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Friday, January 13, 2012


Cannibals & Kings: The Origins of Cultures
by Marvin Harris
Author of Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches: The Riddles of Culture
Random House New York
p. 1977

    This book is an illustration of a fundamental critique of social sciences.  That critique is best illustrated by R. P. Feynman's 2 minute video:

   'They're not scientists."

    This is a fair point.  Social Science isn't actually science.  It's interesting, and worth-while, but it is not Science.   If you look at a Google Ngram of the major, specific, social sciences as defined by wikipedia, you can see a rise of usage in America that begins only after 1890.  In the early 20th century, economics takes off in popularity in the period between 1910 and 1940.   Only geography maintains an occurrence level  of the same frequency in the 20th century.

  In the next group of popular social sciences, you have sociology and anthropology and then linguistics slightly beneath.  The relative popularity of Economics compared to the other social sciences is illustrated by the fact that Business/Economics is it's own category on Amazon, whereas Sociology and Anthropology share the same category "Social Sciences."  That's embarrassing, and it shows how little people give a shit about those two disciplines.  In all likely hood, that's because social scientists- except economists, have no answer the Feynman's critique.  \

  Marvin Harris was an Anthropologist who taught at Columbia University in the twentieth century (he died in 2001.)  He was a guy who had some cross over hits.  His biggest "hit" as far as the trade-paperback market was concerned is Cows, Pigs, Wars & Withces: The Riddles Of Culture.  That's a book that has 30 reviews but ranks in the 30,000's in sales- and doesn't even reach a sub-chart of top 100 sellers...anywhere.

  But as the Amazon reviews indicate, Harris is the best known advocate/originator of the "Cultural Materialism" theory of human developments: That all human activities are best explained as a response to their environment.  He is an Author who did not cross disciplines, but very much developed a popular market for his academically based work.

   Thus, his ideas retain some power, even though they might be "discredited" in the academic sphere.  After all, general readers hardly care what the academic literature has to say about the role of Cultural Materialism in the context of contemporary discussions about Anthropology.  In fact, people don't a shit about Anthropology generally, because, as the Google Ngrams show- it's not that popular- even among social sciences.

  In Cannibals & Kings, Harris lines out his theory that the development of "pristine" civilizations was a function of environmental pressure created by, essentially, human success as hunters and gatherers.  After the period where big game hunters depleted all of the appropriate animals, humans developed farming to replace the lost food.  After the environment was degraded, humans clustered into groups where agricultural efforts could be intensified to provide food for a growing population.  These locations were the original pristine states, which Harris describes as "Mesopotamia, Egypt, Harappa, China and Meso America."    Of those civilizations, the main examples he uses are Meso-America, specifically the Aztec Empire and Mesopotamia and Egypt.

  To call Harris' theory "bleak" is a mild understatement.  He literally conjures up hundreds of thousands of skulls that the Aztecs kept to memorialize people they ate.  His theory that the Aztecs amplified human sacrifice as, essentially, a way to feed a slowly starving population is provocative to say the least.  Also provocative is his casual acceptance of a writer like Karl A. Wittfogel.  Wittfogel is a uniquely 20th century type of guy, who is best known for his epic Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power.  Wittfogel's theory of "hydraulic society" i.e. that early states where dictators gathered the population to control the supply of water for raising crops.   Anyway, at the time Wittfogel wrote Oriental Despotism he was a hard core German Marxist, and his work is in that tradition.  "Cultural Materialism" is what many would call a deracinated American academic version of Marxism.

  I happen to sympathetic with the attempt to de-stigmatize certain, non-controversial elements of Marxist thought, but I also agree with Feynman, waaaay to much of Cannibals & Kings is Harris just saying stuff- it's not science at all.

  But then, that's the problem with Marxism in a nut-shell, it thinks it's science, but it's NOT.

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