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Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1974)

by Marvin Harris

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1,1821815,981 (3.81)12
One of America's leading anthropolgists offers solutions to the perplexing question of why people behave the way they do. Why do Hindus worship cows? Why do Jews and Moslems refuse to eat pork? Why did so many people in post-medieval Europe believe in witches? Marvin Harris answers these and other perplexing questions about human behavior, showing that no matter how bizarre a people's behavior may seem, it always stems from identifiable and intelligble sources.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
The first couple of chapters were mild-blowingly good. I thought Harris' explanations of foods that are taboo or vaunted and how those roles are not only logical, but dictated by the socioenvironmental setting in which they originate fascinating. He treats cultural norms as almost the results of Darwinian processes, which is a fascinating and really revolutionary approach. I was awed both by his treatment of rules that are second nature to me, like Jewish dietary laws, as well as those that were quite foreign. Harris was a breath of fresh air to the "anthropology" I was exposed to in undergrad that tried to impress upon us that there is no way to understand other cultures and that trying to do so is cultural appropriation in and of itself.

However, the second half of the book fell flat. Perhaps it's because, as a Jew, I don't share Harris' fascination with Jesus (so much Jesus. Three chapters of Jesus. It was SO tedious) or because Harris' treatise on New England witches has really become conventional wisdom. Either way, I finished this book mostly through a sice of obligation. ( )
  settingshadow | Aug 19, 2023 |
Not sure what to think of this book overall, but I give it points for some out-of-the-box thinking, and several insights mixed in with some of the boredom.

It started out really promising, with a look at why India's sacred cow makes sense. He tells that story in a way that shows eating cows would be a bad idea for them at that time. He then goes into why he thinks the Semitic people don't eat pigs, and that made perfect sense. I always thought it had to do with health reasons if you don't cook the meat well, but other meat is also dangerous if you don't cook it. But in those days, the people were nomadic, and sheep were well-suited to a nomadic lifestyle, but pigs would be competing with humans for food. Also, as far as cleanliness of pigs, they do well as long as the temperatures are not too hot, but when it gets hot, they will roll around in their own poop to keep cool. I guess the deserts were too warm for them.

Then he tells about places where pigs were loved, and people had events where they ate as much as they could. They would save up for years to get a surplus, then eat most of them all at once. This is where the book started getting a bit strange and hard to follow.

He then went into the religious goings on from BC to AD, then on to witches. But he began to lose credibility when he got to modern times, and talked about the 60s counterculture, which he seemed to think was really stupid. Also, he seemed to place a lot of importance of Carlos Castañeda's books about Don Juan, whereas I think most of us just thought it was an interesting book on a different culture that also used psychedelics, but we didn't take it seriously. The author seemed to think otherwise.

He starts off the section with this explanation:

A central aspect of counter-culture is the belief that consciousness controls history. People are what goes on in their minds; to make them better, all you have to do is give them better ideas. Objective conditions count for little. The entire world is to be altered as a result of a “revolution in consciousness.” All we need do to stop crime, end poverty, beautify cities, eliminate war, live in peace and harmony with ourselves and nature, is to open our minds to Consciousness III. “Consciousness is prior to structure … The whole corporate state rests on nothing but consciousness.”

In the counter-culture, consciousness is stimulated and made aware of its untapped potential. Counter-culture people take journeys—“head trips”—to broaden their minds. They use pot, LSD, or mushrooms “to get their heads together.” They rap, encounter, or chant in order to “freak out” with Jesus, Buddha, Mao Tse-tung.

"Freak out" with Jesus? Buddha? Mao? I don't know about that.

I lived through those times, and I guess there were people like that (still are), but I never saw this as a predominant quality of the whole movement. Perhaps I missed it.

Anyway, after reading this part, I began to have second thoughts about the validity of some of his other facts and opinions. ( )
  MartyFried | Oct 9, 2022 |
Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches is an informative, unconventional, and at times hilarious approach to exposing the forces at work in human culture that produce some of its most surprising extremes of social pathology, and even exposes the oft-ignored foundational assumptions of some of western culture's most sacred cows (so to speak) along the way. It addresses:

* literal sacred cows

* swine both sacred and profane

* primitive chauvinism; the formation of warrior cultures

* the path of development from individualist reciprocal cultures through collectivist charity-prestige cultures all the way to modern cultures of redistributive and hierarchical authoritarian oppression

* the whitewashing of military messianism to produce the contemporary morality of peace

* the rise of witchcraft hysteria

The path the book's explanations follow ultimately culminates in a scathing analysis of postmodernism and moral relativism that reveals many aspects of the late twentieth century's popular "counterculture" that serve to keep potentially revolutionary social forces docile and ineffective at enacting much change. The author's particular loathing for the hypocritical inconsistencies of counter-culture thought leaders of his time, which tended to particularly attack the scientific underpinnings of his own field (anthropology), added some spice and enjoyably pointed remarks to the text.

It's an excellent read, and an easy read as well, and I recommend it for people trying to understand politics, economics, and culture in a fundamental manner.

For me, the most interesting take-away from the book was the picture the author painted of how environmental pressures have contributed to the evolution of oppressive, redistributive authoritarian hierarchies, via a few intermediate cultural stages, from early individualist reciprocal cultures. This evolution is clearly not a necessary state of affairs, but in many ways it is a natural state of affairs that -- if you ignore matters of ethical concern for the rights of individuals -- can be quite effective at achieving certain ends of sustainable society.

It becomes obvious to a thoughtful reader working through this book that there are environmental pressures that must be addressed for a culture to achieve stable survival, and overly simplistic, top-down organization of society will only be bent by necessity to those ends, skewing the organizational efforts from their intended goals along the way. The lesson from this, it seems, is that putting too much faith in large-scale authoritarian hierarchies (as opposed to practical self-organizing hierarchies on a smaller scale) is bound to lead to disappointment.
( )
  apotheon | Dec 14, 2020 |
What an entertaining book. While I don't agree with all of [a:Marvin Harris|34140|Marvin Harris|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1261023347p2/34140.jpg]' conclusions, I can say that the scientific way that he approaches problems typically viewed only in a just-so light was both informative and fascinating. His precise evaluation of each question was both thorough and scientific and offers much to anyone fascinated in anthropological (or even political) theory.

While the author is very much the product of the time in which the book was written (the 1970's) the methods that mark his conclusions are a very good introduction to a new way of thinking, and one not often enough used by many laypeople. ( )
  Lepophagus | Jun 14, 2018 |
interesting stories ( )
  jmilloy | Nov 8, 2017 |
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This book is about the causes of apparently irrational and inexplicable lifestyles.
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One of America's leading anthropolgists offers solutions to the perplexing question of why people behave the way they do. Why do Hindus worship cows? Why do Jews and Moslems refuse to eat pork? Why did so many people in post-medieval Europe believe in witches? Marvin Harris answers these and other perplexing questions about human behavior, showing that no matter how bizarre a people's behavior may seem, it always stems from identifiable and intelligble sources.

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