Eat Me by Bill Schutt
“Cannibalism is our last taboo,” said John Carey in The Sunday Times. Though incest remains a “social problem”, it no longer “repels and fascinates us, as cannibalism does”. In Eat Me, the US biologist Bill Schutt offers an entertaining and wide-ranging “history” of the practice, taking in many variants, both animal and human. Especially “hair-raising” are his descriptions of invertebrates, the “star performers” of the cannibal world. When black lace-weaver spiders, for example, grow too big for their mother to handle, she summons them by drumming on her web and lets them “eat her alive”. During intercourse, female Australian redback spiders slowly consume their partners, which is bad news for the male but makes “good evolutionary sense”, since “by feeding his mate he improves her chances of surviving and perpetuating his genes”. Cannibalism, Schutt shows, is also surprisingly common among vertebrates, “from fish to mammals, including chimpanzees”. And of course, humans have often resorted to it in extremis. During the siege of Leningrad, some 2,000 people were arrested for eating corpses.
Less clear is the extent to which humans have practised cannibalism through choice, said Robbie Millen in The Times. The word derives from the Caribs of the West Indies, who were accused – without much evidence – of eating their enemies. Until the 1960s, the Fore people of Papua New Guinea feasted on parts of departed loved ones, believing that this eased their passage to the land of the dead: they stopped doing so when it was noticed that many were dying from kuru, a brain disease similar to CJD. In China, the “taboo” against cannibalism has been less powerful than in the West: Schutt examines the tradition of “epicurean cannibalism”, and the practice of Chinese children sacrificing portions of their thighs and upper arms to demonstrate their “filial piety”. All this suggests that our horror of cannibalism isn’t “hardwired”, but rather “culturally conditioned”. Schutt’s argument largely convinces, though his “leaps across space and time” will leave some feeling “lost”.
Schutt also strains too hard to stress cannibalism’s importance, said Bee Wilson in The Guardian. Cannibalism, he writes, is an “enduring aspect of life” which has “woven itself into our myths and legends” and leaves “none of us untouched”. Odd that Schutt felt he had to plead for our attention. Cannibals, after all, have been accused of “many horrible things” – but as far as I know, no one has ever reproached them for “being boring”.