Another excellent book by Harris.
Posted by Mark Forkheim on 7/11/2000
After reading 'Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches' I looked to see if Marvin Harris had written any other books. That's when I found this book and snapped it up immediately. I was not disappointed. It was just as hard to put down as the first one.
Marvin Harris uses his wit and humor to make a book of great importance easy to read. He takes us on a journey from the caves to capitalism and fills us in on how and why societies differed. He talks about how cannibalism, female infanticide, war, patriarchy, and capitalism arose in various areas. He shows how adaptation to population pressure shaped the way a society developed, and how the local ecology played a major role in making societies different. He takes us right up to contemporary times, where he shows us that we have to adapt to our population explosion by intensifying our technology.
A warning though, this book can scare you. After reading how population explosion and intensification lead to massive changes in society, you are left to wonder where we are headed. If you have read Malthus's 'An Essay on the Principle of Population' and Toffler's 'Future Shock' the effect hits harder. You really begin to see the 'big picture' and realize that our current pace of change can't hold.
This book also gives you a hint that the idea of a four-day workweek is just a pipe dream. As our population continues to grow, we will have to spend more time feeding and caring for it. It turns out that primitive humans have had the most leisure time of all of us.
Harris is often imitated, but never equaled
Posted by Dennis Littrell on 6/19/2000
Legendary anthropologist Marvin Harris is perhaps the most readable ethnological writer of all. I read his celebrated Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches years ago with delight. This volume, written in the mid seventies, is also delightful. It's a little dated in spots, of course, and Harris's opinions are sometimes just opinions; and in some cases he is clearly out of sync with the most recent discoveries, but all is forgiven because he is just so interesting to read.
Mainly Harris is marvelously satirical. The narrative sparkles with put downs of religiosity or any sort of sanctimonious BS. Harris pronounces from on high, however. He seems to believe that his speculations about how or why something happened are almost certainly going to be supported by the evidence (when the field work catches up with his theories!) He was the author that showed me that the prohibition against eating pork in the Middle East and beef in India was based not so much on religious scruples but on economic self-interest dressed up as prohibitions from the gods. In this book Harris leads me to believe that all human taboos even those against murder may be culturally derived, rather than instinctively based. The horror stories that he focuses on here, especially about the Aztec cannibals, seem to prove that if we want protein enough and can't get it, we will as a people set up a religion that makes it sacred to kill whatever is available, including prisoners of war, as the Aztecs did, to get that protein; after which, we will rationalize our actions as injunctions from the gods.
By the way, cows are sacred in India because if you kill your cow and eat it during the drought, you will have no cow to plow the land when the rains return and you will never be able to plow the land again. The cow (and ox of course) are doubly valuable because they eat grasses and weeds and other vegetable matter that we cannot digest. Consequently cattle and other ruminants increase our wealth by turning otherwise unavailable sun energy into protein and calories, or into energy to pull wagons and plows, etc. Other animals, pigs and dogs, chickens and turkeys, who eat some of the same things we do, are less valuable in this sense.
If you've never read Marvin Harris, do yourself a favor and buy this book. It's fascinating and reads as fast as a thriller.
The "cultural materialist" classic.
Posted by Bill Perez on 1/29/1998
Marvin Harris is one of those writers that it's almost impossible to disagree with, while you are reading him. Later, when you've put down his book, and you're trying to recap his points, they seem simplistic and muddy. So you pick up the book again and, there they are, all his arguments and evidence, as clear and convincing as ever. I think this has to a lot to do with the sheer quality of his writing, as well as the fact that he is someone who has spent the better part of his life studying, teaching, and observing human culture. His themes are broad, and sweep over the entirety of human cultural evolution. Harris is convinced of the primacy of humankind's ecological roles and modes in shaping human culture. He explains warfare, the state, the male superiority complex, food taboos, industrialism, plant and animal domestication, cannibalism--all in terms of the productive and demographic imperatives of human life throughout the past several thousand years. His basic argument is presented as a cycle: when the going is good, human populations expand. But as population pressures increase, the current method of obtaining energy and protein from the environment must be intensified. This intensification, however, comes at the price of diminishing returns for time invested. Sooner or later a crisis is reached. The humans in question must either restrict their population growth (primarily through infanticide, abortion or contraception), or up the technological ante and find a new way of exploiting their environment. And so civilization ratchets onward, increasing the level of time spent on subsistence, sharpening the hierarchies of power, bringing cities, and prisons, and slavery, and bosses, etc. Along the way, various cultural oddities can be explained as responses to material tradeoffs. But no mere description of Marvin Harris' writing does him justice. Read the book.