MARVIN HARRIS, MEET CHARLES DARWIN:
A CRITICAL EVALUATION AND THEORETICAL EXTENSION OF CULTURAL MATERIALISM
Stephen K. Sanderson
Department of Sociology
The first draft of this
paper was written by hand while the author was sitting in a wheelchair,
hospitalized with a badly broken left leg.
It was presented in my absence by
death of Marvin Harris on October 25, 2001, was a huge loss for anthropology
and the social sciences in general. Harris was a theoretical genius who not
only made a profound contribution to anthropology and related disciplines, but
who also had a wonderfully accessible writing style that allowed him to write
marvelous books for the general educated public. These books have sold several hundred thousand
copies; many are still in print and continue to sell well. (Harris wrote some 17 books, both technical
and popular, in all.) Harris understood
far better than most sociological and anthropological theorists the real
function of theories: to explain concrete
social phenomena. At least in sociology,
most theorists think that their job is to develop extremely abstract conceptual
and theoretical schemes that are designed to explain everything but nothing in
particular. Harris developed an abstract
conceptual and theoretical scheme, of course, but he applied this again and
again to concrete social and cultural phenomena: sacred cows and abominable pigs, the
potlatch, the origins of agriculture, Aztec cannibalism, social change in
I first encountered Harris’s work in the early 1970s. In 1973 I was in my final year as a sociology graduate student and had just accepted my first teaching position, which I would start in a few months. In the university bookstore one day I noticed a copy of Harris's The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968). I had never heard of Harris or this book but I thumbed through it and it seemed very interesting. I was going to be teaching social theory in my new position and thought this book might prove useful as a sourcebook for lectures, and therefore bought a copy. Since I was heavily involved in finishing my dissertation, I put the book aside and forgot about it until the next fall. I then pulled it off the shelf but ended up making no use of it for lectures and still had not really read any of it. One thing that struck me about the book was the chapter entitled “Dialectical Materialism.” I was surprised that an anthropologist would be writing on Marx.
Then in 1975 I read an article on Harris published in Psychology Today and discovered that he was a famous anthropologist and an original theorist. As a result I bought a copy of his Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches (1974) and read it with great interest. However, it was not until 1977 that I finally pulled Rise of Anthropological Theory off the shelf and read it. This was a transforming experience of grand proportions. I was immensely taken with Harris’s adumbration of his own distinctive theoretical perspective, cultural materialism, and was delighted by his elegant skewering of his main theoretical adversaries (both of these achievements are carried to an even higher level in his later book, Cultural Materialism [Harris, 1979], as Harris’s position became more thoroughly worked out and polished). I rapidly became converted to cultural materialism. My whole career was reoriented and I began to focus primarily on the study of long-term social evolution from a materialist perspective. This led to several books: Macrosociology: An Introduction to Human Societies, originally published by Harper & Row in 1988 and revised several times (Sanderson, 1991, 1995a, 1999a; see also Sanderson and Alderson, forthcoming); Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development (1995b, 1999b); and, most recently, The Evolution of Human Sociality: A Darwinian Conflict Perspective (2001). This book contains a more detailed critical assessment of cultural materialism than is possible in this essay.
As a sociologist, I have long tried
to interest the members of my own discipline in cultural materialism and to
show them that a sharp distinction between sociology and anthropology is not
only unnecessary but actually pernicious.
I have had little success. I know
of two sociologists who have been significantly influenced by cultural
materialism (Christopher Chase-Dunn of the
Cultural materialism is a synthesis of Marxian historical materialism, cultural ecology, and social evolutionism. A crucial dimension of the perspective is the trichotomization of societies into infrastructure, structure, and superstructure. The infrastructure consists primarily of modes of production and reproduction; the structure of domestic and political economy; and the superstructure of such things as art, literature, rituals, science, symbols, myths, ideologies, religion and magic. Harris then complicates all this by importing the emic-etic and mental-behavioral distinctions into the tripartite scheme. This produces a final scheme with four components: the etic-behavioral infrastructure, the etic-behavioral structure, the etic-behavioral superstructure, and the mental-emic superstructure. As a materialist, Harris has vigorously argued that the flow of causation is primarily from the etic-behavioral infrastructure to the etic-behavioral structure, and then from the etic-behavioral structure to the behavioral and mental-emic superstructures or, more simply, from infrastructure to structure to superstructure. Harris has repeatedly stressed that these causal relationships are probabalistic so that “in general,” or “most of the time,” or “in the long run” things work this way, thus allowing for causal feedback from superstructure to structure to infrastructure. Unfortunately, Harris has never been able to repeat this point enough and has consistently been misunderstood as being some sort of rigid or “vulgar” materialist.
Harris has frequently been read and
criticized as a type of functionalist.
Certainly some of his early work, such as his analysis of the
The reaction to Harris has long been polarized. During my occasional ventures to the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association I have often been shocked and dismayed at the hostility to both such a sensible theoretical approach and, it would seem, to Harris personally. Much of this hostility is based on misunderstanding and oversimplification of cultural materialism, but it is also rooted in the deep entrenchment of idealist and historical particularist ideas in anthropology, thus confirming one of Harris’s major arguments. My view has long been that cultural materialism is one of the best theoretical approaches we have in the social sciences. In Social Transformations (1995b, 1999b) I developed a comprehensive materialist theory of social evolution that I called evolutionary materialism. When I sent Harris a reprint of an article summarizing this theoretical strategy (Sanderson, 1994), he reacted much more critically than I had expected. His criticisms are stated in the following later to me dated May 14, 1994:
Thanks for the reprints – but there are several points
that need to be cleared up. First, there
is the “significant flaw” you attribute to CM [cultural materialism] on the
first page of the Evolutionary Materialism article (EM, p. 47). CM according to you doesn’t do well when it
comes to explaining the evolution of divergent and convergent forms of the
state: the rise of capitalism and industrialism, the rise and fall of
dynasties, the commercialization of agrarian states, the rise of
The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism paper does not solve the problem. This paper attempts to show that EM leads to a better theory of the origin of capitalism than CM (and other) paradigms. Two problems arise: First, no sustained CM theories of the origin of capitalism have been offered (although sketchy treatments and suggestions can be found in Cannibals and Kings and in Johnson and Earle 1987). Ironically, yours is actually the only sustained attempt to present such a theory.
there is nothing included in your theory which in any way contradicts CM’s
theoretical principles. For example, the
inclusion of a long term trend toward global trade certainly does not
contradict the principle of the primacy of the infrastructure. I don’t happen to think that world system
theory is as strategically important or illuminating as a theory that invokes
demographic crises in feudal
Perhaps I am missing something. Enlighten me.
I replied to Harris’s letter on May 19, 1994, saying the following:
Well, to tell you the truth most of what you say is correct. There is little if anything in my EM that contradicts, at the abstract level of a theoretical (research) strategy, your CM. As I see it, EM is to a considerable extent an elaboration and formalization of CM principles applied to the phenomenon of social evolution. However, I have added quite a few notions of my own, and addressed issues that you either do not address, or do so only implicitly. For example, there is my dicussion of the pace of social evolution, of the role of increasing complexity, of the contrasts between social and biological evolution, of different “evolutionary logics” at different world historical periods, of endogenous vs. exogenous causes, and of the role of the “drive for mastery.” Most, perhaps even all, of what I have to say about these issues is compatible with CM, but I think I have made some contribution by formalizing and systematizing things to a higher degree. And my point about different “evolutionary logics” at different historical periods, to the best of my knowledge, is not only not found in your work, but might actually contradict it. At the very least it shows CM’s incompleteness. I argue explicitly that demography and ecology decrease in importance as societies evolve, and that political economy increases in importance.
When I said that CM hasn’t done well in explaining such things as the commercialization of agrarian states, the rise of European capitalism in the sixteenth century, and the evolution of the modern world economic system I didn’t mean that CM is incapable of addressing such issues, or that you yourself have not addressed them to some extent. What I meant was that CM has been applied much more extensively to more traditional anthropological concerns and has done better in explaining these things. My EM incorporates things like world-system theory into its basic structure, something I think is crucial to understanding the modern world. Whereas demographic and ecological factors are of tremendous importance in the precapitalist, and particularly in the pre-agrarian, world, they seem to me to be of considerably less significance in the modern world of the last 500 years. Here’s where the world-economic system becomes crucial, something that CM does not pay all that much attention to (although, of course, in principle it can do so).
In sum, EM is basically an extension of CM. It is certainly not in any sense intended as a refutation of CM or anything remotely of the sort. The reason I don’t have any systematic critique of CM is that, at the abstract level of theoretical or research strategy, there really isn’t any. There is a lot less difference between EM and CM than there is between CM and Marxian historical materialism. You’ve broadened HM [historical materialism] by adding demography and ecology, but of course you’ve also explicitly rejected some elements of HM, such as the role of dialectics. I don’t explictly reject any significant part of CM, but I do move it in directions not particularly chosen by you. When I said that a significant flaw in CM was a failure to apply adequately to the full range of social and cultural phenomena, I was in my mind giving emphasis to the word adequately. I didn’t mean that CM didn’t apply at all.
To address your point about my paper on the transition to capitalism: I think what you say here is precisely what I am getting at. The theory of the transition that I offer in the paper is certainly different from and a lot more elaborate than your discussion in Cannibals and Kings. I do not accept demography as a major cause of the transition to capitalism, whereas this is your major causal variable. You’re right, my theory does not contradict CM; yet it gives emphasis to phenomena – most particularly, world trade networks – not usually stressed by CM.
In my most recent book, The Evolution of Human Sociality (2001), I developed a more general theory of human society that resembles cultural materialism, and that incorporates evolutionary materialism, but that pushes their principles to a deeper level. (I do not know whether Harris ever saw or read this book, which was published only a few months before he died. He certainly would have disapproved of its basic argument.) Although in the letter I sent to Harris in 1994 I said I didn’t have any systematic critique of cultural materialism, I later came to develop one and laid it out in this book. Three main problems stand out in my mind: first, difficulties with Harris’s conceptualization of “economy”; second, difficulties involving Harris's mixing of the emic-etic and mental-behavioral distinctions with his infrastructure-structure-superstructure distinction; and finally, Harris’s rejection of sociobiology. Let us look at each of these briefly.
One of the things that distinguishes Harris’s notion of economy from Marx’s is his relocation of the “relations of production” from infrastructure to structure, specifically to “political economy.” Brian Ferguson (1995) argues that Harris thus distinguishes two types of economy, “infrastructural economy,” which involves mostly technological applications to economy, and “structural economy,” which involves economic ownership, distribution, and exchange. Harris believes this distinction is crucial because it is largely infrastructural economy that determines structural economy. I think this may often be true in preindustrial and precapitalist societies, but it is often the other way around in modern capitalism, where it is the search for profits that largely determines technology and other aspects of infrastructural economy. And even in precapitalist systems, the search for wealth by ruling classes is often critical to shaping technological applications.
In addition, I am not sure that
To complicate the issue further, there is one very odd aspect of Harris’s conceptualization of modern economies, capitalism in particular: his argument that capital and profits are essentially emic and mental categories. This is nothing short of a shocking statement. Capital and profits are not emic and mental phenomena, but rather the most crucial behavioral characteristics of the capitalist system! The search for profits and the ceaseless accumulation of capital are the driving engine of capitalism, the whole material logic of the system. Harris’s classification of capital and profits as emic point to a faulty understanding on his part of the emic-etic distinction, a problem to which I now turn.
Harris’s attempt to incorporate the emic-etic and mental-behavioral distinctions into the tripartite universal pattern seems to me a serious mistake. As Harris (1968, 1979) himself has stressed and as others have emphasized (e.g., Lett, 1990), emics and etics are epistemological concepts with important methodological implications. What sense does it make, then, to try to integrate them with the concepts of infrastructure, structure, and superstructure, which are ontological categories – parts of sociocultural systems? I have reluctantly concluded that the emic-etic distinction is so complicated and so confusing that perhaps the best course of action is to drop it, at least for theoretical purposes (it should probably be retained as a methodological device). Not much is lost, and great deal of clarity is gained, and besides it has been pointed out that Harris consistently violates his own pronouncements anyway – for example, constantly producing emic explanations while claiming to generate etic ones (Oakes, 1981). If we drop emics and etics and mental and behavioral out of the universal pattern, then infrastructure, structure, and superstructure can be reformulated rather simply approximately as follows:
Infrastructure consists of those natural phenomena and social forms essential to economic production and biological reproduction, and especially including the technology of subsistence, ecosystems, “economy,” knowledge and ideas concerning the subsistence quest and economic production, and demographic patterns.
Structure consists of those organized patterns of social behavior common to the members of a society excluding those relating directly to production and reproduction; it includes especially family and kinship patterns, gender roles, politics and war, social stratification, educational systems, and organized patterns of sport, games and leisure.
Superstructure consists of beliefs, norms, values, and symbols, especially religion, taboos, myth, art, music, literature, and science.
My final criticism of Harris concerns his stance on sociobiology. Harris has been a strong and persistent critic of this approach, although it needs to be acknowledged that his criticisms have been made from a conceptual and scientific standpoint rather than from the political perspective of most of the critics. As a strong defender of sociobiology, I argue that Harris’s argument is unnecessary and that he has missed the boat badly because cultural materialism and sociobiology are actually highly compatible and can be synthesized. In fact, I have performed such a synthesis myself under the name of Darwinian conflict theory. I discuss this synthetic theory and provide an application of it in the final sections of this paper. This will show how I try to extend cultural materialism even beyond my earlier evolutionary materialism and, more importantly, how I deepen cultural materialism.
Before explicating and illustrating Darwinian conflict theory, however, let me first address two important questions: Which of Harris’s substantive theories have stood the test of time, and which must be judged wanting? Where does Harris get it right, and where does he get it wrong? And where is he somewhere in between, or the data inconclusive?
HARRIS’S SUBSTANTIVE THEORIES:
I would say that the very best theorizing Harris has done is with respect to the following six phenomena: food taboos and food preferences; why we eat too much, feast, and get fat; the origins of early Christianity; long-term social evolution; the women’s movement; and the collapse of Communism. Let us look briefly at each of these.
1. Food taboos and food preferences. Harris’s approach to food habits is conceived in direct opposition to cultural idealist approaches, especially the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas – the notion that food is “good to think” or represents cryptic messages (Harris, 1987). Harris’s most basic theoretical premise is that people select and avoid potential food sources on the basis of the material costs and benefits that the foods provide in particular environments at particular times. What is chosen provides more benefits than costs, and what is avoided provides more costs than benefits. Foodways are, in short, materially adaptive in most instances, anything but culturally arbitrary or irrational. Harris even makes explicit use of optimal foraging theory, a theory that stems from evolutionary biology and sociobiology (demonstrating, in spite of himself, that cultural materialism and sociobiology are friends rather than enemies).
Harris’s (1966, 1974) most famous theories of foodways
concern the Hindu sacred cow and the Jewish-Muslim abominable pig. Cows were and still are worshiped in
Harris (1985) has insisted that humans have a special kind
of hunger that he calls “meat hunger.”
Meat has special nutritional significance and eating it is an extremely
efficient way of getting amino acids and various nutrients; the only way to get
all of the essential amino acids is through meat eating. Harris’s argument seems well supported by the
universality of meat eating in human societies, as well as by the great
significance that people give to meat: it is the most highly desired and
esteemed food in all societies. Another
innate taste emphasized by Harris (1987) is the taste for sweet
substances. This seems to stem from the
nutritional importance of fruits in the ancestral environment and in many
hunter-gatherer populations. Harris
(1985) has also developed a very convincing theory of milk drinking and milk
avoidance in human populations. Until a
few thousand years go the vast majority of adults could not digest the lactose
in milk, and thus did not drink it. A
selective advantage was given to milk drinking, however, in northern European
populations. In the cloudy, wet environments
2. Why we eat too
much, feast, and get fat. Obesity,
sometimes of morbid proportions, has become a major social problem in the
But today we live at a level of affluence unimaginable in the past. We love to eat, and to overeat, but the consequences today are different. There is so much food available all of the time that people now do get fat – many of them at least, and many of those to an extremely unhealthy extent. This, at least, is Harris’s explanation, and it seems to me eminently sensible. However, there is one point with which I would take issue. Harris correctly says that contemporary overeating “is not a character defect, a longing to return to the womb, a substitute for sex, or a compensation for poverty. Rather, it is a hereditary defect in the design of the human body, a weakness that natural selection was unable to get rid of” (1989:150). However, not everyone overeats and not everyone gets fat. Many people do neither. Harris correctly points out that it tends to be the poor who are most overweight and the rich who are slimmest, pointing out that the poor are less educated and thus have much less knowledge of good nutrition and diet. This is right as far as it goes, but it seems to stop short. It is true that overeating is not a defect of character, but it would seem to have a lot to do with self-discipline. Not to overeat when food is delicious and highly abundant requires a lot of self-discipline, and this trait is not randomly distributed throughout society. The upper-middle-class and the wealthy seem to have it to a much greater extent than the rest of society. Harris seems too quick to let individuals off the hook for their problems, too quick to cling to an ideology of victimization that is so common in today’s society. After all, he does say, “Too long have the victims of obesity been blamed for their affliction” (1989:150). Harris seems to need somewhat more of a psychological perspective here. Individuals differ in a variety of traits, and the ability to exercise self-discipline is certainly one of these.
3. The origins of
early Christianity. In his Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches (1974)
Harris lays out a provocative theory of early Christianity. In ancient
Harris’s argument shows how his cultural materialism sometimes converges closely with Marxism, for here he pushes an “opium of the people” type of argument, and he situates early Christianity in the larger context of millenarian and revitalization movements more generally. Harris’s analysis is undoubtedly very incomplete, and there is much more to be learned about early Christianity than we learn from Harris (cf. Stark, 1996). But it is a good start in a useful direction.
4. Long-term social evolution. In Cannibals and Kings (1977) Harris lays out an especially impressive theory of long-term social evolution, accounting with considerable success for the origins of agriculture; the rise of social stratification, chiefdoms, and states; and the origins of the modern world. Moreover, he not only deals with general social evolution, but with specific evolution as well. Harris’s theory rests on an individualistic foundation in which people are attempting to make rational decisions about the costs and benefits of a given line of action, and it is highly notable for its antiprogressivist nature. The key evolutionary process is one in which environmental depletion, usually as the result of population growth and technological intensification, has continually led to new forms of technological intensification, which in turn lead to new forms of environmental depletion, and so on. This process occurring within the infrastructure has led to the continual reorganization of structures and superstructures.
Harris’s theory is a great achievement and has substantially reoriented the study of social evolution along new lines. As already noted, my evolutionary materialism (Sanderson, 1994, 1995b, 1999b) was an attempt to codify and extend this line of argument about the great social transformations of human history. However, as pointed out earlier, Harris’s theory of social evolution suffers from an overemphasis on ecological factors and an underappreciation of economic and political factors. Ecological factors seem to matter most in the earlier stages of social evolution, but diminish in importance and come to be exceeded by the importance of economic and political factors in the later stages, particularly in the last 500 to 1,000 years.
5. The women’s movement. Harris (1985) has made a notable attempt to explain the origins of the women’s movement and feminist ideology in Western societies since the end of World War II. Harris rejects the notion that it was feminist ideology that arose first. Rather, feminism as a set of ideas emerged from preceding structural changes in the position of women. The starting point is the capitalist economy and the changes it began to undergo in the 1940s. The most important change relevant to the position of women was the shift toward a more service and information oriented economy. Once this shift got underway, capitalists sought a new type of worker, particularly one that would be highly subordinate and who could be paid a relatively low wage. Women fit best because they were used to being in a subordinate position to men and because they were seeking work primarily to supplement their husbands’ incomes rather than to be the sole breadwinner. Women were thus gradually drawn into the labor force. However, because of inflation and the greater difficulty of families in maintaining their standard of living, women also sought work themselves, and so this was another force bringing women back into the sphere of economic production, a sphere from which they had been largely cast out with the emergence of intensive agricultural societies. As women entered the labor force in greater and greater numbers, at least two things began to happen to their consciousness. First, they began to realize that there was an entire sphere of existence beyond the home that offered opportunities for achievement and self-realization beyond being a housewife and mother. In addition, women also began to realize how little they were paid vis-à-vis men, i.e., they came to be aware of the forces of gender discrimination. Thus was the ideology of feminism born.
Harris’s analysis rings true to me because it seems to fit
the evidence very well. In the late 1940s only about one woman in nine who was
married woman and who had small children was in the labor force, but by the
early 1980s this had increased to one woman in two and by the late 1990s had
increased to almost two women in three.
Moreover, these changes were occurring not only in American society, but
6. The collapse of
Communism. Harris’s (1992) analysis
of the collapse of Communism in the
Where, then, did Harris get things wrong? Here I would point to his theorizing in the following seven areas: war; male domination; the potlatch; the incest taboo; family size; homosexuality; and why we seek status. We can examine these in turn.
1. War. Harris (1974, 1977; Divale and Harris, 1976) sees war in bands and tribes largely as a population-regulating mechanism. It is population pressure and resource scarcity, especially scarcity in the availability of animal protein, that are the principal causes of warfare. Warfare leads to a male supremacist complex, which in turn helps provide a justification for female infanticide. This, combined with male deaths from combat, helps to regulate population growth. Warfare also creates “no-man’s lands” that help to regulate population against the available supply of animal protein. Harris has used the Yanomamö as an illustration of his theory, but that tribe’s principal ethnographer, Napoleon Chagnon (1983), has shown with detailed analyses that the Yanomamö are in fact eating well more than the necessary daily supply of animal protein. Keeley (1996) tested Harris’s theory and failed to find any correlation between population density and the frequency of warfare for 87 societies. I conducted my own test using the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. The correlation between warfare and population pressure was very low (r = -.109) and actually pointing in the wrong direction.
Brian Ferguson (1984, 1990) has formulated an
alternative cultural materialist theory that rejects the protein scarcity
hypothesis and that specifies a much broader range of material interests that
can motivate war, such as increasing access to fixed resources, capturing
movable goods, or enhancing the power and status of those individuals who make
the decisions about going to war.
2. Male domination. Harris (1974, 1977, 1989) has long agreed with the feminists that male domination is not rooted in any basic biological differences between the sexes. Males have no natural tendency to dominate females, but are socially conditioned to do so. Harris singles out militarism and warfare as the primary cause of male domination. The greater the degree to which a society both prepares for and goes to war, the more male dominated it will be. Males will be the warriors in every society, Harris says, not because they are naturally more aggressive or warlike, but because in hand-to-hand combat men’s greater strength will lead to their cultural selection for war. Any society that made females the warriors would invariably confront societies of male warriors, and the societies with female warriors would have died out long ago. Since warfare places a premium on masculine characteristics, the more warlike the society the greater the extent to which males will be induced to exaggerate their masculine qualities and, correspondingly, to denigrate female qualities.
With two colleagues I carried out an empirical test of Harris’s argument (Sanderson, Heckert, and Dubrow, 2003). We used the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of 186 societies (Murdock and White, 1969) and the gender status variables coded for half of these societies by Martin King Whyte (1978). Our findings completely falsified Harris’s argument. Depending on which of three measures of male dominance we used, warfare either had no effect on the level of male dominance, or had the opposite effect from that predicted. The variable that contributed the most to the level of male domination was the economic status of women, especially the degree to which women made an important contribution to subsistence. In hunter-gatherer societies where women’s gathering provided a great deal of what people ate, their status was relatively high; and in agricultural societies where women did a great deal of the agricultural labor (as in horticultural as opposed to agrarian societies), their status was also relatively high. Social stratification also made some difference, as women did better in egalitarian than in stratified societies.
One limitation of this study, however, is that it is only able to explain why the level of male domination varies from one society to another. It is unable to explain why male domination is, in fact, a universal feature of human social life. All societies are to at least some extent male dominated in that males are always the primary (or the only) political leaders and males monopolize every society’s high-status social positions. I suggest, contra Harris, that this universality of male domination is a fundamental part of the human biogram. A great deal of evidence has now accumulated to suggest that men are naturally more aggressive and competitive, and that in an open competition with women they will predominate in social positions that require these traits (evidence reviewed in Sanderson, 2001).
potlatch. Early in his career Harris
(1974) turned his attention to the famous
I had never been thoroughly satisfied with this explanation, and fortunately another much better one has now come along. This is a Darwinian explanation that relies on a special modification of Darwinian natural selection theory known as the Handicap Principle. Amotz and Avishag Zahavi (1997) use the Handicap Principle to explain such things as the elaborate plumage of peacocks. For them, the peacock’s plumage is an honest signal signifying that he is of high quality and thus desirable as a mate. Only healthy peacocks can grow a long, beautiful tail because it takes a great deal of energy to do so. The Zahavis also suggest that animals may seek prestige by providing resources to others, thus indicating they are of high quality. The Handicap Principle would seem to be almost tailor-made to explain the potlatch (Boone, 1998). In terms of this principle, the chief who gave away his property and burned down his house was engaged in a form of costly signaling or a costly display: he was sending a message to other chiefs that he was so rich that these things didn’t matter. He could easily recover from such losses.
Harris’s explanation of the potlatch is another example of how he often gets caught in functionalist traps. Harris wants to admit group selection as well as individual selection into his explanatory repertoire, but this seems to me a serious mistake. Harris wants to see the competition for status in societies without true stratification as driven by egalitarian goals. It is true that people in unstratified societies may demand, and often get, egalitarian economic outcomes – they may prevent, for example, “big men” from becoming too “big” – but this is different from the motivations of the status seekers themselves. Perhaps the bigger problem is that Harris sees status-seeking as a cultural phenomenon detached from human nature (see #7 below).
4. The incest taboo. In his explanation of the incest taboo Harris shows himself to be a traditional anthropologist and yet again an old-fashioned functionalist. He depends not on cultural materialism at all, but rather on E.B. Tylor’s old theory that the incest taboo was motivated by a desire for people to form alliances with each other so they could live in greater peace. Harris even challenges to so-called universality of the incest taboo, pointing to a number of instances of brother-sister marriage in human societies. Harris even goes on to predict, quite startingly, that the incest taboo may eventually disappear, claiming that “brother-sister mating is probably on the verge of becoming just another ‘kinky’ sexual preference of little interest to society” (1989:206).
Harris is quite critical of the major alternative to the Tylorian theory, the well-known Westermarck Darwinian theory. This theory holds that incest is usually avoided because individuals of the opposite sex who are reared together in the same household acquire a sexual indifference or antagonism to each other. Although there is now a great deal of research that is highly supportive of Westermarck’s theory, Harris questions the validity of some of it. One line of evidence has involved apparent resistance to consummation of the marriage in Taiwanese sim-pua marriages, a type of marriage in which an infant girl is adopted into a family and grows up to marry her adopted brother. Harris argues that the brides and grooms who failed to consummate their marriages were not harboring a sexual indifference, but rather were expressing disappointment and chagrin because the Taiwanese regarded these marriages as distinctly inferior to the more common form of marriage. This criticism seems far-fetched because it is hard to see how being consigned to an inferior form of marriage would produce sexual disinterest rather than some other emotion. Moreover, Harris begs the question by failing to explain why sim-pua marriage should be regarded as inferior (it is probably because the Taiwanese know in advance the sexual disinterest that tends to result from it, and thus the difficulty of making such marriages work). A second line of evidence concerns the tendency of Israeli kibbutzim youth to avoid marrying other individuals from the same communal nursery. Referring to Joseph Shepher’s (1983) data, Harris argues that out of 2,516 marriages, there were 200 undertaken between kibbutz partners, a number so large that it casts serious doubt on Westermarck’s theory. But Harris has his numbers wrong. Shepher studied 2,769 marriages, not 2,516, and there were only 13 marriages, not 200, undertaken between members of the same communal nursery. Moreover, those 13 have been studied carefully by Arthur Wolf (1995), who found that in 11 of those cases the marriage partners did not actually meet until age 4 or later. This has led him to specify that Westermarck’s theory depends on a critical period, which is in fact the first three years of life.
There are many other lines of evidence in favor of Westermarck’s theory that go unmentioned by Harris (summarized in Sanderson, 2001). Harris’s argument in favor of Tylor’s theory is weakened by the fact that marriage alliances are only one way to establish solidarity and live in greater peace. There are other ways of doing this. Moreover, research has shown that societies that permit cross-cousin marriage and thus establish marriage alliances between lineages and clans do not, in fact, live in any greater harmony than those that have no such alliances (Kang, 1979; Ember, 1983). Tylor’s theory is a functionalist theory, but the apparent function of the incest taboo and marriage alliances does not occur – surely the test of a functionalist theory if there ever was one.
In short, the evidence for Tylor’s theory is nonexistent, whereas the evidence for Westermarck’s theory is considerable, Harris’s protestations notwithstanding. This is an area of anthropological theory and research where Harris is far off the mark.
5. Family size. Harris (1989; Harris and Ross, 1987) has devoted considerable attention to explaining why fertility levels are high in agrarian and Third World societies and much lower in modern industrial societies. He relates the number of children produced per woman to the economic value of children’s labor. In societies where agriculture is still the primary basis for subsistence, the economic value of children’s labor is high. Under such conditions, by age six children are able to gather firewood, carry water, plant and harvest crops, run errands, sweep floors, take food to adults in the fields, peel and scrape tubers, and grind and pound grains. At a later age they are able to work full time in the fields, cook meals, herd, fish, hunt, and make pots and other containers. Where children can perform so many useful services, couples will be motivated to have many of them. However, as societies industrialize, the economic value of children’s labor declines, eventually to almost nothing in many cases, and so couples have few of them and family size declines.
Harris uses the same type of argument to explain
why members of lower-class racial and ethnic minorities in industrial societies
such as the
Harris is especially critical of the sociobiological argument that humans have an innate procreative imperative. As evidence, he points to the frequency of noncoital sex, contraception, and abortion, and especially to the frequency of infanticide throughout the whole range of human societies. Reviewing a wide variety of infanticidal practices, Harris (1989:214) concludes that these practices “would not be possible if the bond between parents and child were a natural outcome of pregnancy and delivery. Whatever the hormonal basis for mother love and father love, there evidently is not sufficient force in human affairs to protect infants from culturally imposed rules and goals that define the conditions under which parents should or should not strive to keep them alive.”
Sad to say, but Harris’s analysis is superficial
and simplistic – and wrong. It is of
course true that humans widely and often frequently practice contraception,
abortion, and infanticide. But Harris
fails to consider the specific conditions under which these are practiced or
not practiced. Given the strength of the
human sex drive, contraception is certainly necessary in order for people to
avoid producing far more children than they can possibly care for, and abortion
and infanticide become important, and often necessary, when contraception
fails, which it frequently does. In
particular, Harris seems unfamiliar with the well-known sociobiological
distinction between r-selection and K-selection. Oversimplifying, r-selection is a
reproductive strategy involving having many children but devoting little
parental care to each. If enough
children are born, the odds are fairly good that one or two will live to
adulthood and go on to have children of their own. This kind of strategy seems to be what is
happening where the rate of infant and child survival is relatively low, as in
In her excellent book Mother Nature: Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (1999), Sarah Blaffer Hrdy makes the extremely important point that maternal care is highly conditional. Mothers are biologically wired to produce children, and to nurture them, but the extent to which they do the latter depends on whether the conditions for rearing are good or poor. Hrdy documents in great deal that in many societies and throughout world history mothers have often practiced infanticide when conditions for rearing are poor, but have avoided it when the conditions for rearing are good. Mothers are naturally predisposed to bond to their infants, but they will avoid doing so when there is not enough food to support an infant, or because the infant will take away food from older children in which a great deal of time and energy has already been invested. A natural predisposition to want children and to bond with them does not mean that the behavior is automatically produced anywhere at anytime.
Recently I engaged in a study of fertility rates in a wide range of contemporary nation-states (Sanderson and Dubrow, 2000). I performed a series of regression analyses designed to determine whether the economic value of children’s labor or some other factor was critical in determining fertility rates between 1960 and 1990. The results showed that the economic value of children’s labor, as measured primarily by the percentage of the population working in agriculture, mattered very little if at all. The key factor was the infant mortality rate: where the rate of infant survival was high, fertility was low, and where the rate of infant survival was low, fertility was high. The more likely infants are to die in the first year of life, the more of them people have in order to replace the ones that have been lost. In the same study, analyses were also carried out for the approximate period of the original demographic transition, 1880-1940. The results were essentially the same: infant mortality was the key determinant, and the economic value of children’s labor, although somewhat more important for this period, was clearly of secondary significance.
To hammer the final nail in Harris’s coffin, it is worth mentioning that Hillard Kaplan (1994) has carried out research in band and tribal societies designed to see whether children’s labor contributes more calories than children actually expend. The answer is a clear no in all of the societies he studied. In fact, children appear to be very economically costly in all societies (we have long known that they are extremely costly to rear in modern industrial societies). Since they do not produce economic benefits that exceed what they themselves cost, why then do people have them? The answer, I believe, is that they are biologically predisposed to do so because that is how they maximize their reproductive success. It is Darwinian theory, not cultural materialism, that explains reproductive patterns.
6. Homosexuality. In his discussion of homosexuality in Our Kind (1989), Harris makes rather a
mess of things. The basic problem is
that he treats all homosexual practices as essentially the same. To his credit, at the beginning of his
discussion Harris acknowledges that there is now a great deal of evidence that
in every society there is a small number of males and females who are
genetically predisposed toward homosexual rather than heterosexual sex. He admits that people do not start out a
blank slate in the realm of sex. Harris
then goes on to say that in many societies institutionalized forms of
homosexuality have been found. He
discusses these practices among the ancient Greeks, the Etoro and other
Harris is emphatic that in most societies people do
not believe that homosexual practices are deviant and bad. They have held such beliefs in the
It is also odd that Harris makes no attempt to
explain situational homosexuality, because explanations are available that seem
quite plausible. One explanation of
ancient Greek homosexual practices between male tutors and their boy pupils is
that women were secluded, marriage was late, prostitution was disdained, and
men therefore had to spend a long period of time without heterosexual relations
(Posner, 1992). Since the educational
system already brought tutors into contact with boy pupils, the tutors became
opportunistic and substituted their pupils for females. Another explanation of the Greek pattern is
overpopulation (Percy, 1996), which has also been offered as an explanation of
7. Why we seek status. Harris (1989) makes the sensible claim that humans have a need for love, approval, and emotional support that is biologically rooted, part of our fundamental human nature. Individuals who have a particularly strong form of this need are the ones who are most likely to become headmen in hunter-gatherer societies and big men in horticultural societies. Individuals who particularly want to be given social approval become leaders in band and tribal societies because successful performance of their leadership roles generates a great deal of approval. However, Harris insists that the innate desire for love and approval stops well short of an innate desire for prestige, wealth, and power. He is highly critical of Thorstein Veblen’s famous idea that humans have an innate desire for status that leads them to become conspicuous consumers. The desire for prestige, wealth, and power, which is so characteristic of societies at higher levels of evolutionary development, Harris tells us, is “socially constructed” rather than innate. It is rather astonishing that Harris would use this phrase, since it is normally associated with idealist and subjectivist theoretical traditions that he finds anathema. Be that as it may, Harris goes on to say that “the universal drive to emulate the leisure class presupposes that a leisure class exists universally, which is factually untrue” (1989:367). Of course Harris is right that leisure classes are far from being universal, but he is wrong in his claim that they are necessary for individuals to be prestige seekers and conspicuous consumers. All that is required is that individuals have a generalized innate tendency to seek prestige and to turn that tendency into specific imitation of a leisure class when one comes into existence. But Harris never does explain why ruling classes form in the first place, except to point to certain infrastructural conditions necessary for them to exist, and thus he begs the very question he is trying to answer. It is true that certain minimal infrastructural conditions are required for their existence, but this does not adequately explain why they always arise when those conditions are present. Surely there must be something about the organism and the way it interacts with those conditions that call forth ruling classes. In stressing the economically and politically egalitarian nature of band and tribal societies, Harris also fails to point out that these societies are filled with prestige- and power-seekers whose ambitions must be curtailed by the rest of the society, lest they get out of control. There seems to be more than a desire for love and approval that is motivating leaders in such societies; it is simply that they have to be satisfied with those outcomes because they will not be permitted anything more. (In the last major section of the paper I will discuss the empirical evidence for an innate human desire for status, wealth, and power.)
area where Harris gets it partially but not quite right involves the rise of
modern capitalism, an issue with which both he and I have had a major
concern. He devoted a chapter to this in
Cannibals and Kings, emphasizing
demographic factors and the importance of the feudal mode of production in
In my analysis of the rise of
capitalism (Sanderson, 1994, 1995b, 1999b), I stressed that capitalism
developed not only in Europe after about 1500, but also in
With respect to geography, I
stressed the maritime location of the societies in the two regions.
I argued that climate was another
similarity between the two regions: both had far northerly locations and
temperate climates. This was important in the case of
As for the role of size, I pointed
The final precondition shared by
Western Europe and
The second part of my theory, which
I actually regarded as the more important part, focused on the particular
timing of capitalist development in the two regions. I argued that it took a very long time for
capitalism to develop after the origins of the first cities and states some
5,000 years ago because of what was said earlier: big agrarian bureaucracies
stifle capitalist development. The
bourgeoisie struggled for existence within the constraints of these
bureaucratic states. Nevertheless,
because capitalists provided a wide range of goods that noble classes desired,
capitalism could not be dispensed with altogether, and this allowed it not only
to gain a foothold, but to expand. Capitalists could be slowed down, but they
couldn’t be stopped, and as a result there occurred over time a process of expanding world commercialization. The level of world commercialization had
reached a critical threshold by about AD 1500, and this is why capitalism began
a major takeoff at this time, taking off first in those regions that were most
hospitable to it. However, capitalism, I
argued, would sooner or later have developed anyway because world
commercialization would eventually have crashed through the barriers imposed on
it by nobilities and their bureaucratic state partners. I estimated that, had there never been
regions favorable to capitalism in the ways that Western Europe and
Harris seems to disagree flatly with this analysis, claiming that world trade networks were not an important causal factor and that I selected the figure of another 1,000 or 2,000 years for capitalism to have occurred in the absence of favorable preconditions in an entirely arbitrary manner. But I did not choose these figures arbitrarily at all. Why not 10,000 years? Because world commercialization had already become very extensive by AD 1000 and, given how much it had developed in the previous 4,000 years, I would not think another 10,000 years would be needed for a capitalist explosion. The figure of 1,000-2,000 years is certainly an estimate, but it is an informed one based on an extrapolation from previous trends. It is not arbitrary.
Now to answer Harris’s contention that expanding world trade networks were not important causal factors (and were more outcomes rather than causes of capitalism). Harris wants to emphasize feudalism as the big causal factor and to link feudalism to ecology (rainfall farming vs. irrigation agriculture). Of course I agree that feudalism was important (and Harris may well be correct in his explanation of the origins of feudalism), but my point would be that feudalism by itself was not enough. By the sixteenth century feudalism could interact with extensive world commercialization to produce a capitalist takeoff. But feudalism in 1000 BC or even in AD 1 could not have generated a capitalist takeoff. It could only have made a small difference to the stimulation of mercantile activity. It was the interaction of feudalism and world commercialization that made the difference.
As for Harris’s point that capitalism created world trade more than world trade created capitalism, I would say it differently: world trade and capitalism created each other in a ratchet-like fashion over several millennia. There was extensive world trade long before there was modern capitalism, but the development of modern capitalism certainly led to a tremendous increase in the volume of world trade. Both created each other in a slow evolutionary fashion over a very long period of time.
In conclusion, Harris’s fallback on ecological factors (i.e., in explaining the origins of feudalism) and his resistance to my emphasis on a slow process of expanding world commercialization precisely exemplifies my point about the differences between my evolutionary materialism and his cultural materialism. Ecological factors are very important in precapitalist and preindustrial societies, and especially in band and tribal societies, but their causal significance seems to be less important in more complex societies, especially modern ones. In its analysis of more complex societies, evolutionary materialism wishes to emphasize some things that are underplayed in cultural materialism. Expanding world commercialization, derived from world-systems theory, is one such thing.
There are also a number of
Harris’s theories that I am either unqualified to evaluate, or that cannot be
properly evaluated because of a paucity of adequate data. In this regard I would list his arguments on
cannibalism, Aztec cannibalism in particular; hydraulic agriculture as the
basis for ancient agrobureaucratic states; the rise of the nonkilling
religions; the great witch craze; and gay liberation. The jury is still out, I
think, on why
So cultural materialism in the hands of Harris has made important achievements with respect to many important arenas of human social life, but it has also failed with respect to a variety of other arenas. Looking back over those areas in which Harris’s explanations seem to falter, I notice that in every single case it is because he has failed to take sociobiology seriously. Therefore, we need to push cultural materialism in a sociobiological direction and show how the two perspectives can be synthesized into a more comprehensive perspective whose explanations will be more adequate. This is a step Harris steadfastly refused to take, but it was there for the taking all the time because cultural materialism and sociobiology are, or at least can be made, highly compatible. They are friends, not enemies. As noted earlier, I have performed my own synthesis of these two theoretical strategies, which I call Darwinian conflict theory. What does it have to say?
In The Evolution of Human Sociality, I present the principles of Darwinian conflict theory in full, along with an extensive summary of evidence that I believe supports these principles. Here I will limit myself to an abbreviated version of the theory (more accurately, theoretical strategy).
1. Like all other species, humans are organisms that have been built by millions of years of biological evolution, both in their anatomy and physiology and in their behavioral predispositions. This means that theories of social life must take into consideration the basic features of human nature that are the products of human evolution.
2. The resources that humans struggle for, which allow them to survive and reproduce, are in short supply. This means that humans are caught up in a struggle for survival and reproduction with their fellow humans. This struggle is inevitable and unceasing.
3. In the struggle for survival and reproduction, humans give overwhelming priority to their self-interests and to those of their kin, especially their close kin.
4. Human social life is the complex product of this ceaseless struggle for survival and reproduction.
5. Humans have evolved strong behavioral predispositions that facilitate their success in the struggle for survival and reproduction. The most important of these predispositions are as follows:
· Humans are highly sexed and are oriented mostly toward heterosexual sex. This predisposition has evolved because it is necessary for the promotion of humans’ reproductive interests. Males compete for females and for sex, and females compete for males as resource providers.
· Humans are highly predisposed to perform effective parental behavior, and the female desire to nurture is stronger than the male desire. Effective parental behavior has evolved because it promotes reproductive success in a species like humans. The family as a social institution rests on a natural foundation.
· Humans are naturally competitive and highly predisposed toward status competition. Status competition is ultimately oriented toward the securing of resources, which promotes reproductive success. Because of sexual selection, the predisposition toward status competition is greater in males than in females.
· Because of the natural competition for resources, humans are economic animals. They are strongly oriented toward achieving economic satisfaction and well-being, an achievement that promotes reproductive success.
· In their pursuit of resources and closely related activities, humans, like other species, have evolved to maximize efficiency. Other things being equal, they prefer to carry out activities by minimizing the amount of time and energy they devote to these activities. A Law of Least Effort governs human behavior, especially those forms of behavior that individuals find burdensome or at least not rewarding in and of themselves. The Law of Least Effort places major limits on the behavior of humans everywhere; much behavior can only be explained satisfactorily by taking it into account.
6. None of the tendencies identified above are rigid. Rather, they are behavioral predispositions that move along certain lines rather than others but that interact in various ways with the total physical and sociocultural environment. The behavioral predispositions tend to win out in the long run, but they can be diminished, negated, or amplified by certain environmental arrangements.
7. From the above it follows that humans’ most important interests and concerns are reproductive, economic, and political. Political life is primarily a struggle to acquire and defend economic resources, and economic life is primarily a matter of using resources to promote reproductive success.
8. Many, probably most, of the features of human social life are the adaptive consequences of people struggling to satisfy their interests.
1. Human societies consist of four basic subunits:
· Individuals themselves as biological organisms, which we may call the biostructure.
· The basic natural phenomena and social forms that are essential to human biological reproduction and economic production, i.e., the ecological, demographic, technological, and economic structures essential for survival and well-being; this we may call the ecostructure.
· The institutionalized patterns of behavior shared by individuals, especially the patterns of marriage, kinship, and family life; the egalitarian or inegalitarian structuring of the society along the lines of class, ethnicity, race, or gender; its mode of political life; and its mode or modes of socializing and educating the next generation; these patterns may be identified as the structure.
· The primary forms of mental life and feeling shared by the members of the society, i.e., its beliefs, values, preferences, and norms as these are expressed in such things as religion, art, literature, myth, legend, philosophy, art, music, and science; these we may refer to as the superstructure.
2. These four components of societies are related such that the flow of causation is primarily from the biostructure to the ecostructure, then from the ecostructure to the structure, and finally from the structure to the superstructure; the flow may sometimes occur in the reverse manner, or in some other manner, but these causal dynamics occur much less frequently.
3. According to the logic of II.2, it is clear that the forces within the biostructure and the ecostructure are the principal causal forces in human social life; the biostructure structures social life both indirectly, i.e., through its action on the ecostructure (which then acts on the structure and superstructure), and through its direct effect on some of the elements of the structure and superstructure. It follows, then, that the ideas and feelings within the superstructure have the least causal impact on the patterns of social life.
4. The components of societies are related as they are because such causal dynamics flow from the deep wellsprings of human action. The biostructure and the ecostructure have a logical causal priority because they concern vital human needs and interests relating to production and reproduction.
5. Once structures and superstructures have been built by biostructures and ecostructures, they may come to acquire a certain autonomy. New needs and new interests may arise therefrom, and these new needs and interests, along with reproductive, economic, and political interests, may form part of the human preference and value structure characteristic of the members of a society.
1. As is obvious from the principles stated in II, Darwinian conflict explanations are materialist in nature; these explanations may take any or all of three forms: biomaterialist, ecomaterialist, or polimaterialist.
2. Biomaterialist explanations explain a social form by direct reference to a basic feature of the human biogram. That is to say, an explanation is biomaterialist if it links a social form to the human biogram without reference to any mediation of the causal relationship by some other social form. Example: Polygyny is a widespread feature of human societies because it springs from an innate desire of males for sexual variety and from the tendency of females to be attracted to resource-rich males.
3. Ecomaterialist explanations explain a social form by linking it directly to the influence of ecological, technological, demographic, or economic forces, and thus only indirectly to a feature of the human biogram. Example: Hunter-gatherer societies frequently display intensive sharing and cooperation because these are behaviors that promote individuals’ interests within the configuration of hunter-gatherer technoeconomic systems and natural environments.
Polimaterialist explanations explain a social form by linking it directly to the
political interests or situations of the participants. Political interests or
situations ordinarily spring from the participants’ economic interests, which
in turn are ultimately derived from the character of the human biogram. Examples:
Democratic forms of government emerged earliest in those Western societies with
the largest and most politically organized working classes.
As already noted, hierarchies are universally
found in human societies (Rossi’s first condition), and, in terms of Rossi’s
third condition, dominance- and rank-oriented behavior appears to be
characteristic of infants and young children, as shown by a variety of
ethological studies (e.g., Bakeman and Brownlee, 1982; Missakian, 1980; Strayer
and Trudel, 1984; Russon and Waite, 1991).
Most of these studies have been of children in American society, but an
important cross-cultural study has been carried out by Barbara Hold
(1980). She looked at the behavior of
German and Japanese kindergarten students and children of comparable age from
the G/wi San, hunter-gatherers from southern
There are also abundant data to show
that Rossi’s fourth condition is also well met.
Height is a widespread and possibly universal indicator of social status
(Freedman, 1979; Brown and Yü,
1993). In a well-known study, ostensible job recruiters were asked to choose
between two applicants for a position, one of whom was much shorter than the
other. The vast majority of the
recruiters chose the taller applicant (Freedman, 1979). In presidential elections throughout the
history of the
If human anatomy is related to status, is physiology as well? The answer appears to be yes. The best candidate for a neurochemical substrate of status-seeking behavior is the neurotransmitter serotonin. Research showing that serotonin and dominance-seeking are related in vervet monkeys (McGuire, 1982; McGuire, Raleigh, and Johnson, 1983) has been replicated for humans (Madsen, 1985, 1986, 1994). In one of the most recent studies, Douglas Madsen (1994) examined the relationship between blood serotonin levels, social rank, and aggressiveness in the context of a game-playing situation. He found that the serotonin levels of the participants who played the game nonaggressively declined as their perceived social status rose. By contrast, the serotonin levels of the participants who played the game in an aggressive fashion increased as their perceived social status climbed. Moreover, serotonin is known to play a major role in the regulation of mood, with low brain serotonin levels being associated with depression. Many individuals who have been treated for depression with fluoxetine (trade name = Prozac) have not only seen their mood improve, but have also experienced personality changes in the direction of less shyness or reticence and more confidence and boldness (Kramer, 1993). Confidence or boldness are very likely correlated with status-seeking behavior.
In simple horticultural societies the technological and economic base is usually not sufficient to allow for the creation of stratification, but because such groups depend much more on cultivation than on hunting or gathering the need for variance reduction is considerably lessened. Therefore, the desire of some individuals for high status and even deference from others can be given freer rein. These societies are often characterized by status-seeking men known in the local language as “big men” (Harris, 1977). Big men are village leaders and economic organizers. They push people to work harder and produce more food so they can hold feasts and distribute this food widely, certainly to all of the members of their own village but usually to some of the members of other villages as well. Big men are greatly admired and often given considerable praise and deference. One sees individuals like this among hunter-gatherers only seldom.
Compared to simple horticultural societies,
advanced or intensive horticultural societies cultivate the land more
intensively and more permanently, squeezing more out of it, and thus are more
economically productive. These societies
often are divided into social strata or classes that have a highly hereditary
or self-perpetuating character. A common
pattern is a division into three main social strata, consisting, respectively,
of chiefs, subchiefs, and commoners.
These strata are distinguished by differences in social status,
political power, dress and ornamentation, consumption patterns, the extent of
direct involvement in subsistence production, and styles of life. Many African horticultural societies in
recent centuries have had stratification systems of this type, as have a number
of Polynesian societies. Precontact
Agrarian societies have been devoted to the cultivation of large fields with the use of the plow and traction animals. As a result, they have been far more economically productive than horticultural societies, which use only hand tools. Agrarian stratification systems have been the most extreme of any found in human history, and they contained numerous social classes (Lenski, 1966). However, the most important of these classes, those that related to the primary axis of economy activity, were the political-economic elite and the peasantry. Lenski has divided the elite class into two segments, the ruler and the governing class. The ruler was the official political leader of society, and he surrounded himself with an administrative apparatus of government. What Lenski calls the governing class might be more accurately called the landlord class, since its members were the major owners of land. The political-economic elite as a whole usually consisted of no more than one or two percent of the population but controlled perhaps as much as half to two-thirds of the total wealth. Wealth was created by imposing rent and taxation on the peasantry, or perhaps by exploiting slave labor, and thus was skimmed off as an economic surplus. It was also created by plundering other societies and incorporating their land, peasants, slaves, and other economic resources, and by receiving economic tribute from them. Elites in most agrarian societies created an elaborate status culture that distinguished them sharply from the rest of society (Annett and Collins, 1975).
Another major change in the nature
of stratification in the transition to industrial societies is the decline in
status and deference cultures and the emergence of a widely accepted ideology
of egalitarianism, especially in the
The industrial societies we have been discussing
have been industrial capitalist
societies. So-called state socialist societies emerged
earlier in the twentieth century as an alternative form of society that would
eventually become highly industrialized and attempt to equal or surpass the
capitalist societies in the standard of living and the quality of life. The
It is also highly instructive to see
what has happened in
Marvin Harris was a great anthropologist who battled vigorously – sometimes a little too vigorously – for a scientific anthropology guided by his cultural materialist theoretical principles. He had a great deal of success, although not as much as he had hoped. Many were greatly influenced by his work, but many others demurred. I have been one of the few sociologists to have read and studied Harris’s work carefully and to use it as a basis for my own empirical work and theoretical reformulations. No single scholar has had a greater influence on my thinking and the intellectual trajectory of my career than Marvin Harris. Yet a number of years ago I began to see problems with cultural materialism as a general theoretical strategy as well as with a number of Harris’s specific substantative theories. The problem with Harris’s thinking was not that it was materialist, but that it was not materialist enough. It needed to move in a more biologically materialist direction by embracing the principles of sociobiology, principles that are needed to take cultural materialism to a deeper level. After all, the infrastructure has priority because it is a response to humans’ most basic biological needs and drives. Where cultural materialism works, it is because of the biological needs and drives that give rise to the material interests that are so much a part of Harris’s thinking. But where cultural materialism does not work, it is because these biological needs and drives are more fundamental than other material interests. Harris steadfastly refused to take this biological step, but we can take it for him and thus extend the logic of his own paradigm. Harris wouldn’t have liked it, but then sometimes people have to be saved from themselves.
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