Epilogue from Marvin Harris’s ‘Cannibals and Kings’

Before the fuel revolution, plants and animals were the main source of energy for social life.  Scattered about the earth on millions of farms and villages, plants and animals collected the energy of the sun and converted it into forms appropriate for human use and consumption.  Other sources of energy, such as the wind and falling water, were no less dispersed.  The only way for despots to cut people off from their energy supply was to deny them access to the land or the oceans.  This was an extremely difficult task and very costly under most conditions of climate and terrain.  Control over water, however, was more readily managed.  And where water could be controlled, plants and animals could be controlled.  Further, since plants and animals were the main sources of energy, control over water was control over energy.  In this sense the despotisms of hydraulic society were energy despotisms– but only in a very indirect and primitive way.

The fuel revolution has opened up the possibility for a more direct form of energy despotism.  Energy is now being collected and distributed under the supervision of a small number of bureaus and corporations.  It comes from a relatively small number of mines and wells.  Hundreds of millions of people can technically be shut off from these mines and wells, starved, frozen, plunged into darkness, rendered immobile by the turn of a few valves and the flick of a few switches.  As if this were not already sufficient cause for alarm, the industrial nations have begun to compensate for the impending exhaustion of coal and oil by converting to nuclear power– a far more concentrated source of energy than the fossil fuels.  There already exists the electronic capability for the tracking of individual behavior by centralized networks of surveillance and record-keeping computers.  It is highly probable that the conversion to nuclear energy production will provide precisely those basic material conditions most appropriate for using the power of the computer to establish a new and enduring form of despotism.  Only by decentralizing our basic mode of energy production– by breaking the cartels that monopolize the present system of energy technology– can we restore the ecological and cultural configuration that led to the emergence of political democracy in Europe.

This raises the question of how we can consciously select improbable alternatives to probable evolutionary trends. Surveying the past in anthropological perspective, I think it is clear that the major transformations of human social life have hitherto never corresponded to the consciously held objectives of the historical participants.  Consciousness had little to do with the processes by which infanticide and warfare became the means of regulating band and village populations: women became subordinate to men; those who worked hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most; “great providers” became great believers; sacrificial meat became forbidden flesh; animal sacrificers became vegetarians; labor-saving devices became the instruments of drudgery; irrigation agriculture became the trap of hydraulic despotism.

Our ancestors, of course, were no less psychologically conscious than we are in the sense of being alert, of having thoughts and making decisions based on the calculation of the immediate cost/benefits of alternative types of action.  To say that their consciousness did not play a role in directing the course of cultural evolution is not to say that they were zombies.  I suggest that they were unaware of the influence of modes of production and reproduction on their attitudes and values and that they were wholly ignorant of the long-term cumulative effects of decisions made to maximize short-term cost/benefits.  To change the world in a conscious way one must first have a conscious understanding of what the world is like.  Lack of such understanding is a dismal portent.

As a cultural determinist, I have sometimes been accused of reducing human values to a mechanical reflex and of portraying individuals as mere puppets.  These are doctrines that are alien to my understanding of cultural processes.  I insist simply that the thought and behavior of individuals are always channeled by cultural and ecological restraints and opportunities.  Successive modes of production and reproduction largely determine the nature of these channels.  Where the mode of production calls for “big man” redistributors, ambitious men will grow up to boast about their wealth and give it all away.  Where the mode of production calls for “big men entrepreneurs,” ambitious men will grow up to boast about their wealth and keep it all for themselves.  I do not pretend to know why Soni became a great feast-giver or why John D. Rockefeller became a great hoarder of wealth.  Nor do I know why one individual rather than another wrote Hamlet.  I am perfectly willing to let such questions dissolve into perpetual mystery.

Cultural causality is another matter.  Many humanists and artists recoil from the proposition that cultural evolution has hitherto been shaped by unconscious impersonal forces.  The determined nature of the past fills them with apprehension as to the possibility of an equally determined future.  But their fears are misplaced.  It is only through an awareness of the determined nature of the past that we can hope to make the future less dependent on unconscious and impersonal forces.  In the birth of a science of culture others profess to see the death of moral initiative.  For my part, I cannot see how a lack of intelligence concerning the lawful processes that have operated so far can be the platform on which to rear a civilized future.  And so in the birth of a science of culture I find the beginning not the end of moral initiative.  Let the protectors of historical spontaneity beware: if the processes of cultural evolution are what I have discerned, they are morally negligent to urge others to think and act as if such processes did not exist.

I hold it perniciously false to teach that all cultural forms are equally probable and that by mere force of will an inspired individual can at any moment alter the trajectory of an entire cultural system in a direction convenient to any philosophy.  Convergent and parallel trajectories far outnumber divergent trajectories in cultural evolution. Most people are conformists.  History repeats itself in countless acts of individual obedience to cultural rule and pattern, and individual wills seldom prevail in matters requiring radical alteration of deeply conditioned beliefs and practices.

At the same time, nothing I have written in this book supports the view that the individual is helpless before the implacable march of history or that resignation and despair are appropriate responses to the concentration of industrial managerial power.  The determinism that has governed cultural evolution has never been the equivalent of the determinism that governs a closed physical system.  Rather, it resembles the causal sequences that account for the evolution of plant and animal species.  Retrospectively, guided by Darwin’s principle of natural selection, scientists can readily reconstruct the causal chain of adaptations that led from fish to reptiles to birds.  But what biologist looking at a tree shrew could have predicted Homo Sapiens?  The intensification of the industrial mode of production and the technological victory over Malthusian pressures undoubtedly portend an evolution of new cultural forms.  I do not know for certain what these will be, nor does anyone else.

Since evolutionary changes are not completely predictable, it is obvious that there is room in the world for what we call free will.  Each individual decision to accept, resist, or change the current order alters the probability that a particular evolutionary outcome will occur.  While the course of cultural evolution is never free of systemic influence, some moments are probably more “open” than others.  The most open moments, it appears to me, are those at which a mode of production reaches its limits of growth and a new mode of production must soon be adopted.  We are rapidly moving toward such an opening.  When we have passed through it, only then, looking backwards, shall we know why human beings chose one option rather than another.  In the meantime, people with deep personal commitments to a particular vision of the future are perfectly justified in struggling toward their goal, even if the outcome now seems remote and improbable.  In life, as in any game whose outcome depends on both luck and skill, the rational response to bad odds is to try harder.