03. Neither Blank Slates nor Nobel Savages

The left’s own war on science

Column I wrote for the Spectator on 9th January 2016 about the defenestration of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon when he dared to question the myth of the noble savage.

How much longer can the liberal left survive in the face of growing scientific evidence that many of its core beliefs are false? I’m thinking in particular of the conviction that all human beings are born with the same capacities, particularly the capacity for good, and that all mankind’s sins can be laid at the door of the capitalist societies of the West. For the sake of brevity, let’s call this the myth of the noble savage. This romanticism underpins all progressive movements, from the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn to the environmentalism of Caroline Lucas, and nearly every scientist who’s challenged it has been met with a kind of irrational hostility, often accompanied by a trashing of their professional reputations. Indeed, the reaction of so-called free thinkers to these purveyors of inconvenient truths is oddly reminiscent of the reaction of fundamentalist Christians to those scientists who challenged their core beliefs.

One such Charles Darwin figure is the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. He has devoted his life to studying the indigenous population of the Amazonian rain forest that sits on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border – the Yanomamö – and his conclusions pose a direct challenge to the myth of the noble savage. “Real Indians sweat, they smell bad, they take hallucinogenic drugs, they belch after they eat, they covet and at times steal their neighbour’s wife, they fornicate, and they make war,” Chagnon told a Brazilian journalist. His view of the Yanomamö is summed up by the title he gave to his masterwork on the subject: The Fierce People.

Chagnon is one of the dramatis personae in a new book by Alice Dreger, an American academic who has spent the last few years investigating well-publicised attacks on heretical scientists by the Grand Inquisitors of the progressive left. Dreger is unusual in that she used to be something of a Torquemada herself, defending the interests of people born with both male and female genitalia, and employed many of the same questionable techniques to discredit her opponents in the medical establishment. In her words, she became “an aide-de-camp to scientists who found themselves the target of activists like me”.

The assault on Chagnon began in the mid-90s and culminated in the publication of Darkness in El Dorado by a journalist called Patrick Tierney in 2000. Among other things, Chagnon and his collaborator James Neel were accused of fomenting wars among rival tribes, aiding and abetting illegal gold miners, deliberately infecting the Yanomamö with Measles and paying their subjects to kill each other. Shockingly, these charges were taken at face value and widely reported in liberal publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times. (A headline in the Guardian read: “Scientist ‘killed Amazon Indians to test race theory’.”) Many of Chagnon’s colleagues turned on him, including the American Anthropological Association, which set up an El Dorado Task Force to investigate the charges. Chagnon was not given a chance to defend himself by this kangaroo court and the Task Force published a report confirming several of the allegations. As a result, Chagnon was forced into early retirement.

In her book, Dreger summarises the thought crime that turned this distinguished scholar into such a plump target:

Chagnon saw and represented in the Yanomamö a somewhat shocking image of evolved ‘human nature’ – one featuring males fighting violently over fertile females, domestic brutality, ritualized drug use and ecological indifference. Not your standard liberal image of the unjustly oppressed, naturally peaceful, environmentally gentle rain-forest Indian family.

In a 50,000-word article published in 2011 in a peer-reviewed journal, Dreger painstakingly rebutted all the charges levied against Chagnon, detailing the various ways in which Tierney fabricated and misrepresented the evidence. Chagnon has now been exonerated and resumed his academic career.

Dreger has not abandoned her own liberal convictions as a result of this work. She believes that the search for scientific truth and social justice must go hand-in-hand and concludes her book with an impassioned plea to her academic colleagues to defend freedom of thought. But the title she’s given it – Galileo’s Middle Finger – suggests the progressive left may not survive these clashes with heretical scientists. In comparing Chagnon to the famous Italian astronomer, she’s implying that the church of progressive opinion will face the same fate as the Christian theologians who insisted the Earth was the centre of the universe. Eventually, the truth may prove too much.

I recently interviewed Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, and he’s confident that the liberal left can survive without the myth of the noble savage. I’m not so sure.

The lesson of the young men fighting for Isis: evil is in all of us

Column I wrote for the Spectator about what type of person becomes an Isis terrorist. It was published on 6th September 2014.

I had an interesting discussion with my friend Aidan Hartley earlier this week about whether the young men fighting for the so-called Islamic State are psychopaths. (This was before the news broke of Steven Sotloff’s beheading.) Aidan is better placed than most to answer this question, having worked as a war correspondent for many years and written a classic book on the subject called The Zanzibar Chest.

His view is that the Islamic radicals attracted to IS are not run-of-the-mill jihadis, but a particularly nasty sub-species. Without in any way trying to defend the activities of terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, whose handiwork he’s witnessed close up, he thinks of them as being more like the IRA. That is, their adherents are motivated by a toxic cocktail of political and religious ideology which sanctions the murder of civilians as a means to an end.

The members of IS, by contrast, aren’t ideological fanatics so much as bloodthirsty monsters. They’ve travelled from places like Sydney and Manchester purely because they want to chop people’s heads off. Their talk of wanting to reverse the Sykes-Picot Agreement and create a caliphate joining Iraq and Syria is just so much rhetoric. In reality, they’re evil predators who’ve flocked to the killing fields so they can indulge their sick fantasies.

Now, I can see why Aidan has reached this conclusion. The actions of some members of IS, such as tweeting pictures of their children holding up severed heads, is so shocking that they do seem different in kind from other jihadis, not just different in degree. It’s as if the part of the human brain that recognises such behaviour as abhorrent is missing and, for that reason, their behaviour is more disturbing than hijacking a plane and flying it into a skyscraper. It’s a step beyond terrorism into something closer to insanity — Mr Kurtz territory.

Still, I think Aidan is wrong about IS. To begin with, I don’t think there’s a significant difference between these Islamists and their counterparts in groups like al-Qa’eda or Boko Haram. They are no less murderous, no more merciful. When it comes to non-Muslims, they are all completely indiscriminate about whom they maim and kill: women, children, the disabled — it makes no difference. If you want to call the jihadis in IS ‘psychopaths’ I think you have to apply the same label to the al-Shabaab terrorists who murdered more than 50 people at the Westgate shopping centre

But, more importantly, I think very few of the members of these radical Islamist groups actually do suffer from psychopathy — at least, not in the sense that they would be clinically diagnosed as suffering from that specific personality disorder if examined by a psychiatrist. I dare say that in their day-to-day lives back home in Maida Vale, or wherever it is they’re from, the IS fighters lead perfectly normal lives, exhibiting all the customary amounts of empathy, remorse, inhibition and so on. Indeed, I think that is what’s so profoundly frightening about them — they are no different from the young man sitting beside you on the bus or working behind the counter at the local sports shop I don’t mean that all Muslim young men are capable of these crimes — I mean all young men. Middle-aged men, too, and not a few women. I am a Catholic when it comes to the existence of evil — I think it’s in all of us, and never far from the surface.

All the religious and political nuts out there who convince themselves that the end justifies the means — whether Nazis, communists or jihadis — are just trying to mask their true impulse from themselves, which is their atavistic desire to slake their bloodlust. It’s always about raping and torturing and murdering — everything else is window dressing.

As Freud said:

Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved… they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.

The appalling atrocities taking place in Iraq are just the latest illustration of a truth that is as old as mankind itself. There is a wolf in all of us, struggling to get out.


“Like father, like son”: Testing folk beliefs about heredity in the arena of assisted reproduction‘ by Kevin Mitchell, Wiring the Brain, 5th January 2018

The lack of acceptance of evolutionary approaches to human behaviour‘, G. Perry & R. Mace, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 17th May 2010


This study investigates the key factors influencing acceptance of the relevance of evolutionary theory to human behaviour, and the attitudes underlying them. Using data gathered from a wide-ranging questionnaire survey of students and staff in UK universities on attitudes to science, evolution and its application to human behaviour, multivariate analysis reveals that studying social sciences and sociocultural anthropology correlate with rejection of evolutionary approaches. The incompatibility of social science conceptions of humankind and human behaviour with evolutionary theory are discussed, with particular emphasis on the cultural focus of social scientists and modern attempts to incorporate cultural interactions into evolutionary approaches.