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Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt
12-minute read
Audio available
Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History  by  Bill Schutt

Cannibalism (2017) offers a scientific, historical and cultural approach to the understanding of, well, cannibalism. These blinks explain why animals eat their own, why it’s become so taboo among humans, and why it could come back.

  • Scientists, biologists and sociologists
  • Students interested in evolution and cultural taboos
  • People who love sci-fi and dystopian fiction

Bill Schutt is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and a professor of biology at LIU Post in New York. He wrote Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures and is the co-author of the novel Hell’s Gate.

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Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History  by  Bill Schutt
Synopsis

Cannibalism (2017) offers a scientific, historical and cultural approach to the understanding of, well, cannibalism. These blinks explain why animals eat their own, why it’s become so taboo among humans, and why it could come back.

Key idea 1 of 7

Most people consider cannibalism appalling and unnatural, but research shows it’s quite natural.

Certain things are absolutely taboo in most human societies, and the images you conjure up when you hear the word “cannibalism” are likely pretty loaded. But this practice has an interesting place in human history and deserves a closer look.

Simply put, cannibalism is defined as an individual consuming all or part of another individual of the same species. It includes behavior like scavenging and even certain reproductive processes through which tissues, such as the skin or uterine lining, are consumed.

However, despite the centrality of such practices, until recently cannibalism was considered highly abnormal in nature. It was thought only to arise from extreme conditions like starvation or captivity.

This conception transformed in the 1970s with new research done by Laurel Fox, an ecologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Fox discovered that cannibalism is a perfectly normal response to all kinds of environmental factors.

She also found that it’s much more widespread than had been previously believed. Cannibalism occurs in every major animal group – even those thought of as herbivores, like butterflies.

However, this behavior depends on a variety of factors from population density to shifts in environmental conditions.

Cannibalism is common in nutritionally marginal areas that experience overcrowding, increased hunger and a lack of nutritious alternatives for a given population. Conversely, it’s extremely rare in situations with adequate and predictable supplies of food.

In other words, cannibalism is usually a result of specific conditions, and in the next blink, we’ll learn which ones.

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