Re: Harris

John W. Arnn (
Tue, 9 May 1995 19:51:58 -0500

On 8 May 1995, Bruce D. Scott wrote:

> [Posting only to sci.anthropology -- this has nothing to do with cosmology]
> Gil Hardwick ( wrote:
> : In article <3od1e8$>, Bruce D. Scott ( writes:
> : >Ob this thread: I would be quite interested, actually, to see some serious
> : >anthropologists give comment. So far it has just been the jealous ranting
> : >club of what Marvin Harris calls the "obscurantists" (although I do confess
> : >I got into it initially to bask in the afterglow of Gil's enlighted
> : >offerings).
> : Marvin Harris? Do you actually mean the paperback writer after the
> : fashion of Von Daniken and Wilson? Please any "serious anthropologist"
> : do give comment. Welcome indeed.
> 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?
> What is your critique of the emics/etics distinction raised by Harris?
> 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?
> This is enough for a start.
> --
> Gruss,
> Dr Bruce Scott The deadliest bullshit is
> Max-Planck-Institut fuer Plasmaphysik odorless and transparent
> -- W Gibson
>Dear Doctor,

I'd like to address your question concerning the limiting factors
of environmental constraints on a society's power structure. Since you
seem to be familiar with Harris's writing, I believe you're also aware of
his affinity with Marx (Karl). Now, before all the Marxists get bent
out of shape, let me say that Marxist anthropology and Marxist
archaeology have both made valuable contributions to the field. The
fundamental problem with applying Marxist theory to anthropology is
that everything centers on economy first and conflict second. While
these are certainly key elements in the composition of society they
are not the only ones and perhaps not even the most significant ones.
However, let me clarify some rather legitimate complaints within the
anthrpological community concerning Harris.
First and perhaps foremost is the complaint that he has reduced
everything to K calories. Essentially, if you follow the line of
reasoning that the environment is the primary factor in determining
culture, you are left with nothing except extracting resources from the
environment and to people in general this translates to food (calories).
No environment, no culture. Another way of looking at it is by looking at
different cultures with the same basic environments (i.e. desert, jungle,
savannah, etc.). They should all have basically the same culture if
environmental factors are dominant. They do not all have the same culture.
The problem with Harris's approach was that some in the
anthropological community followed the line of reasoning that I outlined
above. The conclusion they arrived at was that all this studying of
culture was ridiculous. All we really had to do was study the environment
peoples lived in. "To hell with culture, we can make anthropology a "hard
science"." Most anthropologist would agree that no decent anthropologist
should ignore the environment of a people. Most anthropologist would
also agree that no decent anthropologist should ignore culture.
Some of Harris's students reduced anthropology to nothing more than
human behavioralism. You are a scientist yourself, I think you can
easily imagine what sort of innane work came out of all of this.
Again not all of it was bad, most was good. In fact, as you might also
imagine, there was a great deal of empirical data that was added to the
data base. The problem was that it set a very big precedent.
Hundreds if not thousands abandoned the study of people and became
environmentalologists. If you couldn't quantify it-then it was
worthless. Some things are simply not "measurable" in the
scientific sense and people are often one of those things. One of the
founders of American anthropology, Franz Boas, was a physicist.
He recognized that people must be studied from a holistic
perspective to be fully understood. One could make the same
argument in virtually any "science."
At anyrate, this is just one side of the "Harris controversy"
and there are many more. He has also been criticized for his
rabid attacks on other anthropologists. Young students looked on with
glee as the "old masters" were "dragged through the mud." This behavior
has been viewed by some as unprofessional and others as just plain mean
spirited. He has also been accused of using this tactic to draw
more attention to himself and thereby further his career (possibly a
Marxist interpretation).
Again, I am merely pointing out just some of the criticisms that
have been made of Harris and his actions. Since you labeled
yourself as a non-anthropologist and I judged that you were a
scientist from your e-mail address, I thought you might be
interested in an anthropological counterpoint. I realize of
course that if you ignore this message it might be due to a
lack of relevant environmental information on my part. On the
other hand if you reply this might signal your interest in
conflict. Well, there we are! Environment and conflict is really
all there is to it. Circular reasoning was another criticism, I

Regards and en guarde!
John W. Arnn