Cannibalism is having a moment. Between zombie fare like The Walking Dead and The Santa Clarita Diet, and the upcoming French film Raw, which caused attendees of a Toronto Film Festival screening to pass out last year, contemporary pop culture is increasingly fascinated by the rigors of eating human flesh. For a take that strives to look at this phenomenon in a clear-headed, non-sensationalized manner, though, look no further than the new book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History (out, hilariously, on Valentine’s Day), by zoologist Bill Schutt. In a frequently humorous manner, Schutt aims to “stay away from the clichéd ideas about cannibalism,” while discussing its natural causes that have been observed within a variety of animals and humans alike.
Chapters unspool like Natural Geographic episodes, ticking off several examples of cannibalism within cause-specific topics like sexual cannibalism, overcrowding, and starvation (combined with the morbid sense of humor, though, the book’s vignette reminds me mostly of the 1962 documentary Mondo Cane, except this just happens to have actual scientific basis and an allergy to exploitation). A good amount of pages are also devoted to the social history of cannibalism; the practice was hypocritically vilified by Europeans who used it as cause to wipe out tribes, despite their own practices of medicinal cannibalism and also believing in the religious cannibalism of Christian communion. Schutt explains how societies which haven’t been influenced by Greek culture, whose Homer kicked off the cultural aversion to cannibalism in The Odyssey, have a much different outlook on the practice of eating one’s own kind.
Along the way, myths are debunked—overall, female praying mantises aren’t quite the man-eaters they’re made out to be, for instance—and way more fun than you might expect (finally, a funny book about cannibalism!). Also, Schutt talks about placenta eating, which just happens to be a keen interest of mine. I talked to Schutt via phone last month about his book, our cultural conceptions and misconceptions about cannibalism, and whether he’s hooked on placenta now that he’s had a taste. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below.
Jezebel: Cannibalism is having a mini-moment in pop culture. Does your book arrive now as a result of coincidence, or is it speaking to that?
Bill Schutt: I’ve been working on this for several years now, so I think it’s just a coincidence that you’re getting movies like Raw and shows like The Santa Clarita Diet. The book started as a follow-up to my first nonfiction book, which was Dark Banquet and looked at vampirism and blood feeding as a natural occurrence. This seemed to be the perfect follow-up to it.
Besides continuing the vampirism thread, what was the inspiration for your book? Why do you think people are so fascinated by cannibalism?
When I started to examine cannibalism, I saw there were two kinds of books [on the subject]: One was really sensationalized. Open it up and it’s a gorefest. A lot of it had to do with criminal cannibalism. On the other side were the academic books geared toward specialists who were looking at various types of animals or looking at humans from a scientific viewpoint. There was really nothing in the middle, especially something that covered the broad spectrum from animals into humans. As a zoologist, I had some success looking at blood-feeding and demystifying it and I wanted to do the same thing with cannibalism—take a topic that appears to be incredibly gross and explain that it’s natural behavior for reasons other than the obvious ones, like you run out of food or overcrowding.
The book’s sense of humor suggests you took an amount of glee in writing about this stuff.
Yeah, there is humor there. I think by using humor, you can entertain. I teach as well, and I think once you have your audience entertained, whether they’re college students or the reader, you can get some neat messages across in a jargon-free way. There are things you can’t be humorous about. A lot of this has to do with human suffering so I don’t go there. I’m not writing this book to be an asshole.
The passage I had the hardest time reading was the section on Key Ray Chong’s writing about documented cases of cannibal-related filial piety in Chinese society, which describes the common body parts children have cut off and prepared for their relatives, and how. I thought I might pass out reading it on the subway.
There’s a section of the book called “Blame It on the Greeks.” I think the explanation for why we’re so repelled, why you had that reaction in the subway, has to do with the fact that ever since Homer through the Romans through Shakespeare though the Brothers Grimm and Daniel Defoe and Sigmund Freud, there’s been a snowballing effect of this concept that cannibalism is the worst taboo that you can inflict on someone. When you find cultures where that is not the case, and China was such a place then the attitudes toward this behavior are very different. So it really boils down to culture is king.
So do you think there is no biological basis for that type of revulsion within a person who reads your book?
Not necessarily. I don’t think there’s a cannibal gene or a gene that prevents us from cannibalizing. It’s normal behavior you’ll see in extreme circumstances. As to why we’re repelled by it, I think that it’s a combination of the fact that we’re taught that cannibalism is the worst thing you can do and that evolutionarily, there are drawbacks to cannibalizing your own kind. They have to do with the pathogens that have evolved to overcome your immune system. If you consume someone that’s got these pathogens in them, they’ve got an easy track to infect you. They don’t have to go through you’re immune system because they’re already used to it. And by the same token, if you’re eating your kin, you’re literally pulling those genes out of the population. [In evolutionary biology] there’s a metric called inclusive fitness—how many genes you have in your population—and if you’re eating your kin, you’re pulling those genes out of the population, so your inclusive fitness goes down. That’s a long-winded way of saying there are some innate things in us that might lead us to be repelled by consuming our own species.
I was surprised, though, at how few of those innate things exist. What I take from this book is: If you have to do it, cannibalism isn’t really that bad for you, once you get over the ick factor.
When you’re in an extreme situation, a lot of people will consume the dead. If this were to happen on a large scale like, for example, what happened in the early part of the 20th century in New Guinea with the Fore, you run the risk of having major problems. There’s an argument to be made that if Westerners hadn’t stepped in and stopped cannibalism [there], which was a funerary rite—these people were doing this to their dead the way we bury our dead, they loved these people and when they died they consumed them—then these people would have been wiped out. [Kuru] would have destroyed all of them. When you’re dealing with cannibalism on a large scale, you have to be very careful because of incurable disease.
Do you think if civilization collapses and we have to resort to cannibalism on a large scale in the United States, is there a possibility that pathogens we aren’t even aware of infecting us?
I couldn’t speculate on that, I just know that there is this incredibly deadly form of spongiform encephalopathy that is out there now. We wouldn’t have to invent this. Whether you believe it occurs from prions or a virus—and I’m not convinced of either right now, I’m on the fence because both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses—but when you’re dealing with something like that, that is big. That to me is extremely serious.
Was there anything you found difficult to learn about or write about as you were working on this book, since you too are human after all?
I really had a problem with anything that would be interpreted by criminal cannibals who are still alive as a plug, as glorifying or sensationalizing what they did. There’s nothing in me that wants to do anything like that for these folks. I’m not a criminologist. I mentioned it because it had to be mentioned. I have no real desire to go there. If I found anything repellant, it was those instances of criminal cannibalism.
Does your allergy to sensationalism have anything to do with the social history that you describe, and how Spain justified the slaughter of tens of millions of native peoples in the name of exterminating cannibalism?
I think there’s a lot of things we did in the name of stamping out cannibalism—especially in the Age of Discovery—that were incredibly repellant. I’ve tried in this book to point that out. You’re absolutely right that this taboo has been used as a sword in a sense to take over indigenous people all over the world. Columbus lands in the Caribbean and his first reports back are, “These people are nice, they’re wonderful, they’re very friendly.” And then he realizes there’s no gold so his next voyages come in and it’s an invasion. Suddenly these people who were these nice natives they were encountering are being labeled as cannibals. It’s no coincidence that the queen tells him, “You have to be kind to these people, but if they’re cannibals, all bets are off.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when he went back, the Amerindians and Trindads were all “cannibals.” They wiped them out. When the British came into Trinidad years later, after the Spanish had left, there was no resistance. There were very few people left on the island. They’d been obliterated in the name of persecuting cannibals who were seen as less than human. That made it such a surprise when I saw that throughout Europe, medicinal cannibalism was practiced on a scale that blew me away. Every single part of your body could be used for medicinal purposes, from your blood to your skull to your fat and everything in between.
The guiding philosophy of this book reminds me of an argument often made about homosexuality (and the writing that has followed): This societal taboo is actually behavior that has been observed in a number of species, not the least of which humans throughout time. Does that parallel make sense to you?
I think that’s a really interesting comparison, and clearly homosexual behavior is widespread across the animal kingdom, and according to researchers has functions that are quite diverse just like cannibalism: sex, parenting, pair-bonding, and affection, etc. Some of these functions overlap cannibalism in nature. I think like cannibalism, there’s probably a certain reluctance to acknowledge that it was normal behavior. I just don’t think those biases exist now, at least among the scientific community. But certainly, part of the reason why I titled the book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History was to demystify the behavior, to portray it as natural behavior, as others have done for homosexuality.
Would you eat human flesh, besides the placenta that you ate for the book?
Not as a choice, but if you’re starving, then many people are apt to do that. Researchers have also looked at starvation and the steps that occur as you starve. One of the extreme outcomes of starvation is you eat dead bodies. Some people are not going to do it. I don’t know if I would or not. It would all depend on how things shook out when I got into that situation. I’m not running around looking to eat bodies. I had an opportunity to go down to Texas and experience this whole placentophagy movement in the kitchen of a person who does this for a living. That was an exception.
Would you eat placenta again?
I don’t see why I’d need to. Not really. I was writing a book about cannibalism and I got this opportunity, which was a complete surprise. I thought I’d be Skyping with her and she said, “If you come down here you could eat my placenta. My husband’s a chef, we can cook it up any way you want.” Ten minutes later I booked a flight to Dallas. I thought to myself I didn’t want to be years later kicking myself in the behind for giving up my chance to down there and sample this. It turned out to be an incredible experience—her whole demeanor, how serious she was about this, and how wonderful her family was, that was something I wasn’t prepared for.