Re: Harris

Gerold Firl (
10 May 1995 13:16:04 -0700

In article <> "John W. Arnn" <> writes:

> 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.

I don't think this critique applies to harris, however. I suppose I should
state that the only harris I've read is _cows, pigs, wars, and witches_,
but just from that small sample I can see that harris is well aware of how
important human conflict is in shaping the forms of culture. Once a culture
has mastered the physical environment, which happened long ago, the most
important factor in the "environment" (by which I include _all_ the
external factors with which the culture interacts) becomes other people.

Consider the example cited by harris, of the pig wars in new guinea. The
constant struggle between neighboring peoples, the competition expressed
both in open battle (here somewhat ritualized) and in the productivity of
agriculture and pig-rearing, was the dominant selection mechanism pushing
cultural evolution.

> 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).

Lets look at it as a question of survival. Food is important, certainly.
Everybody has to eat. But there is more to survival than eating. There is
the question of who will grow the food. The division of labor. And who will
grow on the rich lands; the division of territory. These questions are
often settled by war. A myriad of cultural artifacts are built around
ensuring survival in the face of potential human aggression. Consider the
census data for venice in the renaissance; figures were recorded for two
categories, "men, ages 12-60", and "useless persons". (Carlo Cipella). This
should not be taken as the consequence of patriarchal society; rather, it
should be viewed as the result of an environment where war was a constant
threat, and the probability of survival proportional to the number of
fighting men you could put into the field.

Here we see an example of how fundamental human institutions, of family and
faith, were the result of environmental factors: the threat of war, of
violent conflict with neighboring peoples. Women were denigrated for the
same reason that boys were denigrated: they were not effective soldiers. A
simple-minded reading of history can give the appearance of a malicious
conspiracy to deprive women of their rights; I prefer an analysis which
derives aspects of culture from material causes.

> 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

I know nothing of this, but I don't find it too hard to believe. Harris
introduced a radical revision of doctrine, which tends to be resisted by
the "old guard". (Note the reactionary imagry of the term). It seems to me
that if a pioneer isn't willing to wait until after his death for his views
to be accepted, he will have to do battle with the established authorities.
Perhaps I'm being partisan here, but I suspect that accusations of
unprofessionalism and mean-spiritness are common when conservative,
obsolete authorities are trying to maintain their positions long after they
should make room for fresh blood.

>Well, there we are! Environment and conflict is really
>all there is to it. Circular reasoning was another criticism, I

I felt that harris was a little glib in his assertion that the roughly
10-year cycle between new guinea pig-wars was synched to the slash-and-
burn regeneration cycle. I think the idea is plausible, and quite possibly
true, but it would have been nice to see some data to go along with it. Of
course, _cows pigs war and witches_ is written for the popular audience,
and I really can't complain about it. I thought it was an excellent piece
of work, and I don't know of any contemporary anthropologist who has made
such significant contributions as harris.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf