Protein is Protein
Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History
By Bill Schutt
I’m in the habit of making a smoothie just about every day. Once blended, the banana, spinach, and blueberries draw the eye as a dark green slurry. A friend can’t resist calling it Soylent Green, after the 1973 film about an America besieged by overpopulation that’s resorted to secretly ingesting people.
Ironically, if my friend saw me popping gray placenta pills—taken by a slim but growing portion of middle class mothers for the anecdotal benefits, including restored iron levels and better milk production—he’d assume they were multivitamins. Such is the far stranger reality that zoologist Bill Schutt lays out in his new book, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.
He defines cannibalism as the “act of one individual of a species consuming all or part of another individual of the same species.” The placenta counts as “part of another” since it grows from the tissue of the mammalian fetus, acting as a “buffer” between mother and developing child. Yet when most people envision flesh-eating, their brains alight with a pop culture constellation of zombies, stranded soccer teams, and fictional killer Hannibal Lecter.
Schutt hopes to prove that reality is more fascinating than the devils of our collective imagination. That said, he only gives lip service to actual cannibal killers Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Andrei Chikatilo. Their histories have been recounted in horrific detail elsewhere, and besides, Schutt’s zoological prowess offers readers plenty at which to drop their jaws (or cringe) before his chapter entitled “Placenta Helper.”
He begins with the awe-inspiring notion that, under specific conditions, cannibalism is widely practiced throughout the animal kingdom, from black widow spiders to your pet cat. The flourishing of human culture, and taboos along with it, has fueled our longstanding revulsion with the subject. However, animals take no dietary risks when food is scarce or danger is present—as my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Lyons, used to say, “Protein is protein.” Schutt’s opening example involves spadefoot tadpoles of the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. Studying the tadpoles in muddy pools reveals that the single species gives the appearance of two: some are small, green, and speckled while others are large, tan, and armed with keratin beaks. These beaks help larger individuals hunt smaller ones.
Why this should be lies in the elegant concept of phenotypic plasticity. If a creature’s genotype is the genetic instructions as written, the phenotype is the physical execution of those instructions. Giving a non-cannibalistic example of phenotypic plasticity in nature, whereby a change in the species’ environment kickstarts dormant gene activity, Schutt discusses fish called bluehead wrasse, who inhabit reefs and clean parasites from larger fish. He maintains an accessible, pop-savvy style, telling us that, “the removal of a male wrasse from its harem of 30 to 50,” alters their environment and
Rather than waiting for a new male to arrive, something extraordinary takes place in the harem. Within minutes, one of the females begins exhibiting male-typical behaviors. Relatively quickly, the former female transforms into a male, a form of phenotypic plasticity known in the trade as protogyny. The opposite occurs in protandry, in which individuals begin life as males and transform into females. Examples include the clownfish (Amphiprion), whose behavior could have offered an intriguing alternative resolution to the animated film Finding Nemo.
Schutt goes on to explore the precise stimulus that turns spadefoot tadpoles into cannibals, offering toothsome examples like tiger salamanders, whose larvae will morph into aggressors and feed on each other after experiencing the “tactile cues” of bumping and jostling. Such conditions of overcrowding are routine for amphibians whose lives start in temporary pools. Another noteworthy instance of touch-inspired cannibalism involves that infamous Biblical swarm, the locusts. Prolonged cycles of drought, followed by intense vegetation growth, can increase how much of the neurotransmitter serotonin grasshopper brains produce. This turns solitary invertebrates into dominant, gregarious ones, who will charge en masse to hellaciously devour any food available, including each other.
There are even stranger scenes unfolding in nature’s deepest corners, and only the hardiest animal lovers may follow where Schutt leads. The black lace-weaver spider, for example, lays a clutch of normal eggs that hatch into a crawling mass of spiderlings. To feed them, she soon lays a second round of trophic eggs, which are unfertilized and quickly devoured by her children. Later still, after her young molt for the first time, the mother offers her own body as the meal that strengthens them for adolescent survival.
By now, gentle reader, you either find the adjacent animal kingdoms a touch more fascinating—or revolting—than previously. If you’d like further proof, Schutt also describes how sand tiger sharks eat their siblings in utero. Then there’s the hermaphroditic banana slugs, who must sometimes chew off their own penises after becoming entwined during intercourse. And what about nature’s iconic sex cannibal, the praying mantis? During copulation, she’s known for eating the head from her mate’s neck. Is this because she’s starving? Sometimes. Experiments reveal that a well-fed female won’t bother eating her mate. Schutt then draws a fine distinction between a missing head that disinhibits sex altogether, and one that earns the father a parental gold-star. He consults biologists Eckehard Liske and W. Jackson Davis to explain that
rather than acting as a stimulus for copulation (by releasing sexual movements), decapitation artificially induces the behavior. This would be similar to the way in which lopping off a chicken’s head artificially induces locomotor movements that can temporarily propel a headless bird around a barnyard. According to these researchers, from an evolutionary perspective, reflexive abdominal contractions and the subsequent release of sperm may insure that fertilization takes place, even if the males are left feeling a bit lightheaded after sex. As such, it serves as a prime example of how cannibalism can benefit the individual being cannibalized.
Okay, enough from the creepers and crawlers. How about polar bears? Like several charismatic carnivores, including lions and other bears, males of the species will kill and eat cubs who are not their own before siring a new family. Scientists have been publishing their knowledge of this reproductive strategy in polar bears since the late 19th century. Schutt’s discussion of the phenomenon, however, is a refreshing instance of a scientist introducing logic to politics.
It began with a 2006 paper by Arctic researcher Stephen Amstrup, which noted that three instances of cannibalism in the southern Beaufort Sea seemed anomalous. Male polar bears, apparently, left their typical hunting grounds to attack females and cubs. Amstrup’s group hypothesized that “nutritional stresses related to the longer ice free seasons that have occurred in the Beaufort Sea in recent years may have led to the cannibalism incidents we observed in 2004.” By 2009, the mainstream media had cut out the pesky science part of the study and told the public that Global Warming caused polar bear cannibalism. And as Schutt details it,
The problem was not in the presentation of Amstrup’s hypothesis, but the fact that many of the media reports that followed neglected to mention that cannibalism in polar bears was already known to be a naturally occurring event, with the first published report surfacing in 1897. By leaving out this vital fact, those working to publicize the effects of global climate change suddenly found themselves on the wrong end of some serious butt-kicking from climate change deniers. These zealots were quick to point out that cannibalism was quite common in polar bears and that the attempt to link polar bear cannibalism to what they referred to as the “Global Warming Hoax” was just another instance in which scientists were flat-out lying to the public.
The scientists weren’t lying, but they were most certainly disarmed by how a voracious media will package any potentially lurid story to an under-informed public. And it is lies about cannibalism that finally brings us to the human portion of the story—one-third of the way through the book (which is more noteworthy for readers in the U.K., where Schutt’s latest is called Eat Me and has anthropocentric cover art). After a discussion on whether Neanderthals and protohumans ate each other, we’re treated to the awfulness surrounding Christopher Columbus’ travels in the Caribbean.
Going back to Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder, there’s been a tendency to portray newly discovered people sensationally, giving them the faces of dogs, a single giant eye, or some other feature that might captivate audiences. As Columbus explored the Caribbean islands, he met the docile Arawak indians, and through them heard gossip about the warlike Caribs, who supposedly conducted raids and took prisoners who were often eaten. This rumor, as well as the maniacal supposition that gold formed in hot climates, helped Spain—via Columbus—justify obliterating the island cultures. The natives were branded sub-human cannibals and enslaved whenever the European hunt for treasure deemed it necessary. Murder and disease ended roughly between 60 and 80 million lives as the Spanish conquered the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America in the 16th century.
But did cannibalism take place in the Caribbean, or not? Much of Schutt’s inquiries into the subject, in this instance and others—including the 1846 tragedy of the Donner Party and the starving citizens of 1942 Leningrad—aims to specify the degree to which cannibalism occurred. The author speaks with experts like historian Kristin Johnson and paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, eventually delving into the cultural stew stirred by the Brothers Grimm, collectors of folktales like Snow White, which has been sanitized after several hundred years’ retelling to exclude the queen’s attempt to cook and eat the heroine’s organs.
Schutt’s discussion of medicinal cannibalism in ancient China, via the eating of nearly everything—including the gall bladder, the liver, and hair—leads back to the benefits of the placenta. He takes us down the ethnographic rabbit hole with a visit to Claire Rembis, the Plano, Texas founder of Your Placenta. Her business offers
the standard placenta encapsulation services but will also prepare placenta skin salves, placenta-infused oils, and placenta tinctures, which she described as “organic alcohol” in which a mom’s placenta has been soaked for six weeks. Additionally, there’s placenta artwork, in which a client’s placenta can be used to make an impression print (balloons and flowers seem popular, with the umbilical cord standing in quite nicely for the balloon string or flower stem).
Claire Rembis and her husband William also happen to homeschool their ten children; a freezer stocked with placentas most certainly doesn’t hurt the family business. And while I won’t spoil whether or not Schutt succumbs to the pressure of his hosts and goes cannibal himself, I will mention the book Nine Parts of Desire, by Gwendolyn Brooks. After a tour of the Muslim world, where she does her best to experience both the triumphs and travails of Middle Eastern women, Brooks indulges in something that the reader—by that point—might find unthinkable: she learns to belly dance. The act is celebratory, bringing elation and a further degree of intellectual freedom.
Schutt meanwhile does his best to make Cannibalism an educational, if forcefully lighthearted, excursion. He tones down the humor for a final segment about the biological risks that accompany such rarefied eating. The Fore people of Papa New Guinea, who cook and eat their dead to help free the soul, suffered a 20th century epidemic of the disease known as kuru, which can take decades to riddle the victim’s brain with holes. A similar spongiform encephalopathy, Creutzfelt-Jacob Disease, struck the English beef industry in the 1980s and 90s as infected animals were ground up, fed to other animals, and then sold as quite a nasty surprise to the public.
Most readers will step from Schutt’s Cannibalism, as “red in tooth and claw” as any horror novel, with a greater appreciation for the time and place in which they live. I, for example, get to enjoy my own brand of soylent green whenever I choose. If famine or a deadly new epidemic hit humanity, as the author’s epilogue prognosticates, maybe I’ll survive slightly longer than the rest of you.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.