Friday, February 25, 2011

Yanomamo Ethnography as Basis for the Occurrence of Violence

As much as I value Napoleon Chagnon's comprehensive ethnography of the Amazonian Yanomamo Tribe and appreciate his incredible dedication to its development, I find less value in attributing cultural influences, alone, to the violence evidenced within the indigenous society. Of note, I do not think Chagnon claims allegiance to this assumption as singularly as many would mark him, but he certainly approaches his research from a sociological perspective. Although Chagnon's work has most often been referred to as a sociobiological ethnography, Chagnon's data collection techniques and anecdotal evidence represent the findings far more of a sociologist than a biologist, indication of a discrepancy from the proposed fusion. Resulting from Chagnon’s lack of scientific or hard evidence, I found myself unable to fully accept the inconsistencies and discrepancies which Chagnon underplays in his conclusions. 

Aside from his conclusions, Chagnon’s ethnography persists as a plethora of rich sociological material with unequivocal comparison or revolution. In a reduced summation of Chagnon’s proposed theory, the ferocity and violence among the Yanomamo is a result of cultural influences--such as: setting and substance, belief, and organization and kinship. To be sure, each of these factors do contribute to the continued brutality among the Yanomamo, but I would suggest that culture is not the root-cause of violence. Culture is a response to both human nature and substance. Therefore, such an ethnography offers incredibly valuable insight for the analysis and assessment of violence, but I would not attribute the same valuation to its data as a means for discovering the origins of violence. 

Firstly, Chagnon begins his volume by developing the setting and substance of his culture. His thorough depiction, based on extensive observation of the Yanomamo across time and subgroups, develops the schemata by which to build his theories. Certainly, the separation of the Yanomamo, set in the Amazon and detached from modern civilization, influence the rate of change and progression within their society. Societies seem to function like centrifugal force--inertia propels motion around the same center point until an outside force disrupts the motion and causes a change in direction. With this analogy, a society will continue movement around a fixed point of equilibrium until outside influences necessitate or instigate a change. In the Amazon, a habitat with little change in environment and minimal exposure to outside influences will more than likely experience comparatively little change over a long period of time. This stagnancy creates a unique and highly established order within the social organization, as observed among the Yanomamo. The proposed stagnancy also creates the opportunity for great depth of knowledge of their environment, as the secrets of the forest are passed down through the generations. Thus, the Yanomamo are quite clever in the application of their wisdom. Their ingenuity creates a society of horticulturists with intense understanding of, and efficiency within, their environment. This aspect should not be underestimated. With these conditions and the Yanomamo's mastery over them, a culture of expertise, simplicity, and "luxury" commands. Also, the abundance of vegetation and the consistent climate of the Amazon contribute largely to the allowances of labor and abundant leisure in the daily lives of the people. Leisure does not negate the experience of need, pain, loss and toil; yet, the average Yanomamo probably does not experience near the daily level of stress as the average American. For me, the cultural sociological argument ends at this observation--Chagnon’s cultural evaluation requires nuerosociology to further develop this conclusion. 

Suggestively, if throughout the day the average Yanomamo experiences little stress, he presumably sustains more "normal" levels of serotonin, a major chemical involved in the Fight-or-Flight Response. Spikes in serotonin stimulate an acute evolutionary reaction. In comparison, research tells us that the Average American lives in this state of survival, with dangerously high levels of serotonin emissions. As a result of sustained, high levels of this chemical (often related to stress), Americans have adapted their reactions to the spike, and although the brain is calling for a life-or- death response to outside stimulus, the adapted American has learned that this is just not necessary when your emails aren't loading fast enough. The bombardment of stress and stimulus in our environment creates far too many of these spikes to produce the evolutionary response at each signal of stress. However, the Yanomamo have, more than likely, retained the potency of this evolutionary mechanism. By way of limited exposure, occasional increased serotonin levels produced by a survival threat, could produce the intended evolutionary response. A comparative assessment to an American experiencing the same level of serotonin production, may cause us to perceive the response as intensified or violent. Yet this would only be our perception of the response. For if the Yanomamo response is more representative of the genetic/ chemical/ knee-jerk response to threatening stimuli, then violence reduces to a coping mechanism created by evolution. For, human nature is human nature. Perhaps this suggestion offers a better indication for the prevalence of violence among the Yanomamo. 

Further surmising in evolutionary methods may help me to understand why serotonin levels specifically increase aggression, or why these levels spike under threats of survival, but this does not seem to be a fruitful pursuit at this point. The focus should remain on the identification of these responses, and then the continued adaptation of these responses to create more positive results. So this is where my investigation of setting and substance takes me. And although Chagnon's distinct assessment certainly increases understanding of the opportunity and agency for violence among the Yanomamo, I do not feel he adequately discerns the root causation or occasion (the input which ultimately tips the cost-benefit ratio in favor of violence) of Yanomamo violence. 

In consideration of the occasion for violence, Chagnon does however suggest that the Yanomamo belief system gives rise to, and validation for violence. Firstly, a distinction should be drawn between the cultural aspects of religion or a belief system and spirituality. Spirituality is an individual experience that connects one to the collective, cosmic whole. Yet Chagnon’s research and the cultural analysis of religion evaluate both the development and existing structure of belief within a society. To digress, I do agree with Chagnon at this point of cultural influence, yet I see the relationship as inter-dependent, rather than contingent. Notably, many would argue a third alternative--that belief systems and religion supersede the structure of a society because the truths are transcendent, permanent, and evident. Yet, I find this argument to be completely unconvincing and impossible. If one were to observe any "one" religion in two distinct locations/cultures--whether across the globe or across the street--he would certainly find similarities, more than likely a fair number of doctrinal and practice parallels. Yet, significant discrepancies in interpretation, evaluation, and practice would lace his research. If the argument were true--that religion should somehow supersede culture--than the same religion would have the same affect on every culture. We know this to be untrue. Therefore, even religion is subject to the same influences that society incurs. 

To pursue Chagnon’s observation even farther, religion (or a belief system) not only creates and validates violence, but religion also fits into the argument for evolutionary sociology. Unaddressed by Chagnon, structured and communal belief systems fulfill a very real need among humanity for security--the evolutionary promise of survival and progeny. Religion provides the structure and validation for certainty. Structure gives us a sense of predictability, which makes us feel that we can control our future, rather than fall victims to it. Also, humans need to be validated in their utility- -again, associated with security. For example, a useful employee in the office will more than likely have a higher job-retention rate than a useless employee that offers little in their employment. Security, as it relates to violence, creates the need for religion. Religion, in turn, validates acts of aggression and violence because the motivation can be attributed to cosmic or spiritual conviction. So, man created religion within their society as a means of achieving purposeful unity within a society--perhaps at times, a political exploitation of an intrinsic human need in pursuit of control. And just as religion often defines certain aspects of culture, religion falls subject to the influence of evolution and human need. Therefore, although there are very salient circumstances in which Chagnon characterizes the Yanomamo’s belief system’s culpability in acts of violence, his conclusion again leaves wanting for lack of a deeper rabbit hole. 

Another aspect of the Yanomamo culture, the societal organization and kinship ties, most definitely reinforce the violence created by substance and nature. In understanding the structure and relationships within the Amazonian tribes, Chagnon goes to great length to formulate complex genealogies and hierarchal diagrams to illustrate his observations. Chagnon fervently explores the violence instigated over women--trading, lusting, kidnapping, etc. Battles since the stone-age to the modern era, to the timeless age of the Yanomamo have been fought over the relationship of male and female. However, the simple observation that raids and violence are the result of kidnapping women, or a need for more women, seems deficient. Of course, men (collective) want women (pl.)-- they want a lot of them. Conversely, women (collective) want man (s.). One man. And not just any man, but the best. The mutual desire is apparent, yet many people fulfill this desire without violence. Chagnon’s conclusions lack the cost-benefit evaluation of when and why violence is chosen. Also, his speculation about violent males, the unkari class, and their statistically increased probability for mating, seems fruitless. The data, which is the basis for this hypothesis, is unsubstantiated and varies among sub-groups. Perhaps a deeper look into the evolutionary motivations behind violence would validate Chagnon’s claims in a way that his research has suggested, yet failed to evidence. For there is no doubt that disputes over women has created confrontation and aggression throughout history, but the value does not seem to be in the conclusions of Chagnon’s theory. 

The value, per my assessment, should point towards action, not a dead-end statement. Where can humanity move from Chagnon’s conclusion? Should men just care less about women? This is obviously perverse, and certainly not Chagnon’s assumption. But I do believe this personifies the danger in using such data to discover the source of violence--shouldn’t the source point us towards some solution? If a pipe is leaking, you follow the hose from the end until you find the leak. Once you find where the source of the problem is, you do not resolve with just knowing the location of the leak. You fix it. Seemingly, this same logic would function in the investigation of violence. 

However, a point in favor of Chagnon’s work--I see great potential for a broader understanding of violence. Understanding fosters compassion and honesty. And in all fairness, an honest representation seems to be Chagnon's ultimate goal. To understand the circumstances under which violence becomes the choice method for evolutionary efficiency, is to build a catalogue of experience that can function alongside our intuition. The problem, however, remains that throughout time, violence has proven to be an effective tool for meeting our needs. Otherwise, evolution would have weeded-out this mechanism long ago. 

Thus, only classifying and evaluating observations, as Chagnon has done in his ethnography, we are limited by the tools we have been exposed to. Consider Ariel in the Little Mermaid--she had never seen a fork. She, actually, had heard of a "thingamabob," but had never seen it used for its intended purpose. At dinner with Prince Alex, she brought her soup bowl to her mouth to eat, and began using the fork as a brush. Using only her past experience, she was unable to appropriately use the tools at her disposal. Chagnon would certainly admit that his research on the nature of violence is by no means comprehensive, but he offers another layer of understanding. 

Humanity, depravity, and benevolence are such complex experiences--no single method or interpretation could ever contain the whole of these matters. The value of Chagnon’s work is not to be a comprehensive theory of violence, but his research broadens our perspective of humanity. His life work does not ultimately offer any defined solutions or fortified origins of violence, and we are again left without an answer. But we may use Chagnon’s contributions with discretion and continue further assimilation, interpretation and application in hopes of someday understanding the darkness within.

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