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Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History

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Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History

4/5 (24 valutazioni)
385 pagine
6 ore
Feb 14, 2017


“Surprising. Impressive.  Cannibalism restores my faith in humanity.” Sy Montgomery, The New York Times Book Review

For centuries scientists have written off cannibalism as a bizarre phenomenon with little biological significance. Its presence in nature was dismissed as a desperate response to starvation or other life-threatening circumstances, and few spent time studying it. A taboo subject in our culture, the behavior was portrayed mostly through horror movies or tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life flesh-eaters. But the true nature of cannibalism--the role it plays in evolution as well as human history--is even more intriguing (and more normal) than the misconceptions we’ve come to accept as fact.

In Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,zoologist Bill Schutt sets the record straight, debunking common myths and investigating our new understanding of cannibalism’s role in biology, anthropology, and history in the most fascinating account yet written on this complex topic. Schutt takes readers from Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, where he wades through ponds full of tadpoles devouring their siblings, to the Sierra Nevadas, where he joins researchers who are shedding new light on what happened to the Donner Party--the most infamous episode of cannibalism in American history. He even meets with an expert on the preparation and consumption of human placenta (and, yes, it goes well with Chianti).

Bringing together the latest cutting-edge science, Schutt answers questions such as why some amphibians consume their mother’s skin; why certain insects bite the heads off their partners after sex; why, up until the end of the twentieth century, Europeans regularly ate human body parts as medical curatives; and how cannibalism might be linked to the extinction of the Neanderthals. He takes us into the future as well, investigating whether, as climate change causes famine, disease, and overcrowding, we may see more outbreaks of cannibalism in many more species--including our own.

Cannibalism places a perfectly natural occurrence into a vital new context and invites us to explore why it both enthralls and repels us.
Feb 14, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

Bill Schutt is a vertebrate zoologist and author. He is a research associate in residence at the American Museum of Natural History and a professor of biology at LIU-Post. Bill’s first book, Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, was critically acclaimed by E. O. Wilson and the New York Times. His next nonfiction work will explore the natural history of cannibalism. Bill lives with his wife and son in Long Island.

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  • Like the many priests, missionaries, colonial officers, and others who considered cannibalism antithetical to what it means to be human, scholars who insist that all ac-counts must be false seem to assume that cannibalism is by definition a terrible act.

  • What happens to our bodies and minds under starvation conditions? Why are women better equipped to survive starvation than men? And what physiological ex- tremes would compel someone to consume the body of a friend or even a family member?

  • I also wondered why, as disgusted as we are at the very thought of cannibalism, we’re so utterly fascinated by it? Might cannibalism have been more common in our ancestors, before societal rules turned it into something abhorrent?

  • Since this is bad juju, natural selection should favor cannibals that can discriminate between kin and non-kin, primarily because eating non-relatives results in no loss of inclusive fitness. In many instances, this is exactly what happens.

  • Although defining someone as a cannibal became an effective way to dehumanize them, there is also evidence that ritual cannibalism, as embodied in various customs related to funerary rites and warfare, occurred throughout history.

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Cannibalism - Bill Schutt



A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.

—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

To mark its 100-year anniversary in 2003, the American Film Institute polled a jury of 1,500 actors, writers, directors, and historians, to determine the 50 greatest screen villains of all time. Topping the AFI list was the ultimate in fictionalized cannibals, Dr. Hannibal The Cannibal Lecter. In The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award–winning vision of the Thomas Harris novel, Lecter, memorably portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins, helps recently graduated FBI recruit Clarice Starling track down Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who skins his female victims in order to tailor a woman suit.

Second place in the poll went to Norman Bates, the mother-fixated hotel manager inhabiting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho. Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Norman Bates wasn’t a cannibal, but just give me a minute.

From the opening scene, Hitchcock invited Eisenhower-era audiences to indulge in some long-held taboos. Filmgoers titillated the previous year by the first of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day bedroom comedies suddenly found themselves transformed into voyeurs, peering into shadowy corners previously unseen by mainstream movie audiences of the 1950s. From an amorous lunch-hour rendezvous (where the half-clad lovers had obviously just risen from their unmade hotel room bed) to a peephole in the Bates Motel, nobody would be confusing Hitchcock’s masterpiece with Pillow Talk.

Released to a mixed critical response, the movie became a sensation with audiences, and remains so today. More than a half-century after its release, Bernard Herrmann’s strings-only score is perhaps the most instantly recognizable music ever written for a film. Less well known is the fact that Joseph Stefano’s screenplay for Psycho had been adapted from a Robert Bloch pulp novel about Wisconsin native Edward Gein (pronounced Geen), a real-life murderer, grave robber, necrophile, and cannibal.

Born in 1906, Gein lived a solitary and repressive life under the thumb of a domineering mother. The family owned a 160-acre farm, seven miles outside the town of Plainfield, but when his brother died in 1944, Gein abandoned all efforts to cultivate the land. Instead, he relied on government aid and the occasional odd job to support himself and his mother. When she died in 1945, Gein found himself alone in the large farmhouse, sealing off much of it and leaving his mother’s room exactly as it looked when she was alive. The house itself fell into such serious disrepair that the neighborhood kids began claiming that it was haunted.

On the night of November 17, 1957, things began to unravel for the recluse known as Weird Old Eddie. The police were investigating the disappearance of local storeowner Bernice Worden when they got a tip that Gein had been seen in her hardware store several times that week. They picked him up at a neighbor’s house where he was having dinner and questioned him about the missing woman. She isn’t missing, Gein told them, she’s down at the house now.

Gein’s dilapidated farmhouse had no electricity, so the cops used flashlights and oil lamps to pick their way through the debris-laden rooms. In a shed out back, one of the men bumped into what he thought were the remains of a dressed-out deer hanging from a wooden beam. But the fresh carcass hanging upside down was no deer: It was the decapitated body of Mrs. Worden. As the stunned lawmen moved through the gruesome crime scene, it became clear that the neighborhood kids had been right. The Gein house was haunted. Each room they entered presented them with a new nightmare: soup bowls made from human skulls, a pair of lips attached to a window shade drawstring, and a belt made from human nipples. In the kitchen, the police reportedly found Bernice Worden’s heart sitting in a frying pan on the stove and an icebox stocked with human organs.

Soon after Gein’s arrest, media correspondents from all over the world began descending on the town and its shocked populace. The reporters poked around the Gein farm and interviewed neighbors. Some of the locals recounted how they’d been given venison by Gein, who later told authorities that he had never shot a deer in his life. The Plainfield Butcher had also been a popular babysitter.

With the publication of a seven-page article in Life magazine (and a three-page spread in Time), millions of Americans became fascinated with Ed Gein and his crimes. Plainfield became a tourist attraction with bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling through the narrow streets. Jokes called Geinisms became popular.

Q: What did Ed Gein give his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day?

A: A box of farmer fannies.¹

The following year, Robert Bloch loosely adapted the Gein crimes for his novel, relocating his tale to Phoenix and concentrating on the mother-fixation aspects of the story while playing down the mutilation and cannibalism. An assistant gave Alfred Hitchcock the book and he procured the film rights soon after reading it. The director also had his staff buy up as many copies of the novel as they could find. He wanted to prevent readers from learning about the plot and then revealing its secrets. After some initial resistance from Paramount Pictures, the Master of Suspense directed his most famous and financially successful film—one that would never have been made if not for Ed Gein, a quiet little cannibal, who explained to the authorities, I had a compulsion to do it.²

Is it really a surprise, though, that our greatest cinematic villain is a man-eating psychiatrist while the mild-mannered runner-up is based on a real-life cannibal killer? Perhaps not, if one considers that many cultures share the belief that consuming another human is the worst (or close to the worst) behavior that a person can undertake. As a result, real-life cannibalistic psychopaths like Jeffrey Dahmer (another Wisconsin native) and his Russian counterpart, Andrei Chikatilo, have attained something akin to mythical status in the annals of history’s most notorious murderers. Whether through a filter of fictionalization, where man-eating deviants are transformed into powerful antiheroes, or through tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life cannibals, these tales feed our obsession with all things gruesome—an obsession that is now an acceptable facet of our society.

A different attitude was taken toward primitive social or ethnic groups whose members might not have shared the Western take on cannibalism taboos. At best, these savages were pegged as souls to be saved, but only if they met certain requirements. In the first half of the 20th century, for example, explorers and the missionaries who followed them ventured into the foreboding New Guinea highlands and quickly imposed one hard-and-fast rule for the locals: Cannibalism in any form was strictly forbidden.

But far worse instances of cultural intrusion occurred elsewhere and throughout history, as those accused of consuming other humans, for any reason, were brutalized, enslaved, and murdered. The most infamous example of this practice began during the last years of the 15th century when millions of indigenous people living in the Caribbean and Mexico were summarily reclassified as cannibals for reasons that had little to do with people-eating. Instead, it paved the way for them to be robbed, beaten, conquered, and slain, all at the whim of their new Spanish masters.

Similar atrocities were carried out on a massive scale by a succession of flag-planting European powers who (if one believes their accounts) wrested South America, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific away from man-eating savages, whose behavior placed them beyond the pale of anything that could remotely be described as human.

So were European fears about cannibalism simply an invention used to justify conquest, or were there cultures, including those encountered by the Spaniards, where the consumption of humans was regarded as normal behavior? Although defining someone as a cannibal became an effective way to dehumanize them, there is also evidence that ritual cannibalism, as embodied in various customs related to funerary rites and warfare, occurred throughout history.

As I began studying these forms of cannibalism, I sought to determine not only their perceived functions, but just how widespread they were or weren’t. Surprisingly—or perhaps not surprisingly given the subject matter—there is disagreement among anthropologists regarding ritual cannibalism. Some deny that it ever occurred, while others claim that the behavior did occur but was uncommon. Still others claim that cannibalism was practiced by many cultures throughout history and for a variety of reasons. One such body of evidence led me straight back to European history, where I learned that a particularly macabre form of cannibalism had been practiced for hundreds of years by nobility, physicians, and commoners alike, even into the 20th century.

As a zoologist, I was, of course, intrigued at the prospect of documenting cases of non-human cannibalism. Looking back now, I can see that I’d started my inquiry with something less than a completely open mind. Part of me reasoned that since cannibalism was presumably a rare occurrence in humans (at least in modern times), it would likely be similarly rare in the animal kingdom.

Once I dug further, though, I discovered that cannibalism differs in frequency between major animal groups—nonexistent in some and common in others. It varies from species to species and even within the same species, depending on local environmental conditions. Cannibalism also serves a variety of functions, depending on the cannibal. There are even examples in which an individual being cannibalized receives a benefit.

In several instances, cannibalism appears to have arisen only recently in a species, and human activity might be the cause. In one such case, news reports informed horrified audiences that some of the most highly recognizable animals on the planet were suddenly consuming their own young. Polar bears resort to cannibalism as Arctic ice shrinks, reported CNN, while the Times of London echoed the sentiment: Climate Change Forcing Polar Bears to Become Cannibals. It was Reuters, though, that scored a perfect ten on the gruesome scale with an online slide show in which an adult polar bear was seen carrying around the still cute-as-a button head of a dead cub, the remains of its spinal cord trailing behind like a red streamer.

The real story behind polar bear cannibalism turned out to be just as fascinating, though it would also serve as a perfect example of how many accusations of and stories about cannibalism throughout history were untrue, unproven, or exaggerated—distorted by sensationalism, deception, a lack of scientific knowledge, and just plain bad writing. With the passage of time, these accounts too often become part of the historical record, their errors long forgotten. Part of my job would be to expose those errors.

I was also extremely curious to see if the origin of cannibalism taboos could be traced back to the natural world, so I developed a pair of alternative hypotheses. Perhaps our aversion to consuming our own kind is hardwired into our brains and as such is a part of our genetic blueprint—a gene or two whose expression selects against such behavior. I reasoned that if such a built-in deterrent exists, then humans and most non-humans (with the exception of a few well-known anomalies such as black widow spiders and praying mantises) would avoid cannibalism at all costs. Thus, the taboo would have a biological foundation.

Conversely, I weighed the possibility that the revulsion most people have at the very mention of cannibalism might stem solely from our culture. Of course, this led to even more questions. What are the cultural roots of the cannibalism taboo and how has it become so widespread? I also wondered why, as disgusted as we are at the very thought of cannibalism, we’re so utterly fascinated by it? Might cannibalism have been more common in our ancestors, before societal rules turned it into something abhorrent? I looked for evidence in the fossil record and elsewhere.

Finally, I considered what it would take to break down the biological or cultural constraints that prevent us from eating each other on a regular basis. Could there come a time, in our not-so-distant future, when human cannibalism becomes commonplace? And for that matter, was it already becoming a more frequent occurrence? The answers to these questions are far from certain but, then again, there is much about the topic of cannibalism that cannot be neatly divided into black and white. Likely or not, though, the circumstances that might lead to outbreaks of widespread cannibalism in the 21st century are grounded in science, not science fiction.

My aim was to stay away from the clichéd ideas about cannibalism that are already ingrained in our collective psyche and, with such a wealth of relevant material to explore, I quickly realized that this wouldn’t be difficult. Even the most famous cannibal stories, it turned out, had factual gaps that are only now being filled. In the case of the Donner Party, for example, I joined researchers whose scientific approach to the most infamous cannibalism-related event in American history had shed new light on this 19th-century tale of stranded pioneers.

I’ve tried to approach each example from a scientific viewpoint, delving into what I considered the most intriguing aspects of anthropology, evolution, and biology to provide the broadest yet most engaging natural history of this behavior. What happens to our bodies and minds under starvation conditions? Why are women better equipped to survive starvation than men? And what physiological extremes would compel someone to consume the body of a friend or even a family member?

With regard to criminal cannibalism (Jeffrey Dahmer and his ilk), I was less interested in the overhashed and gory details of the crimes than the reasons for our enthrallment with the overhashed and gory details. This is not a book that explores the minds of our so-called cannibal killers, though it does seem that instances of cannibalism-related crime may be on the uptick. I’ve also taken a hard line on sensationalism by highlighting and differentiating between physical evidence, ethno-history, unfounded information, and horse feathers.

In the pages ahead, you will encounter everything from cannibalism in utero to placenta-munching mothers who carry on a remarkably rich tradition of medicinal cannibalism. Yes, the ick factor is high, but I hope you’ll find this journey as fascinating and unusual as I have—a journey whose goal is to allow us to better understand the complexity of our natural world and the long and often blood-spattered history of our species.

With this in mind, why not grab a glass of red wine, and let’s get started.³

1 In the 1940s and 1950s Fanny Farmer was the largest producer of candy in the U.S.

2 When Psycho opened on June 16, 1960, it was an instant hit, with long lines outside theaters and broken box office records all over the world. More than 50 years later the film is remembered best for its famous shower scene, one which reportedly caused many of our Greatest Generation to develop some degree of ablutophobia, the fear of bathing (from the Latin abluere, to wash off). Few theatergoers realized that the blood in Psycho was actually the popular chocolate syrup, Bosco (a fact the company somehow neglected to mention in their ads and TV commercials).

3 For suitable background music, for starters I suggest Timothy, the catchy one-hit-wonder by The Buoys. The song, written by Rupert Holmes (The Piña Colada Song), tells the tale of three trapped miners, two of whom survive by eating the title character. In 1971 Timothy reached number 17 on the Billboard Top 100, even though many major radio stations refused to play it. In an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the ban, executives at Scepter Records began circulating a rumor that Timothy was actually a mule.

1: Animal the Cannibal

Cannibals prefer those who have no spines.

—Polish aphorist and poet Stanislaw Lec, Holiday, 1963

I was knee-deep in a temporary pond that seemed to be composed of equal parts rainwater and cow shit when the cannibals began nibbling on my leg hair.

If you stand still for long enough, they’ll definitely nip you, came a voice from the shore.

The they were cannibalistic spadefoot toad larvae (commonly known as tadpoles) and the warning had come from Dr. David Pfennig, a biology professor at the University of North Carolina who had been studying these toads in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains for more than 20 years.

At Pfennig’s invitation, I had arrived at the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station in mid-July—just after the early-summer monsoons had turned cattle wallows into nursery ponds and newly hatched tadpoles into cannibals. But the real reason I had come to the ancestral land of Cochise and the Chiricahua Apaches wasn’t because the tadpoles were eating each other. It was because some of them weren’t eating each other. In fact, when this particular brood had hatched about a week earlier, they were all omnivores, feeding on plankton and the suspended organic matter referred to in higher-class journals as detritus. Then, two or three days later, something peculiar took place. Some of the tiny amphibians experienced dramatic growth spurts, their bodies ballooning in size overnight. Now, as I waded, scoop-net in hand, through Sky Ranch Pond (a slimy-bottomed mud hole with delusions of grandeur), the pumped-up proto-toads were four or five times larger than their poop-nibbling brethren.

These look like two different species, I said, examining a handful of tadpoles that I’d just scooped up. I also noted that the larger individuals were light tan in color while the little guys had bodies flecked with dark green.

Initially, people thought they were different species, Pfennig replied.

Using a magnifying glass to get a better look at my squirmy captives, I saw that the differences went beyond body size and color. The larger tadpoles were also sporting powerful tails and serious-looking beaks.

Yikes, nice choppers, I commented, always the scientist.

They’re made of keratin, Pfennig said. This was the same tough, structural protein found in our nails and hair.

Later, while comparing the two tadpole morphs under a dissecting ’scope, I saw that behind a set of frilly lips, the flat keratinous plates (which worked fine for detritus dining) had been transformed into a jack-o-lantern row of sharp-edged teeth in the cannibalistic forms. It was also evident that the jaw muscles were significantly enlarged in the cannibals, especially the jaw-closing levator mandibulae, whose bulging appearance reminded me of a kid with six pieces of Dubble Bubble jammed into each cheek (a dangerous behavior I only rarely attempt anymore ). Studies had shown that myofibers, the cells making up these muscles, were larger and greater in number (or hypertrophied and hyperplasious, respectively)—producing a more powerful bite. Of course, the extra bite force was necessary because, beyond latching onto the occasional unshaved human leg, these critters were using bulked-up bodies and the weaponry that accompanied it to subdue and consume their omnivorous pondmates.

Not quite so obvious was a significant shortening of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in the cannibals, with the explanation relating to the dietary differences that accompanied the tadpole transformations. In the omnivores, a long GI tract is required for the breakdown of tough-to-digest plant matter, while a shorter GI tract works just fine when the diet is a fleshy one.

Over a three-day period, I watched and captured tadpoles in bodies of water that ranged from tire-carved puddles to bovine swimmin’ holes of the double-wide Olympic variety. Accompanied at various times by Pfennig, his wife, Karin, their two young daughters, and a pair of extremely personable UNC grad students, Antonio Serrato and Nick Levis, I learned a great deal about the three species of Spea that laid their eggs in such dangerously unpredictable conditions. Much of this information centered on the ecology, behavior, and evolution of these creatures. Of course, the cannibalism angle was there as well, although these researchers (including the kids) treated that particular behavior as perfectly normal.

Until relatively recently though, and with a very few exceptions, cannibalism in nature would have been regarded as anything but normal. As a result, until the last two decades of the 20th century, few scientists spent time studying a topic thought to have little, if any, biological significance. Basically, the party line was that cannibalism, when it did occur, was either the result of starvation or the stresses related to captive conditions.

It was as simple as that.

Or so we thought.

In the 1970s, Laurel Fox, a University of California Santa Cruz ecologist, took some of the first steps towards a scientific approach to cannibalism. She had been studying the feeding behavior of predatory freshwater insects called backswimmers (belonging to the order Hemiptera, the true bugs). Fox determined that, while the voracious hunters relied primarily on aquatic prey, cannibalism was also a consistent part of their diets.

I contacted Fox and asked her about the transition that had taken place in the scientific community regarding this behavior. She told me that her observations in the field had sparked her interest and that, soon after, she began compiling a list of scientific papers in which cannibalism had been reported. Although there turned out to be hundreds of references documenting the behavior in various species, no one had linked these instances together or come up with any generalizations regarding the behavior. By the time Fox’s review paper came out in 1975, she had concluded that cannibalism was not abnormal behavior at all, but a completely normal response to a variety of environmental factors.

Significantly, Fox also determined that cannibalism was a far more widespread occurrence than anyone had previously imagined and that it took place in every major animal group, including many that were long considered to be herbivores . . . like butterflies. She emphasized that cannibalism in nature, which some researchers referred to as intraspecific predation, also demonstrated a complexity that seemed to match its frequency. Fox suggested that the occurrence of cannibalism in a particular species wasn’t simply a does occur or doesn’t occur proposition, but was often dependent on variables like population density and changes in local environmental conditions. Fox even followed cannibalism’s environmental connection onto the human branch of the evolutionary tree. After pondering reports that humans practicing non-ritual cannibalism lived in nutritionally marginal areas, she proposed that consuming other humans might have provided low-density populations with 5 to 10 percent of their protein requirements. Conversely, she suggested that cannibalism was rare in settlements where populations were dense enough to allow for the production of an adequate and predictable food supply.

In 1980, ecologist and scorpion expert Gary Polis picked up the animal cannibalism banner and began looking at invertebrates that consumed their own kind. Like Fox, he noted that while starvation could lead to increases in the behavior, it was certainly not a requirement. Perhaps Polis’s most important contribution to the subject of cannibalism in nature was assembling a list of cannibalism-related generalizations under which most examples of invertebrate cannibalism could be placed. 1) Immature animals get eaten more often than adults; 2) Many animals, particularly invertebrates, do not recognize individuals of their own kind, especially eggs and immature stages, which are simply regarded as a food source; 3) Females are more often cannibalistic than males; 4) Cannibalism increases with hunger and a concurrent decrease in alternative forms of nutrition; and 5) Cannibalism is often directly related to the degree of overcrowding in a given population.

Polis emphasized that these generalizations were sometimes found in combination, such as overcrowding and a lack of alternative forms of nutrition (a common cannibal-related cause and effect), both of which now fall under the broader banner of stressful environmental conditions.

In 1992, zoologists Mark Elgar and Bernard Crespi edited a scholarly book on the ecology and evolution of cannibalism across diverse animal taxa. In it, they refined the scientific definition of cannibalism in nature as the killing and consumption of either all or part of an individual that is of the same species. Initially the researchers excluded instances where the individuals being consumed were already dead or survived the encounter—the former they considered to be a type of scavenging. Eventually, though, they decided these were variants of cannibalistic behavior observed across the entire animal kingdom. Although there are certainly gray areas (encompassing things like breastfeeding or eating one’s own fingernails), my fallback definition of cannibalism for this book is: The act of one individual of a species consuming all or part of another individual of the same species. In the animal kingdom, this would include behavior like scavenging (as long as the scavenged body was from the same species as the scavenger) and maternal care in which tissue (i.e., skin or uterine lining) was consumed. In humans, cannibalism would extend beyond the concept of nutrition into the realms of ritual behavior, medicine, and mental disorder.

As the study of cannibalism gained scientific validity in the 1980s, more and more researchers began looking at the phenomenon, bringing with them expertise in a variety of fields. From ecologists we learned that cannibalism was often an important part of predation and foraging, while social scientists studied its connection to courtship, mating, and even parental care. Anatomists found strange, cannibalism-related structures to examine (like the keratinous beak of the spadefoot toad), and field biologists studied cannibalism under natural conditions, thus countering the previous mantra that the behavior was captivity-dependent.

By the 1990s, Polis’s generalizations had been observed among widely divergent animal groups, both with and without backbones, supporting the conclusion that the benefits of consuming your own kind could outweigh the often substantial costs. Once these generalizations became established, and as a new generation of researchers built upon foundations constructed by pioneers like Fox and Polis, cannibalism in nature, with all of its intricacies and variation, began to make perfect evolutionary

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  • (4/5)
    A thorough, even-handed introduction to the realities of cannibalism in humans and other animals. Schutt does a great job of not sensationalizing, and of bringing in a multiplicity of viewpoints. Alas for me, I'd read several of his sources already, so I didn't learn much new.
  • (3/5)
    Not bad and informative science book. Much drier than one would hope. I personally found it rather plodding at points and sustained interest by skimming as it could be somewhat repetitive. Seems more like a series of individually written essays that are okay on their own, but that no editor went through to make them read like a coherent text. If I had other things on my shelf, I would skip this one.
  • (5/5)
    I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program.Wow.This was a topic that I occasionally have an interest in, but it's short-lived and I never pursue it. So when I saw this book, I thought it might be a good opportunity to actually dedicate some time to cannibalism.Schutt receives great applause from me for staying away from the gruesome and gory details of the crimes that pop culture has hashed and rehashed time and again. Taking a look at cannibalism from the scope of a zoologist, this book focuses more on the science behind why cannibalism happens. Much of it has nothing to do with humans, but instead with the animal kingdom. This, to me, made the book feel like an education and not a sensationalism. Which is exactly, I believe, what Schutt intended.Schutt is hilarious. His humor is often dry, but I was constantly laughing and underlining as I read. And I think that the wit helps to coat the cannibalism on the way down. It pulls away from the seriousness of taboo that our culture so often instills in us. HIs writing is also very accessible. I'm not one for science in most cases, but I never felt like his language was above my understanding. Addictingly readable, I couldn't put this down.I didn't have much issue throughout, although there is a chapter on placenta eating that I struggled with. Who knew.I have been recommending it to everyone who so much as glances at the cover with a raised eyebrow. Yes -- read it.I devoured it.Pun intended.
  • (3/5)
    I had mixed feelings about this book. I was expecting the book to have more of a focus on the more scientific elements of cannibalism. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed the beginning of the book, which focused more on the zoological evidence of cannibalism within multiple species. I found the latter half of the book, which dealt more with anthropological studies of cannibalism, a bit less interesting because it felt more like a rehashing of stories and ethnographies already written. Regardless, this is a well-written book, as amusing and light-hearted as anything concerning cannibalism can be.
  • (4/5)
    It's difficult to think of a book about devouring members of your own species as "fun," but that's the word that springs to mind when thinking back on my reading of Bill Schutt's book. About 40% of the book deals with non-human animals, the remainder with humanity, including a long chapter on the Donner party and two chapters on the varieties of prion diseases (like Mad Cow), although, surprisingly to me, he seems to side with a researcher who believes it's actually a viral disease and the prions are a side effect. He also tantalizingly throws out a theory that Neanderthals were done in by a prion disease. Anyway, it's clear the taboo against cannibalism is far from universal, and Schutt has written an interesting, accessible, and yes, fun book.
  • (4/5)
    This is a great book for the first 2/3 or so. Lots of juicy tidbits about cannibalism in the animal kingdom, including discussions about how this behavior fits into long term species survival. Interesting stuff. After hitting the animal world, the author starts exploring cannibalism among humans; it's pretty interesting to start, with a broad picture of how different "camps" view the existence (or not) of cannibalism in humanity. I was very surprised to learn about Chinese and European cannibalism in relatively modern times. I learned a lot and felt like this was a good read. Then the book degenerates into an overly long discussed about mad cow disease, Creutzfelt-Jacob Disease, and related concerns. While this was interesting and had a place in the book, in the end there was too much space devoted to a book that was, for the mostpart, focused in a slightly different direction. I finally skimmed the last 50 or so pages and was happy when it was done. This seems to be a common thing in non-fiction books: they start of strong and then draw out related-but-veering-off-topic material. Is it to make it more pages?I'd rather have fewer pages and more concise discussions.Overall, this was an interesting read. The writer is witty (and only occasionally annoyingly so...), the text approachable. I'd read more by him.(I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. My review has not been influenced by receipt of the book.)
  • (4/5)
    Very smart, funny, and compassionate. I knocked off a star because I didn't think mad cow disease / kuru warranted three separate chapters of its own, but otherwise it was an excellent read. (And the chapter on the Donners is called "The Worst Party Ever"; what isn't to love?)
  • (5/5)
    Bill Schutt can explain to you the biologic sensibility of plankton feeding fish indiscriminately consuming juveniles of their own species; he can even explain why some tadpoles within a population develop into cannibalistic giants eating their own vegetarian kin. He's even willing to tackle questions up through the mammalian species. All of it is wrapped up in approachable writing and humor (well, less so in the sections about the Donner Party and about Europeans enslaving other populations, of course).Confronting cannibalism in Homo sapiens though is a deeper question than simply establishing that rats in some situations eat rats. Schutt even introduces an anthropologic school of thought that denies the history of cannibalism within human populations at all. He well explains the difficulties of the historic record and its origins, deftly demonstrating the likelihood and motivations for its manipulation.Yes, he does tackle the Donner Party, but he does so in the company of historians specifically investigating and refuting some earlier records of their history. He also addresses the modern (and possibly only modern) movement embracing placentaphagy. He even takes on questions of the definition of human cannibalism, its history in medical traditions of multiple cultures, and claims of its existence as a political and religious control tool.Finally, he wraps up questions of the anthropologic record and modern politics by covering the twentieth century phenomenon of kuru in the Fore people, mad cow disease, and vCJD in Britain. If the reader takes a step back and wraps their thoughts around this tangle, it's a fascinating record of epidemiology and anthropology taking us to the present day, with questions still unresolved about the role of prions and the likelihood of further disease phenomena.
  • (5/5)
    I've always had an interest in the macabre and dark and I a recent interest in biology and evolution and this book struck a chord with both of those things. Bill Schutt is an excellent, down-to-earth science write with a great and often delightfully nerdy sense of humor. This book felt like "A Walk in the Woods" except about Cannibalism. The book starts out with defining what counts as cannibalism and then goes into a lot of great detail about various forms of cannibalism in the animal kingdom. It covers the interesting biology and circumstances in which cannibalism is expressed from insects all the way up to mammals. It gives readers new cannibalistic horrors to consider, but also puts to bed a lot of myths about such maligned creatures as the praying mantis and the hampster. About halfway through the book the Bill Schutt switches to the topic of human cannibalism. What I loved most about this section was that it remained scientific and biological. I never once trailed off into sensationalism about certain serial killers or salacious recent events. Instead, in order to discuss human cannibalism without those elements the author focuses on The Donner Party and the Fore tribe in Papua New Ginuea. This approach allows readers to really consider the issue generally free from media knowledge of the events. It also protects the book from accusations of cashing in on lurid details of pop culture. The book closes with some discussions about how and when human cannibalism has reared it's head en-mass and how it could arise again and steps we might take to prevent it. While this section was accurate and good information, it did seem a bit out of scope or off kilter to the rest of the book, like maybe it was trying to get a little pop media cred. Anyway, I highly recommend this book. It's one that will go on my shelf next to The Moral Animal, A Walk in the Woods, and other great pop science books that I love.
  • (4/5)
    Bill Schutt's "Cannibalism" is an engaging look at various manifestations of cannibalism, from tadpoles to mammals to humans. He looks at survival cannibalism, ritual cannibalism, and other forms,with a focus on breaking down the (often racist) myths about cannibalism among colonized societies, and trying to determine what actually might have happened. The book is enlightening, fun, and very readable, with a surprising amount of humor. However, Schutt is primarily a zoologist, not a writer, and that shows--the prose is sometimes clunky, and there are times when he jumps from one point to another without fully explaining the connection, making it hard to understand exactly what he's trying to say. But aside from those occasional issues, this is an interesting look at an often-misunderstood topic.
  • (4/5)
    Bill has written an entertaining and educational book. He has researched the topic of cannibalism well and presents the material with humor. I enjoyed the book and learned a good deal about cannibalism. I recommend this book.
  • (4/5)
    I don't read a lot of non-fiction books but for some reason as soon as I saw this book I knew I wanted to read it. I love learning about anything medical or science related so it was as surprising of a choice as you might think. I have always said that I read a little bit of everything and this book is proof positive of that fact. Cannibalism is a really interesting subject and I learned a lot while listening to this book. It was really an enjoyable experience.I have to admit that as soon as I saw this book, I started thinking about criminals who practice cannibalism. If you are looking for a book that chronicles the actions of serial killers, this probably isn't the book for you. There is a little bit of those kind of stories in this book but very few. The author actually makes a point to explain why he chose not to focus on criminals. This book instead deals with many other topics pertaining to cannibalism.If you are interested in learning about cannibalism in nature, look no further because this book is full of that kind of information. This books covers cannibalism in fish, birds, tadpoles, insects, and spiders. It discusses why it might be advantageous for animals to cannibalize others creatures of their own species sometimes including their own offspring. I can honestly say that I learned more about cannibalism in nature than I even knew that I wanted to know.I really enjoyed the sections of the book that involved human cannibalism. The very few sections that did discuss criminal cannibalism were very interesting. At the very beginning of the book, I learned that the book Psycho is based off a true story of a man that killed and cannibalized his victims. Survival cannibalism was another very interesting topic. I had never heard of the Donner party prior to listening to this book but I was captivated and saddened by their story. There is a section that discusses the eating of one's placenta, not something that I ever gave any thought to before this book but interesting nonetheless.I thought that Tom Perkins was the perfect narrator for this book. It almost felt as if I were listening to a nature show on television. His voice is exactly the kind of voice I think of when imagining the voice over sections in any nature program. This book had a lot of details and was full of information but I never tired of listening to it largely because of the narrator's skill. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic. It is a heavy subject but it is delivered in a very readable manner. There are a lot of details but it is presented in an entertaining manner. I was entertained and learned a few things. This is the first book by Bill Shutt that I have read but I would consider his work in the furture. I received a review copy of this book from HighBridge Audio via Audiobook Jukebox.
  • (5/5)
    Insightful, academic, and at times hilarious overview of cannibalism among animals--including humans.
  • (2/5)
    Not what I expected. Dry and engaging.
  • (4/5)
    Zoologist Bill Schutt looks at cannibalism from an evolutionary point of view and finds that there are times when eating members of one's own species a certain amount of sense. Cannibalism is a common behavior at all levels of the food chain; invertebrates eat their relatives because they have no way of recognizing which organisms belong to their own kind and which do not. Veribrates are more likely to engage in cannibalism when threatened with starvation or other environmental stressors. There is evidence of humans performing ritual cannibalism for a variety of reasons, but often accounts of people eating people are distorted or exaggerated. Schutt is indefatigable in his pursuit of his subject. He examines the historical and anthropological records, interviews academic experts, and even, in the name of science, chows down on a cooked human placenta. He avoids sensationalism and does a good job of explaining the role of cannibalism in the animal world. As he says, it's "perfectly natural". Recommended for science-minded readers.
  • (5/5)
    Fascinating, if at times vaguely sick making, book. I appreciated the focus on the natural world and anthropological and historical cannibalism and a restraint from the sensation criminal cannibal cases. it is definitely a popular history/science sort of book which made for good bus reading.
  • (5/5)
    There's some discussion of the recorded history of the practice, but Schutt is a zoologist, so the focus here is cannibalism in different species and the purpose for it. Examining frogs, insects, polar bears, monkeys and humans, Schutt explores the reasons why some resort to feeding on their own. In the matter of human cannibalism, he looks at some of the most infamous cases, such as the Donner Party, Leningrad and Mao's China. At first I wondered why the book contained very simple drawings of the carnivorous frogs, but I quickly realized the wisdom of this choice as the discussion went to larger species. Schutt does an excellent job at writing about the scientific facts, the tragic episodes, and the gruesome ones, without turning this into a gross book, which I think is a very fine line. This book is as approachable as a book about cannibalism gets. If you like Mary Roach, you may like this.
  • (3/5)
    What this book is: Zoologist Bill Schutt writes a mostly accessible "history" of cannibalism, discussing evidence of cannibalism in different animal species and the reasons it may occurs in humans. Certain stories such as the Donner Party and the Fore of New Zealand get more lengthy treatments. The book is a good introduction to the subject on an academic level for those interested in the topic but are concerned about the gore that can be attached to the subject. The book steers clear of sensationalism and even the illustrations are basic line drawings in a seeming attempt to calm the squeamish.What this book is not: This is a not a gore filled book about criminals Schutt makes clear that those books already exist. It is also not a history of pop culture or nuanced societal views on cannibalism. Besides the basic cannibalism can be good/bad, there is no moral discussion or mention of things such as Sweeney Todd except a passing remarks in the epilogue of Soylent Green.Summary: Schutt is accessible and interesting. He is sometimes humorous but fails far short of the charm and humor of Mary Roach. The last few chapters of the book which focus on the disease called kuru which may or may not be transmitted by eating humans seemed a bit diversion and not as accessible as the rest of the book but overall this is an interesting read that touches on random entries into the history of cannibalism in various species.
  • (4/5)
    Cannibalism is a thoroughly engaging, interesting, informative book about a subject badly in need f clarification. Schuss explores cannibalism in insects, sea life, birds, and various land animals, including (of course) humans. He is a trained biologist, careful with the evidence and with conjectures in the absence of evidence. He consults anthropologists, biologists, evolutionists, and other experts and presents their findings and conjectures. But the book is not stiffly academic or directed at professional scientists. Instead it reads like a series of lectures for undergraduates, full of information and thus though-provoking, but also witty and entertaining. I like it.
  • (5/5)
    Zoologist Bill Schutt begins by looking at cannibalism in animals, from killer tadpoles to shark fetuses that eat each other in the womb (or, if you want to get super-technical about it, the oviduct). He explores questions like: what animals eat their own kind, and why, and how do we know? Then he turns to cannibalism in humans, which turns out to be an extremely murky subject, since accusing groups of people of cannibalism has long been a go-to slander for justifying treating them poorly or taking them as slaves, which makes it very hard to separate truth from fiction when it comes to historical cannibalism.The book covers a lot of ground, including such topics as mad cow disease and women who eat their own placentas, and features lots of weird and interesting facts. It's got a laudably scientific perspective, as Schutt refuses to take myths or received wisdom at face value, but always asks what the science is and what the scientific controversies are. The writing style is clear and engaging. And while things can get a bit gory, because of course they do, Schutt makes a deliberate point of not sensationalizing the subject.It seems just a little bit odd to say I really enjoyed a book about cannibalism. But, well. I really enjoyed this book about cannibalism.
  • (5/5)
    I really enjoyed Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History! It’s an overview of cannibalism in both nature and human societies.

    Bill Schutt has a great sense of humor, and is just a really talented author. I never found myself bored of what I was reading – a huge plus in a nonfiction book!

    He avoids demonizing cultures that historically practiced cannibalism, and goes to great lengths to explain the motives of these cultures as well as their methods. As is the nature of this research, Schutt spend a lot of time talking about historical accounts, but he doesn’t just give us these accounts at face value – he also explains the circumstances around each account and the potential flaws in each one.

    I ended up learning a lot about the scientific processes behind researching cannibalism. A lot of time is spent exploring where information came from and how conclusions were reached.

    As I learned from this book, a lot of questions exist around cannibalism, and a lot of scientists have Very Strong Opinions about these questions. Rather than just give us their opinion, the author takes great care to acknowledge these debates and explain the arguments that each side makes.

    I went into this book feeling like I already knew a lot about this subject, learned a whole lot of new things, and was entertained the entire time I was learning it! So yeah, 5 stars.
  • (4/5)
    A very broad overview of cannibalism starting with a biological perspective leading to more social aspects, though the author's excuse to merely mention the more criminal aspects of cannibalism in the west, leaves a large gap.
  • (4/5)
    I have always found the visceral reaction we have to cannibalism fascinating and a bit confusing and I was hoping this book could shed some light on this and it turns out the whole thing is even more complicated than I thought. I had no idea there were so many different views on cannibalism throughout history. And many things I thought I knew about cannibalism, both animal and human, turned out to be flat out wrong. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of cannibalism, staring out with tadpoles in a puddle and moving on to hot buttons such as the Donner Party and how misunderstood that event has become, to our modern iteration of cannibalism with placenta eating. Things I still don’t get? Why people get upset at the idea dinosaurs were cannibals and placenta eating. I was fine reading everything right up until the placenta eating. Who knew that would be my hard no.I really enjoyed this book; it was fun, informative and very accessible to the non-science readers out there and does a lot to demystify the idea of cannibalism and I appreciated how the author made clear from the beginning that he wasn’t delving into serial killers and the like. That is a whole different conversation that wouldn’t have fit here at all.
  • (4/5)
    Hey, did you know that lots of animals eat their own kind? There are some rules of thumb, no pun intended, most of which make sense as soon as you see them: young animals are more often on the menu; many animals, “particularly invertebrates, do not recognize individuals of their own kind, especially eggs and immature stages, which are simply regarded as a food source”; females cannibalize more than males; cannibalism is correlated with hunger/an absence of other food sources; and cannibalism is often directly correlated with overcrowding. In some species, young animals consume their littermates in order to accelerate their own development, which helps them out of the most defenseless stage of life. Cannibals otherwise tend to disfavor eating kin, to prevent decreases in inclusive fitness. The greatest drawbacks to cannibalism seem to be the risk of getting sick—parasites and pathogens are more easily transmitted within species; there’s an extensive discussion of kuru/CJD (which turns out to be quite possibly viral, not the result of prions as such; proteins get digested in the gastrointestinal tract, while viruses get through unscathed). (Reminder that the government investigator who investigated the death of a young girl at the beginning of the outbreak in Britain warned her grandmother not to say anything because of the damage it would do to the economy.) If the pattern is the same as with kuru acquired via ritual cannibalism, then it may be decades before Europeans exposed in the 1970s and 80s start to die en masse—one estimate is one carrier of the abnormal prion protein for every 2000 people in the UK (though not all carriers will fall ill).I also never considered breastfeeding or chewing one’s own fingernails as cannibalism, but it turns out to be hard to have a working definition without at least putting those on the borders. The caecilians—limbless amphibians—eat their mother’s skin off her body soon after they’re born. The young of live-bearing caecilians also “tear away and consume the lining of their mothers’ oviduct.” Yum! The bulk of the book is about human cannibalism, both as a recognized part of culture and as desperate act of attempted survival. Schutt notes that Europeans tended to describe other groups as cannibals precisely to the extent that they wanted the land on which the cannibals lived; there’s apparently a big anthropological dispute about whether any cultures deemed such really engaged in cannibalism at all, or whether it was all Western propaganda. Schutt seemingly comes down on the side of those who say that there is/was at least some endocannibalism (eating one’s own naturally expired dead as a way to respect them, as opposed to eating enemies killed in battle). Then there’s Chinese medical cannibalism, and some European medical cannibalism (and the modern practice among rich white women of eating placenta). He also mentions the slaughter of Jews for supposed attacks on the Host during the Middle Ages, which was thought to have been revealed by bleeding Hosts—which could actually have been bacterial contamination.
  • (5/5)
    People tend to think of cannibalism as something rare and weird and horrible. In fact, it’s pretty common. Pretty much every part of the animal world has cannibal species in it. We all know about the praying mantis female eating her mate, but lots of insects, spiders, fish, amphibians, and even mammals dine on either their spouse or their children. Sometimes the children eat the parents. Those mouth breeding fish? The ones where the male holds the brood of babies in their mouth while they mature? Yeah. Sometimes they get hungry and have a little snack. Mice eat their young in overcrowded conditions. Higher on the family tree, chimps and polar bears do it. Some sharks eat their siblings while they are still in the womb. Some creatures eat each other when there is food scarcity. Some creatures only eat parts of each other- there is one species that eats the lining of the mother’s uterus while still inside. But it’s not just critters. Humans perform cannibalism, too, and it’s not just the Donner party and Hannibal Lector. Sometimes it is a matter of survival, like the Donner party and the survivors of the airplane crash in the Andes. The people are already dead; they aren’t killing them for food; they are just taking advantage of what is there so they can survive. That’s not the only time humans eat each other, though. Sometimes it’s done to honor the beloved dead- sort of grokking their loved ones. Most often, though, people eat only parts of each other. In the past in Europe, there were many ‘cures’ that involved things like powdered skulls and the blood from a hanged man being ingested. These days, some women eat their own placenta after giving birth. Most don’t tend to think of these cast off bits of humanity as being parts of people, but they are. Then there is the issue of false accusations of cannibalism. It seems like an awful lot of indigenous people have been accused of this habit when they are inconvenient for conquerors. Want the tribe’s land? Just call them cannibals and it’s okay to kill them off; you’re just saving yourself from danger! It happened all over in the tropical American areas when the Spanish first came into the area. Biologist Schutt takes a fairly light hearted look at cannibalism. He deals in both data and anecdote; the prose is a fast and easy read. His style of dealing with taboo subject matter reminded me of Mary Roach (“Stiff” and others); a very readable overview of something with big squick value.
  • (5/5)
    Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is exactly what the title suggests, a scientist explaining why cannibalism is part of normal biologic processes. At least until you get to the discussion of humans. It is not a textbook, but it is scholarly, yet readable, with Schutt’s sly humor liberally peppered throughout. The tone is set in his prologue, where he mentions both Hannibal Lector (for obvious reasons) and Norman Bates, explaining that Robert Bloch’s ultimate mama’s boy was inspired by Ed Gein. And if you don’t recognize that name, this is probably not the book for you.Schutt introduces readers to the concept of normalized cannibalism by explaining the biological rationale behind fish consuming the juveniles of their own species, or discussing why certain tadpoles react to their environmental stress by evolving into oversized cannibalistic versions of their vegetarian (and apparently delicious) siblings.As the book progresses, he ends up with humans, where the current societal taboo of cannibalism is directly in conflict with the history of mankind. European nobles regularly consumed human flesh as a medical treatment. Columbus and those who followed had no issue exterminating the dreaded Carib tribe because they were cannibals, information conveniently provided by the Arawaks, mortal enemies of the Caribs. There have been more serious ramifications of cannibalism beyond using it as an excuse for political- and religious-sanctioned genocide. The Fore People in Papua New Guinea suffered an epidemic of the neurological disease Kuru in the 1950s, caused by the local tradition of ritual cannibalism of their dead. And let’s not forget Mad Cow Disease, passed to humans from cows infected by being fed protein that was formerly an infected cow.And yes, he does discuss the Donner Party, but he does so by talking to historians studying the event. By adding context to the tale, Schutt diminishes the salacious content somewhat but the focus remains the existing dichotomy in the perception of cannibalism. As much as we profess to abhor cannibalism (Eli Roth and/or Umberto Lenzi films aside), we are also a culture where birth class routinely suggest the mother eating her own placenta as a natural way to ward off postpartum depression. That’s ritual cannibalism – people eating people parts.The book ends on a cautionary note. Environmental change, overcrowding, and famine are precursors to cannibalism in numerous species, including humans. It’s a dire prediction, but don’t start stressing and chewing on your nails – that’s technically cannibalism too.
  • (5/5)
    While not being overly squeamish about nutritional sources, upon receiving the book “Cannibalism” from LibraryThing, I was a bit reluctant to take the first bite. Once started, I could not put the book down. Bill Schutt explains the subject with detailed history, sometimes humorous personal stories, and numerous scientific facts, while constantly embellishing the presentation with clever one-liners. Extensive research coupled with interesting illustrations provide the reader a consuming understanding of cannibalism from diverse cultures and multiple species.I highly recommend “Cannibalism”, (the book, not so much the act), to those with interest in natural and human history, evolutionary behavior, social norms, and an unquenched curiosity.