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The dialectics of the sacred cow: Ecological adaptation versus political appropriation in the origins of India's cattle complex

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The misinterpretations, logical lapses, empirical errors, and theoretical shortcomings of Harris' ecological theories concerning the origins of food taboos in political societies are considerable, yet his work has been lauded by laymen and scientists alike. We conclude that his speculations meet widespread ideological needs in the contemporary West; if present cultural forms in post-colonial societies are in fact adaptive, if change results from nature rather than conflict, if transcendent ecological science can unlock the secrets of society, if progress is truly “gradual and practical”, then perhaps the fears that devil the contemporary scene are unwarranted and a technical, environmental solution possible. As Bronowski warns, however, “The quality of life... must not be fixed to mean what happens to be agreeable to the kind of men that we are now — conservatives who like to play at being conservationists... The danger of this phony naturalism... is that it points the young away from the true ills of the state, to those lesser targets that the chamber of commerce can shoot at, too” 159].

The origins of India's sacred cattle, while far from fully explained, are clear in outline. So, too, are the white elephants left over from the imperial, feudal, colonial and neocolonial past. These are the conditions of hunger, crowding, illness, exploitation, and ecological devolution within which Harris finds evidence of “positive functioned and probably adaptive” traits and institutions. Less well recognized is the red herring of naive cultural ecology, whose focus on a world that never was distracts us both from what actually was, and what could be.

Yet, in the full flush of his acceptance by those who manage resources and prestige in corporate America, Harris asserts that the cultural materialist, “lacks only time, money and staff to prove this theory; given sufficient resources we could develop intersubjectively valid and culture-free descriptions of cultural things” [160]. This task is chimerical and dangerous; knowledge that attempts to be “culture free” is inevitably inhuman. Truth is a constituted reality, emerging through dialectical dialogue; it, too, is a product of struggle and conflict. No “ethic” and elitist social “scientist” can provide us with a transcendent road to its acquisition. But then, the biologists whom Harris and other reductive materialists seek to emulate, know this:

Without a priori preferences, we would scarcely be human; and good science, as Darwin noted so often, collects data to test ideas. Science has long recognized the tyranny of prior preference, and has constructed safeguards in requirements of uniform procedure and replication of experiments. Gross flouting of procedure and conscious fraud may often be detected, but unconscious finagling by sincere seekers of objectivity may be refractory. The culprit in this tale is a naive belief that pure objectivity can be attained by human beings rooted in cultural traditions of shared belief — and a consequent failure of self-examination.

One may argue that lying with statistics is easier than fudging an experiment and that a direct intersection with contemporary politics makes for a more passionate a priori, but I think that most scientists pursue their private battles with as much ardor and as much at stake. I propose no cure for the problem of finagling... The only palliations I know are vigilance and scrutiny [161].

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Paul Diener and Donald Nonini study anthropology at Stanford University.

Eugene E. Robkin is Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin Center, Baraboo/Sauk County Campus.

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Diener, P., Nonini, D. & Robkin, E.E. The dialectics of the sacred cow: Ecological adaptation versus political appropriation in the origins of India's cattle complex. Dialect Anthropol 3, 221–241 (1978).

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  • Political Society
  • Cultural Ecology
  • Contemporary Politics
  • Prior Preference
  • Food Taboo