Marvin Harris Quotes
“I hold it perniciously false to teach that all cultural forms are equally probable and that by mere force of will an inspired individual can at any moment alter the trajectory of an entire cultural system in a direction convenient to any philosophy. Convergent and parallel trajectories far outnumber divergent trajectories in cultural evolution. Most people are conformists. History repeats itself in countless acts of individual obedience to cultural rule and pattern, and individual wills seldom prevail in matters requiring radical alterations of deeply conditioned beliefs and practices.
At the same time, nothing I have written in this book supports the view that the individual is helpless before the implacable march of history or that resignation and despair are appropriate responses to the concentration of industrial managerial power. The determinism that has governed cultural evolution has never been the equivalent of the determinism that governs a closed physical system. Rather, it resembles the causal sequences that account for the evolution of plant and animal species.”
“The availability of domesticated animal species played an important role in the prohibition of cannibalism and the development of religions of love and mercy in the states and empires of the Old World. Christianity, it may yet turn out, was more the gift of the lamb in the manger than the child who was born in it.”
“Many humanists and artists recoil from the proposition that cultural evolution has hitherto been shaped by unconscious impersonal forces. The determined nature of the past fills them with apprehension as to the possibility of an equally determined future. But their fears are misplaced. It is only through an awareness of the determined nature of the past that we can hope to make the future less dependent on unconscious and impersonal forces. In the birth of a science of culture others profess to see the death of moral initiative. For my part, I cannot see how a lack of intelligence concerning the lawful processes that have operated so far can be the platform on which to rear a civilized future. And so in the birth of a science of culture I find the beginning not the end of moral initiative. Let the protectors of historical spontaneity beware : if the processes of cultural evolution are what I have discerned, they are morally negligent to urge others to think and act as if such processes did not exist.”
“There already exists the electronic capability for the tracking of individual behavior by centralized networks of surveillance and record-keeping computers. It is highly probable that the conversion to nuclear energy production will provide precisely those basic material conditions most appropriate for using the power of the computer to establish a new and enduring form of despotism. Only by decentralizing our basic mode of energy production—by breaking the cartels that monopolize the present system of energy production and by creating new decentralized forms of energy technology—can we restore the ecological and cultural configuration that led to the emergence of political democracy in Europe.”
“We now know that the greatest concentration of "abnormal"
lactose absorbers lives in Europe north of the Alps. Over 95
percent of the Dutch, Danes, Swedes, and other Scandinavians
have enough lactase enzyme to digest very large quantities of
lactose throughout their lives. South of the Alps, high to inter
mediate levels prevail, falling to intermediate and low levels in
Spain, Italy and Greece and among Jews and city-dwelling Arabs
in the Middle East. Intermediate to high levels of absorbers occur
again in northern India, while high levels of absorbers occur in
isolated enclaves such as the Bedouin nomads of Arabia and cer
tain pastoral groups in northern Nigeria and East Africa.
Mammals obviously have to be able to drink milk in infancy,”
“Los heterosexuales occidentales tienen tendencia a encasillar a los varones homosexuales en el estereotipo de lo afeminado. Sin embargo, desde los puntos de vista histórico y etnográfico, la forma más frecuente de relación homosexual institucionalizada se da entre hombres instruidos no para ser peluqueros o decoradores, sino guerreros.”
“In view of the frequent occurrence of modern domestic groups that do not consist of, or contain, an exclusive pair-bonded father and mother, I cannot see why anyone should insist that our ancestors were reared in monogamous nuclear families and that pair-bonding is more natural than other arrangements.”
- Date of birth: August 18, 1927
- Died: October 25, 2001
- Born: in New York, The United States.
- Description: American anthropologist Marvin Harris was born in Brooklyn, New York. A prolific writer, he was highly influential in the development of cultural materialism. In his work he combined Karl Marx's emphasis on the forces of production with Malthus's insights on the impact of demographic factors on other parts of the sociocultural system. Labeling demographic and production factors as infrastructure, Harris posited these factors as key in determining a society's social structure and culture.
Harris' earliest work began in the Boasian tradition of descriptive anthropological fieldwork, but his fieldwork experiences in Mozambique in the late 1950s caused him to shift his focus from ideological features of culture, toward behavioral aspects. His 1968 history of anthropological thought, The Rise of Anthropological Theory critically examined hundreds of years of social thought with the intent of constructing a viable nomothetic understanding of human culture that Harris came to call cultural materialism.
Cultural materialism incorporated and refined Marx's categories of superstructure and base; Harris modified and amplified such core Marxist concepts as means of production and exploitation, but Harris rejected two key aspects of Marxist thought: the dialectic, which Harris attributed to an intellectual vogue of Marx’s time; and, unity of theory and practice, which Harris regarded as an inappropriate and damaging stance for social scientists. Harris’ inclusion of demographic dynamics as determinant factors in sociocultural evolution also contrasted with Marx’s rejection of population as a causal element.
Marvin Harris’ early contributions to major theoretical issues include his revision of economic surplus theory in state formation. He also became well known for formulating a materialist explanation for the treatment of “ Cattle in religions” in Indian culture. Along with Michael Harner, Harris is one of the scholars most associated with the suggestion that Aztec cannibalism occurred, and was the result of protein deficiency in the Aztec diet. An explanation appears in Harris' book Cannibals and Kings. Harris also invoked the human quest for animal protein to explain Yanomamo warfare, contradicting ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon’s sociobiological explanation involving innate male human aggressiveness.
Several other publications by Harris examine the cultural and material roots of dietary traditions in many cultures, including Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1975); Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture (1998 - originally titled The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig) and his co-edited volume, Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits (1987).
Harris’ Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life (1981 - Originally titled America Now: the Anthropology of a Changing Culture) applies concepts from cultural materialism to the explanation of such social developments in late twentieth century United States as inflation, the entry of large numbers of women into the paid labor force, marital instability, and shoddy products.
His Our Kind: who we are, where we came from, where we are going (1990) surveys the broad sweep of human physical and cultural evolution, offering provocative explanations of such subjects as human gender and sexuality and the origins of inequality. Finally, Harris’ 1979 work, Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, updated and re-released in 2001, offers perhaps the most comprehensive statement of cultural materialism.
Over the course of his professional life, Harris drew both a loyal following and a considerable amount of criticism. He became a regular fixture at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association where he would subject scholars to intense questioning from the floor, podium, or bar. He is considered a generalist, who