Re: Harris

Gerold Firl (
19 May 1995 12:52:39 -0700

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

> 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.

Hmm. I'm not sure what you mean when you use the term "linear". This is a
word with many meanings, and even non-linear phenomena can be quantified.

Suppose I ask a moslem why he wipes his ass with his left hand, and eats
with his right. He replies that the left is the side of darkess, while the
right is the side of light. A cultural materialist might tend to focus too
strongly on the biology of parasites and conclude that the *real* reason
was the need to avoid injesting the eggs of intestinal parasites. I would
argue that it is unscientific to ignore the inclusive, multi-facetted
aspect of beliefs such as left-right dark-light evil-good as they influence
the entire gamet of beliefs and customs; not just caloric intake or
parasite loading, and not just ideological superstructure, but the
interaction between beliefs and the physical parameters of survival. A
fully-rounded scientific analysis of culture must take into account all the
scientific variables, even the loopy irrational nonsense which can be the
most important aspect of life to some people.

>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.

Why postulate this third culture? The anthropologist must learn the subject
culture; the language, the symbols, the feel of the culture. At that point,
the anthropologist can translate between the two of them. This third
culture seems like an unnecessary assumption.

>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?

I think that the process of learning the alien culture tends to circumvent
previous assumptions, unless the observer is a missionary or something, on
guard against contamination. Anthropologists are eager to absorb new ways
of looking at things; if anything, they tend to be over-enthusiastic about
their adopted culture.

There is a conflict between the magical thinking of non-western cultures
and current science. The shamanistic trance is still somewhat of a mystery;
what exactly is happening there? Traditional cures might be attributed to
the placebo effect, but we still don't understand the placebo effect very
well. But science, in its best form, is able to admit areas of ignorance,
content to report the facts as seen in the hope of eventually understanding
them. Some observers fall short of this standard, but it still seems to be
the best standard we have.

>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.


>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.

Agreed. It shouldn't be done simply to grab the spotlight. But it may be
necessary to shake-up the old guard, if they are acting to obstruct
progress. Remember, the old guard can behave unprofessionally in very
discreet ways, like rejecting papers for publication, ostensibly for "lack
of scholarly content" or whatever, but actually because it renders their
work obsolete. the pioneer *could* wait until the old guard dies. That
would be more polite. I prefer a more dynamic process however. I'd rather
see progress now.

I do need to read more harris. Thanks for the recommendations.

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