Summary of Cannibalism by Ben Schutt

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Cannibalism by Ben Schutt

Cannibalism is not something we often think about – and yet, it still manages to be the topic of many of our favourite TV shows or movies. Why is something that is considered taboo n the modern world still a matter of fascination? Historically, it was considered barbaric and scientists dismissed cannibalism as an act of desperation due to starvation. But what if cannibalism played a bigger part in evolution and history than we were aware of?

From insects to mammals, cannibalism is far more common than you could ever believe. This book summary aims to take a journey through history, looking at different instances of cannibalism and why it still remains among many species.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Cannibalism is natural and has an evolutionary role
  • Environmental conditions and cannibalism
  • Examples of cannibalism today
  • Why cannibalism became taboo

Key lesson one: Cannibalism is natural and has an evolutionary role

Cannibalism is defined as the act of consuming another individual of the same species as food. However, even though bringing up the subject might get you a few odd looks, it is not as unnatural as one would think. Originally, it was thought to arise from cases of extreme starvation or captivity but, despite its horror inducing reputation, cannibalism is a common ecological interaction that has been recorded in more than 1500 species. 

This was first brought to light in the 1970s by the ecologist, Laurel Fox. She found that cannibalism was a normal response to various environmental factors. Furthermore, cannibalism was found to be common in nutritionally marginal areas. These are areas that are known to be overcrowded with levels of increased hunger and poor nutritional options. In contrast, in areas where the population is stable and there is an adequate supply of food, cases of cannibalism are rare. 

In addition to the research done by Fox, Gary Polis also made more observations about cannibalism in the 1980s. He found that young or immature animals tend to be eaten more often than adults thus making infanticide the most common form of cannibalism. Eating young animals from your own species may seem to defeat the purpose of reproduction but these young animals are essentially an easy source of nutrition. This is especially true when large numbers of offspring are involved – like fish, for example. It is common practice for fish to eat eggs or young fish, even their own. They are easily available in large quantities, small in size and nutritious making them an excellent source of food.  In this example, cannibalism provides an easy meal when required.

However, cannibalism also plays an important evolutionary role. It speeds up the developmental processes of some species. An example of this comes from the flour beetle which develops a reproductive advantage from cannibalism. Flour beetles that practice cannibalism by consuming eggs produce more eggs than non-cannibal flour beetles. Another clear example comes from sand tiger sharks. Sand tiger sharks usually produce an average of 19 embryos. However, due to in utero cannibalism, it is common for the larger embryos to consume the others until only two remain. This in utero cannibalism helps the fetuses grow by providing extra nutrients and prepares them for survival in the wild by allowing them to experience killing before they are born.

Key lesson two: Environmental conditions and cannibalism

Both overcrowding and lack of nutritional options are examples of stressful environmental conditions. These types of conditions were, at one stage, thought to be the only reason for cannibalism. This was commonly exhibited in chickens who are farmed in appalling conditions. They become aggressive to other chickens that are too close to them. Hamsters also provide an example of cannibalism developing in stressful situations. These pets suffer from captivity related stress which comes from noise, small cages and exposure to other pets that would normally be considered predators. Hamsters often eat their own offspring. 

However, of the 1500 species in which cannibalism has been recorded, only 75 of them are mammals. This low number could be a result of the low number of offspring produced by mammals as compared to other species. Mammals also tend to have a high level of parental care. It has been known to occur in chimpanzees from time to time. With decreasing land and an increasing population, these acts of cannibalism amongst our closest relatives may increase.

But there are risks that come with increased cannibalism in species as well. Diseases, parasites and pathogens, for example, are easily passed on in species that exhibit cannibalistic behaviours. The Fore people of New Guinea all but wiped themselves out of existences because they consumed the brains of their dead kin. This ritual lead to the spread of a neurological disease called kuru. 

Key lesson three: Examples of cannibalism today

Human cannibalism is still pretty much frowned upon in modern society but that doesn’t mean that it does not occur. In 2001, a computer technician name Bernd Brandes asked Armin Meiwes, a man he met in an online chatroom, to eat him. When they met, they decided they would cut off Brandes’ penis and both consume it. They did cut it off, but upon tasting it, they decided it was too chewy and so they fed it to the dog instead. Brandes eventually died as a result of blood loss, alcohol and drugs which then led Meiwes to keep his remains in his freezer. Meiwes continued to eat Brandes remains for several months thereafter. Further back in time, there is the infamous Donner party who turned to cannibalism for survival and also Issei Sagawa, who murdered and ate a Dutch student. 

More acceptable of late, is the cannibalism practised by many white, middle-class women. If you have not heard about it before, many women have taken to eating their own placenta after birth. It is claimed that there are many nutritional and therapeutic benefits although much of it is not based on actual scientific research. There are many preparations of the placenta to make it more appealing than to eat it raw – there have even been powdered nutritional supplements sold containing placenta.

Key lesson four: Why cannibalism became taboo and could it make a comeback in the future?

Cannibalism was once a topic and practice that was not as forbidden as it is today. Looking back, the first text on cannabilism that is generally accessible was published only in 1975. The book called Flesh and Blood theorised that the reason that cannibalism is taboo is the Judeo-Christian belief that the dead needed to be whole in order to be resurrected. But, historically speaking, there’s more to it than religion. Cannibalism also became a cultural distinction between natives and settlers or insiders and outsiders. 

Western colonialists often called the native inhabitants of the land they invaded savage, primitive and described them as savages. This was mostly done to justify their land grabs and let everyone know they were saving these people and introducing them to the western world. This was a common occurrence that many scholars and casual readers learned about as European explorers continued their invasions. Therefore cannibals were always depicted as being subhuman and uncultured. 

Later on, the taboo of cannibalism was further carried on through fairytales. The classic versions of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel all had an element of cannibalism in them that made them terrifying to young and old alike. In Snow White, the evil queen ate the heart which was supposedly Snow White, in Little Red Riding Hood, Red unknowingly eats her grandmother who the wolf had murdered and cut up and of course, the witch in Hansel and Gretel loved to eat children. With stories like these, it is easy to see why cannibalism is considered a horrific act committed by the wicked and corrupted.

Since cannibalism firmly became taboo in Western culture, it is normal for people to avoid it. Not only is it considered barbaric, but practising it would mean that people would be regressing into animalistic savages. But non-Western cultures still participated in cannibalistic acts despite these Western taboos. Nowadays, such ritualistic practices are unheard of as Western culture has taken over most of the world. However, there is a possibility that cannibalism may make a comeback in the future. We are beginning to be faced with more and more stressful environmental conditions. The huge effects of climate change have resulted in hotter weather and expanding desert areas. Currently, this has resulted in famine, poor access to drinking water and conflict. These environmental stresses, as they grow, could trigger cannibalism as we have seen previously. Sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin has documented previous cannibalistic acts which occurred throughout history. Cannibalism due to famine was found to have happened 11 times in Europe between 793 and 1317. In addition, it was also recorded in ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia, China and India. So, as much as it is now considered taboo, if environmental stress continues there’s no telling if cannibalism will arise again, especially in areas that are hardest hit. 

The key takeaway from Cannibalism is:

Cannibalism has existed since the beginning of time and still remains in many species. The key contributor to cannibalism are stressful environmental factors but an evolutionary role is also evident. There have been many cases of cannibalism throughout history for various reasons. Even though human cannibalism is considered taboo, the historical evidence of this concept is based purely on Western culture and its views on it. With an increase in stressful environmental factors, there is a chance that cannibalism will once again be triggered out of necessity. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in Cannibalism:

The ideas of cannibalistic acts as a result of survival instinct, nutrition and ritualistic practices may seem far-fetched but it may be worthwhile learning more about it. This is not to encourage cannibalism but instead, to understand why it is practised by so many species, including ours.

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