M.Harris, population, infanticide, warfare, male supremacy

Rahul Mahajan rahul at peaches.ph.utexas.edu
Sun Jan 28 15:49:02 MST 1996

Thanks for the welcome (?), Lisa. The primary reference for Harris's ideas
of the evolution of hierarcy, etc., is Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.
Cannibals and Kings takes up those themes again, but he definitely goes way
overboard here, and applies a real materialist straitjacket to the
evolution of civilization.

As to your objections, I'm a little disappointed. You don't really seem to
have answered most of the points I made. I may have stated some positions
too briefly, but that's no reason to caricature them. I'm afraid I'll have
to do the ol' snip and reply thing. I hope we don't start talking past each
other like we did last year on a similar subject.

>The position that Rahul explained sounds like "group selection"
>theory, or I should say that Harris apparently asserts some kind of
>group selection as some kind of cause of the self-regulation of human

Since we are talking about evolution by some combination of natural
selection and cultural evolution, any Darwinian objections to group
selection certainly don't apply. There's no a priori reason to deny the
importance of group selection w/ regard to human culture.

>It is not clear to me if Harris is going so far as to claim genetic
>differences between populations, but I doubt it in his case.  He
>probably makes this claim with regard to _cultural_ differences.
>This looks like a darwinian analogy that talks about cultures or
>specific 'culture-traits' [as distinct from people/genes] as
>multiplying, spreading or dying out.  I've seen others' versions of
>this approach, although I haven't read enough of Harris to give more
>detail on him.
>Either way, some of the problems with this explanatory mechanism
>include  1. If population nears a 'carrying capacity', pop. growth
>actually slow down, _because_ of the shrinking quantity of

First, he explicitly states that he is talking about mechanisms that should
kick in long before the carrying capacity in the absolute sense is reached,
rather at some point of noticeable ecological strain. Second, of course pop
growth slows down, the question is by what mechanism. Given that most
groups that have survived rarely if ever reach the absolute biological
limits of their environment, the population control must take place (we're
assuming no significant predation on human beings) by some human-determined
method of resource allocation, whether it's explicitly bashing in the
brains of girl-babies or some more complex, partly subconscious diversion
of sufficient nutrition from girls, etc.

>  2.  If a population apparently 'dies off' in one place
>that does not mean that every single one is dead, they might just

Obviously, the point is to talk about specific tribal groupings dying off.
Presumable, it's quite rare that even groups that died off did so by having
every single member die without leaving progeny. If the grouping is
destroyed and others wander off and are assimilated in different groups,
then for our purposes that is sufficient. If the group as a whole moves and
keeps its culture more or less intact, that's often possible to trace.

  3.  A rapidly growing population may give off many migrants
>and have many similar descending populations in other locations long
>before it 'dies off' so pop-regulators are likely to become
>increasingly outnumbered by the profligate reproducers, just as one
>might have expected to begin with.  4.  Any migrants or survivors of
>an 'extinct' group are likely to be the descendants of those
>individuals who reproduced the most _within_ a local population, who
>are therefore not likely to be self-regulators when they are founding
>other populations.
>Even if I were simply willing to accept the claim of the "natural
>advantage" of men in primitive warfare, which I'm not, there would
>still be some problems with using that to explain cultural male
>supremacy.  Rahul seems to assume the prevalence of warfare in all
>"primitive" societies, which ain't necessarily so.  Also, I know that
>talk about men as warriors is part of the ideology of male supremacy
>in some cultures, but where are the explanatory links here?  Isn't
>that idea just another example of the rulers creating ideology to
>justify their own rule?

Excuse me, I said Harris posited ever-present warfare as a mechanism for
pop control, which I said was a weakness in his argument. As for the
natural advantage biz, it's amazingly well-documented that no matter how
much you train them, men in general tend to be stronger and faster
(running) than women, two crucial matters in primitive warfare. And let's
not forget the Newtster's point about infections (IRONY ALERT). This is not
to say such advantage can't be overcome with the proper training of an
Amazon force.

The explanatory links are very clear. Harris posits the aforementioned
mechanism as the reason for evolution of the idea of male supremacy, i.e.,
the need for constant war as a pop control mechanism leads to privilieging
males over females, not only through the fact that they're more likely to
be good warriors, but also he makes a reasonable argument that in any case
only one sex would be likely to be trained as warriors. In fact, sexual
rewards are a primary motive for many warriors in primitive societies --
anything from stealing women from other tribes as concubines to getting
wives within the tribe because of their prowess. The fact that in many
societies the ideology of male supremacy is explicitly linked with the
martial virtues and the ethic of war would seem to support Harris's
argument, in the sense of being consistent with it. As scientists, we
constantly have to argue post hoc, ergo propter hoc, no?

>Rather than using generalizations about the ideology of male
>supremacy as the _cause_ of behavior I think it is helpful to examine
>each case in its own material specificity.  The socioeconomic/
>cultural reasons for sex-biased infanticide in China were somewhat
>different in the past than they are today, and all the circumstances
>there are quite different from those of the Yanomamo.

I was not trying to develop a complete explanation of the subject. Once the
ethic of male supremacy has evolved (perhaps through Harris's mechanism,
perhaps not), it becomes a force in its own right. It becomes a crucial
building block of any society that is subsequently built. Clearly, the
mechanisms Harris talks about have nothing to do with places like China or
India. I hope you're not denying that superstructural components can have
independent force and effects.

>BTW, Harris _did_ explicitly say that _women_ were killing girl
>babies for their own purposes, of their own choice.  Cultural
>programming he may well allow, but he specifically ruled out the
>direct influence of men in these decisions.  It's in the quote posted
>by Shawgi, on which I commented.
>Rahul asked for more support for my views on infanticide, but really,
>how can there be evidence _for_ the _lack_ of something?  It was true
>at one time that nobody had _looked_ for any evidence _for_ Harris'
>[Armchair Anthropoloy] _claim_ of sex-biased infanticide among the
>Yanomamo, the Maring, etc.  But Chagnon and others did look for
>evidence, because this was obviously a major weak link in the
>dominant thought in this area.  Chagnon observed who was pregnant and
>paid attention to the outcome of every pregnancy, as part of his
>geneological work.  He was there for half of every year for many
>years, so he could hardly miss a full-term pregnancy.  NO evidence of
>sex-biased infanticide was found.

Of course women do it. Who else would? It's usually done by saying the baby
died in childbirth and often no man will have seen any part of the process.
I can't imagine how Chagnon would have been able to discover it directly.
History abounds with short-sighted men not seeing what should have been
clear to them; witness Freud's "seduction theory."

>The shorter answer is simply to throw the glove back at you and say
>_you_ should show that there _is_ sex-biased infanticide before you
>build a lot of other claims upon it.  Observations of infant
>sex-ratios are not good enough to claim with such confidence that
>people are simply slaughtering a full 20% of their own baby girls.

Gee, I thought there was copious evidence of female infanticide. I can
claim with complete confidence on the basis of extensive documentation that
it goes on at very high rates in parts of China and India. I don't know
about evidence in Africa or among tribal peoples in Latin America, but I
think that observation of the sex-ratio plus the fact that we know of many
places where people are slaughtering 20% of their baby girls puts the
burden of proof on the other shoe, so to speak.

>Why do you think that infanticide is a "better explanation" of
>sex-ratios?  Better than what?  Also, talk of "sexist culture" still
>does not address the question of _which_ woman will kill _her_ baby.
>Who will volunteer to be the one out of five to sacrifice for the
>common good?

I said it would be if evidence were found that in most of the tribal
societies of the type addressed by Harris the male-female sex ration among
young children is significantly higher than the human norm. After all,
random variation ought to cut both ways.

It's not a free rider or common good question. They sacrifice the babies
for their own good, as they perceive it. If your husband is going to
mutilate you every day (Yanomamo) because your first child was a girl, if
everyone is going to look at you as an ill-omen, if you yourself think that
it's a horrible thing to have a girl, maybe you kill it, maybe you don't.
The question of anyone else's good never comes in -- if that were
necessary, this wouldn't be even a remotely plausible mechanism. Of course,
even with all the superstructural inducements for a women to do this, it's
still generally the case (at least in India) that the husband or someone
else in the family forces her to agree.

But enough about Harris anyway. Any better explanations along similar lines?


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