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Cultural materialism for the layperson
on September 28, 2005
Marvin Harris, who fought for a scientific explanation of human thought and behavior against postmodernist obscurantism and other attempts at explaining humans, brought together in this book all of his various theories about human cultures. From his contention that cannibalism occured in Aztec religion because of a lack of other protein sources in the Valley of Mexico to his basic theory of probabilistic infrastructural determinism he was always controversial.
This is an excellent book to read if you have ever wanted to study anthropology but couldnt get past the thick description of the current postmodern/interpretationist approaches. Harris harkens back to an evolutionary approach to anthropology and thoroughly explains many of the mysteries of human culture with the clearest empirical science.
He begins with human evolution, brings us through hunting and gathering into agricultural chiefdoms, the first states and into the hyperindustrial globalized present with clear concise descriptions. Harris was a masterful writer and always brings humor into the driest and (sometimes) strangest cultural phenomena. This book is a great bedside companion because of the short chapters, but you are going to have to struggle to put it down so it might keep you up rather than put you to sleep.
Also, this is basically a lay persons version of the textbooks Harris helped write with Orna Johnson. If you want to get the same information with charts and pictures (but without much of the humor) I highly recommend either Culture, People, Nature or Cultural Anthropology.