Let’s face it: We are fascinated by cannibalism, from Hannibal Lecter to the brain-eating zombies in “The Walking Dead.” In Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, zoologist Bill Schutt writes about cannibalism with a delightful mixture of humor and scholarship.
Our horror of cannibalism is so deeply instilled that we assume it is an aberration resulting from extreme conditions such as starvation. Until fairly recently, most zoologists shared that belief. However, research since the 1990s has demonstrated that cannibalism is anything but rare in the animal kingdom. Schutt makes a convincing and frequently hilarious argument that cannibalism is a logical and successful strategy that many animals—especially insects, amphibians and fish, but also birds and mammals—employ in order to ensure the survival of their species.
The book is at its best, however, when discussing human cannibalism. Schutt writes movingly about the tragic Donner Party, one of the most infamous examples of starvation-induced human cannibalism. He also discusses the ongoing debate about whether ritual cannibalism—the consumption of human flesh for liturgical or spiritual reasons—actually exists, or if it is a rumor based on ignorance and fear, as well as an excuse for genocide and exploitation. But the most sobering reading comes when he explores the links between cannibalism and emerging diseases, and the implications for our own future in the face of diminishing resources.
Erudite, amusing and often moving, this is a compelling examination of a serious topic. Be prepared for some pretty curious looks, though—most people aren’t used to hearing bursts of laughter from someone reading a book emblazoned with the title Cannibalism!