Marvin Harris points out that human life is not merely a panorama of random happenings of divergent cultures. One wonders how this is so when confronted by the belief systems of peoples around the globe, some of which seem to make little or no sense. He shows that “even the most bizarre-seeming beliefs and practices” are a result of ordinary conditions arising from “guts, sex, energy, wind, rain,” and a “host of ordinary phenomena” built from emerging history.In Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture, Harris begins with an explanation for why the hungry peasants of India do not kill and eat the “sacred” cows which roam the country at will. Does this make sense?
Cows are kept alive for the simple reason that killing them is economic abortion. Cows are revered because they provide milk. Their dung can be burned like peat to heat homes and cooking pots. Dung can be mixed with other ingredients and spread like cement across the ground for flooring material. The cows are far less costly than unaffordable tractors for cultivating fields. Finally, cows that freely walk the streets eat most anything, saving the cost of paying street cleaners. Yahweh and Allah denounced the pig as unclean to Jews, Moslems, and some Christians. To even touch a pig or pork meat, let alone taste it made one unclean. Why? Harris traces this phenomenon to several factors. One of the most popular is that swine when left in a watery pen are delighted to wallow in the mud, eating their own urine and excrement.
Maimonides (Egypt) in the 12th century claimed that God intended his ban on pork as a health measure. In the 19th century, the discovery of trichinosis in poorly cooked pork seemed to prove his theory. However, it is interesting that God is choosy. He did not decry cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and mules which transmit deadly anthrax while pigs do not.
The next topic Harris addresses is the irrationality of war in ancient times and today. He claims that humans are not basically warmongers. In Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches he attempts to show that people invariably go to war because “they lack alternative solutions to certain problems.” He mentions the Maring, a tribe in New Guinea that wars on a regular basis every so many years.