Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 3, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars: part five

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

Marvin Harris

Critique number one: Marvin Harris

This will be the first in a series of posts about Napoleon Chagnon’s critics. It will begin with a review of the arguments of Marvin Harris, a long-time member of the Columbia University faculty who died in 2001. Harris described his approach as cultural materialism, clearly influenced by Karl Marx.

Harris is best known for “Cannibals and Kings: the Origins of Culture”, a book written in 1978 that explains human history as a struggle to achieve nourishment, including the Aztecs whose ritual human sacrifices were interpreted as a means to a better diet! Many anthropologists regarded this approach as one-sided, including Marshall Sahlins who was Harris’s peer and also influenced by Marxism. In a November 23, 1978 review in the New York Review of Books, Sahlins faulted Harris for being overly deterministic:

Applied to the explanation of Aztec cannibalism or Hindu taboos, Harris’s utilitarianism incorporates the meanings other people give their lives within the kind of material rationalizations we give to our own.

Sartre appropriately called a similar intellectual procedure “terror,” for its inflexible refusal to discriminate, its goal of “total assimilation at the least possible effort.” Sartre was referring to the “vulgar Marxism” which could only see in an act of politics or a poem of Valéry’s some version of “bourgeois idealism.” Everything in the social superstructure could be reduced to its economic function.

Given this context, it should come as no surprise that Harris’s main beef with Chagnon was over whether the Yanomami were as well-fed as he claimed. If warfare was understood as the need to gain control over scarce meat protein in the rainforest, then the whole business about gene diffusion became less convincing.

It should also be stressed that Harris found Chagnon’s “war is in our nature” very much in line with the ruling class’s justifications for the war in Vietnam, which was raging at the time Harris began to mount his criticisms. Indeed, Harris was one of the few faculty members at Columbia University besides Immanuel Wallerstein who took the side of the student radicals in 1968. In June of that year, Harris wrote an article for the Nation Magazine titled “Big Bust at Morningside Heights” that made it clear where he stood:

I believe that there is a connection between the mentality expressed in the Columbia administration’s viewpoint and that which was responsible for driving this country deeper and deeper into the Vietnamese War. It is the domino theory, all over again. If we don’t punish the revolutionaries for taking over the president’s office, how are we going to stop them from taking over the entire university? The answer, as we have almost learned in Vietnam, is that if there are well-formed structural reasons for mass resentments against existing laws and authority, the dominoes have a good chance of falling no matter how many policemen are brought in to shore them up.

The fact that people like Marvin Harris has worked for Columbia University always made the relatively low pay and the lack of a career path acceptable. Never in a million years would have any of my old bosses at Goldman Sachs ever said anything remotely like that.

Harris wrote “Animal Capture and Yanomamo Warfare: Retrospect and New Evidence” for the spring 1984 “Journal of Anthropological Research”. It states in the third paragraph: “With the escalation of the Vietnam War, many anthropologists, myself included, became involved with the peace movement.” For Harris, Chagnon was clearly a figure who reinforced the dominant ideology of American imperialism:

Chagnon’s theory involved two major contradictions: Why should villages make war to protect their sovereignty when war itself places their sovereignty in the greatest jeopardy? And why should Yanomamo men artificially maintain a shortage of women through female infanticide and then fight over sexual access to them?

Why did these contradictions fail to bother Chagnon? Apparently because he believed that warfare and male sexism arose from genetic programming that was readily capable of inducing irrational or even insane behavior (from a materialist-ecological, cost/benefit point of view).

Harris took particular exception to a comparison that Chagnon made betweenYanomami warfare and the war in Vietnam in his 1974 “Studying the Yanomomo” that was intended in part to refute Harris’s protein deficiency thesis:

I know of no serious anthropologist who would argue that the American military activities in Southeast Asia were a direct response to territorial shortages or protein deficiencies in the United States but there will be some anthropologists who will feel cheated if another colleague claims that Yanomamo warfare is not related to ecological parameters…I find the parallels between the behavior of modern nation states and the military behavior of sovereign tribal villages very intriguing…Warre…is still with us…and causes statesmen to ponder the essence of security, and to conclude from time to time, that the best defense is a good offense…

‘Warre’ is an explicit reference to Hobbes’s spelling of the word. As I stated in the beginning of these series of posts, the Chagnon/Jared Diamond sociobiology approach is nothing less than neo-Hobbesian. It is predicated on the belief that Rousseau’s noble savage is a lie and that our genes require men to kill their rivals as a necessary strategy for Darwinian survival. The only way to avoid violence is to create a strong state that can rein in mankind’s homicidal impulses, a view that dovetails with neoconservative and “muscular liberal” beliefs in preemptive warfare and all the rest.

In the section of his article titled “Chagnon Refuted”, Harris presents data that undermines the entire basis of Chagnon’s gene-based ideology—namely the evidence that the struggle for survival in the Amazon rainforest does definitely center on the need to procure food rather than females.

In the March 2, 1979 issue of Science Magazine an article titled “Protein Deficiency and Tribal Warfare in Amazonia: New Data” by Chagnon and Raymond Hames tried to fend off Marvin Harris’s criticisms. They supply data from the Toropo-teri village intended to prove that “the protein intake of the Yanomamo is more than adequate”. They claim that the bulk kilograms of protein per capita consumed each day in the village was 52 during the period studied, an amount that satisfies normal dietary standards.

Harris explained that the Toropo-teri village was not typical. It was attached to a highly acculturated and larger village of Ye’kwana Indians who were in fact traditional enemies of the Yanomami. The Yanomami men in this village no longer lived communally. They tilled the manioc gardens of the Ye’kwana for which they received a wage. The money allowed them to buy goods and food, and even create barns for cows—hardly the model to serve to illustrate protein deficiency. The Yanomami women worked as well, making manioc flour and getting paid with dresses made on Ye’kwana sewing machines. This led Kenneth Good, an anthropologist who I will post about in this series, and Jacques Lizot to state:

We believe that the conditions at that community (as well as its extreme geographic marginality) have so drastically altered the group of Yanomami that they cannot legitimately be represented as Yanomami society. For this reason we believe that the data presented here have little importance for the discussion of protein and warfare among the Yanomami.

In my next post I will take a closer look at Jacques Lizot’s research, which reflects the best instincts of his profession despite Patrick Tierney’s unfortunate tendency to view him as nothing more than a pedophile in “Darkness in El Dorado”.

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