Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History
“You might think a book on cannibalism would be upsetting,” said Sy Montgomery in The New York Times. “This one’s not.” In fact, Bill Schutt’s breezy but learned survey of the subject might restore your faith that the species Homo sapiens is no more horrifying—“or splendidly surprising”— than just about any other you might choose to study. Schutt, a zoologist, makes a strong case that cannibalism has been more common in human history than we typically acknowledge. For centuries, Europeans harvested human blood, bone, and more to be ingested for medicinal purposes, and as late as the 1960s, the Chinese elite continued to practice a long tradition of eating human flesh for pleasure. But it helps to put such tales in context: As Schutt points out, cannibalism occurs within every class of vertebrates, and among lower life-forms it’s more the rule than the exception.
Cannibalism, surprisingly, “has much to teach us about evolution,” said Libby Copeland in Slate.com. Though few readers will identify with the male redback spider’s willingness to have his innards slurped up by the female after sexual intercourse, his self-immolation apparently greatly increases the odds of his passing on his genes. Similar pragmatism is exhibited by female snails when they lay two sets of eggs, one to nurture and the other to consume. Human cannibalism is far harder to study, of course, because taboos taint the available evidence. Europeans once falsely ascribed cannibalism to New World tribes, for example, while blissfully drinking medicinal concoctions made from human blood and bone dust.
Examples of culturally endorsed cannibalism remain extremely rare, said Bee Wilson in The Guardian (U.K.). Even in China, where people once cut meat from their own thighs to feed and thus show deference to their parents, such acts appear to run counter to instinct. Schutt pushes hard, though, on the importance of cannibalism in shaping human culture, citing its prominent role in folk tales and in justifying war and conquest. That argument feels unnecessary. Though their number may be limited, “I’m not aware of anyone ever reproaching cannibals for being boring.”