Issue 1987

Marvin Harris: Explains The Unexplainable

Published October 27, 2006
  • Marvin Harris,
  • human foodways,
  • unexplainaable


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.