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Science, Materialism and the Study of Culture, edited by Maxine Margolis and Martin F. Murphy, is a collection of papers given at the 1990 American Anthropological Association conference, and includes the work of leading cultural materialists of the day. Its dedication reads:
For MARVIN HARRIS, scholar, fisherman, and friend, from all of us in honor of his seminal contributions to anthropology and the science of humankind.
The personal life of Marvin Harris has proven difficult to document. His wife died not long after he did and his younger brother Herbert died in middle-age. His daughter Susan reacted with hostility when I asked her to contribute to his biographical information, and then afterwards refused to even respond to my attempts to communicate with her. With the notable exception of his cousin Ethel Rosenfeld, most of what I've discovered of his life so far has come from friends and colleagues, most significantly from Maxine Margolis, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida. Professor Margolis was Harris's student, then later his colleague at the University.
In her Harris obituary, written with Contrad Kottak and published in American Anthropologist, Margolis wrote:
Harris was a major force in training students in the science of anthropology. At Columbia and later at Florida, his popular theory courses were filled with hard-driving debates and students who found his critical style invigorating. His concern with the direction the Columbia department was taking during the late 1970s led him to leave that university and his Leonia, New Jersey, home to move to Gainesville. Having earned an early reputation for combativeness in defense of his theoretical principles, Harris mellowed in Florida. There he spent several more productive years teaching, training students, writing books, and practicing his skills in architectural planning and carpentry. For many years Marvin and his wife Madeline summered on the Maine coast on Great Cranberry Island. Guests at their home were treated to memorable dinners, day-long fishing trips, and sunset cocktail cruises aboard the Maddy Sue, Marvin's 36-foot "lobster yacht" built in 1932.
Marvin Harris was born August 18, 1927 in Brooklyn, NY. His family was from poor Russian-Jewish stock. His father was a not especially successful salesman who would sometimes take Marvin with him on sales calls. He attended Erasmus high school, notable for alumni such as Barbra Streisand. He met his wife Madeline in history class. By the time Harris was fifteen he was over six feet tall.
Harris joined the army in 1944. He was assigned to an amphibious truck unit and was enthusiastic about going to fight in Japan, but the war ended before he got the chance.
Harris received a BA in anthropology in 1948. He did field work in Mozambique in 1956-57. At the time Mozambique was a colony of Portugal, and Harris later wrote about the conditions of the Africans living under the system in a paper "Portugal's African 'Wards'" based on what he had learned during that time. In the paper's introduction he wrote:
From June 1956 to May 1957 I was in Moçambique carrying out a research program concerned with Portuguese influence on the cultural transformation of the African peoples. In the course of my work, I came to depend upon a number of people, both Portuguese and Africans, for information and assistance. To these people I became more than a social anthropologist and even more than a friend. Many of them risked their jobs and their personal safety to tell me about the conditions under which they were forced to live, even though in their own minds they could never be entirely certain that I had not been sent to spy on them. They took these risks more out of desperation than out of confidence. For they realized that I might possibly have the opportunity to help them. They knew that if I wanted to, I could at least “tell the world.” Under these circumstances, I cannot confine my writing to such "neutral" or purely technical subjects as would lead to no involvement in politically controversial issues.
Harris was an Associate professor of Anthropology, at Columbia, 1959-1963, and a professor from 1963 - 1980. He was chairman of the Department of Anthropology in 1963. During his years at Columbia, Harris was involved in another political struggle, this time in the clash between students and the Columbia University administration during the infamous 1968 student uprising. Harris was among the pro-student faculty during the series of conflicts that culminated in an attack by New York City police on student and faculty protestors. Harris wrote about the events in an article, published in The Nation, called "Big Bust on Morningside Heights." Harris discussed the conditions leading to the conflict:
The most remarkable aspect of this confrontation between suspicious students and a less than candid or ill-informed dean, is that Columbia’s connection with IDA (the Institute for Defense Analysis) was a public arrangement, the conditions of which were available to anyone who was curious enough to ask for IDA’s unclassified reports. With one or two exceptions, however, Columbia’s large contingent of pro-McCarthy, anti-Vietnamese War liberals (not to mention the politically apathetic center that makes up the majority of the faculty) remained ignorant of the university’s tie with IDA or failed to grasp its significance. In this instance at least, the student activists carried out a genuine educational task on a matter of paramount importance to the entire university community. They did indeed educate their professors, however unorthodox their teaching methods.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Harris and his family lived in Leonia, New Jersey, which borders Fort Lee, right across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan. Tragedy struck the family in the early 1970s when son Robert Harris was killed in a car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike.
In 1968, Harris published "The Rise of Anthropological Theory" which was both a history of the development of anthropology, and a blueprint for cultural materialism. Although it is considered his most important work and a classic work in the field of anthropology, his fame outside Academia rests on his general audience books "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches" (1974) and "Cannibals and Kings" (1978). I first came to know of Harris through these books, which were and continue to be widely available in book stores and libraries.
Harris became disatisfied with academic politics at Columbia University, and through the efforts of Maxine Margolis and others, decided to accept a position at the University of Florida at Gainseville, in 1980. All who know Harris say that he mellowed after this career move.
One of the most interesting perspectives on the work and character of Marvin Harris (as well as sociobiologist Napoleon Chagnon) can be found in the book "Into the Heart" by Kenneth Good. Good was a graduate student of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who had made his reputation by studying the Yanomami Indians of Brazil. Good wrote:
"Marvin Harris had mounted his attack on Chagnon's ideas using the methods and principles of cultural ecology - an approach that stressed the interrelatedness of environmental factors and cultural development. Chagnon knew that to refute Harris he would have to use the same methods and principles. It wasn't enough just to deny the veracity of Harris's arguments, he would have to demonstrate that they were false. But doing this would require an ecological study, and Chagnon himself had little experience in this area. As a graduate student with a background in cultural ecology and a stint of fieldwork already under my belt, I had seemed a likely candidate to gather the data that would finally show that protein capture was not the major factor in Yanomami violence that Harris and his colleagues believed it was.
...when I did understand what I had gotten myself into, I began to feel very uncomfortable. Here I was, with my Ph.D. sponsor, Napoleon Chagnon, the man who was going to fund my research, saying one thing, while at the same time another eminent professor (Harris) whose work I respected was saying precisely the opposite. As I began to fully grasp the issues, I started separating myself from the partisan position my situation at Penn State suggested. And when I did, it seemed to me that Chagnon began to suspect he had an ecological fifth columnist on his hands. Then, when he forbade me to go to New York to speak directly to Harris about his theories, I lost my temper (and went anyway.) From that point my relationship with Chagnon had gone downhill. And even though we patched things up well enough to go ahead with the project, we never recovered anything like our initial friendship.
After two years of living with the Yanomami, Good decided to return to the United States. He had to make part of the trip in a dugout canoe, recovering from malaria. Chagnon had refused to loan Good an aluminum canoe, and neglected to send him anti-malarial Camoprim tablets. When he got back to Penn State he confronted Chagnon.
In a bar near State College's bus station we talked with surprising calmness. I told him why I had not come out on schedule and what had happened to me when I tried to come out. Chagnon said that after I hadn't shown up, he sent off several letters to me (which I had never received), then had written to my family to say that if they were in touch with me, they should tell me that he assumed I had abandoned the project. There might even be legal ramifications, he had indicated. I sat there amazed. This man was my field director. If he had really believed I had disappeared, didn't he have a moral and professional responsibility to try to find me? I could have been lost in the jungle or dead. What was he doing telling my family about legal ramifications?
The problems grew more complicated. I was ready to write up my field notes as a doctoral dissertation, but things being what they were, I did not want Chagnon chairing my defense committee (as would have been normal, since he had sponsored my work). "You and I have a lot of problems," I told him bluntly, "and my results may be a little different from yours. You can be on my committee, fine. But I want Bill Sanders as my chair." Chagnon wouldn't accept it.
Eventually the chairman of the anthropology department intervened and decided that my defense committee would have co-chairmen, Chagnon and Sanders - with Chagnon as senior co-chairman. So after all the hot air Chagnon would still be chairman. I dug in my heels and refused to go along with that.
When the department realized the severity of our falling-out, they started to pressure me. One of the senior professors insisted I would have to give a copy of all my field notes to Chagnon.
"You want a copy of my field notes?" I said to Chagnon, incredulous. "I have been working down there for two years with all the difficulties and all the risks, and you want a copy of my field notes? I'm sorry, these are my Ph.D. notes, and they're staying with me."
"No," Chagnon said, "that's not right. Your responsibility was to collect data for the Yanomami project. The fact that you were going to get a Ph.D. out of this was only an ancillary bonus."
This was something new. "I was down there collecting data for the Yanomami project, and my Ph.D. was just an ancillary bonus? I was under the impression for the last two years that I was in there as a Ph.D. candidate doing field research for my dissertion." "No," said Chagnon, "that's incorrect. It was just an ancillary bonus." "Well, I'll tell you what," I said. "I'll flush these things down the toilet before I ever give them to you."
The climax of all this was a round-table meeting with the head of the department, Chagnon, myself, and Bob Carneiro, who was to have been on my committee and had flown in from New York. Carneiro started by saying, "Why don't we let Ken present his points first. " So I did.
"First of all," I said, "I don't think it's proper or ethical for the chairman of a student's committee to forbid him to speak to another member of the profession." I had never forgotten or forgiven Chagnon's attempt to keep me from speaking to Marvin Harris. "This is the United States. I think I can talk to whomever I want to talk to."
"Ah, c'mon," said Chagnon, "I never said such a thing."
...Despite my desire to get on with my Ph.D., I knew I had had it with Napoleon Chagnon. As far as I was concerned, he was responsible for my having almost expired in the jungle - with no malaria pills and no boat. I wasn't going to give him my notes under any circumstances, and I wasn't going to have him chair my committee, either.
"Okay," Chagnon said finally. "This is obviously not going to work out. So let's just drop it. Let's forget it. But, Ken, tell me, what are you going to do with yourself, go to work in your brother's dental lab? Because you're not going to get into any other anthropology department. I'll see to that."
I couldn't believe it. I had just spent two years among the so-called Fierce People, but in terms of ferocity I didn't think they began to match up to this...
Shortly afterwards I called Marvin Harris at Columbia and described the situation to him. "Yes," said Harris after listening to my recital. "It certainly sounds like you have to get out of there. It's unethical. You can't continue working under those conditions. You have to get out."
"What would you think," I said, "if I wanted to come to Columbia?"
"If you want to come to Columbia, you can come," Harris answered. "But don't think that you have to. There are plenty of places you can go. There are departments that have good Amazonian studies people who will welcome you with open arms. The important thing for you now is to get out of Penn State." I agreed.
Good would have another negative experience with Chagnon, relating to Chagnon's attempts to refute the work of Marvin Harris:
...I talked by phone with Madeline Harris, Marvin's wife. She told me that Science magazine had reconsidered an article of mine they had originally rejected, the paper I had given at the anthropological conference. I was to call one of the editors. When I finally got through, the editor told me that she didn't think the article had been reconsidered. But when I pushed her on it, she checked the file. Eventually she came back on and said that indeed it had been reconsidered. One of the chief readers had recommended publication, but people on the staff had not agreed with his conclusions. So the probability was that it would not be published.
It was a bad phone call, an unpleasant discussion. My hopes had shot up for a moment, then crashed just as quickly. And I was really eager to get something in Science, especially after my last experience with them. Several years earlier Jacques Lizot and I had written a joint letter to Science condemning an article Chagnon and Ray Hames had coauthored. That Lizot and I collaborated on a letter of this sort was a phenomenon by itself. Lizot had been Claude Levi-Strauss's student, while I was Marvin Harris's, and Harris categorically rejected Levi-Strauss's approach to anthropology and attacked it at every opportunity. Levi-Strauss (one of the founding fathers of French structuralism) was, so Harris liked to demonstrate, an idealist in whose thought myths and other mental phenomena played a wildly exaggerated role in understanding human culture, while actual human behavior that could be observed and recorded was considered essentially irrelevant. At the same time Harris, of course, was held in equal disdain by the French structuralists, for whom he was (when they were in a magnanimous mood) "a vulgar materialist."
So, as far as our anthropological orientation went, Lizot and I were 180 degrees apart. But both of us were astonished and shocked by a Chagnon/Hames article in Science titled "Protein Deficiency and Tribal Warfare in Amazonia," which purported to show that the Yanomami diet contained plenty of protein. According to Chagnon and Hames, if Harris's theory about the impact of protein scarcity on warfare was correct, there should be more warfare where protein consumption was lower, less where it was higher. But obviously warfare was common where protein intake was high; therefore Harris was refuted.
It was a crude, simplistic correlation that demonstrated an astounding ignorance of Harris's leading thesis - that warfare functioned to keep groups dispersed precisely so that hunting territories would not be subject to competition and consequently would indeed provide adequate protein. But it wasn't the ignorance that shocked Lizot and me. What shocked us was that the Chagnon/Hames data had not come from a legitimate Yahomami village at all, but from a small group of Yanomami refugees who had attached themselves to a village of Ye'Kwana Indians, a completely different culture, much more advanced technologically and far more acculturated than the Yanomami. The Ye'kwana village where this small group of Yanomami lived and worked was especially advanced, a riverine fishing community with four or five outboard motors and several docking points for their dugouts. They had a little store where they could buy canned meats and other foods, and they owned a big boat to take their garden crops down to Puerto Ayacucho and sell them, bringing back the things they needed, gasoline, shotgun shells, and so on. They even had a political co-op that the local political party had put in. In effect, the Ye'Kwana with whom these Yanomami were living constituded a small peasant community.
But Chagnon and Hames had neglected to mention any of this, leaving the impression that the Yanomami from whom they derived their data were an integral group living a traditional Yanomami life. Lizot and I had responded that this was not the case and that in our opinion Chagnon and Hames had had an obligation to explain to readers what kind of data they were presenting, and they hadn't done it. To my disbelief, Science had rejected our letter. I had even gotten on the phone and pleaded with them to publish it. For the sake of anthropology, I had said, the readers have to know about this. That's what I said. What the editor said was no, the case was closed, they weren't publishing it.
So this was a bad phone call, and it got me to thinking again about the academic world, about the jealousies and politics that I hated so much.
By this time Good became a Ph.D. and was hired by the Max Plank Institute in Germany. He spent a couple of years dividing his time between Germany and the jungles of Brazil and the Yanomami. Eventual he had a falling out with his boss at the Institute, Irenaus Eibl-Eisbesfeldt. Good wrote:
The obvious course now was to go back to Gainesville (note: Harris had by this time made the move to Florida) and get my doctorate... When I thought about my experience with Chagnon and Eibl and with some of the others I had dealt with over the years, I realized I was deeply disillusioned with anthropology. As it was, I had only stayed in it for so long because of people like Bill Sanders and Marvin Harris, who had the expanse of mind and personal integrity to commit themselves to the pursuit of ideas without giving a great deal of thought to their own status and importance.
After the move to Florida, Harris continued to teach, lecture and publish both scholarly and popular works, including America Now, published in 1982 and later retitled Why Nothing Works. Harris was interviewed by Hazel Henderson for her series "CREATING ALTERNATIVE FUTURES. You can watch a clip from this interview here. The clip is used by permission of Hazel Henderson and Bullfrog Films, and can be purchased from Bullfrog Films.
Marvin Harris died on October 25, 2001. The New York Times obituary includes the following:
But his provocative ideas, and equally provocative presentation, gave him a sphere of influence greatly exceeding that of an ordinary academic. Many of his 17 books were aimed at general audiences.
The Hindu ban on killing cows? Absolutely necessary as a strategy of human existence, Dr. Harris contended: they are much more valuable for plowing fields and providing milk than as a one-time steak dinner.
"Westerners think that Indians would rather starve than eat their cows," he told Psychology Today. "What they don't understand is that they will starve if they do eat their cows."
In Dr. Harris's view, then, a manufactured "divine intervention" was needed to encourage people simply to do the practical thing.
The Jewish and Muslim bans on eating pork? Pigs eat the same foods as humans, he reasoned, and are expensive to keep. Sheep, goats and cattle, by contrast, thrive on grass, and provide wool, milk and labor.
Warfare? A way of curbing population when protein gets scarce. Neckties? A badge men wear to indicate they are above physical labor.
Witchcraft? A convenient culprit for the rising protest that church and state faced from the 15th century to the 17th.
Dr. Harris's zest for controversy was suggested by the title of an article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1977: "Why Men Dominate Women." So was his contention that Aztec cannibalism sprang from a need for protein sufficiency, a view that drew some strong opposition. "It takes an heroic act of utilitarian faith to conclude that this sacrificial system was a way the Aztecs had for getting more meat," Marshall Sahlins wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1978.
Of course what Douglas Martin, the author of the obituary neglects to reveal is that Harris believed that Sahlins distorted cultural materialism, and Harris later strongly criticized Sahlins's obscurantism in Cultural Materialism. But then, Harris has never been the media darling that Claude Levi-Strauss (Sahlins was a spokesman for the work of Levi-Strauss, according to Harris) and E.O. Wilson and other non-cultural materialists have been. And he also fails to mention the fact that field studies increasingly support Harris's theories on the widespread and varied cases - and causes - of cannibalism worldwide.
R. Brian Ferguson, currently one of the foremost proponents of cultural materialism commented about the Times obituary:
...it leaves out 80% of him--his dedication to making anthropology a science, his perserverance as a generalist while all else were specializing, his opposition to biological reductionism when most anthropologists were ignoring it, his never-ending effort to grapple with issues of modern society, from "America Now" to the collapse of the USSR, and a political committment which in the obituary, sounds like crankiness.
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