Re: Harris

John W. Arnn (
Thu, 11 May 1995 21:09:59 -0500

On 10 May 1995, Gerold Firl wrote:

> 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
> >spirited.
> 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
> >think.
> 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
You're right, I didn't address the conflict portion of Marxist theory
adequately. There is a very popular theory in archaeology which was
presented by Dr. Robert Carneiro several years ago. Circumscription
theory is based on the idea that population growth eventually leads to
conflict and out of conflict emerges the state and civilization.
Survival depends on the formation of alliances which ultimately lead to
government (state). Population growth in this theory is directly or
indirectly related to a number of factors. These factors are frequently
seen as aspects of the environment (ex. mountains or oceans limiting a
groups ability to flee the area and thus forcing them to take sides).
The environment can also be seen as a facilitating factor in population
growth (ex. abundant ocean resources in one particular area; Peruvian
coast). But Carneiro states that conquest warfare is the thing, the
only thing which leads to the development of the state. The theory is
basically; environmental conditions lead to population growth which leads to
conflict which leads to state formation. Very straight forward isn't it?
There are a few problems with this theory. First, it is often
cited as an explanation for the development of the state and/or
civilization. It's just too broad. This is like saying people are
responsible for civilization. Secondly, there are cases where there was
state development with no indications of warfare whatsoever (Early
Initial Period, Casma Valley, Peru). You said you "prefer analysis
which derives aspects of culture from material causes." The
archaeological evidence from the Casma Valley derives its aspect of
the former culture from the materials left behind and those do not
indicate warfare (Pozorski and Pozorski 1987).
Another problem I see with Harris's views is their decidedly
Western flavor. Science, specifically hard science, will set us free.
It doesn't matter that some folks don't think in a linear fashion-their
still doing things that can be quantified so it really is linear. This
is innane. When an anthropologist goes to a different culture and then
comes back and tells us what's going on he/she is giving a translation.
In a very real sense the anthropologist creates a third culture which is
the one that translates the two. I suggest it is that third culture that
anthropologist know the most about. Now if an anthropologist goes into
the field specifically to study the environment and the methodology is
based on western science--what side is the translation going to favor?
This emphasis on quantification addresses Western science and that's
about it. I submit this analogy: Without light there is no color.
Color is merely an optical illusion, a complex variation of light
particles playing around. Therefore we must free ourselves of this
illusory effect and think of everything as being colorless--then and only
then will we realize the true visual nature of a thing. Think of the
powerful nature of color and the role it plays in culture. Well throw
all that out because it's based on those pesky beams of light. One must
question the use of Western methods on non Western cultures. Remember I
said question-not throw out.
Finally, I suggest you read the Rise of Anthropological Theory
by Harris. This should give you a pretty good idea of just how even
handed Harris is. Harris went a long way on the coat tails of Marx.
Lest we forget Marx called for the overthrow of all existing social
institutions by whatever means were necessary. Shouldn't we question
anyone; man, woman, dog, or cat who advocates that? The great thing
about anthropology is that it's supposed to be a very broad field and the
people who practice it are supposed to be broadminded and tolerant
individuals capable of operating in any culture (that's an ideal scenario).
We must try to describe people in their own terms, no matter how alien
that may be. Hard science doesn't give a damn about being ethnocentric
it is concerned with hard facts. Here is another interesting question are
you getting an education because you want to learn or merely because it
will pay the bills? Are you motivated by economics or something else.
Will you join a political organization to make things better or just to
fight? As far as dragging down the old guard goes, there is no
substitute for good manners. Christ, I sound like Ann Landers. Anyway,
everyone who is a professional should act professionally and there is no
reason to be an ass simply because it draws attention to yourself. We
just don't need that. If we did I certainly wouldn't have taken the time
to sit down and talk about all of this; I could have said "piss off" and
everyone would have said "Oh my, how reactionary." The key word here is
"inclusive." Hard science most often rules things out. It is merely a
tool not a theoretical approach. Thanks for replying and i hope I was
less vague this time.


John W. Arnn