Cannibalism is a lot more common in human history than you’d guess and an intriguing article in Slate looks at the how a change in living situation might have made the temptations of the flesh all the more appealing.
The piece is by psychologist Jesse Berring who gets his teeth into the scientific debate about whether chowing down on another human may be a genuine biological adaptation, owing to the frequency with with famine-like conditions have appeared in human history.
The bottom line, says Petrinovich, is that when you’re hungry enough, ravenous really, and when all other food sources—including “inedible” things you’d rather not stomach such as shoes, shoelaces, pets, steering wheels, rawhide saddlebags, or frozen donkey brains—have been exhausted and expectations are sufficiently low, even the most recalcitrant moralist among us would shrug off the cannibalism taboo and savor the sweet meat of man … or woman, boy or girl, for that matter. It’s either that or die, and among the two choices, only one is biologically adaptive.
A behavior can be adaptive without being an inherited biological adaptation, of course. But because starvation occurred with such regularity in our ancestral past, and because the starving mind predictably relaxes its cannibalistic proscriptions, and because eating other people restores energy and sustains lives, and because the behavior is universal and proceeds algorithmically (we eat dead strangers first, then dead relatives, then live slaves, then foreigners, and so on down the ladder to kith and kin), there is reason to believe—for Petrinovich, at least—that anthropophagy is an evolved behavior.
The piece isn’t for the feint-hearted, but is certainly a fascinating take on one of the strongest of human taboos.
There is also a link at the bottom to a video discussion between “Robert Wright of BloggingHeads.tv and psychologist Paul Bloom of Yale on what motivates cannibals.”
From the appearance of the screen shot, I think they’ve been practising the look if nothing else.
Link to Slate piece ‘Bite Me: An evolutionary case for cannibalism’.