging everyone to be more empathetic. Empathy, Bloom points out, is a finite resource; we’re simply not capable of feeling for every single one of the millions of individuals in need of care throughout the world. So we need to offer that care based on principle, not feeling. Shaw avoids any discussion of her own beliefs about morality in her essay, but from the nature of her mischaracterization of Bloom’s argument we can start to get a sense of the ideology informing her prejudices. She insists that  
    
when Paul Bloom, in his own Atlantic article, “The Dark Side of Empathy,” warns us that empathy for people who are seen as victims may be associated with violent, punitive tendencies toward those in authority, we should be wary of extrapolating from his psychological claims a prescription for what should and should not be valued, or inferring that we need a moral corrective to a culture suffering from a supposed excess of empathic feelings. (40-1)

The “supposed excess of empathic feelings” isn’t the only laughable distortion people who actually read Bloom’s essay will catch out; the actual examples he cites of when empathy for victims leads to “violent, punitive tendencies” include Donald Trump and Ann Coulter stoking outrage against undocumented immigrants by telling stories of the crimes a few of them commit. This misrepresentation raises an important question: why would Shaw want to mislead her readers into believing Bloom’s intention is to protect those in authority? This brings us to the McCathyesque part of Shaw’s attack ad.

            The sections of the essay drawing a web of guilt connecting the two psychologists who helped develop torture methods for the CIA to all the authors she’d have us believe are complicit focus mainly on Martin Seligman, whose theory of learned helplessness formed the basis of the CIA’s approach to harsh interrogation. Seligman is the founder of a subfield called Positive Psychology, which he developed as a counterbalance to what he perceived as an almost exclusive focus on all that can go wrong with human thinking, feeling, and behaving. His Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania has received $31 million in recent years from the Department of Defense—a smoking gun by Shaw’s lights. And Seligman even admits that on several occasions he met with those two psychologists who participated in the torture program. The other authors Shaw writes about have in turn worked with Seligman on a variety of projects. Haidt even wrote a book on Positive Psychology called The Happiness Hypothesis.

            In Shaw’s view, learned helplessness theory is a potentially dangerous tool being wielded by a bunch of mad scientists and government officials corrupted by financial incentives and a lust for military dominance. To her mind, the notion that Seligman could simply want to help soldiers cope with the stresses of combat is all but impossible to even entertain. In this and every other instance when Shaw attempts to mislead her readers, it’s to put the same sort of negative spin on the psychologists’ explicitly stated positions. If Bloom says empathy has a dark side, then all the authors in question are against empathy. If Haidt argues that resilience—the flipside of learned helplessness—is needed to counteract a culture of victimhood, then all of these authors are against efforts to combat sexism and racism on college campuses. And, as we’ve seen, if these authors say we should question our moral intuitions, it’s because they want to be able to get away with crimes like torture. “Expertise in teaching people to override their moral intuitions is only a moral good if it serves good ends,” Shaw herself writes. “Those ends,” she goes on, “should be determined by rigorous moral deliberation” (40). Since this is precisely what the authors she’s criticizing say in their books, we’re left wondering what her real problem with them might be.

            In her reply to Haidt and Pinker’s letter, Shaw suggests her aim for the essay was to encourage people to more closely scrutinize the “doctrines of Positive Psychology” and the central principles underlying psychological theories about human morality. I was curious to see how she’d respond to being called out for mistakenly stating that the psychologists were claiming moral authority and that they were given to using their research to defend the use of torture. Her main response is to repeat the central aspects of her rather flimsy case against Seligman. But then she does something truly remarkable; she doesn’t deny using guilt by imaginability—she defends it.

Pinker and Haidt say they prefer reality to imagination, but imagination is the capacity that allows us to take responsibility, insofar as it is ever possible, for the ends for which our work will be used and the consequences that it will have in the world. Such imagination is a moral and intellectual virtue that clearly needs to be cultivated. (85)

So, regardless of what the individual psychologists themselves explicitly say about torture, for instance, as long as they’re equipping other people with the conceptual tools to justify torture, they’re still at least somewhat complicit. This was the line that first made me realize Shaw’s essay was something other than a philosopher munching on sour grapes.

            Shaw’s approach to connecting each of the individual authors to Seligman and then through him to the torture program is about as sophisticated, and about as credible, as any narrative concocted by your average online conspiracy theorist. But she believes that these connections are important and meaningful, a belief, I suspect, that derives from her own philosophy. Advocates of this philosophy, commonly referred to as postmodernism or poststructuralism, posit that our culture is governed by a dominant ideology that serves to protect and perpetuate the societal status quo, especially with regard to what are referred to as hegemonic relationships—men over women, whites over other ethnicities, heterosexuals over homosexuals. This dominant ideology finds expression in, while at the same time propagating itself through, cultural practices ranging from linguistic expressions to the creation of art to the conducting of scientific experiments.

            Inspired by figures like Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, postmodern scholars reject many of the central principles of humanism, including its emphasis on the role of rational discourse in driving societal progress. This is because the processes of reasoning and research that go into producing knowledge can never be fully disentangled from the exercise of power, or so it is argued. We experience the world through the medium of culture, and our culture distorts reality in a way that makes hierarchies seem both natural and inevitable. So, according to postmodernists, not only does science fail to create true knowledge of the natural world and its inhabitants, but the ideas it generates must also be scrutinized to identify their hidden political implications.
Ullica Segerstrale

            What such postmodern textual analyses look like in practice is described in sociologist Ullica Segerstrale’s book, Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. Segerstrale observed that postmodern critics of evolutionary psychology (which was more commonly called sociobiology in the late 90s), were outraged by what they presumed were the political implications of the theories, not by what evolutionary psychologists actually wrote. She explains,

In their analysis of their targets’ texts, the critics used a method I call moral reading. The basic idea behind moral reading was to imagine the worst possible political consequences of a scientific claim. In this way, maximum guilt might be attributed to the perpetrator of this claim. (206)  
This is similar to the type of imagination Shaw faults psychologists today for insufficiently exercising. For the postmodernists, the sum total of our cultural knowledge is what sustains all the varieties of oppression and injustice that exist in our society, so unless an author explicitly decries oppression or injustice he’ll likely be held under suspicion. Five of the six books Shaw subjects to her moral reading were written by white males. The sixth was written by a male and a female, both white. The people the CIA tortured were not white. So you might imagine white psychologists telling everyone not to listen to their conscience to make it easier for them reap the benefits of a history of colonization. Of course, I could be completely wrong here; maybe this scenario isn’t what was playing out in Shaw’s imagination at all. But that’s the problem—there are few limits to what any of us can imagine, especially when it comes to people we disagree with on hot-button issues.

            Postmodernism began in English departments back in the ‘60s where it was originally developed as an approach to analyzing literature. From there, it spread to several other branches of the humanities and is now making inroads into the social sciences. Cultural anthropology was the first field to be mostly overtaken. You can see precursors to Shaw’s rhetorical approach in attacks leveled against sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson and Napoleon Chagnon by postmodern anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins. In a review published in 2001, also in The New York Review of Books, Sahlins writes,

The ‘60s were the longest decade of the 20th century, and Vietnam was the longest war. In the West, the war prolonged itself in arrogant perceptions of the weaker peoples as instrumental means of the global projects of the stronger. In the human sciences, the war persists in an obsessive search for power in every nook and cranny of our society and history, and an equally strong postmodern urge to “deconstruct” it. For his part, Chagnon writes popular textbooks that describe his ethnography among the Yanomami in the 1960s in terms of gaining control over people.
Demonstrating his own power has been not only a necessary condition of Chagnon’s fieldwork, but a main technique of investigation.

The first thing to note is that Sahlin’s characterization of Chagnon’s books as narratives of “gaining control over people” is just plain silly; Chagnon was more often than not at the mercy of the Yanomamö. The second is that, just as anyone who’s actually read the books by Haidt, Pinker, Greene, and Bloom will be shocked by Shaw’s claim that their writing somehow bolsters the case for torture, anyone familiar with Chagnon’s studies of the Yanomamö will likely wonder what the hell they have to do with Vietnam, a war that to my knowledge he never expressed an opinion of in writing.

However, according to postmodern logic—or we might say postmodern morality—Chagnon’s observation that the Yanomamö were often violent, along with his espousal of a theory that holds such violence to have been common among preindustrial societies, leads inexorably to the conclusion that he wants us all to believe violence is part of our fixed nature as humans. Through the lens of postmodernism, Chagnon’s work is complicit in making people believe working for peace is futile because violence is inevitable. Chagnon may counter that he believes violence is likely to occur only in certain circumstances, and that by learning more about what conditions lead to conflict we can better equip ourselves to prevent it. But that doesn’t change the fact that society needs high-profile figures to bring before our modern academic version of the inquisition, so that all the other white men lording it over the rest of the world will see what happens to anyone who deviates from right (actually far-left) thinking.
From Divigaciones

Ideas really do have consequences of course, some of which will be unforeseen. The place where an idea ends up may even be repugnant to its originator. But the notion that we can settle foreign policy disputes, eradicate racism, end gender inequality, and bring about world peace simply by demonizing artists and scholars whose work goes against our favored party line, scholars and artists who maybe can’t be shown to support these evils and injustices directly but can certainly be imagined to be doing so in some abstract and indirect way—well, that strikes me as far-fetched. It also strikes me as dangerously misguided, since it’s not like scholars, or anyone else, ever needed any extra encouragement to imagine people who disagree with them being guilty of some grave moral offense. We’re naturally tempted to do that as it is.

Part of becoming a good scholar—part of becoming a grownup—is learning to live with people whose beliefs are different from yours, and to treat them fairly. Unless a particular scholar is openly and explicitly advocating torture, ascribing such an agenda to her is either irresponsible, if we’re unwittingly misrepresenting her, or dishonest, if we’re doing so knowingly. Arguments from imagined adverse consequences can go both ways. We could, for instance, easily write articles suggesting that Shaw is a Stalinist, or that she advocates prosecuting perpetrators of what members of the far left deem to be thought crimes. What about the consequences of encouraging suspicion of science in an age of widespread denial of climate change? Postmodern identity politics is this moment posing a threat to free speech on college campuses. And the tactics of postmodern activists begin and end with the stoking of moral outrage, so we could easily make a case that the activists are deliberately trying to instigate witch hunts. With each baseless accusation and counter-accusation, though, we’re getting farther and farther away from any meaningful inquiry, forestalling any substantive debate, and hamstringing any real moral or political progress.

Many people try to square the circle, arguing that postmodernism isn’t inherently antithetical to science, and that the supposed insights derived from postmodern scholarship ought to be assimilated somehow into science. When Thomas Huxley, the physician and biologist known as Darwin’s bulldog, said that science “commits suicide when it adopts a creed,” he was pointing out that by adhering to an ideology you’re taking its tenets for granted. Science, despite many critics’ desperate proclamations to the contrary, is not itself an ideology; science is an epistemology, a set of principles and methods for investigating nature and arriving at truths about the world. Even the most well-established of these truths, however, is considered provisional, open to potential revision or outright rejection as the methods, technologies, and theories that form the foundation of this collective endeavor advance over the generations.

In her essay, Shaw cites the results of a project attempting to replicate the findings of several seminal experiments in social psychology, counting the surprisingly low success rate as further cause for skepticism of the field. What she fails to appreciate here is that the replication project is being done by a group of scientists who are psychologists themselves, because they’re committed to honing their techniques for studying the human mind. I would imagine if Shaw’s postmodernist precursors had shared a similar commitment to assessing the reliability of their research methods, such as they are, and weighing the validity of their core tenets, then the ideology would have long since fallen out of fashion by the time she was taking up a pen to write about how scary psychologists are.  

The point Shaw's missing here is that it’s precisely this constant quest to check and recheck the evidence, refine and further refine the methods, test and retest the theories, that makes science, if not a source of superior wisdom, then still the most reliable approach to answering questions about who we are, what our place is in the universe, and what habits and policies will give us, as individuals and as citizens, the best chance to thrive and flourish. As Saul Perlmutter, one of the discoverers of dark energy, has said, “Science is an ongoing race between our inventing ways to fool ourselves, and our inventing ways to avoid fooling ourselves.” Shaw may be right that no experimental result could ever fully settle a moral controversy, but experimental results are often not just relevant to our philosophical deliberations but critical to keeping those deliberations firmly grounded in reality.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium

Yanomamö shabono (village enclosure)
(Read from the beginning, or follow this link to printable version, 6,695 words.)

Lac’s stomach rumbles ominously as he steps from the aluminum rowboat onto the muddy bank. Feet planted ashore, he has to fan the bareto away from his face before he can get a decent breath. It’s just after 2 o’clock; he hasn’t had a bite to eat since this morning, but in light of his other symptoms he can’t help letting this loud churning in his intestines add to his worry. They give you a whole slew of tests and shots for contagious bugs you’ve never heard of, he thinks, all to make sure you don’t start an epidemic when you meet these people whose white blood cells have heard of even fewer bugs than you have—and to make sure you don’t keel over dead yourself, or rot away from the inside out in some godforsaken hut no one will be able to find until the flies and ants have cleaned the last scrap of flesh from your bones. But everybody who goes into the jungle gets sick anyway. That’s what they say.

Trudging up the bank, he feels the tug of his pant legs clinging to the tops of his legs. His shirt is soaked through as well. Annoyed, he heaves that deep breath, vacuuming nary a gnat through the cautiously narrowed parting of his lips, and tells himself he’d better get used to being drenched in sweat, since he’ll be living in the most basic of lodgings for the next year and a half. He wonders how Laura and the kids will hold up in this heat. What will they think of this new odor of his? They’ll stink before long too. We’ll just have to get used to each other, he thinks, while we’re getting used to all the rest of it. Like the gnats. Good God, the gnats!

“The trail you’re standing on,” Chuck says, “is what the women take from the village every morning to fill their pots with water.”

Before going back to help Chuck haul the rowboat out of the water, Lac takes a long look up the darkly shaded trail—the trees towering to immense heights above, creating an illusion of compression in the shadows below, pressurizing the air, as if the space they’re about to wander into were a preheated oven. He then lowers his gaze to the area surrounding his feet, seeing if there are any telltale signs, any footprints or artifacts discernable in the mud or the moist dirt higher up the bank. I’m here, he marvels, moments away from meeting them. As the two men pull the rowboat onto dry land, he realizes that Chuck has just indicated it’s the women who fetch each day’s supply of water from the Orinoco. It must be part of their division of labor, perhaps a key social fact.

When he met Chuck in Chicago a few months back, he asked him hundreds of questions about where the Yanomamö live, how aware they are of the outside world, how many he estimates there are in the village, how many other villages might be in the region. But, just as Lac hates the idea of the Yanomamö’s culture being compromised by all the missionaries’ bribery and machinations, he’s also been loath to inquire after the details of that culture in his discussions with Chuck, keeping instead mostly to issues of logistics, a precaution intended to help him avoid unconsciously adopting any prejudices about what he’s eager to see with his own eyes and document with his own hands.

But that boy, that young man, standing on the rocks as they approached the Tama Tama mission outpost, an apparition hovering in the space over the river like some eternal feature of the landscape, his skinny arms dangling loosely, his posture lazily erect, his bearing unselfconsciously haughty, his belly rounded by the insouciant forward sway of his lower back, causing it to protrude proudly, like a Western man might thrust out his chest, but without any of the effort at affectation—the encounter has shocked the neophyte fieldworker into realizing it won’t be a hundred or so discrete but interdependent manifestations of a tribal culture he’ll be meeting, asking permission to live with, and conducting lengthy interviews with. It’s a village full of people, flesh and blood human beings. “I’ve never really asked you this before,” he says as he steps away from the rowboat, sweat falling in giant globules from his face. “What are they like? I mean, what was it like when you first made contact?”

“Well, honestly, it was pretty tense when I first met them,” Chuck says as he squats down to secure the edges of a tarp covering the boat. “But that was back in 1950. You have to keep in mind they’d never seen a white man before. People in a bunch of the more distant villages still haven’t seen any. They had no idea who I was. But I wouldn’t worry too much. I think as long as you’re with me they’ll be much more welcoming.”

After pausing to consider his broader question, Chuck continues, “They don’t have the same stops as we do. It’s jarring at first, but it doesn’t take long before you start to accept it’s just the way they are. I used to think the natives—not just the Yanomamö but people I met from all the tribes—I used to think they were like children; they hadn’t been brought up learning how adults have to control their impulses, how adults have to fulfill the expectations surrounding the roles they serve in society. You know, or there are consequences. Here, there aren’t the same kinds of consequences. Over time, I’ve come to see that I was mostly wrong. They aren’t like grownup children the way I thought they were. They don’t have the same checks on their impulses, they don’t try to fill the same roles of course, and the consequences for inappropriate behavior are much different. But what they do makes sense in their own context, if not so much in ours.”

“You said ‘mostly wrong’.”

“I do my best to understand them on their own terms, and the fact is in some ways it’s men from our society who are more like children. If we had to fend for ourselves out here, with nothing but the kinds of tools and resources they have on hand, we probably wouldn’t last a week. But when I’m interacting with them I often can’t help seeing them as—not uncultured exactly, but still somehow less cultured. Fewer checks, simpler roles, that kind of thing. ”

“That makes sense,” Lac allows, though he’s wondering if it’s possible to square this with his Boas. For the first time, the incongruity is becoming apparent to him between insisting on treating every culture as equal, as fully developed in its own right, and looking to native societies for clues about life before civilization. He thinks again of the wild young man standing in his tatters on the chain of rocks poking up in the river, and how stark the contrast was between him and the dozen or so much younger children sitting along the benches at a wooden table outside one of the buildings of the New Tribes Mission, kids from several tribes, all flipping through prayer books, receiving their Western-style schooling from a severe woman ruling over them with a voice of measured authority, the type borne of unquestioning certainty in the rightness of her lessons, the righteousness of her calling. Maybe the adults, fortunate enough to escape such indignities, really are unconstrained and impulsive and child-like, he thinks, but maybe those of us who pride ourselves on our control, our tameness—maybe we actually lost something more valuable than we can fully appreciate when we traded in our own wild ways for the sake of being civilized grownups.

Lac can’t really run this idea by Chuck, but something in his guide’s tone when he attempted to describe the Yanomamö suggested that he wouldn’t quite agree. Then again, Chuck has his own agenda for these people, so he may be biased toward thinking there’s something lacking in their way of life. When Lac asked Marie, the austere and remarkably nondescript woman attempting to teach the children to read from a bunch of prayer books, how the Yanomamö react to the idea that they need to supplant the gods they know for this new Christian God, she said, “The spirits they conjure are demons.” For her, it’s as simple as that, an entire pantheon redesignated in one Miltonic swoop.

“You’re looking a little better,” Chuck says, stepping close enough to touch the back of his hand to Lac’s forehead. “You’re still really swollen from the gnat venom, but you don’t seem to have a fever.” Removing his hand, he turns and strides along the trail a few paces before stopping to wait for Lac to fall in alongside him. Lac looks one last time at the rowboat perfunctorily hidden within a latticework of roots running along the bank just downstream from the confluence with the Mavaca. The plan is to make the proper introductions at the village, stay for the night among the Yanomamö, and then return to the mission in the morning to retrieve the rest of his supplies, which he’ll need to exchange the rowboat for a much larger dugout canoe to haul back up the river. The Indians, Chuck has assured him, won’t mind them staying the night; the hut he built beside the village, the one he’s lived out of for several month-long stretches, ought to still be there. 

So far, aside from his reaction to the gnat bites—and, he notices now, the persistent rattling vibration he’s still hearing long after the hum of the outboard motor has ceased—the expedition is progressing according to plan. As he takes some jogging steps to catch up to the missionary on the trail, though, he feels that invisible anchor pulling at his neck again, tightening around his throat, as if tethered by a noose. He cranes to look back at the boat yet again—such a flimsy thing, such a tenuous line stretching between this place and everything in the world he knows and loves. He thinks of Laura, of his sister Bess’s subtle intimation that he was deluding himself on the score that his wife actually wants to join him in the field, in the jungle, with a bunch of naked unwashed natives living in mud huts. Shooing away the bareto, he takes another deep breath, closer to a sigh, and continues in step with Chuck toward the village. One thing I did delude myself about, he thinks, is that this would be a good time to cut back on smoking.

Away from the river, in the jungle proper, the heavy wet air suffuses the dark understory, filling the space like its own separate medium, in between a gas and a liquid, through which they’re half walking, half wading. His mouth and nostrils fill with the dank loamy smell of moss and watery soil, tinged with the sickly sweet scent of rot, and he has a sensation of being borne forth on a surging tidal wave of living green, the leafy fibrous substance of the forest, a sensation of being pulled at, tossed about, fraying and melting and disintegrating in the swell’s all-consuming roiling progression—expunging him, casting him farther and farther away from the world of impossible comforts he’s spent his entire life up till now taking relentlessly for granted.

His one comfort is the increasing solidity of the ground rising up to greet his shoes. Sweating so heavily, withstanding the incessant assault of so many insects, in the green immensity of the jungle that thrusts and buzzes and stretches and strangles—whose thronging, thriving existence is alive at every moment with the urgency of its every living cell clamoring to consume, to connect, to continue living, he feels the edges of his personhood blur, evaporating into the soupy air, the contours of his identity devoured by the voracious bugs, shaken to pieces by the inhuman scale of this teeming verdant chaos engulfing him. But with every solid step it’s as if he’s being incrementally reconstituted, fortified in his resolve, his excitement gradually bringing him back to himself.

            Moving along the trail—which, considering the Yanomamö women use it every day, is remarkably hard to discern at many points—Lac feels the field notebook in the back pocket of his trousers, checking to make sure it’s still there, a ritual reassurance, much the way he would often brush the outside of his thumb against the same pocket in other trousers back home to make sure his wallet was securely in place. Each time he touches the notebook, he briefly foresees himself standing amid clusters of skittish Indians, slightly intimidated himself, but with a purpose that shields him, not unlike the way grasping his surveying tools buoyed him as he stood road-side all those long summers during his undergrad years, justifying his idle presence to the countless passing drivers. He feels the notebook and reminds himself of his goals, his research questions, the methodical steps he plans to follow so he can arrive at answers, good solid scientific answers.

Chuck suddenly puts out a halting hand. “Listen,” he says. “You can hear them chanting—they must be calling their spirits.” Straining his ears, Lac has to choke back a cough as something between a burst of exhilaration and a jolt of panic invades his chest, swelling his throat. Okay now, he says quietly to himself, okay easy does it—focus on your research objectives.

            The first task, he rehearses as they continue paddling their way through the undergrowth, is to put them at ease and earn their trust. Chuck will help with that. He can also help at least get you started with the second task, learning the language and developing a scheme for transcribing it. Everything else hinges on the success of these first two steps. It will take a few weeks for you to get established and work out an understanding with them, and you’ll have to acquire sufficient competency with the language to even begin conducting interviews. In the meantime, you’ll observe their daily routines and interactions: food, family, shelter, hygiene, politics, sex, technology, ritual, art. As you gain proficiency with the language, you’ll turn to collecting genealogies, looking for patterns, analyzing the social structure that determines how any one individual is to interact with any other, building up to what will be your own unique contribution to the field of anthropology, your incorporation of the latest evolutionary theories into Structuralist approaches to ethnographic analysis, your introduction, in other words, of Charles Darwin to Claude Levi-Strauss.

            You may already be well into the genealogy phase, he tells himself, by the time Laura and the kids arrive in the country. Eventually, you’ll start to learn about other villages, groups living far deeper in the jungle. You may even be able to travel to villages that have never been contacted before by the missionaries. Imagine it—you’ll be the first white person they’ve ever seen. Then you can start the process over, but this time with a head start because you’ll speak the language and know the rudiments of the culture. Think of all you can accomplish like this in seventeen months. You can have genealogies comprised of hundreds, or even thousands of individuals. You’ll be able to compare ideal family structures to statistical measures of relatedness like no one ever has before, and that’s how you’ll finally break down the wall separating anthropology from biology. That’s how you’ll solve the mystery of how moral systems governed by kinship give way to more abstract notions like citizenship in the formation of early states.

            Distinctly now he hears a loud high-pitched howl. It drags out and drops precipitously down the scale before being drowned out by a similar cry from what must be another man. His mind is frantically awhirl with eager anticipation over what he, and all Westerners, might learn from these wild Indians about what life is really all about, excitement that moment by moment vies with what he hopes is his budding professionalism, one part Boasian chastening about his conception of the natives’ wildness, one part pragmatic disdain for the Rousseauian fantasy of savage wisdom. 

            Chuck has told him about the circular enclosures the Yanomamö live in. They’re actually formed from a series of discrete houses belonging to individual men and their families, wrapping around into a mostly contiguous ring. The central courtyard is the site of various animistic rituals, like the ones they must be engaging in this very moment. Some distance from the enclosure will be the garden they clear by cutting down and burning all the local vegetation. As the two men continue along the trail, emerging into a large open meadow, the howls and cries growing louder all the while, more unmistakably human, Lac tries to imagine being born within a circular pavilion carved out of the jungle, returning to a nearby plot of cultivated land every day for food, knowing nothing of schools and newspapers and motorized vehicles—nothing, anyway, that can’t be gleaned from fantastical rumors delivered from the mouths of the most intrepid travelers.

            When he finally picks out the walls of the enclosure through the foliage, Lac has the sense that they’re negotiating their way stealthily through the brush toward a giant egg, nestled among the trees, as if in the untended lair of some mythical monster, the type you’d expect to find only in a place like this, a land of the lost: lost cities, lost tribes, legendary beasts. As they get closer, though, he realizes that as appropriate as the image of an egg may be, it wouldn’t be any monster inside. No, what’s inside this egg is humanity itself in its embryonic form. His thoughts momentarily whirl again with censures and qualifications, his knowledge of the impropriety of thinking that he’s about to step through a portal back in time to some lost Eden colliding with the thrill of being on the threshold of finally standing face-to-face with the mysterious figures that have so long occupied his thoughts, his studies, his dreams. Hadn’t Levi-Strauss himself made the case, he thinks as the village walls come full into view, that primitive minds hold the key to our natural patterns of logic and thought, their most basic of cultures serving as a sort of bedrock beneath the accumulated layers of institutional precepts, lessons, and ideologies, all our civilized training to live lives so dramatically removed from what was once considered human? Maybe he did, Lac answers himself quietly, but you don’t hear many anthropologists talking like that these days. 

            “There,” Chuck says, pointing to the spot where the trail runs directly into the wall. “That’s where the entrance is. Sometimes they cover the openings with brush like that.”

            The wall is close enough now for Lac to examine its composition. The structure has revealed itself to be far larger than he’d first estimated. These are not the Suyá, he reminds himself, surprised by how much his preparatory research into this other tribe has shaped his expectations. He’d been forced to abandon his plans to study the famously community-minded Suyá by the military coup in Brazil. Much less is known about the Yanomamö; Clemens has actually been the first Westerner to be in sustained contact with them for any length of time. Lac has the passing thought that, the lively ritual that’s audibly going on inside notwithstanding, the stacks of logs making up the lower walls of the enclosure, along with the massive thatched awning, however brittle and egg-like they’d appeared from a distance, must have required a colossal undertaking to build, especially for a group of peaceful horticulturalists. It looks, he reasons, more like a fortification than a simple brace against the weather, leaving him to wonder just how severe the storms in this jungle really are.

            Chuck walks up to the wall near a spot that as they approach resolves into a gap between two discrete sections in the roof of intricately interwoven leaves. He squats down, removes his hat, and drags his sleeve along his dripping forehead. Even amid all his excitement, Lac can’t help smiling at the shine reflecting off the missionary’s bald head through so many tiny beads of sweat. Still squatting as Lac walks up to the division at the back of the conjoined units, Chuck replaces his hat and reaches across the opening to draw away the bunched branches and leaves.

            “Well, Doctor Shackley, this is it,” he says. “You’re about to meet your first Yanomamö. Would you like to do the honors?” He gestures toward the low entrance, which Lac has to crouch down himself to pass through.

            “Actually,” Lac says, “it’s still just Mr. Shackley—at least until I defend the thesis I write based on what happens in here.” As he bounces and scoots sideways through the opening, his knees pulling at his sweat-soaked trousers, he hears Chuck mumble to himself, “The first thing I’ll have to do is find out who all has died since I left.” Lac scowls and starts to turn back to ask what he means, but then he notices a shift in the nature of the vocalizations inside the village. Still huddled uncomfortably in the dark, and leaning to recover his balance after an awkward step, he shuffles and waddles the rest of the way through the short tunnel.

            Before fully emerging back into the sunlight, he hears the stirring of an angry commotion. Just as he’s crawling out of the passage, he’s broadsided, almost knocked backward, by a volley of enraged voices. Before he can rise from his crouch, he squints up to see what are unmistakably the points of arrows, gleaming, dancing, unmistakably aimed at his face and chest. Afraid to move, he remains squatting in the entrance, his mouth gaping uselessly as he’s struck full force by the indecipherability of the men’s shouting. “Uh, Chuck,” he manages to call from the side of his mouth. “We may have a problem.” One of the men darts forward, bringing Lac fully upright as he retreats from the nocked arrow whose length he can all but feel vibrating with the taut creaking tension of the string. Now he sees them, ten or more thickly built men, their faces demoniacally contorted, their noses oozing long dangling strands of green snot, each of them barking meaningless words at him, glaring at him with the purest malice he’s ever been met with. From their eyes and the thick strings of snot, his gaze moves to the hands gripping the straining bows, and back to the arrow points a mere twitch away from impaling him. Mindlessly lifting his hands, he sees that he’s clutching his field notebook, holding it aloft, desperate to have something, anything between him and what he sees are the almost ridiculously long wooden shafts.

            Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the missionary emerge through the low entrance. Chuck is speaking frantically and gesturing toward him. The men’s heads start turning, one, then the others, as they look back and forth between Lac and Chuck, the green snot swinging from their chins. Lac catches sight of a single bow relaxing but simultaneously feels a sudden pull at his pant cuff, something latching onto it and jerking so violently that it sends him momentarily staggering to catch his balance. The sudden movement sets all the bows creaking to life again. He holds his breath, imagining first one, then the entire volley of arrow tips piercing his flesh, thudding into the wood piles behind him. A pack of tawny dogs, underfed to the point of starvation, is weaving in and out from between the men’s legs, taking turns circling toward him and biting at this calves. All he can do is keep trying to kick them away as he continues holding up his hands, the notebook still clutched in one of them, and do everything he can think of to signal his surrender.

            Chuck goes on excitedly jabbering, and as the encounter stretches on, Lac’s frustration at not being able to speak or comprehend builds to a near fury. What the hell is wrong with you people? he wants to shout. I come here to learn about your culture and this is the reception I get? Damn near getting killed? No sooner has the first of the men lowered his bow and stepped away from the group than Lac notices the medley of odors pervading the air. The men’s sweaty bodies, what he swears must be feces, maybe from the dogs, spoiled vegetables, rotting garbage, smoke from charred meat. He doesn’t see when the last of the men finally lower their bows and relax, because he’s turning his face away and covering his nose and mouth with the back of his hand, trying not to retch. 

            Before he can right himself, one of the men steps up to him, smiling, his bottom lip hideously deformed, jutting out from his teeth. But these same lips manage to form words as the man reaches out, not to Lac’s hand but to his arm. He clutches it, as if to see if it’s actually real, to see if beneath the shirt this creature is a flesh and blood man like him. Just like that, they’re all walking up to him and clutching him and patting him, conducting a thorough examination, even sticking their hands into his pockets. “Chuck,” he calls. “Tell them…” he begins, before realizing there’s no sense to what he wants to say. “Tell them they’re hands are dirty.” His clothes are already splotched with green and streaked all over with what looks like red paint. And the smell—he can’t escape the smell.

            Chuck laughs. Laughs! Then he steps closer to Lac and, still smiling grandly, translates his complaint. The men step back, looking either confused or offended—Lac can’t tell which—and one after the other proceed to spit on their hands—slimy dark green saliva—rub them together rigorously, flick them several times in the air, and finally drag them through their hair, leaving gluey shimmering traces in clumped hanks of their thick black strands. This cleansing ritual complete, each in turn takes up his inspection of Lac’s person again, his arms, legs, hair, face, beard, ears. He sees a couple of the men extend the improvised baths to their faces, roughly swiping beneath their noses to remove the festoons of green snot swinging down as far as their chests. But, as the pack of men gradually loosens, Lac feels something like a bubble rising up in his chest, and before he knows it he’s laughing and smiling along with the missionary—and, he realizes, the Yanomamö men as well.

            Chuck begins holding court with three of the men. The others, having wrapped up their far-roaming examinations of his body, start to disperse, returning to the ceremony the two white men had interrupted with their arrival. His heart thumping away as his nervous laughter trails off, Lac is at last free to notice some of the details of his surroundings that fall short of being imminent threats to his life and health. He steps over to stand beside Chuck, who in turn directs his attention to two of the men squatting across from each other near the center of the courtyard. They’re each clutching opposite ends of a straight stick that’s about two or three feet long, one holding it to his nose and the other to his mouth. Lac flinches as a sudden puff of green powder shoots from the opposite nostril of the man holding the stick to his nose. The man winces, reels backward, stands to his full height before leaning forward to rest his hands on his knees and retch loudly. The stick the men were holding must actually be a tube, Lac realizes. They’re blowing drugs up each other’s noses. That’s why they all have the green snot oozing down their faces.

            Lac grins at the resolution of this minor mystery, quietly embarrassed by how quick his mind was to transform the oddity of the men’s appearance into something monstrous. Though it does seem a singularly harsh method of administering a dose, with each man responding as if in acute, if momentary, pain. Of course, that could be the point, he considers, since it’s possible that part of the desired effect comes from a kick of adrenaline. How different would that be from the way we consume a shot of tequila back home?

            The men take turns firing the blow-gun bullets of the drug along the length of each other’s sinuses before returning to their singing and chanting, which is mostly directed skyward, but is sometimes addressed to invisible beings occupying the center of the village with them. They proceed periodically performing dancing lunges at these entities, as if trying to rattle or intimidate them. Lac can only wonder at what the men must be seeing as he stands chagrined by how long it took him to note the dazed expressions signaling their entrancement. Now he takes a moment to look them over thoroughly. They all have some kind of plug pushing out their lower lips, not a plate like the Suyá have, but rather a cylindrical wad, which must be the source of the green in their saliva. Is it tobacco? Lac thinks back to Chuck’s suggestion that the Yanomamö have fewer checks on their impulses. Do they just snort green powder and suck on green tobacco all day?

            Around their foreheads, most of them are wearing a band of dark fur, which along with their jet black hair cut in the customary bowl shape—with circular tonsures shaved at the cap of the skull—make it look like they’re wearing padded helmets. As they rhythmically prance and skirmish with their imaginary adversaries, they appear to Lac like a team of short but burly football players dramatically taunting and goading their rivals. Each man’s face and torso is adorned with a unique pattern of red paint, the same paint that’s smeared all over him now too. But aside from some feathers poking out of bands tied around their upper arms, and some cords running across their backs and around their waists, they’re completely naked. Their penises seem to be fixed to their waist strings by the uncircumcised, stretched foreskin.
  
            Just as Lac is about to interrupt Chuck’s conversation with the three men who have yet to return to the ceremonial dance with the spirits, everyone abruptly freezes and falls silent, turning their gaze toward the far end of the enclosure. Lac pricks his ears to listen for a repetition of whatever caused the sudden alarm, but the only sound now is from a couple of the men whispering to each other as they bound across the village to the far wall. For the first time, he notices some women and children as they retreat in either direction from the shaded spot under the pavilion where the noise emanated. His curiosity inches closer to fear as he catches sight of still more women nervously scurrying about in the shadowy edges of the enclosure. “What’s happening?” he whispers to the missionary.

            Chuck gestures for him to keep silent. As Lac turns his gaze back to the two men who rushed to investigate the sound, around whom several others are now converging, their bows at the ready, the starving dogs circling and agitated, he makes the connection with how he was greeted just minutes earlier. Holy shit, he mumbles to himself. They’re expecting an attack. They thought we were here to attack them. He looks back toward Chuck and sees that he’s as alarmed as the Yanomamö men. Lac grips the notebook tighter in his right hand as he reflexively scans the village for some missing element of the story they’ve walked into the middle of, some cache of food or weapons or riches, anything men from another village might risk life and limb to procure—might kill their neighbors in order to obtain. He sees huge bundles of bananas hanging from the crossbeams of several houses’ awnings. He sees smoke rising up through wooden racks holding small animals—the source of that charred meat smell. But there’s nothing he can imagine would be worth killing anyone over.

            After waiting by the far entrance to the enclosure for some moments, one of the men ducks through to investigate. Next comes laughter and more excited speaking. The men begin milling about, the alarm apparently having proved false. Lac feels a tug on his sleeve, Chuck getting his attention as one of the three men standing with him takes up the conversation again. The man tells the story while the missionary tries to keep up with a simultaneous translation for him. “Another group,” he says, “is visiting Bisaasi-teri, an allied group—this place is called Bisaasi-teri. The other village sought their help because...” The Yanomamö man is unmistakably using his fingers to indicate a number. So their terms for numbers are limited, Lac notes. “Because,” Chuck continues, “a third group, an enemy group, raided them and stole seven of their young women.”

            “What?” Lac says. “They stole women? Like slaves? Do they really do that?”

            But the man continues speaking, ignoring Lac’s befuddled incredulity. Chuck translates, “The men from the allied group petitioned this group to help them get their women back. So they teamed up, traveled to the enemy village, and challenged the men there to a fight—a sort of chest-punching duel.” The storyteller counts off with his fingers again. “They managed to get five of the women back—they’re here now. But the enemy villagers were furious. They vowed to raid Bisaasi-teri, take the girls back, and kill all the men in the process.”

            Lac, recovering briefly from his shock, feels his mouth gaping. To counteract his astonishment, he determines it’s time to start taking notes. Since the man won’t stop yammering on for even a second, Lac finally interrupts him to ask Chuck what his name is. He doesn’t see the blank look this question induces on Chuck’s face at first because he’s busy fussing with his pen, which is refusing to grip the humidity-softened notebook pages enough to issue any actual ink, leaving tracks but no marks. When he finally glances up and sees Chuck looking almost stricken, his frustration ticks up again. “What now?”

            “We can’t speak their names out loud.”

            “We can’t? Why not?”

“I told you, they have a strong taboo against speaking each other’s names, especially the names of dead relatives. They’ll get angry if you say them—violently angry.”

Lac remembers Chuck’s comment when he was first ducking down to enter the village, about having to find out who all had died since the last time he was here. Understanding now what he was getting at, he says, “I thought you meant they use titles—like sir or mister—and they’d get upset if you didn’t address them properly. For chrissakes, my main research objective is to draw up genealogies for everyone in the village—and whatever other villages I can make it to. How am I supposed to create family trees if they’re violently opposed to saying anyone’s name aloud?” The absurdity of his own phrase—research objective—is left hovering in the air.

More men are standing around now, all talking at once, all standing too close, all showing no compunctions about poking or pushing or grabbing him, all seemingly trying to demand something of him. Without realizing it, Lac is being moved in an arc around the edge of the courtyard, as he unconsciously retreats, and retreats again, from the pushy Indians. “Chuck, what do they want?” he finally shouts, his irritation getting the better of him. Before anyone can respond, the whole village falls silent again, all eyes turning toward yet another mysterious sound heard in the vicinity of yet another brush-covered entrance to the enclosure.

            As a group of men rushes over to investigate—or to greet the raiders with a volley of six-foot long arrows—Lac forces himself to take some breaths. In doing so, he ends up taking a massive whiff of burnt meat. Turning, he spots, about thirty feet from where he’s standing, the simple smoker fashioned from what looks like little more than a bunch of long, straight sticks. They must like their meat well-done, he thinks, because they’re burning the hell out of whatever it is. Chuck follows as he quietly approaches the fire, ready to take advantage of the Yanomamö men’s distraction to exchange a few words—assuming they don’t find themselves under attack, forced to seek cover from an enemy camp’s arrows. But, despite the men’s obvious anxiety, Lac can still barely bring himself to believe such a thing is possible.

            He keeps moving toward the smoker, pulled along by a tiny detail he’s noticed about the animals on the crude rack. He advances slowly, as though reluctant to identify the object he’s observing so intently from his safe distance, as though he’s harboring an unwelcome suspicion he’d rather not have confirmed. Just as he’s closing the distance sufficiently, though, he’s startled by a pair of shouts from the men over by the entrance. He gasps, automatically dropping into a crouch. But he quickly sees that the men are smiling, and then laughing. Another false alarm. He turns back to Chuck in time to hear him say, “We sure picked a great time to stop by, huh?” Lac flashes a tense grin before glancing back at the wooden frame. Squinting through the smoke, he sees what are undeniably tiny fingers curling in the shimmers of heat.

            All the queasy vertigo he felt on the boat taking him up the Orinoco over the previous three days returns in an instant. Squeezing his eyes shut, he feels his hand rise of its own accord to cover his mouth. If I thought I was heading for Eden, he thinks, I took one hell of a wrong turn somewhere. Chuck, witnessing his response, looks at the contents of the smoking rack himself. “Looks like they’ll be having smoked monkey meat for supper,” he says, guessing at Lac’s mistake. Lac looks back and plainly sees for himself that the creatures aren’t babies that have been killed by the Yanomamö, however human-like their cooked hands appear. It’s the first moment of genuine relief he’s felt since first squatting down to go through the entrance to the village. He shakes his head, grinning, and even lets loose a few halfhearted chuckles.

            “We may be in some real danger here, Shackley,” Chuck says as he scans the edges of the enclosure. “It would probably be a good idea for us to go back to the boat and sleep on the other side of the river tonight.”

            As much as I hate what this man is trying to do here, Lac thinks, as much as I hate everything he and his friends stand for, no one will ever hear a word against him coming from my mouth. “That sounds like a spectacular idea to me,” he says. Both men laugh now. But Lac’s next thought is of his wife and their two small kids. How can I bring them here and keep them safe if I’m not even safe myself? His next thought is still more troubling. Do I even want to stay here myself? How can I possibly live with these people for any length of time? He remembers his sister Bess’s admonition after they’d both said their farewells to each other: “Don’t get yourself killed in the jungle because you’re too damned stubborn to let anything go.” He’d turned to see the look of worry on Laura’s face as she climbed into his truck. “Seriously,” Bess went on, “now would be a good time to learn how to recognize a lost cause when you see one.” 

Continue reading: The Land of the Lost Ironies: He Borara: Chapter 3
Also read:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco


Check out Napoleon Chagnon's original account of when he first met the Yanomamö (see particularly the section "The Longest Day: the First One" beginning on page 2).