Re: Harris

Gil Hardwick (
Tue, 09 May 1995 03:14:56 GMT

In article <3oku1p$>, Bruce D. Scott ( writes:
>Please give the series of arguments by which you denigrate Wilson and
>Harris in this fashion. I hope you don't make the mistake of claiming
>Harris defends the status quo. He most certainly does not, as several
>passages in _Cultural Materialism_ and _America Now_ make clear. As a
>non-anthropologist, _I_ know Harris mainly through his books, but are you
>as an anthropologist actually claiming he hasn't written several texts and
>a large number of articles in peer-reviewed journals?

I "denigrate" Harris and Wilson? I claim that Harris "defends the
status quo"? From what sewer did you dredge these gems?

Bruce, old bean, were you ever to begin to appreciate the nature of
anthropological enquiry, I have no doubt that you too would find it
highly problematic that our discourses are borrowed by biologists and
ecologists for their own use in shedding light on the behaviour of
animals within their natural environment (which is of course their
liberty so to do) to be reified by them and re-applied back to the
study of humans as a branch of anthropology.

Something of a tautology, don't you agree? Especially where it seeks
to repudiate the human will to spontaneously creative action, and
impose in its place determinative limits which seek rather to control
and direct human behaviour.

Do you get that? It is NOT the environment here causing a pain in the
arse, but Harris's and Wilson's very human behaviour indeed. It is
THEY asserting the theory, NOT the environment. Their narrative is
nothing more than an artifact of their own human invention, however
well correlated with the naturally occurring artifacts gleaned from
their own environment.

To insist that what they are doing is determined by their environment
however is to place them themselves within the category of inanimate
objects. But we can see plainly that they are not inanimate, surely.

Else why are you not reading a book written by a rock, or maybe a
hydrogen atom?

>What is your critique of the emics/etics distinction raised by Harris?

The emic/etic distinction is a crock in all events. Humans working
with their fellow humans is a natural process, the transition from
one set of meanings to another being continuous and involving nothing
more complex than the sharing of experience and learning of language.

That is, there is NO binary polarity between one society and another
to start with.

The "emic/etic" distinction is nothing more than another of the many
constructs intended to inform our particular discourses. That anyone
would reify a construct and then seek to apply it to radical changes
in the direction of anthropological research is a measure of their

It is a measure of the poverty of their theory, in fact, where they
might simply go back out into the field and gather more data instead.

>Do you think environmental constraints are important in limiting the
>freedom of action of a culture deciding, consciously or otherwise, what its
>power structure is going to be?

Of course their environments impose constraints on human "freedom of
action", whatever that is supposed to mean, although the environment
has nothing whatsoever to do with the "power structure" of different
societies. The Europeans arriving in the New World brought with them
quite a different social organisation than that previously extant; I
would assert a style of organisation quite at odds with their new
environment, in fact. Highly destructive.

Other societies are similarly hobbled by such ignorance, noticably
where persistent foreign intrusion and exploitation has brought with
it a characteristic pathological social dysfunction, which in turn
leads to poor environmental management practice, degradation, and

But we in anthropology do not OWN that particular problem. It is not
OUR environment as such that we are discussing here, but somebody
else's. It is entirely up to them how they are going to retranslate
their new reality into meaningful knowledge and so come to grips with
it, not us.

Go and see for yourself, Bruce. Instead of sitting there refusing to
reply to my questions of you, the idea is that you would go out into
the field yourself and study what the people are DOING for yourself at
first hand.

Having done so, you will no doubt observe great differences among
them. Different groups living in the Arctic, for example, might well
all live in houses so as to protect themselves from such cold, but
that does not explain why one group builds wooden houses while
another builds houses from rammed earth or brick.

Or even with the one group why their houses differ.

Humans CREATE their own differences, on whim. Where a grizzly bear
will always, reliably and predictably, come out to gorge and grow
fat on fish and berries during summer, only to hibernate once more
over winter.

The human material condition is only a very small part indeed of the
range and variety of human experience, therefore the human sciences.
It is already covered very well indeed by other such long established
disciplines as biology, medicine, economics, and more recently the
newly emerging ecological and environmental studies.

That we in anthropology share very large amounts of information and
knowledge with those other disciplines yet does not make what they
are doing anthropological. Harris and Wilson are merely in error in
not knowing in which box their data belongs.

I have no objection that they might choose to take up their tenure in
the Biology Department. Fine, I am certain we would find the cross-
fertilisation of ideas fruitful in the extreme.

Just don't try to bullshit us that the concepts and the discourses
they have borrowed in order to provide a framework for collating and
making sense of what data they do have, represents a new scientific
knowledge of theirs.

>This is enough for a start.

Not it is not.

If you want me to continue teaching you anything about anthropology,
Dr Scott, the least you might do is read the fresher texts and then
take some time out to familiarise yourself with the whole corpus of
our literature.

Please do not persist in selecting out only a very few popularist
ruminations just because they happen to meet your own preconceived
ideas, and then sit there berating and abusing us here with your

Also appreciate the fact that it represents a lot of work at this
end. If you want to continue with your lessons I am certain we can
arrive at agreement on my remuneration.

Each of these sessions will cost you $USD50.00, $1,500.00 in cash up
front. I will then debit your account each session, yes?

He who refuses to qualify data is doomed to rant.
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