Monday, February 23, 2009

What Would Marvin Harris Do? (Originally Posted on MySpace in 2007 on my blog there)

The title is a joke in my anthropological theory class but here's my book review on Cannibals and Kings by marvin harris. Enjoy!

Marvin Harris, love him or hate him, he was (and may still be) one of the greatest minds in Anthropology. His many works on different subjects, from cannibalism to theory, have shaped the thinking of those after him. He argued against insensible rationale and for a new way of looking at culture. One might consider him one of the reasons post-modernist theory really took off. However, he did not just push for this particular line of thinking but was known to take a materialist view point from time to time. In his work Cannibals and Kings he brings in this line of thinking on top of a historical deterministic point of view as he stated in the introduction of the book. In addition to this line of thinking, at the end of the book he also adds that cultural determinist would understand his line of thinking as well, since there is a fine line between the two.

Through out this text Harris consistently refers back to the "reproductive and ecological pressures" on a culture. These pressures are what jump start change within a culture. What is fascinating is the fact that many cultures make the same changes, yet depending on the environmental elements of an area slight variations occur, such as pigs being tabooed in the Middle East and cows in India. These were cultural responses to environmental changes in the area. This equates to a cost/benefit approach to all changes, whether it be from hunter/collector to band society, band to village, village to chiefdom, chiefdom to state, and so on. The use of the terms cost and benefit alone tell us of the materialistic, almost Marxist, approach. He also discusses the correlations between reproductive pressures, intensification, and depletion and how a culture adapts and changes.

Harris presents each of his theoretical assumptions, reproductive and ecological pressures, the cost/benefits of change, and also intensification and depletion with examples from both modern and ancient cultural groups. Food, mainly protein consumption, is one of the main ways he demonstrates the effects of his ideas. My favorite group example was the Aztecs. Their use of cannibalism as a means for obtaining protein in an area almost devoid of animal protein was very insightful and made perfect sense. A group needs protein to survive and in response to their gaining agricultural expertise and growth of the group itself, protein began to lack. The cultural change was to go to war, obtain prisoners and then eat them in what appears as a cultural gloss of religion. But the reality is that it was in response to the reproductive pressures, the intensification on the environment and the depletion of these resource so that there was no animal protein base and limited plant protein base.

Really his central argument is that no matter what differences cultures may have they tend to follow a determined path based on their own interactions with the environment. Take the people of India. Because of monsoon seasons they were able to farm, but needed animal help to cultivate the land. They then used cows and oxen to till the land and grow crops. As the population began to intensify however the land area allotted for each family farm grew smaller and the number of cows that could be used for food became smaller since they were really needed more for the fields. Harris helps explain this by demonstrating how many calories it would take to raise a cow to kill versus how many calories one would get from eating the cow and compares it to the amount of calories it would take to raise a cow to help with the fields and the caloric return of the harvest. It was overwhelming the difference. On a caloric level, it is more cost effective to raise cows and oxen to help in fields than to butcher them. As the intensification led to lower efficiency, the culture responded by making it a religious taboo to consume beef. This makes perfect sense when one looks at the fact that if a family killed its last cow during an extremely bad dry spell, when the rains came, they would not have a cow to help with the fields and would have a much lower caloric return. Therefore making beef taboo was a way to help preserve a the peoples way of life through culture.

This is in comparison with the Aztecs who, in the middle of the Valley of Mexico, ran out of animal protein, reacted in another manner. They did not have domesticated animals to help in their fields as it were and had developed a form of agriculture sans animal help. With intensification came even more of a protein shortage and the culture had to react. It did so in the manner spoken of above. The reaction of the Spaniards when they arrived in the New World should be expected since their agriculture was based on rainfall and started in a feudal system. When the Spanish faced similar protein shortages their culture had reacted differently, but it was inevitable with population intensification and the like. However, the Aztecs methods can not be looked down on for it was how their culture reacted to a determined situation.

Harris's use of other anthropological data used in comparison with his theoretical approaches allows for an almost flawless argument. He uses data collected by himself and others on cultural groups who basically are the epitome of their particular type, i.e. the Indus Valley people for hydraulic groups, the Bushmen for hunter-collector societies. With this data he shows how cultural groups are related and therefore there is an amount of determinism involved. It is not a matter of evolution but of the society about to break on itself and change occurring. A good example of this is that the Chinese basically invented the steam engine, however it was not implemented until all natural means of transporting goods were depleted and it was the only hope for the culture. He also addresses what he feels in inaccurate methods of looking at culture, such as the Freudian approach to male supremacy. Harris feels that male supremacy cultures are in response to the environment and reproductive pressures where as the Freudian approach blames mom and your upbringing. In the context of cultures as a whole, the Freudian approach is not applicable in this situation. He does point out that there are some good things about Freud's work, but it just does not apply to cultural anthropology, it is more individual analysis.

One subject touched on frequently, even with dealing with European cultures, was female infanticide. Each culture practices it, in one shape or another, and whether they want to admit it or not. With European cultures, especially during medieval times, killing your infants was considered murder, unless it was on "accident." As Harris points out through out the text, the reason females were chosen for this treatment was not because the group did not realize that killing females was going to make having more children more difficult, but because the cost and benefits of more males was more beneficial to the whole. Take the Eskimos for example. They live by mostly hunting, since there really is not much plant foods available in the Artic region. Therefore if there are reproductive pressures causing intensification on the environment, then the first to be removed from the equation would be the "weaker" females. Harris never once says that females are indeed weaker. He actually makes it very clear that to kill female babies is not necessarily the best of decisions, but it is what is the most cost efficient means of being able to continue to obtain food. More males means that they will be able to haul in the large prey that are available to them in that region. More females would not mean complete disaster but would require more calories be spent in the attempt to obtain the same prey.

Through the readings outside of this text, you can see the background that Harris came up through in the field of anthropology. From Durkhiem on, the building blocks of materialism and historical determinism can be seen and are reflected in this piece. In addition, many anthropologist have also been influenced by him as well.

No one can make me say there were weaknesses in this book, unless you count making one think. It was slightly dense in places but overall ease to read. I would like to point out that if one did not look at the copyright, you may find it hard to believe it was not written at the start of the Iraq incident with this quote:

"Today, hovering on the brink of a third world war, we are scarcely in position to look down on the Aztecs. In our nuclear age the world survives only because each side is convinced the moral standards of the other are low enough to sanction the annihilation of hundreds of millions of people in retaliation for a first strike. Thanks to radioactivity the survivors will not even be able to bury the dead, let alone eat them (121)."

Even though this text is 30 years old it can be related to today. This work shows that no matter the individual choices, the cultural outcome will be the same. We will either stretch forth with new technology or we will decline back into a "lower" level of society. As we intensify our efforts at food production, we lead, inevitable, to declining efficiency.

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