Cannibalism is common in the animal kingdom, but for humans it's the ultimate taboo

Cannibalism is common in the animal kingdom – here's why for humans it's the ultimate taboo
Chimpanzees have no qualms eating their own kind. Credit: photography/Shutterstock

Vulnerable spadefoot tadpoles eat their smaller competitors to speed towards toadhood as quickly as possible. Gulls and pelicans are among bird species that eat hatchlings for food or to prevent the spread of disease. In insect species such as the praying mantis or the Australian redback spider, males offer their bodies as a final gift to females after mating.

It's more common than you'd think in mammals too. Many rodent mothers may eat some of their young if they're sick, dead, or too numerous to feed. Bears and lions kill and eat the offspring of adult females to make them more receptive to mating. Chimpanzees sometimes cannibalise unlucky rivals, usually infants, seemingly for the mere opportunity of some extra protein.

For humans though, cannibalism is the ultimate taboo. In fact, our aversion to cannibalism is so strong that consent and ethics count for little.

In one of our own experiments, participants were asked to consider the hypothetical case of a man who gave permission to his friend to eat parts of him once he died of natural causes.

Participants read that this occurred in a culture that permitted the act, that the act was meant to honour the deceased, and that the flesh was cooked so that there was no chance of disease. Despite this careful description, about half of the participants still insisted that the act was invariably wrong.

Even in the starkest of situations, the act of eating another human's flesh remains almost beyond contemplation. Survivors of the famous 1972 Andes plane crash waited until near starvation before succumbing to reason and eating those who had already died.

One survivor, Roberto Canessa, felt that to eat his fellow passengers would be "stealing their souls" and descending towards "ultimate indignity"—despite recalling that in the aftermath of the crash, he like many others had declared that he would be glad for his body to aid the communal survival mission.

Categorical disgust

The tragic anecdote above illuminates why humans are the exception to the animal cannibal rule. Our capacity to represent the personalities of the living and the departed is unparalleled. This between personhood and flesh can mean that careful reasoning in certain situations over the merits of cannibalism is overridden by our feelings of repulsion and disgust.

So why our disgust for human flesh but not that of other animals? Philosopher William Irvine has us imagine a ranch that raises plump babies for human consumption, much like we fatten and slaughter cattle for beef. Irvine suggests that the same arguments we apply to justify the killing of cows also apply to babies. For example, they wouldn't protest, and they're not capable of rational thought.

Although Irvine is not seriously advocating eating babies, the scenario is useful for illuminating our bias when considering the ethics of cannibalism. From a young age, we tend to think about categories, such as humans or cows, as having an underlying reality or "essence" that cannot be observed directly but that gives a thing its fundamental identity. For example, humans are intelligent and rational thinkers, we have personalities and a desire to live, and we form bonds with each other.

This psychological essentialism is a useful shortcut to guide our expectations and judgements about members of the category—but it doesn't work so well when the typical qualities of that category don't apply, for example upon death. This is why consensual post-mortem cannibalism is still met with such disgust. Even if we can bring ourselves to deem it morally acceptable, we can't silence our thoughts about the person it came from.

The way we interact with animals shapes the way we categorise them. Research shows that the more we think of animals as having human properties—that is, as being "like us"—the more we tend to think they're gross to eat.

Adapting to the unfamiliar

Though accusations of cannibalism have often been falsely made to demonise groups, it isn't absent from human history. The Fore people of Papua New Guinea were reported to have participated in funerary cannibalism, believing it better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and maggots. Parts of mummies were eaten for medicinal purposes in post-Renaissance Europe.

We suspect that we could adapt to human flesh if need be. Many people develop disgust for all kinds of meat, while morticians and surgeons quickly adapt to the initially difficult experience of handling dead bodies. Our with butchers in England suggests that they easily adapt to working with animal parts that the average consumer finds quite disgusting.

Thankfully for most of us, there is no need to overcome our repulsion for the foreseeable future. Some philosophers have argued that burying the dead could be wasteful in the context of the fight against —but there are much more palatable alternatives on the table than a haunch of human. We can shift to eating more plants and less meat to conserve resources lost by feeding plants directly to livestock. Insects can meet our protein needs, and there is the prospect of cultured meat technology.

For now, we're as happy as you are to continue accepting the "wisdom of repugnance": human flesh, despite its biochemical similarities to that of other mammals, shall remain firmly off limits.

Explore further

For early humans, cannibalism more than just a meal (Update)

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Aug 16, 2019
Among other things, "philosopher" William Irvine invoking killing babies for food since they wouldn't know enough to protest and they're not capable of rational thought. The mentality of the big buy picking on the smaller, weaker one! So similar, too, to the sentiments of those promoting abortion by craven whim, the real name for "abortion on demand". Fetuses are inside women's bodies, fetuses don't speak, fetuses don't know so much about what is supposedly happening outside! Abortion by craven whim is just one form of cannibalism.
Animals also kill in anger, does that make it right?
Those who place importance in the human can be said to have the ability to look beyond simplistic perceptions.
Remember, humans are capable of measurements even machines can do, like weight, heat, loudness. There are things no machine is capable of observing that are evident to humans! Supposedly some humans! Humans who don't see them can be said to be broken!

Aug 16, 2019
Lets take the time to remind julian that the most sacred rite of his religion is the eucharist, a shameless appropriation of a prehistoric pagan rite.

"26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body."

"27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the[a] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." matt26

-But as far as the practice is concerned, cannibalism was common throughout the pleistocene. Chronic overpop drove people to use any source of protein they could acquire. And hunting is so very similar to fighting, yes?

Tribalism is the result of overpop. Tribalism is a form of speciation, meaning that the next tribe over is always a little less human than yours.

Aug 16, 2019
Humans have developed immunities to certain prion diseases, a sign that cannibalism was a common practice.

Bush meat, that being the meat of apes, is the most difficult food to convince african indigenes to give up when trying to save endangered species. Ape meat is the closest thing to human meat. We have a taste for it.

The taboos which exist were about killing fellow tribesmen for food. they did not apply to the spoils of intertribal conflict.

Aug 16, 2019
Let us also remind julian that in todays world, religion is the main cause of overpopulation. The west has achieved sustainable growth by casting off the bonds of religion and embracing secularism, which has enabled the emancipation of women, the widespread use of birth control, and yes ABORTION to the tune of ONE BILLION since roe v wade.

The west is stable and peaceful as a result. But it is now being flooded with excess peoples from religion-dominated cultures where there is still suffering, and degradation, and conflict.

Implicit is the FACT that without religion there would be no overpopulation. There would be plenty of room and resources for everybody. And thus ABORTION would be a rare and unnecessary thing.

Julian may one day accept the FACT that religion - all religion, including his own - is the cause of ABORTION.

Aug 16, 2019
"Research shows that the more we think of animals as having human properties—that is, as being "like us"—the more we tend to think they're gross to eat."

-A good way to look at is that if we give animals personal names, we can no longer eat them. Killing becomes murder.

Much easier to kill the enemy if they are referred to as gooks or nips or haji for the same reason.

"Darwin stated that "the confinement of sympathy to the same tribe" must have been the rule. This was for him one of the chief causes of the low morality of the savages. "Primeval man", he argued, "regarded actions as good or bad solely as they obviously affected the welfare of the tribe, not of the species". Among the living tribal peoples, he added, "the virtues are practised almost exclusively in relation to the men of the same tribe" and the corresponding vices "are not regarded as crimes" if practised on other tribes" (Darwin, 1871)

-Tribalism - the source of all bigotry, racism, also cronyism, nepotism, etc.

Aug 16, 2019
blood transfussion and organ tansplantation are canniballism

Aug 16, 2019
Interestingly, it doesn't seem to be prohibited by the Ten Commandments, at least in the case of people who are already dead of other causes. Thou shalt not murder covers it about as well as it's covered.

Aug 16, 2019
I have never looked at another human and went...mmm...that would be some good eating....well...except, of course, for a few from the more delicate sex.

Aug 18, 2019
Progressives and enviroloons would love the masses to begin cannibalizing themselves to protect the Earth. Reality, this kind of thing is normal to be proposed by people who see themselves as an elitist class that will rule over the rest. I suggest feeding environmentalists to the poor, because in an animalistic Darwinian world, neither have the right to live.

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