Derek Sivers

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches - by Marvin Harris

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches - by Marvin Harris

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Mind-blowing anthropology. Great argument that the reasons that religions worship cows or hate pigs, that tribes wage wars, or Europe's 200 years of witch hunts, are all very practical economic reasons usually unknown to the participants or washed out of history. But they're revealed here in zoomed-out hindsight. My notes here can't describe it. You have to read the whole book. Riveting.

my notes

This book is about the causes of apparently irrational and inexplicable lifestyles.

I have deliberately chosen bizarre and controversial cases that seem like insoluble riddles.

"Only God knows" : The long-term practical effect of this suggestion has been to discourage the search for other kinds of explanations. For one thing is clear: If you don’t believe that a puzzle has an answer, you’ll never find it.

We don’t expect lifestyle participants to be able to explain their lifestyles.

Art and politics fashion that collective dreamwork whose function it is to prevent people from understanding what their social life is all about. Everyday consciousness, therefore, cannot explain itself.

Ignorance, fear, and conflict are the basic elements of everyday consciousness:

* Ignorance: Most people achieve awareness of only a small portion of the range of lifestyle alternatives.
* Fear: Against events like growing old and dying,
* Conflict: Some persons invariably control or exploit others. These inequalities are as much disguised, mystified, and lied about as old age and death.

== COW:

Cow love contributes to the adaptive resilience of the human population by preserving temporarily dry or barren but still useful animals; by discouraging the growth of an energy-expensive beef industry; by protecting cattle that fatten in the public domain or at landlord’s expense; and by preserving the recovery potential of the cattle population during droughts and famines.

The alternative is to destroy the present system and replace it with a completely new set of demographic, technological, politico-economic, and ideological relationships—a whole new ecosystem. Hinduism is undoubtedly a conservative force,

But if you think that a high-energy industrial and agribusiness complex will necessarily be more “rational” or “efficient” than the system that now exists, forget it.

== PIG:

The pig can convert grains and tubers into high-grade fats and protein more efficiently than any other animal.

Pig farming was a threat to the integrity of the basic cultural and natural ecosystems of the Middle East.

The greater the temptation, the greater the need for divine interdiction. This is why the gods are always so interested in combating sexual temptations.

== WAR:

Since war has deadly consequences for its participants, it seems presumptuous to doubt that the combatants know why they are fighting. But cows, pigs, wars, or witches, the answers to our riddles do not lie within the participants’ consciousness. The belligerents themselves seldom grasp the systemic causes and consequences of their battles. They tend to explain war by describing the personal feelings and motivations experienced immediately prior to the outbreak of hostilities.

These are the results rather than the causes of war.

Primitive war, like cow love or pig hate, has a practical basis. Primitive warfare is neither capricious nor instinctive; it is simply one of the cutoff mechanisms that help to keep human populations in a state of ecological equilibrium with respect to their habitats.

In strictly biological terms, females are more valuable than males. Warfare inverts the relative value of the contribution made by males and females to a group’s prospects for survival. By placing a premium upon maximizing the number of combat-ready adult males, warfare obliges primitive societies to limit their nurturance of females. It is this, and not combat per se, that makes warfare an effective means of controlling population growth.

In our own times, only an incredible degree of self-righteous pigheadedness prevents us from admitting that infanticide is still being practiced on a cosmic scale in the underdeveloped nations, where first-year infant mortality rates of 250 per 1,000 births are commonplace.

To sum it all up, war is the price that primitive societies pay for raising sons when they cannot afford to rear daughters.

Our primary mode of biological adaptation is culture, not anatomy. 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 or horses—animals that outweigh the average husband by an amount thirty times greater than he outweighs his wife.

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.

If one sex were going to subordinate the other, it would be female over male.

Females have control over the birth, care, and feeding of babies. Women, because they control the nursery, can potentially modify any lifestyle that threatens them. It is within their power of selective neglect to produce a sex ratio heavily in favor of females over males. It also lies within woman’s power to sabotage the development of “masculine” males by rewarding little boys for being passive rather than aggressive. I would expect women to concentrate their efforts on rearing solidary and aggressive females rather than males. I would further expect the few male survivors per generation to be shy, obedient, hardworking, and grateful for sexual favors. I would predict that women would monopolize the headship of local groups, that they would be responsible for shamanistic relations with the supernatural, and that God would be called SHE. Finally, I would expect that the ideal and most prestigious form of marriage would be polyandry—one woman controlling the sexual and economic services of several men.

There is one thing wrong with this theory: No one has ever been able to authenticate a single case that is representative of true matriarchy.

Chagnon says that they split up and move so often because they fight over women and are always at war. I suggest that it is more nearly correct to say that they fight over women and are always at war because they move so often. Nomadic way of life protected them from the white man’s guns and diseases. These villages compete for the same scarce resource, and that resource is not women but protein. Since the typical Yanomamo village is less than a day’s walk from its nearest neighbor, extended expeditions inevitably cross and recross hunting territories that are used by villages other than one’s own.

The practical and mundane reason for the systematic killing and neglect of more female than male children can’t be simply that the men force the women to do it. Their own interest is in raising more boys than girls. This interest is rooted in the fact that there are already too many Yanomamo in relation to their ability to exploit their habitat. A higher ratio of men to women means more protein per capita (because men are the hunters) and a slower rate of population growth.


American Indians who formerly inhabited the coastal regions of Southern Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington practiced conspicuous waste known as potlatch. The object was to give away or destroy more wealth than one’s rival. Shame his rivals and gain everlasting admiration from his followers by destroying food, clothing, and money. Sometimes he might even seek prestige by burning down his own house.

The giver of the feast takes the bones and the stale cakes; the meat and the fat go to the others.

The big men work harder, worry more, and consume less than anybody else. Prestige is their only reward. As a result of the big man’s craving for status, more people work harder and produce more food and other valuables.

Competitive feasting serves the practical function of preventing the labor force from falling back to levels of productivity that offer no margin of safety.

To transfer food and other valuables from centers of high productivity to less fortunate villages.

Everything about reciprocity is opposed to precise counting and reckoning of what one person owes to another. In fact, the whole idea is to deny that anybody really owes anything. One can tell if a lifestyle is based on reciprocity or something eke by whether or not people say thank you. In truly egalitarian societies, it is rude to be openly grateful for the receipt of material goods or services.

The Semai: to say thank you was very rude because it suggested either that you were calculating the size of the piece of meat you had been given, or that you were surprised by the success and generosity of the hunter.

Gifts make slaves just as whips make dogs.

The highest prestige falls to the quietly dependable hunter who never boasts about his achievements and who avoids any hint that he is giving a gift when he divides up an animal he has killed.

During the early years of capitalism, highest prestige went to those who were richest but lived most frugally. After their fortunes had become more secure, the capitalist upper class resorted to grand-scale conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste in order to impress their rivals. Meanwhile, the middle and lower classes continued to award highest prestige to those who worked hardest, spent least, and soberly resisted all forms of conspicuous consumption.

Advertising induces the middle and lower classes to stop saving and to buy, consume, waste. And so among middle-class status seekers, highest prestige now goes to the biggest and most conspicuous consumer. But in the meantime, the rich found themselves threatened by new forms of taxation aimed at redistributing their wealth. Conspicuous consumption in the grand manner became dangerous, so highest prestige now once again goes to those who have most but show least.

With the most prestigious members of the upper class no longer flaunting their wealth, some of the pressure on the middle class to engage in conspicuous consumption has also been removed.


Phantom Cargo: Waiting for ships or planes to bring dead ancestors and cargo began a long time ago. Waiting for a total upgrading of their lives.

They insisted on making the Europeans act like true big men; they insisted that those who possessed wealth were under the obligation to give it away.

Without the cheapness of native labor and the expropriation of native lands, the colonial powers would never have gotten so rich. In one sense, therefore, the natives were entitled to the products of the industrialized nations even though they couldn’t pay for them. Cargo was their way of saying this. And that, I believe, is its true secret.


Any description of the political and military events in Palestine during the first century A.D. has to be based largely upon the writings of one of the great historians of the ancient world, Flavius Josephus. Writing in Rome for Roman readers—many of whom, including the emperor, were eyewitnesses to the events described—Josephus was unlikely to have fabricated the basic facts of his history.

In the aftermath of the unsuccessful messianic war, it quickly became a practical necessity to deny that their cult had arisen out of the Jewish belief in a messiah who was going to topple the Roman Empire.


Ask not why the inquisitors were obsessed with destroying witchcraft, but rather why they were so obsessed with creating it.

The inevitable effect of the inquisitorial system was to make witchcraft more believable, and hence to increase the number of witchcraft accusations. The witch-hunt system was too well designed, too enduring. It could only have been sustained by interests that were equally enduring, grim, and stubborn. The witchcraft system and the witch craze had practical and mundane uses apart from the stated goals of the witch hunters.

The best way to understand the cause of the witch mania is to examine its earthly results rather than its heavenly intentions. The principal result of the witch-hunt was that the poor came to believe that they were being victimized by witches and devils instead of princes and popes. Did your roof leak, your cow abort, your oats wither, your wine go sour, your head ache, your baby die? It was a neighbor, the one who broke your fence, owed you money, or wanted your land—a neighbor turned witch. Did the price of bread go up, taxes soar, wages fall, jobs grow scarce? It was the work of the witches. Did plague and famine carry off a third of the inhabitants of every village and town? The diabolical, infernal witches were growing bolder all the time.

82 percent of the witches were females. Defenseless old women and lower-class midwives were usually the first to be accused in any local outbreak. Doctors, lawyers, and university professors were seldom threatened. Only three instances of accusations of witchcraft against members of the nobility, and not one of those so accused was executed.

Witch mania was an integral part of the defense of that institutional structure. This can best be seen by comparing the witch mania with its contemporary antithesis, military messianism.

The witchcraft mania made everyone feel helpless and dependent on the governing classes, gave everyone’s anger and frustration a purely local focus.