Explains The Unexplainable

Interview by Barbara Spronk

Why for a Hindu is beef a tabooed item whereas in Canada and in the U.S.A. and most of the Western world is it considered to be a very honorific and delicious food?

Do you prefer a well-barbecued steak to a bowl of spinach? Does your stomach turn at the thought of eating a grub? Do you consider people who can't tolerate milk or milk products to be unfortunate freaks of nature? Do you think it would be more rational to slaughter “sacred cows” for food than to protect them with religious prohibitions?

If you are of Northern European origin, your answer to these questions is likely “yes”. After reading Harris's most recent book, Good to Eat, your answer to the first two likely will still be affirmative, but you will at least understand why. As for the third and fourth, your answers likely will have shifted, if not to a definite “no”, at least very strongly in that direction.

Harris, in the best anthropological tradition, has made a career of explaining the apparently unexplainable. His primary tool has been a scientific research strategy he terms “cultural materialism”. Harris's approach is based on the premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of human existence. Primary among these problems for any human population is how best to use the resources it has available, so that it not only can maintain itself but also reproduce itself and sustain the next generation.

Hence Harris's concern with the complex of subsistence techniques, ecological and social relationships, and food preferences he calls “human foodways”. Harris poses a number of puzzles about what appear to be arbitrary likes and dislikes: Why the universal preference for animal foods over vegetable ones? Why do Hindus protect their cattle rather than slaughter them for, presumably, much needed food? Why do so many religions proscribe the eating of pork, and why is Christianity an exception? Why do Europeans enjoy horsemeat, whereas their American cousins export it but won't eat it? Why the North American obsession with beef? Why are most of the world's peoples unable to digest milk, and what accounts for the Northern European exception to this near universal? Why do Europeans and North Americans find insects disgusting as a possible source of food? Can an animal that is part of a people's regular cuisine still be a pet? Why would a group sanction the consumption of human flesh when other foods are available?

According to Harris, the answers to these and other questions about human foodways do not lie in simplistic statements such as “their/our religion tells them/us this is so” or “because they're dirty.” Such statements themselves beg explanations, which Harris provides. Harris's assumptions and conclusions are not unassailable, nor lacking in challengers. Harris, however, relishes challenges, as he makes clear in the “taster” interview which follows.

Aurora: The point of your book, as I understand it, is to propose solutions to the riddles posed by a wide variety of food preferences and taboos, proceeding on the assumption that there is a material basis for these eating behaviours rather than a merely whimsical or superstitious basis.

Harris: Yes, that's right. That, of course, conforms to my general perspective on socio-cultural issues. Good to Eat is another extension of a general perspective on how to account for cultural differences and similarities on a global basis, an application of certain general principles for understanding human social life to a particular set of what appear to be unanswerable questions about food preferences.

Aurora: What inspired you to consider food preferences in particular as an application of this “cultural materialism” approach?

Harris: Food, like sex, is one of the principal kinds of human activity that engage people when they wonder about how to account for different kinds of human behaviour. Eating is a very sensual aspect of our lives. It can also be a very puzzling one; for example, why for a Hindu is beef a tabooed item, whereas in Canada and the U.S.A. and most of the Western world is it considered to be a very honorific and delicious food? If I can bring some light to bear on problems like that, I feel that people will be enlightened not only on the question but also on a way of approaching such questions.

Aurora: As you point out, the subject you chose to tackle is wrapped up with all kinds of emotional ties and very deeply held feelings. What about the reactions to your book—have they also been particularly strong or emotional?

Harris: Yes, there have been some strongly negative reviews, and there have also been a lot of positive ones, but I am used to that. In the social sciences, if you don't arouse people's emotions, if you don't get them excited about what you are saying, then the research you are doing really isn't worthwhile getting involved in. I use the strength of people's reactions as a gauge of whether or not I am doing the kinds of things I think should be done.

Aurora: Well, then, what about the “scared cows” of India versus the “holy beef” of North America?

Harris: My interest in this puzzle goes back a long way to about 1964. When I started out, the hypotheses that I offered were considered to be extremely radical. But with the passage of time, my position has become generally accepted, in India at least, as being the best way to understand the prohibition on the slaughter of cattle and consumption of beef in India. Briefly, the argument is that it is inadequate to say that the reason why Hindus don't consume beef is that their religion prohibits it. This is no explanation, because you have to ask, as well, why Hinduism has this kind of reverence for cattle but Islam, Judaism, and Christianity do not. The answer has to be sought in the material conditions of the production and utilization of cattle in India compared with the production and utilization of cattle in other parts of the world.

In the pre-Hindu period in India, during Vedic times, cattle were slaughtered and consumed; beef was in fact one of the most important foods offered to the gods and consumed by the participants in pre-Hindu rituals. With the passage of time the Brahmans, who were in ancient times the caste responsible for the slaughter of cattle, became the caste responsible for the protection of cattle against slaughter. Cattle occupied an essential position in Indian agriculture as power animals, and a choice had to be made between raising cattle for plowing purposes and raising them for meat production; the Indian ecosystem and production system couldn't support both functions. With further intensification of plough agriculture and the ever-increasing density of the Indian population, the sacredness of the cow became an important barrier against development of a meat slaughter industry which would threaten the availability of plough animals to poor peasant farmers. The result is that far from being useless, as many people assume, cattle are India's tractors. As a byproduct, the cows also produce milk; but their most important function is to produce the tractor, that is, the male plow animal. Another benefit that comes from this prohibition on the slaughter of cattle is that it puts a barrier between the farmer and his cattle when there are droughts or other agricultural crises. It is essential that farmers hold on to their plough animals and not give them up for slaughter.

It is also interesting to note recent studies which indicate that in spite of the existence of a prohibition on the slaughter of cattle and the consumption of beef, Indian farmers do manipulate their herds in a way that yields a ratio of male to female cattle which is most functional in a particular zone of production. For example, in southern India, there are more cows than there are male cattle, whereas in northern India there are more male cattle than there are cows. This is related to the different demands made by the regimen of planting wheat in the North versus the regimen of planting rice in the South. When you plant rice, you don't need large numbers of plough animals, and when you plant wheat, you do. Indian farmers don't determine the sex ratio of their herds by slaughtering the cattle outright. They do it by differential feeding of the wanted and unwanted sexes. The whole system in larger perspective turns out not to be simply a matter of whim on the part of the theologians who were responsible for elaborating the documents of Hinduism. On the contrary, it turns out that the doctrines of Hinduism reflect the material realities and necessities which the people of the Indian subcontinent face in their struggle to provide sufficient amounts of food for their ever-increasing numbers.

Aurora: What you are saying implies that religious precepts can't hope to gain any kind of a foothold in populations for which they aren't useful.

Harris: Yes, a general principle that comes out of research behind Good to Eat is that there are no world religions that have acted to decrease the potential for the nutritional well-being of their followers. I don't know of any cases where as a result of religious precepts a population have found themselves enjoying less food than they would have if they didn't follow this particular religion.

Aurora: How is this principle reflected in the proscription on eating pork?

Harris: The usual reason given for the prohibition on the consumption of pork is that the pig is regarded as a dirty animal; it is impure and unclean, and therefore not to be eaten. That's the same kind of circular explanation that can be evoked to explain the Hindu prohibition on the slaughter of cattle. It's the religion that does it. It's the religion that says pork is unclean. But then why does Judaism state that, and why do Islam and Hinduism follow suit, whereas Christianity deviates and accepts the consumption of pork? If we look once again to the material conditions of production in specific habitats, the first thing that emerges with respect to the pig in the Middle East is that it is the last kind of domesticated animal that you would want to rear in that habitat. Although pigs were originally domesticated in the Middle East, and they were raised and consumed for five to six thousand years before the writing of the prohibitions, they nonetheless were adapted to ecological situations which were rather rare in the Middle East and which became rarer as time went on. The pig is a creature of woodland and glens and riverbanks; it does best when it forages on the forest floor, rooting up everything that has fallen off trees—acorns, different mushrooms, things of that sort. It does not do well in arid habitats. The reason is that the pig doesn't sweat, despite the common saying that someone is “sweating like a pig”. In fact, pigs don't have any sweat glands and consequently they have to be wetted down. In order to control their body temperature they have to have external sources of moisture. That's why they wallow in mud. Pigs prefer to wallow in clean mud, but if nothing else is available, they will frequently wallow in their own urine, giving rise to the notion that they are dirty animals.

Now, the Middle East, especially the desert area, is the last place to raise pigs. There are many other domestic, longhaired animals like cattle, sheep, and goats that are much better suited to arid, sunny, desert conditions. In addition, the pig has another manifest disadvantage: unlike sheep, goats, and cattle, it is not a ruminant. That is, the pig has a digestive system that does not permit it to consume and gain weight on grass. Pigs eat grass if they are very hungry, but they can't use it as a regular source of food. Ruminants that can live and thrive on grass, whose whole digestive physiology is centred on their ability to consume plants that are high in cellulose, are much preferable to the pig in arid habitats.

If you turn to Europe, to the areas that were the heartland of Christianity at the turn of the Christian era, you are confronted with a totally different ecological situation. Here you do have forests, where pigs could be raised by letting them root about in the forests for a good part of the year. Therefore, you have a different attitude toward them compared with what continues to exist in the Middle East.

Aurora: But the question comes to mind, why bother looking for a religious precept that proscribes pork, then, if pig-raising is so entirely unsuited to the climate and the plant life of the area?

Harris: That's a very important question. I think the answer is that since it was possible, to a small extent, to raise pigs as a luxury food, it is important to have a taboo or prohibition that says, under no circumstances are you to experiment with this animal, because over the passage of centuries it is the collective wisdom that to do so is to waste resources. The temptation will always exist for some people to try, but God says, “Thou shalt not raise pigs.” This is a sacred rule which fits into a general class of prohibition termed “total prohibitions”. Such prohibitions are digital; that is, they are on-off things. For example, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” does not say it's O.K. to kill some people and not others. Such a total taboo is necessary in a situation where the short-term benefits for, let's say, raising pigs, might be quite good, but the long-term benefits would be quite disastrous for the larger community. The taboo is “on track” in terms of ecological wisdom. It reflects long-standing, accumulated knowledge about the consequences of raising nonruminants in that habitat.

Aurora: Some of the other riddles you talk about in your book don't involve religious proscription; for example, your discussion of milk and lactose intolerance. This also seems to be the one food preference you discuss that appears to have a genetic component.

Harris: The genetic component is there, but it is embedded in and surrounded by the cultural component. It was the absence of milk consumption in China, Japan, and other Oriental peoples that really got me interested in the whole subject of food preferences. Like most North Americans, I'd been raised on the notion that milk is the first food, and everybody must like it because it's so good and so important for growing up and for being healthy. Well, it turns out that most people in the world cannot digest milk in unfermented form, and it is not good for them to eat at all in its unfermented form, whereas we North Americans and Europeans think of fermented milk as being not particularly good for us and pure, whole, unfermented milk as being the best. Those beliefs represent some special circumstances in the biological and ecological history of people of Northern Europe. In order for adults to digest milk, they must have an enzyme called “lactase” present in their intestines, and they must be able to synthesize that enzyme in order to digest the complex sugar that exists in milk, a sugar called “lactose”. All human beings at one stage of their lives have to be able to digest the lactose in their mothers' milk. But for almost all mammals, as you get older the ability to synthesize the lactose enzyme diminishes until you get to a point where you simply can't digest milk.

This discovery was made fairly recently; it was only in the 1950s that it began to dawn on people that milk was not good for everybody. However, the normal situation was originally regarded as the abnormal one. That is, Western agronomists and Western scientists thought that the inability to digest milk in adulthood was a pathology; they thought it was a sickness and talked about “lactose deficiency”, regarding it as a disease. However, further research has shown that it is the normal condition for humans and for most other mammals. It seems pretty clear why this is the case for most mammals and for most human beings. When a woman gives birth to a child, the child needs to be able to digest the mother's milk; but when this child is old enough to begin to eat other foods, there is some switching off of this ability to consume milk. This is because throughout most of human history, the only source of milk was mother's milk. Therefore, there was selection against juveniles and adults being able to consume mother's milk, so that the resources of the woman could be directed towards having another child.

There were some special conditions in the prehistory of the people of Northern Europe which led to their need to continue to have the ability to synthesize lactose in adulthood. These conditions have to do with the problem of calcium metabolism. Northern Europeans were stressed for calcium in a way that was not characteristic of other peoples because they had to be concerned about Vitamin D. Vitamin D is an element in calcium metabolism which you ordinarily get from sunlight. Sunlight was in short supply in the northern latitudes, so an alternative way to obtain the benefits of calcium was to consume larger quantities of calcium. Milk and dairy products happen to be the best sources of calcium. There are vegetable sources which people who live in other environments have access to, but not in Northern Europe, where vegetables were scarce and there was a concentration on the consumption of grain and animal flesh. So there was selection for the ability to digest milk in unfermented form in Northern Europe.

What is the significance of the unfermented form? Well, when you ferment the milk and produce sour milk for various uses such as cheese making, there is a breakdown of the lactose into a simpler sugar. When that happens, you lose a great deal of the ability to metabolize the calcium. The combination of lactose and calcium in milk is not there by accident; it is there because the lactose accelerates and improves the digestibility of the calcium. In India, milk has long been a traditional food, but in fermented form, in the form of yogurt, which is a national dish. However, this indicates that Indians have abundant sunlight and lots of Vitamin C, and are not as stressed for calcium as Northern Europeans are. If you turn to China, you have a situation in which a choice was made early between dairy as a source of animal protein and calcium, and pig raising plus vegetable planting as a source of animal flesh and calcium. The Chinese were never stressed for calcium in the way Northern Europeans were. They had more access to vegetables, an excellent source of calcium. So a kind of unthought-out, but nonetheless quite systematic, form of obtaining calcium was developed in China which was totally different from that of Northern Europe. This heritage still exists in Chinese and Japanese cuisine versus European cuisine. In an authentic Chinese restaurant, you will never see the milk-source products that you encounter in the French and Northern European tradition. It's a whole different cuisine, based upon differential abilities to synthesize lactose. For the Chinese, consuming a nice glass of cold milk is like consuming a nice glass of animal gland secretions, something that people in their right minds would not like to expose themselves to.

Aurora: What reading I've done in nutrition seems to be conflict-ridden. Establishment notions of what is good for you seem to be constantly under attack. To what extent do you feel that this lack of certainty is a weak link in your explanatory chain?

Harris: Every theory presented as a scientific concept is just that; it's a theory that tries to explain more about the world than previous theories have done. It is open to being challenged and to being proven incorrect. But I think that by following the route that I have tried to outline, one gets into a much more interesting and productive series of questions than those that result from saying simply that Chinese don't like milk because they don't like milk. There are very important and practical issues raised by following this alternative route which says, let's look to material conditions, to the systems of production, to the needs that human beings have, and to competing alternative solutions to the satisfaction of those needs. This way results in a much richer series of hypotheses to be tested.

Aurora: You devote a good deal of your book to the practical and political implications of saying that foodways are the product of material conditions rather than of superstition and irrationality.

Harris: Yes. For example, in the case of the milk problem, it is clear that there are immense issues concerning how Third World people are fed. No longer are we shipping powdered milk all over the world and expecting children and juveniles to prosper on “gifts”. We know, too, that foodways are undergoing very rapid change. Are these changes arbitrary, or are they rather guided by some kind of calculus of costs and benefits? There are essentially three bases for calculating costs and benefits. One is concerned with the nutritional package. In general, humans prefer nutritional packages which have more calories, protein, fats, minerals, and other nutrients in denser form over foods that are less nutritious. For example, meat versus lettuce -or spinach. Second, on the ecological level, under particular circumstances or given certain kinds of production systems, what is the effect of utilizing one kind of resource and not utilizing another? The general proposition is that the resources that will be utilized are the ones that contribute most to the overall efficiency of the production system. The third parameter has to do with our commercial world, our search for profits. Lots of food now is good to eat because it's good to sell. The “good to sell” feature is overriding what had previously been “good to eat” because it was nutritionally superior or ecologically most advantageous.

Sugar can serve as an example. Sweetness is a taste to which ninety-nine per cent of the population give high priority. There's a biological reason for this preference for sweet things over sour things, namely, that foods which are sweet generally have a high density of calories. The sweetness of fruit is a marker of their high nutritional status. Consequently, we are prepared by our biological heritage to seek out sweet foods. However; up until recently, getting sweet things in large quantities was very difficult. But with the Industrial Revolution and introduction of various industrial techniques for purifying sugar, we have a situation in which what we are consuming is not good nutritionally or ecologically. What is good to eat is defined now by its profit-making capacity; food manufacturers are exploiting the human tendency to prefer sweet things. Meats are another example. The kinds of meat that we are consuming now are different from the kinds of meat that our ancestors consumed. It is now increasingly the case that too much is being consumed, which poses certain health threats that are widely discussed.

We are vulnerable to changing our food habits in directions which are not necessarily good for us. The biological reason is that we have all kinds of cravings that are part of our human biogram, which give us the desire to consume, to feed, to gorge ourselves. We don't have the shut-off system typical of the rest of the animal world, the clear signals that say, “Now you have had enough. Stop.” because we come from millions of years of ancestors, whose main problem was scarcity. Now we are in a situation in which for a significant part of the industrial world too much could become a danger, especially too much of the things which are really not good for us in such large quantities. Unfortunately, the food industry has not yet faced this situation and begun taking measures to avoid exploiting our weakness for not knowing when we have had enough.

Books by Marvin Harris

Culture, People, and Nature. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Cultural Anthropology. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

America Now: The Anthropology of a Changing Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York: Vantage Books, 1979.

Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures. New York: Random House, 1977.

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Vantage Books, 1974.

The Rise of Anthropological Theory. New York: Crowell, 1968.

Dr. Spronk is an anthropology professor at Athabasca University.

An Aurora Update

For 20 years, up until his retirement in 2000, Dr. Harris was graduate research professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida. He died October 2001 at the age of 74.

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American Anthropological Association



Updated February 2002

Citation Format

Spronk, Barbara (1990). Marvin Harris : Explains The Unexplainable. Aurora Online: