Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Is Cannibalism in Our DNA? Part 2 of 3

Alas, we may all be cannibals at heart.

Having in part 1 explored the hidden language of cannibalism embedded in so many common expressions, it's time to examine other aspects of this so provocative topic. And to me, it's a topic well worth further exploration--if for no other reason than that it continues (however morbidly) to captivate public attention.

Doubtless, for most of us the very idea of tearing apart and consuming human flesh is repugnant, nauseating, revolting to the extreme. It seems unthinkable, almost unimaginable. But even though the very idea of cannibalism remains so abhorrent to us, we're still lured to it--even mesmerized by it. As twisted and deranged as Hannibal Lecter may be, we yet continue to flock to the movies to behold his sinister visage.

Origins (or Evolution) of Cannibalism

So where should our investigation begin? As of this writing, the literature on cannibalism--or anthropophagy--includes over 50 books and about 1000 websites. And the substantial output on the subject is rife with examples of its practice. Anthropologists and archeologists have actually been able to scientifically trace its existence back as far as the Neanderthals.

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So many instances--and kinds--of cannibalism have been recorded in sub-human animal species that at least we don't need to fret that the practice started with earlier versions of homo sapiens. It has, in fact, been noted in over 1500 species. And it occurs not solely because of a lack of viable food supply but--for many animal types--under normal conditions. It's especially prevalent in aquatic communities, where up to 90% of such organisms routinely engage in it at some point in their life cycle. Most intriguingly, cannibalism isn't limited to carnivores but is also found in herbivores and detritivores--suggesting that, finally, it may just be "the way of the world".

Sexual cannibalism, in which (most commonly) a female kills and devours a male of her species before, during, or after copulation is probably the most spectacular example of "like consuming like," and it's been observed in several insects species. So-called filial cannibalism is yet another form of such behavior, which involves eating the young (either in part or in full) of one's own species. The practice has been observed in sub-human forms from fish to cats, dogs, pigs, bears, lions, elephants, baboons, and--our very closest evolutionary relative--chimpanzees. And it's especially suggestive that chimpanzees have the highest rates of cannibalism among the five non-human primates observed in the wild to practice it.

 

Ann Gibbons (1997) has noted that early paleoanthropological specimens showing clear signs of cannibalism date back hundreds of thousands of years. And not only are Neanderthals recognized as having practiced cannibalism, but there's also evidence that they themselves may have been eaten by modern humans. So when we talk about living in a "dog eat dog" world, are we maybe projecting onto canines what, personally, we'd rather not believe about ourselves? If our pre-historic ancestors were cannibals, as their direct descendents how could such impulses and tendencies not be in our blood, too? Speaking generally, it's unquestionable that from our earliest known beginnings, we've "preyed" not just on lower animal forms but, on various occasions, on our own kind as well.

As Wikipedia, in its ample coverage of the subject (including no fewer than 147 footnotes!), points out, the universality of human cannibalism can no longer be debated because its occurrence has been documented worldwide--"from Fiji to the Amazon Basin to the Congo to Māori New Zealand." (And, indeed, Fiji was once known as the "Cannibal Isles'!). Or, as similarly noted in the Columbia Encyclopedia, " . . . it has been observed in Africa, North and South America, the South Pacific Island, and the West Indies."

By the 20th century, the practice of cannibalism had lessened greatly, but before then it was still diffuse. Moreover, as one writer, Josh Clark, has noted: "Cannibalism is ancient, and yet--as {Armin] Meiwes, [Jeffrey] Dahmer, [Albert] Fish and others remind us--it's modern as well. It could be latent in every one of us." Although it's simply wrong for Clark not to distinguish between the psychopathological cannibalism of extremely deviant individuals and all the rest of us, it is nonetheless true that (as he disturbingly puts it) ". . . when the chips are down, even the most civilized human will resort to cannibalism to survive."

Reasons for Cannibalism

In essence, three basic reasons have been advanced to explain our preying on our own kind:

1. It's sanctioned by different cultural customs and norms--that is, it has a well-defined purpose in native rituals and ceremonies. As explained, for example, in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, many primitive cultures believe "that eating parts of deceased relatives or enemies slain in battle allows their power to be passed on to the celebrants." And (talk about cultural relativism!) the Columbia Encyclopedia alludes to "various traditional cultures . . . known to have encouraged their members to eat part of their kinsmen's corpses out of respect for the deceased."

2. It's a reaction to famine--the single explanation that permits cannibalism to be tacitly condoned socially. After all, if the human drive to survive is seen as paramount, in such dire situations as starvation human-flesh-eating can be viewed as, if not exactly admirable, at least justified. And there are numerous accounts of individuals and groups who--shipwrecked, marooned, or otherwise stranded--partook of this desperate attempt to stay alive. As the expression goes, "Hunger hath no conscience." And it certainly makes sense that if the person standing next to you were regarded from the brain-addled state of near-starvation, he or she might well be looked at as so many pounds of beef.

3. It's done by deranged misfits who are either psychopathic, insane, radically deviant, sadistic, or some combination of these censorious labels. In our understandable desire to separate ourselves from such frighteningly "inhuman" individuals, we typically refer to them as degenerates, barbarians, ogres, trolls, monsters, or fiends. And while instances of such heinous cannibalism are extremely rare, when they do occur the response is typically one of the greatest opprobrium.

Peter Constantine conveniently summarizes the above three reasons for cannibalism by stating that such acts are committed because of "duty, desperation, and desire," or "because [people] have to, need to, or want to."


NOTE: Part 1 of this post centered on the many hints in our language that the impulse toward cannibalism remains, deep within us, "alive and well". The concluding section, Part 3, will--however briefly--discuss its employment in myth, religion (particularly, Holy Communion), literature, fairy tales and nursery rhymes, works of art, and the cinema. Lastly, it will explore further our enduring fascination with this lurid--yet alluring--subject.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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