The cultural practices of other people often seem strange, irrational, and even
inexplicable to outsiders. In fact, the members of the culture in question may be unable to give a
rationally satisfying explanation of why they behave as they do: they may say that “the gods wish
it so,” or that “it is always done that way.” Yet a fundamental assumption of social science is that
no matter how peculiar or even bizarre human cultures may appear, they can be understood at
least in part.
To Americans and Europeans, the attitude of most people in India toward cows is
perplexing. Hindus regard the animals as sacred and will not kill or eat them. In India a large
population of cows wanders freely through both rural areas and city streets, undisturbed by the
millions of hungry and malnourished people. Why?
Marvin Harris suggests an answer to such puzzles. In this quite famous article, he
suggests that India’s sacred cow is in fact quite a rational cultural adaptation — because the cow
is so extraordinarily useful.