Julian Steward, Marvin Harris and Universal History

In January of 2009 a discussion about Julian Steward occurred on the Anthropology and Environment list (EANTH).  I contributed the following message to the discussion.

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Dear EANTH list,

I agree that some context is needed regarding Julian Steward. That 19th Century evolutionary theories were explicitly racists is beyond contention. From my notes on The Rise of Anthropological Theory (RAT) by Marvin Harris I offer the following related to Steward – perhaps a few students on this list will find them of value.

1. As we know, early 19th century anthropological theory was a fight for a theory of cultural evolution and struggle against religious doctrine. Although the monogenesis position accepted degeneration after the Garden of Eden, religious inspired theorists were likely to reject ideas of racial difference among humans. It was the secular poligenist theorists – the cutting edge of scientific theory so to speak – who were creating racist theories of cultural evolution. 19th century social science concluded from the evidence that human kind arose in diverse quarters and that races and ethnic groups were  inherently different. Ironically, the old religious guard often defended the equality of people while the new scientific upstarts hammered away at the unequal endowment of humans, arguing for radical divisions among races! During racialism height, many races and ethnic groups were seen as less than human, some even going so far as to suggest inter-breeding being impossible.

2. Why did 19th century evolutionary social theory embrace a racialist foundation? Three phenomena appear to set the stage for the new science to go awry:
(a) Capitalism and colonialism were achieving an enormous level of energy and it gave the elites of Europe and the U.S. a false sense of power and greatness.
(b) The war against native peoples for land and resources was now over two-hundred years old and native peoples almost everywhere were in social and physical decline. They appeared inferior to European and U.S. colonizers.
(c) The institutions defending slavery in the United States provided a constant energy for the promotion of racialist theories and understandings.

3. We must remember that all the grand theories of social theory during the 19th Century were evolutionary and this was not an outgrowth of biological science or Darwin’s influence but a philosophical and social perspective in its own right. The true advance in 19th century anthropological thinking lay in over-turning religious explanation and the exploration of the empirical discovery of the “natural law” of social evolution. How tragic was the outcome: to have science lead the way toward the racial categorization of the social world and then use that typing as “the” explanatory basis for history. This is a story of tremendous irony and significance.

4. Fast forward to the mid-20th century and much different agenda is shaping a revival of social evolutionary thinking: By the 1940’s and 50’s Steward had achieved major contributions that dealt with historic causal sequences. As Harris argues about Kroeber’s students “a generation of his [Kroeber’s] own students were pioneering in the renaissance of the comparative method.”  Harris writes that the beginning of the nomothetic revival began in the mid 1930’s and by the 1960s Harris is able to state “we have already entered a new era of creative theory in which once again a science of man based on the comparative method boldly confronts the great questions of causality and origin.”  Note that the issue is causality and origin.

Paragraph 2 on page 655 of RAT provides a good overview of what Harris views as a revival of cultural materialism under the guise of Steward’s cultural ecology. Two reoccurring evolutionary elements are observed:
(a) The universal pattern – tribe, big man, chief, pre-state formation, pristine state, etc.
(b) The universal process – intensification, population growth, resource decline.
Harris then visits Whittfogel’s work on China and argues that it was perhaps as important as Steward’s American work. Whitfogel explained the productive basis for the long-term stability and political character of the Chinese culture. Looking at state-level civilizations based on irrigation controlling despotisms allowed Whittfogel to see clear materialist relations between base and superstructure. Never mind Whittfogel’s later decline into cold war anti-communism.

In Harris’ opinion the main achievement of Steward was when the day arrived that the data spoke for itself and a great generalization emerged. Something Boas speculated might occur from solid empirical field work. Harris gives Steward credit because it was through his act of nomothetic reasoning that Steward gave meaning to the stratigraphic record of Peruvian maize introduction and irrigation. Steward saw what was waiting to be discovered, the relationship of subsistence activity to social structure and an explanation of the causal mechanism. Reading the stratigraphic record allowed Steward to revisit the 19th century quest for the identification of sequence and then propose a generalized evolutionary sequence, which Harris describes as “epochal for theory in the social sciences.” Harris awards Steward with providing, for the first time, a cultural materialist explanation for cultural evolution.

So ends a few observations on Steward from my notes on Harris Rise of Anthropological Theory. Irrespective of how contemporary empirical field work and theory building have superceded what is represented above, we must appreciate what Steward’s contributions were and separate them from the field of U.S. culture in his day, a culture that was still firmly racist and sexist in character.

I know some on this list you have a near violent reaction to the name Marvin Harris but I hope by now those feeling have been aired and we can let the man rest in peace. As far as the underlying legacy of cultural materialism, a legacy grounded in the work of Julian Steward, I haven’t seen anything in the past decade to diminish its merit. The universal process of intensification, population growth, and resource decline might be restated today using more contemporary wording and specific causal threads are still debatable for any historic period. The global economic crisis of the past year is yet another reminder that history is not about to end. Given what I see across the planet, I believe intellectual enterprise should continue to work on a science of history. Toward that end Julian Steward made a major contribution.

All the best,

Chuck Willer

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