Marshall Sahlins, a leading American anthropologist, resigned last week from the National Academy of Sciences. This may come as a shock to the scientific community and even to students at NYU. Anyone taking an introductory course to anthropology at NYU, for example, is bound to encounter several readings of Sahlins’s work. Among his more influential works are “Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities,” a case study of the murder of Captain Cook in Hawaii and how it was the result of underlying social factors. Normally, when a scientist or scholar resigns from such a prestigious position, one assumes that he probably committed an irrevocable and egregious error that forever taints his credibility as an academic. However, our assumptions sometimes deceive us. If we explore the reasoning and motivations behind Sahlins’s resignation, we may arrive at deeper insights into the issues at play.
Sahlins resigned for two reasons. First, the NAS’ decision to admit Napoleon Chagnon as a member. Second, the scientific community’s role within the military-industrial complex, which included the increasing proportion of funding from the military for scientific projects. In a letter explaining the resignation, Sahlin states: “By the evidence of his own writings as well as the testimony of others, including Amazonian peoples and professional scholars of the region, Chagnon has done serious harm to the indigenous communities among whom he did research.” He continues to say, “I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war.”
Perhaps Sahlins’ resignation is understandable. The talk of militarization of anthropology recalls those days when it was standard practice for the OSS — the precursor to the CIA — to hire anthropologists as spies. Presumably, this was because of their foreign language fluency and the travel necessary for their field work. All of this subsided, of course, when many anthropologists took a decisive position against the Vietnam War. One of the earliest and most powerful voices at that time was Sahlins, who published the influential article “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam” and entered the sphere of active public intellectuals. Ever since then, anthropology has had more tenuous relationships with certain agencies of the U.S. government — except for those Sahlins is now criticizing and critiquing.
Beyond this, we hear more and more in the news about the applications — many of which are militaristic in nature — of scientific inquiries and discoveries. There is nothing necessarily bad about this — machine learning helps Netflix suggest movies more accurately, anthropology is being used to smooth relations between the U.S. military and Iraqi citizens and game theory can predict election outcomes. But a heavy focus on application can impede scientific research, since the ultimate goal of science is explanation, not application. Furthermore, with militaristic intentions, such policies can lead to immoral and destructive ends.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 27 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.