Harris, Marvin. "Mother Cow." From Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, New York, 1974, pp.11-35.
Harris, Marvin. "Pig lovers and pig haters." From Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, New York, 1974, pp.35-57.
A common argument in favor of the irrationality of religion is cited by evoking India, a nation, it is alleged, where people starve yet cows wander the streets. However, Marvin Harris argues in his essay "Mother Cow" that India makes far more advantageous use of its cattle than the wasteful United States. (Harris 31). The original reason for the Indian taboo upon cows was because oxen were needed to plow the fields and cows were needed to breed and give birth to the next generation of oxen. Kill the cow, and eat for a day, let the cow live and eat for the rest of your life, to adapt another adage to the circumstances. Thus, Hindus came to venerate cows because they became the symbol of everything that is animate, "alive" and sacred (Harris 14). Harris' article "Mother Cow" reflects intent upon being a 'myth buster' of many erroneous Western assumptions about Hinduism, such as the fact that the taboo upon beef consumption is at the heart of the disproportionate ratio of beef to oxen in the region (Harris 29).
Mother Cow" is similar to Harris' essay "Pig lovers and pig haters" in that he tries to find rational explanations for apparently irrational religious taboos. To some extent, his anthropological work does seem substantiated by recent data -- America's obsession with consuming beef has resulted in a wasteful use of environmental resources, and pork does pose a danger of trichinosis, for example. Even the use of animal protein in small, rather than frequent doses amongst the New Guinea Maring, who only slaughter pigs when they overrun the tribes' living area, and never before, has some value in adapting the tribe to exterior circumstances. But Harris' technique of using 'after the fact' explanations seems to fly in the face of the often irrational food choices all human beings make over the course of their daily lives. Food is likely an intersection of environment and culture, and suggesting that environment produces culture in a very causal fashion seems suspicious -- after all, if pigs are so unclean, why did some tribes in warm regions consume them? It is always more ecologically friendly to serve a large population with vegetable protein, so why is 'cow love' not endemic to all land-poor societies? Instead, Harris blithely asserts: "Cow love perpetuates the latent capacity of humans to persevere in a low-energy ecosystem" where little waste is possible (Harris 30). So why are not all poor societies vegetarian, and why not eat cows occasionally, as the Maring eat pigs occasionally?
A final question arises when an animal is ritually excluded from the diet, either that of pork in Judaism and Islam, or that of beef in Hinduism, as to why the animal is despised in one context, yet beloved in another. The pig is seen as an unclean and disgusting, so the animal must be cast out of the fold of the tribe, in the case of Islam and Judaism. But the prohibited animal of the cow is loved in India. Yes, the farming capacity of cattle vs. pigs is part of the reason for this -- but why do we in the West venerate dogs and keep them as pets and hate those who consume them, yet turn away from other animals as food such as squirrels, rabbits, and deer by and large and not consume these products? Although environment cannot be ignored, Harris' cause-and-effect relationships of culture and environment in producing food taboos at times seem too facile.
Harris' anthropology is fascinating, and raises provoking questions. But however well-substantiated with a rational basis, and environmental evidence, it often seems like sloppy anthropology. It is very easy to reason back from a cause, but there is rarely one, singular reason for any choice of behavior -- particularly in regards to food. A quick survey of our own modern…