Culture as Protein and Profit

Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures

by Marvin Harris
Random House, 239 pp., $2.95 (paper)

In this book of modest size, Marvin Harris explains the origins of war, capitalism, the state, and male supremacy. He reveals the true meaning of the Eucharist, tells why Hindus believe in sacred cows, and discloses the logic behind Jewish dietary laws. He also explains why agriculture was invented, expounds the causes of matrilineal descent, and uncovers the reasons for Aztec sacrifices.

Perhaps the accomplishment was not that difficult, since all these cultural developments, according to Harris’s theory, have essentially the same explanation. The theory is that the customs of mankind come and go according to their profitability. In a series of essays ranging in time from the Old Stone Age to nowadays, and in topic from tribal warfare in South America to the population of China, Harris argues that the evolutionary fate of cultural forms is determined by the degree that they contribute to people’s well-being.

Especially do customs rise or fall according to the amount of nourishing foods they provide. Every society is thus engaged in the production of these customs that will make effective use of the available resources. And all sorts of institutions, from cannibalism through capitalism, may be explained by a kind of ecological cost accounting: institutions come and go by virtue of the practical benefits, they deliver relative to their material costs. This is the calculus of Harris’s “cultural materialism.” It is complemented by a theory of cumulative population growth, by the idea that population has a natural tendency to outrun resources, so that the application of the cost/benefit program becomes necessary for cultural survival. The overall view is that culture is business on the scale of history.

Therefore, Americans should readily understand it. For a people who live and die by the market, it is self-evident that human action is motivated by utility and ordered by rationality because no matter how grotesque the customary manner of survival, achieving it requires a prudent managing of one’s material means. Even when we act impractically from some larger viewpoint, as by laying waste our national powers in getting and using private automobiles, our behavior tends to be experienced individually as a utilitarian project (“buying a car”). And no matter how spiritual or disinterested our ends may be, taken by themselves, our relation to them is typically economic. Hence going to a concert, “making a decent life for the children,” or taking one’s leisure appear as so many “utilities” among which people apportion their pecuniary resources. In the consciousness we have of our own existence, culture is businesslike. And where a society thus makes a fetish of the commodity, its anthropology risks making a commodity out of the fetish.

So we can follow Mr. Harris when he tells us that human sacrifice among the Aztecs had a sound scientific basis in nutrition. True the victim’s heart was offered to the Sun, but the Indians often made a feast of the arms and legs, because they kept no large domestic beasts …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.