I like to read. Actually, I like to read what makes me think. And that makes me a slow reader. On top of that, I am lazy. So it is a rare book that I read cover to cover. But when I do read a book completely, I usually read it all over again. If it is worth reading once, I believe, it is worth reading a second time. One such book is by a favorite author of mine — Marvin Harris. He is an anthropologist. I first read him many years ago. I loved his book Our Kind so much that I ended up buying a dozen copies to gift to my friends. Another of his books that I enjoy giving is Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.
These days I going through his book “Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture” [© Marvin Harris 1979 Random House.] It is a delight. Here are a couple of paragraphs that I would like to share with you.
Science is a unique and precious contribution of Western civilization. This is not to deny that many other civilizations have contributed to scientific knowledge by inventing weights and measures, classifying plants and animals, recording astronomical observations, developing mathematical theorems, voyaging to distant lands, experimenting with chemical and physical processes. But it was in western Europe that the distinctive rules of the scientific method were first codified, given conscious expression, and systematically applied to the entire range of inorganic, organic, and cultural phenomena.
It is both foolish and dangerous for intellectuals in any society to minimize the significance of this achievement. We must recognize that there are many ways of knowing, but we must also recognize that it is not mere ethnocentric puffery to assert that science is a way of knowing that has a uniquely transcendent value for all human beings. In the entire course of prehistory and history only one way of knowing has encouraged its own practitioners to doubt their own premises and to systematically expose their own conclusions to the hostile scrutiny of nonbelievers. Granted that discrepancies between science as an ideal and science as it is practiced substantially reduce the difference between science, religion, and other modes of looking for the truth. But it is precisely as an ideal that the uniqueness of science deserves to be defended. No other way of knowing is based on a set of rules explicitly designed to transcend the prior belief systems of mutually antagonistic tribes, nations, classes, and ethnic and religious communities in order to arrive at knowledge that is equally probably for any rational human mind. Those who doubt that science can do this must be able to show how some other tolerant and ecumenical alternative can do it better. Unless they can show how some other universalistic system of knowing leads to more acceptable criteria of truth, their attempts to subvert the universal credibility of science in the name of cultural relativism, however well-intentioned, is an intellectual crime against humanity. It is a crime against humanity because the real alternative to science is not anarchy, but ideology, not peaceful artists, philosophers, and anthropologists, but aggressive fanatics and messiahs eager to annihilate each other and the whole world if need be in order to prove their point. [pg 27]
The alternative to science is ideology. Jihad.
[Followup post: Science — Part 2]