Zoologist Schutt (Biology/LIU Post; Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, 2008) gets to the heart of the matter of a topic that makes people shudder.
Eating people is wrong. So goes the title of a grimly satirical novel by British writer Malcolm Bradbury. It’s wrong, yes, but practiced all the same in some places—and perhaps not always the places you might think. (Ohio, anyone?) Schutt, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, looks into cannibalism as it exists in orders other than the human, assuring us brightly that some species do practice cannibalism without blushing. If you’re of tender mind and spirit, you may never look at a snowy egret with admiration again, and as for spadefoot toads, well….The author examines evolutionary theories of inclusive fitness to discuss the genetic rewards of eating one’s own, ensuring not just one’s own survival, but also improving the chances that, if the dinner is properly selected, one’s own bloodline will flourish. As for humans, Schutt explores some of the better-known cases as well as the less studied ones, noting that while there is reason to believe that many human groups have practiced cannibalism at some point in the past, the ones who are most often accused of it—the peoples Columbus first encountered in the Caribbean, for instance—may not be the ones to worry about. The sensational nature of human cannibalism assures that it makes for good news copy but not always good science. The author singles out a misplayed news release concerning a recent reanalysis of bone materials from a Donner Party site and reports that climate change is driving polar bears to eat their young, both of which are stories far more complicated than the headlines would have one believe.
One takeaway: humans don’t taste like chicken. A learned, accessible, and engaging approach to a meaty—beg pardon—and always-controversial subject.