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MONTAIGNE once commented that the clever are usually the least reliable observers of curious customs and events. They interpret them and, "to lend weight and conviction to their interpretations, they cannot help altering history a little," he said. This observation, made in 16th century France, applies all too well to the most recent work of cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings. This exposition of how the varieties of cultural behavior can be explained as adaptations to ecological conditions is unquestionably the product of an exceedingly clever brain.
But it faces the difficulty of reconstructing the past without inventing it, what Montaigne might have called the home-grown dinosaur syndrome. (Think of all those monsters in museums of natural history today that are composed of two very ancient shin bones and otherwise made up of very 20th century cream-colored plastic.) This problem is hardly unique to cultural anthropology. Richard E Leakey, renowned paleoanthropologist (he digs up skulls and other bone fragments in Africa) confronts the problem of envisioning human ancestors that lived over 2 million years ago and have left us only a few clues in the form of bone splinters now half covered by desert sand.
In a way, though, Harris's task is even more difficult. Harris poses a theory of cultural history paralleling Darwin's theory of natural selection--that cultural forms either adapt and survive or give way to "fitter" varieties. It is based on considerably more concrete evidence than the pioneering labors of Leakey and his father. Harris has made numerous field trips to Mozambique, India, Ecuador and Brazil in search of ancient cultures. And one can theorize with a fair degree of accuracy about what, say, the Aztecs ate and wore based on the archaelogical remains. These are far more accessible than those of Austropithocus. But it is much harder to explain the dynamics of a society, almost in inverse ratio to the remains of it available for study.
Harris's approach tends to be thematic rather than strictly chronological. Thus chapters focus on such topics as "The Origins of War" or "The Origins of Male Supremacy and the Oedipus Complex," and "The Hydraulic Trap." One cannot help but admire the conviction with which Harris explains these phenomena. It is as if, although aware of the piranhas infesting the river, Harris nevertheless struck out on his own across one of those swaying rope bridges so apt to collapse without warning. Indeed, Harris's writing is refreshingly free of the usual academese infestations of "Perhaps" and "It may well be"s common to works professedly historical rather than propagandic. Thus, one is likely to be at least initially swept along by the theories such as the one on the origin of war as "part of the price our stone age ancestors had to pay for regulating their populations in order to prevent a lowering of living standards to the bare subsistence level." It is only later that one begins to wonder. Certainly, Harris will be challenged by many of the specialists--this is the inevitable risk of generalizing about that endlessly debated human historical condition; there will always be someone, somewhere, who has evidence that contradicts one's thesis. For example, Leakey's recent book, Origins, espouses the more traditional view of warfare and materialism as the inevitable outcome of the transition fron hunting to agricultural communities.
Harris views cultural history as the outcome of the growth of populations until their demands exceed available resources which encourages ever greater intensification of production. Inevitably, as ecologists like Barry Commoner have warned loudly for the last decade, this leads to depletion of the environment. For a culture to survive, it must then evolve technologically and begin all over again. As a rule it is rare to encounter blatantly obvious "logic" such as his declaration that "similar variable under similar conditions tend to give rise to similar consequences." Indeed Harris while avowedly a cultural determinist covers himself from sniper-fire with this gray-handkerchief-waving:
The determinism that has governed cultural evolution has never been the equivalent of the determinism that governs a closed physical system... retrospectively (just as)... scientists can readily reconstruct the causal chain of adaptations that led from fish to birds. But what biologist looking at a primitive shark could have envisioned a pigeon?
Yet time and time again, Cannibals and Kings inspires a "Yes, but..." reaction as one reads:
As a result of the studied neglect of the science of culture, the world is full of moralists insisting that they have freely willed what they were unwittingly forced to want... To change social life for the better one must begin with the knowledge of why it usually changes for the worst. That is why I consider ignorance of the causal factors in cultural evolution and disregard of the odds against a desired outcome to be a form of moral duplicity.
Harris' intention, to debunk the old Victorian "onwards and upwards" view of cultural evolution, is admirable, though hardly rare today. But the book fizzles to a rather banal conclusion--"In life, as in any game whose outcome depends on both luck and skill, the rational response to bad odds is to try harder." For the news that our culture is by no means the first one to face a crisis threatening its whole survival may console those who are comforted in adversity by company (though the companions in this instance are all dead) but otherwise there seem to be few points of reference between an Ancient Egyptian despotism and a democracy today. Harris' focus on technology defeats itself when one considers the developments in science alone of the last century and a half. The book does not provide a step into understanding the destiny of our culture. It does add a wealth of fascinating material to the debate on the origins of culture but even then, Harris ignores so much. The concept of cultural lag, for example, proposed by the anthropologist W. F. Ogburn, describing the same endemic recurrence of survival crises that Harris focuses on, sees the differing rates of change (of different elements of society) as the chief disruptors of the relationships between old structures of behavior and technology.
Harris's book is original and thought-provoking yet, throughout, one should remember that 16th century warning about relying on the clever for unbiased information. Certainly, Cannibals and Kings is entertaining and unburdened by the gobbledygook much recent writing on sociology is infamous for. Its chief fault is its glibness. Levi-Strauss, discussing the theories of geographer-turned-anthropologist Boas, wrote: "Social experiences and those constant interactions between the group and the individual cannot be inferred; they must be observed."
For all the attractiveness of Harris' explanations of such questions as the connection between rainfall and democracy or why the Chinese drink so little milk one feels, reading, as if it were all too neat. Like those three-dimensional wooden puzzle pieces, his arguments are intricately constructed and can only be arrnaged one way (out of the millions of possible permutations). One is so conscious of this deterministic framework that it is hard to avoid the question: "How much of this is history and how much Harris?"
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