Getting into the actual material of “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches”, there’s interesting stuff I didn’t know before about things like Hindu farmers putting triangular yokes on unwanted calves so they get kicked to death while claiming they weren’t intentionally killed and the surprisingly low ratio of cows to oxen in the northern Indian “cow belt”. But what caught my attention to bring up here was some passages on culturally mandated sexism. “Apart from childbearing and related sexual specialties, the assignment of social roles on the basis of sex does not follow automatically from the biological differences between men and women […] I no more expect men to dominate women simply because they are taller and heavier, than I expect the human species to be ruled over by cattle and horses […] If I had knowledge only of the anatomy and cultural capacities of men and women, I would predict that women rather than men would be more likely to gain control over the technology of defense and aggression”. He goes on to imagine an alternative where women raise their boys to be docile and girls to be aggressive, and polyandry is more normal than polygyny.

Since Marvin Harris’ expectations are at odds with all of recorded history and anthropology (a point he himself makes), he’d better have a good explanation. For him it is intergroup competition, since his hypothetical ball-cutting matriarchy would not be able to ensure other tribes play by the same rules. I would actually like if he applied similar logic elsewhere (which I’ll get to), but the big problem is his dismissal of factors with “Apart from”. The fundamental fact of the sexes is that sperm is cheap and eggs are expensive, and if you don’t consider the Darwinian implications, you aren’t going to understand sex differences in biology or culture (particularly since he doesn’t think culture is arbitrary, but functional and based on the constraints faced by people who live it). In his discussion of polygamy he mentions how many male fighters are surplus and one man can keep many wives pregnant (one woman obviously can’t provide many husbands with children simultaneously), and he even acknowledges how much of Yanomammo fighting is intravillage and even intrafamily, but he doesn’t seem to attempt imagining how that would work out in a simplified model consisting of a single village/tribe.

He seems to apply a Darwinian analysis at the unit of cultures, but could certainly use some Dawkins. A lot of his ideas seem to be based on sustaining certain population levels in the face of resource constraints, and how infanticide and war (or to be precise, female infanticide to meet the demands of war) is functional for dealing with that. He also discusses how New Guinea tribesmen are “eating the forest” and so must preserve it, but a tribe who refused to commit infanticide and wound up overpopulated and attacked their neighbors, and then ignored the taboo on using abandoned prime farmland to continue expansion would seem to threaten the current Evolutionarily Stable Strategy. Elsewhere he acknowledges that most animals prohibited in the Jewish books of law don’t really need to be since people wouldn’t waste time hunting vultures anyway, but says pork meat is a temptation people must be warned against. But if the problem with pork is that it’s expensive, wouldn’t that be unnecessary like warning Hebrews away from scarce seafood? Perhaps he could have integrated his later chapter on potlatches with the previous one on pig hate and said the prohibition is a mechanism to avoid wasteful potlatches.

Speaking of potlatches, the strangest part about them to me was the simple destruction (rather than mere distributed consumption). He explains that by noting that it was in later periods that their dying culture made do with large surpluses of non-consumables like blankets received from European traders, and that the burning of houses was an infrequent accidental side effect of pouring too much oil in a fire. He also said what we know of the Yanomamo is relatively (a few centuries old) new as a lifestyle. He thinks they were previously hunters, since their main crops were brought over by the Spanish & Portugese. With less meat available, he thinks they war over meat rather than women (despite their claims to the contrary given to Napoleon Chagnon) or they wouldn’t conduct so much female infanticide in the face of a woman shortage. I’ve also found the treatment of gender imbalances strange (dowry rather than bride price in India being more salient to my economically-oriented thinking), suggesting to me that there is not much of a working “market” in females. Female infanticide may be lower among Muslims precisely because men have such control over women and can more easily capture their value. Among the Yanomamo were kidnapping and rape are omnipresent, women are a much riskier investment. On the other hand, there are lots of counter-examples, so my theory is likely wrong.