Vitriol & Misinformation

Marvin Harris and his theory of cultural materialism have received much criticism from both within and outside of academe.  Some anthropologists seem uncomfortable with the theory's foundation on material conditions.  Labeling Harris a "vulgar materialist," such intellectuals assert the primacy of ideas and ideologies in any explanation of human sociocultural systems. Others attack him because they have a competing theory that they believe more valid for explaining and understanding sociocultural systems. All of this is fair game, part of being a professional in the social sciences.

There are times when his critics make valid points.  Harris addresses these critiques extensively in his writings (and levels critiques of competing view points as well).  This is especially true in "Cultural Materialism: A Struggle for a Science of Culture" which  provides excellent background (from Harris' perspective) for these academic debates. These volumes also provide a bibliography of such critiques.

However, I do not wish to focus on valid criticisms of Harris and C.M. on this page.  What I wish to expose to the light of day are criticisms that go beyond the standard academic critique; criticisms that attempt to ridicule and dismiss with prejudice rather than directly address the theory itself.  Such attacks are not as unusual in academe as they should be.  Two of Harris' prime theoretical influences, T. Robert Malthus and Karl Marx, have both been seriously maligned in the literature.  The amount of vituperative the man and the theory generates is perhaps one measure of the power of the theory itself.

Many of these detractors ridicule Harris as a mere "popularizer," one who foolishly attempts to explain all cultural phenomenon in terms of a simplistic, mechanical theory.  Harris' theory is summarized as a "need for protein" or some equally absurd assertion.  He is then ridiculed for being such a simpleton, and then "refuted."  No serious anthropologists, they claim, put any credence in his theory at all.  Harris is simply a crank.

I suspect that many of these attacks on the Internet are coming from "students" of postmodernism.  Postmodernism is a perspective that appears to be increasingly fashionable in anthropology, coming to dominate some departments,  particularly at the flagship institutions. Postmodernists rail against the very idea of a "science" of culture, and insist that every culture must be taken on its own terms, that the search for cultural universals and laws of development are futile.  In his last book, "Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times," Harris strongly critiques this perspective and reasserts the possibility for true social science.

It is my suspicion that the majority of these attacks are parrotings by students of  postmodernist professors who have not the intellectual ammunition or courage to attack the theory directly in print, but who routinely denigrate Cultural Materialism in their classes.  

I have encountered these attacks on Harris and C.M over the last few years in discussion groups on the Internet.  The comments below have not been edited, I did change some of the colors (for clarity) and eliminated the surname of participants. 

--Frank Elwell (felwell at 

Example #1

What follows is an excerpt from a discussion group that centered on cannibalism.  In the course of the discussion one of the the participants, y2karl (below in blue), quotes Marvin Harris extensively on the subject.  The excerpt begins with another participant, Faze, attacking Harris (below in red): 

y2karl, Marvin Harris was one of the most biased, axe-grinding, hobby-horse riding anthropologists in the business. For him, all of human culture was explained by what he imagined was this insatiable need for protein -- he even went so far as to believe that the human sacrifices of the Aztecs were driven by a dietary need for the protein in the victim's hearts (as if a whole civilization could get their protein needs met by enemy hearts). The man was fun, but something of a crank, especially as no respectable dietician (sic) ever corraborated (sic) his theories. So he was predisposed to be credulous about cannibalism. In fact, cannibalism was a keystone of his theory. Nobody's taken him seriosly (sic) for a long time.

What I find shocking is that the politically "progressive" posters of MeFi have fallen so eagerly for this cannibal myth. Doesn't it occur to anybody that accusations of cannibalism are simply a cultural universal-- a way of denigrating an enemy, a neighbor, a minority group, a means of justifying colonialism, missionary work, or just plain oppressions?

Doesn't it fall into the category of the blood libel against the Jews, or the Belgian nuns as one of those big, hysterical lies that's supposed to justify an obliterative response?
posted by Faze at 6:36 AM PST on July 30.

Possible, Faze, but seems quite improbable. I think it has a lot more to do with the ignorance that the average modern person has about historical activities that are so alien to the 21st century mind as to seem
unthinkable (this goes far beyond cannibalism). I believe that Arens' "debunking" was pretty thoroughly debunked among anthropologists a decade ago, as I recall from my reading at the time (late for work, so no links at this time). The charges against him were that he set out to prove a thesis, not to objectively examine the data, and that he threw out or ignored much that countered his hypothesis.

And your suggestion that accusations of cannibalism are a universal cultural form of denigration implies the universality of a negative view of the activity, which is precisely what is being examined and, therefore, rather circular in reasoning.
posted by rushmc at 7:03 AM PST on July 30 

"What I find shocking is that the politically 'progressive' posters of MeFi have fallen so eagerly for this cannibal myth. Doesn't it occur to anybody that accusations of cannibalism are simply a cultural universal."

So what? So are accusations of murder. That doesn't mean that murder doesn't happen - and that some societies, from time to time, have seen more of it than others.

While there may well be 'cannibal myths' about certain societies, that doesn't mean that every story of cannibalism is myth. There are convincing accounts of Fijian cannibalism. And if you doubt those because of their internet provenance, all I can say is I've seen similar accounts in various 19th-century volumes, all by different people. If there was a grand conspiracy to spin a cannibal myth around the Fiji Islands it was surely even more elaborate than the conspiracy theories floating around about 9-11 today.
posted by rory at 8:12 AM PST on July 30 

(Of course, Sod's law means that after posting that link I see that the site has crap on it about the Holocaust being a 'myth', which casts a shadow on their motives for publishing those Fiji quotes. But Cargill, at least, was a genuine missionary to Fiji in the 1830s, his accounts from that time were indeed published, and I've seen some of them. And various
of those details, like using live men as rollers to launch canoes, I read long before seeing that page. You don't tend to forget that stuff...)
posted by rory at 8:23 AM PST on July 30 

"Marvin Harris was one of the most biased, axe- grinding, hobby-horse riding anthropologists in the business?? From the Columbia College obituary:
"Harris was a proponent of the four-field approach to the discipline of anthropology, which combines cultural anthropology, anthropological linguistics, biological anthropology and archaeology. His influence spans all four fields. Harris is known as the founder of cultural materialism, a theoretical paradigm and research strategy that attempts to explain cultural practices as a result of the ways in which a culture solves the practical problems of survival. He suggested that food taboos, warfare and witchcraft originate from a society's ways of adapting to a means of subsistence."

"In fact, cannibalism was a keystone of his theory." Oh, really... A short summary of Cultural Materialism.  Also, Marvin Harris's Cultural Materialism

Nobody's taken him seriosly for a long time??
Oh, really...American Anthropological Association website--note who's quoted at the top.
posted by y2karl at 8:44 AM PST on July 30 

"He even went so far as to believe that the human sacrifices of the Aztecs were driven by a dietary need for the protein in the victim's hearts (as if a whole civilization could get their protein needs met by enemy hearts." That is so silly (and wrong)--care to source where he ever said anything like that?
posted by y2karl at 8:48 AM PST on July 30 

Pages 228-34 in Harris's 1985 "Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig" lay out the theory in embarassing (sic) detail, all a bit too lengthy to copy out here. Harris was a powerful department head at Columbia. I'm sorry to hear that he's passed away, and I will say this much for him: he was an entertaining popularizer, and unlike most of his colleagues at the time, he wasn't a Marxist.
posted by Faze at 7:25 PM PST on July 30 

Faze: What I find shocking is that the politically "progressive" posters of MeFi have fallen so eagerly for this cannibal myth. Doesn't it occur to anybody that accusations of cannibalism are simply a cultural
universal -- a way of denigrating an enemy, a neighbor, a minority group, a means of justifying colonialism, missionary work, or just plain

Not really...I don't have a moral problem with the idea in itself, nor does it particularly disgust me to contemplate. The idea of a culture that practices it does not mean that they are being denigrated.
posted by bingo at 1:40 AM PST on July 31 

I believe if you read more closely, he notes the hearts were cut out by the priests in the sacrifice and burnt on the altars, the bodies of the sacrificed then dismembered and rolled down the steps of the pyramids for the waiting peasantry below...

"he even went so far as to believe that the human sacrifices of the Aztecs were driven by a dietary need for the protein in the victim's hearts (as if a whole civilization could get their protein needs met by enemy hearts)."  Um, Faze, the hearts? 

As some ceremonies involved such sacrifices in the thousands, that's a lot of meat in a densely populated land where the top three sources of protein were dogs, turkeys and pond scum (algae skimmed from the lake around Tenochtitlan and pressed into cakes). 

And since you've read Harris, you'll perhaps remember an extensive quotation in Of Cannibals And Kings from an eyewitness account by a French priest capture by the Iroquois that involved the torture, killing, dismemberment and consumption of an enemy prisoner. 

"Arens maintains, and convincingly proves, that there is no first-hand, eye-witness evidence that any tribe, nation or culture on earth has ever made a normative behavior out of cannibalism." 

I believe I quoted another part of Harris's extensive rebuttal of the brilliant Arens' contention above--in which he is most case-by-case specific but you seem to be able to ignore that...

--as well confabulate the narrative of Aztecs eating the remains of victims of human sacrifice into Aztecs eating human hearts alone...

--not to mention reducing your reduction of his theory of cultural materialism into this insatiable need for protein ...(Although an impartial observer might decide otherwise from the links on cultural materialism provided above.)

Oh, he was an entertaining popularizer but evidently not up to your post-docoral standards of scientific rigor. Right....No matter what half-cocked, weak and wrong things you said in the first place, you manage to introduce more with each response--Talk about making yourself right by making the other guy wrong--chalk you up in the Immortal Hall of the Never Wrongs.
posted by y2karl at 10:45 AM PST on July 31 

Harris was a powerful department head at Columbia. Well, he'd been at the University of Florida for some years before he died, if you're insinuating the obituary was a puff piece. Oh, and he was also the former chairman of the general anthropology division of the American Anthropological Association, too. Nobody's taken him seriously for a long time, indeed.
posted by y2karl at 12:27 PM PST on July 31 

y2karl, those were some pile-driving posts. I would say that I stand corrected, only nobody could remain standing under that relentless barrage. Let me just say... ah, never mind.
posted by Faze at 1:31 PM PST on July 31.

Colors and some punctuation added for clarity. The entire discussion can be found at:

Example #2

This one was posted on several newsgroups on the web.  In it the writer answers his own question. Example #3 details some of the responses this one generated.

From: (Frank) 
Subject: Is Marvin Harris still taken seriously? 
Date: 1998/03/29
Organization: All USENET -- Newsgroups: 
Originator: evolution@pogo 

I hope this is an appropriate topic for these newsgroups... I read Harris's CANNIBALS AND KINGS and found it fascinating and largely persuasive. However, I noticed that in the Nov/Dec 96 issue of THE SCIENCES, there's a cartoon called "The Top Eleven Bloopers on the Way to Enlightenment," by Roz Chast, featuring some of the biggest mistakes in science in the last 35 years. Included are things like the discovery of polywater, the discovery of cold fusion, and the flaw in the Hubble Telescope mirror, all of which are generally agreed to have been mistakes. However, number four in the list is "The doctrine of cultural materialism, applied to anthropology, led to such comic masterpieces as the attempt to explain cannibalism or Hindu sacred-cow worship in nutritional terms." This is clearly a reference to Marvin Harris's work. Can anyone tell me when, and to what extent, was his work refuted? Did a better theory take its place? Roz Chast acknowledges Clifford Geertz as one of her sources. Is the current wisdom that Harris was wrong, or is this a reflection of some personal feud between Harris and Geertz? 

Example #3

I would be quite interested, actually, to see some serious anthropologists give comment.  So far it has just been the jealous ranting club of what Marvin Harris calls the "obscurantists" (although I do confess I got into it initially to bask in the afterglow of Gil's enlighted offerings).
Marvin Harris? Do you actually mean the paperback writer after the fashion of Von Daniken and Wilson? Please any "serious anthropologist" do give comment. Welcome indeed.


Gil, are you taking a lot of drugs, or something? Or are you seriously of the opinion that Marvin Harris is a quack? Have you read any of his works?

Please answer these questions:

1. Why is Marvin Harris's book "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches"  so often used to supplement intro to cultural anthropology college courses, and why are
so many of his books contained in the bibliographies of the anthropology texts used in colleges? Certainly he might occasion controversy, but I can
hardly imagine that you would have good reason to damn him to the ranks of Von Daniken.

If you think about it, doesn't this type of "spitting in the eye whimsically" diminish the resources of those assembling their own introductory reading list from this newgroup?

And please, don't respond to me with the same flim flam that you give the scsi.astro folk just because I am questioning you after you have read and
responded to all of the "big bang" stuff. Take a moment to give me an earnest answer, and be your light hearted best. I am, after all, part of the sci.anthopology group, and although I am begining to wonder if you are over stressed, I have defended you twice so far upon occasions you are unaware. I would hate to get into the cycle with you. Its not like it would serve some leveling purpose. :-)

-- Eric 

Example #4

Paul gave this recommendation to the perplexed who would like to understand certain dietary idiosyncracies:

"I'd like to recommend the work of anthropologist Marvin Harris in this connection.  He has written a number of popular (in both senses) books
that contain an excellent discussion of such things as food taboos. His Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches was one of the earliest.  Another was originally published under the  title Good to Eat although he
later changed the title to something I can't recall (even though I actually read and own it under the later title :-().  (Herb will probably fill it in.  :-))  Particularly readable is Our Kind."

I second this whole-heartedly. (I did think, however, that Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches was a re-write of Good to Eat.) One will also like to peruse
Cannibals and Kings, for how such considerations affected the origins of social complexity, such as organised states.

The best work by Harris is still a layman's book, but on a somewhat more academic level: Cultural Materialism: the Struggle for a Science of Culture.
Here, he goes into great detail on how the epistemology of science in general, and cultural materialism in particular, is built up.

He has interesting things to say about sociobiology [good to remember: sociobiology explains well what is universal among cultures, cultural materialism explains well their differences], and about less scientific camps like structuralism, Marxism, and [writing before the PC explosion in the US] alludes to, without explicitly saying so, the errors of thinking,
intentional and otherwise, among much modern "new-age" anthropology.

Harris, needless to say, is out of favor among many academic anthropologists. (I got flamed on this in sci.anthropology.) But not really for scientific
reasons. I think it is because materialist thinking says many uncomfortable but unavoidable things about how life, culture, and ecology interact; things
which are at odds with certain fantasies in which many people would like to believe.

Harris's main point seems to me to be that one may profitably describe things in culture by discussing "anthropological issues", but to explain them one must investigate the origin of these issues, and with testable theories. In other words, turn social science into science. Not surprisingly, he is deprecated by both Right and Left, each for their own ideological 

This expanded description is intended for those who are interested and would like to read further (I had to find all this over many years on my own, through seredipity). I have no interest in using it as a cudgel.

Example #5

I am runnning into people who love to talk about anthroplogy and realizing I am not knowledagble to have a decent conversation on this topic which seems interesting. I am wondering if someone on this group can recommend some interestingly written books that can be read by a layman like me. I realize that anthro is probably sub-divided into many categories and makes this request unfair. I can think I can research on my own into this after I had some recommendations. This place sounded like a good beginning. Thanks in advance.

I HIGHLY recommend Marvin Harris OUR KIND and Jared Diamond THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE.  These are not anthropology textbooks and are well suited to a general audience.

You also might enjoy Harris' COWS, PIGS, WITCHES AND WAR.  This is a series of essays, the first of which concerns the Hindu prohibition
on eating beef.  The second has to do with the Jewish and Moslem prohibition on eating or touching pigs.  Good, fun reading.

NO!!!  NOT MARVIN HARRIS!!!  He's a stuck-up, irritating, pompous, everything-has-a- simple-functional-explanation- that-only-I-could- discern type!!!  Bad, bad, BAD!!!

Now that that's out of my system, lemme see what I can come up with.  "The Forest People" is one of the best (it's about the B'Mbuti pygmies).  Any of the books by the Ferneas are good (Middle Eastern
stuff).  Both of these take a more wholistic (and more realistic) approach to the study of cultures and societies.

 I must admit, however, that I'm biased.  As a former anthro grad student who became disenchanted with the "state of the art," I do have
pretty strong feelings about all this.  In general (and this is all IMHO), I would steer away from those who try to establish "rules" for human social behavior (especially those who think that anthropology is a
scientific field of study).  The post-classical anthropologists have a lot of good things to say, but have a tendency to write in incredibly convoluted sentences ("make it sound complex - if people can't
understand it, they'll think it's brilliant").  I'm probably going to be pilloried for this, but I think that the old 19th c. travel writers were much more "anthropological" than many of those in the discipline today (flame away...).

YES!!! YES!!! MARVIN HARRIS!!!  Cultural Materialism is a profound tool of social analysis, and he is one of its most clear expositors.  Of course the
forms of society have their origin in material needs as well as the free imagination of the people who create them (which Harris doesn't deny).  It is an immense amount of work to create and maintain a society, so why would people bother to do it if it didn't facilitate the hardest task each human being faces, namely staying alive in this cruel, hard world.  

His book Cannibals and Kings is, IMO, impossible to argue against on whole (of course one can dispute tiny parts).  If you are interested in Cultural Materialism and want to get a feeling for what it is about before you read its greatest theorist Karl Marx, this book is an excellent place to start.

Regards, Adrian

Example #6

Hello, my name if Jonathan Shih, and I am a debator at Buffalo Grove High School. I am interested in learning about human evolution. The basic premise of my research would basically consist of literature that says that evolution will solve all problems that man will encounter. If you could tell me where I could get this literature, or if you could send me some of this. It would really be helpful if you could send me literature saying that evolution solve specific problems, i.e. racism, poverty, discrimination, wars, etc. If you could also tell me who to contact that would have this information...that would be wonderful. Thanks for any help in advance.
Buffalo Grove Debate

At your local library, there is a book entitled "Our Kind" under either anthropology or sociology.  It is written by the same author that wrote
"Cows Pigs Wars and Witches". I unfortunately loaned it out and I'm not able to tell you the authors name. It is a completely facinating study of the human race, offering real answers to your questions.  This author uses examples of how both natural and cultural selection has affected, and will continue to affect human beings and the way they interact. Anything from, why we have hair on our 
heads to why some races of people were cut off from the "Industrial Revolution" due to its geographical location. He also makes references to some problems in primitive societies that still occur in civilized societies, today. As far as the idea of using this information to "solve" our American society's 
problems, you will probably have to develop some of your own theories, keeping in mind that history, when it comes to Human Nature, always seems to 
repeat itself. goodluck!  :-)


From: CBJones57 (
Subject: Re: information regarding evolution 
The book "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches" was written by Marvin Harris. His reasoning is pretty flawed in a lot of places, based on his assumption
that one can explain *all* cultural phenomena by appealing to materialist, functionalist, or economic reasons. (Example: Hindus hold cows sacred
because they need them badly for agriculture and thus need a compelling incentive to keep from eating them in time of famine; Aztecs sacrificed humans and ate them because of protein deficiency in their diet, an explanation that ignores the fact that the sacrificial cultus was limited to the aristocracy, and the rest of the Aztecs got along fine without people-burgers; etc.)


Example #7

While wondering today why more people don't care about animal suffering, it dawned on me that most people don't care about human suffering.  Then I started thinking about a couple of books I read about food taboos by Marvin Harris.  Professor Harris usually theorizes that food taboos develop for economic reasons and in his books gives very elaborate arguments to support his theories.  I would
recommend his books to anyone, especially vegetarians.

In the field of Anthropology, few people give Marvin Harris much credit anymore - his theories were popular a few decades ago but no one in the field will cite his work and his "Cultural Materialism" has very very very few followers.  Oh, and his cannibal material has been discredited. Its bad bad bad bad bad anthropology. He does have some points
in his work worth pondering, but he carries them too far to the extremes in a sort of environmental determinism.  You should probably read some of his critics to get a more balanced view.



May God have mercy on the discipline.  Not being content with their rather thin insights on the human condition, they find that they must denigrate all who attempt to address substantive issues.

Harris's Cultural Materialism

Elwell's Professional Page