Monday, January 03, 2011

Mad science: Are we inherently tasty?

In what must surely rank as one of the strangest articles ever posted by Slate, writer Jesse Bering pulls and info dump on long pig in the name of making "an evolutionary case for cannibalism."

Bering brings up the work of Lewis Petrinovich argues "contrary to critiques arguing that man-eating is a myth conjured up by Westerners to demonize "primitives"—we really have been gobbling each other up for a very, very long time. We're just one of 1,300 species for which "intraspecific predation" has been observed. Among primates, cannibalism can usually be accounted for by nutritional and environmental stress, or it appears as a reproductive strategy in which mothers, for example, consume their unhealthy infants to make way for more viable offspring."

To be honest, I don't know if I'm sold. If one is going to make the case that evolution tricked us out with the ability to eat other humans, then you have to make a similar case that it also tricked us out to make it fairly uncommon. (In the article, Bering attempts to make the case that cannibalism is, in fact, more common then we admit, but I don't buy it; Bering is probably right in the assertion that cannibalism has happened more often then we'd care to think, but the real comparison you'd need to show is that it happens regularly when compared to other eating habits, and compared to how often we eat something other than people, the practice is still statistically negligible.) Furthermore, there's always the possibility that it is simply a side effect of some other, less sensational adaptation. For example, we evolved to eat meat. People happen to be meat. The adaptation wasn't aimed at them, but it opens up the possibility. That said, I can't really do justice to his argument here, so check out the article.

Still, whether or not Bering successfully achieves he goal of evo-devoing up a just so for anthropophagy, there's quite a bit of weird data to found in his article. Here's some choice tidbits, as it were.

One pair of anthropologists, for example, actually crunched the numbers, concluding that the average human adult provides 66 pounds of edible food, including fat, connective tissue, muscle, organs, blood, and skin. Protein-rich blood clots and marrow are said (by the rare connoisseur) to be special treats.

Or this bit on inducing mammalian cannibalism in the lab:

Pinpointing the specific factors that cause cannibalism is a rather difficult affair in the laboratory, mainly because of those pesky university ethics review boards. Still, an intrepid Japanese researcher shrugged off these considerations and induced cannibalism among a captive population of squirrel monkeys by feeding the pregnant females a low-protein diet. This led to a high rate of abortion and the mothers' devouring their aborted fetuses—a much-needed bolus of protein.

The idea that we're all cannibals and that it can be induced by controlled conditions was actually the middling Hunger, reviewed on this blog not too long ago. I was also reminded of philosopher Max Stirner's grim vision of the human condition as metaphorical cannibalism: "For me, you are nothing but my food - even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of usableness, of utility, of use."

Oh, and happy new year.


Sasquatchan said...

The whole article and your comments, and not one soylent green crack ?

Cliff Evans said...

Does he attempt to explain things like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which results from the consumption of human tissue? In terms of survival, it'd seem like a prion disease wouldn't be any better than malnutrition for long-term survival.

CRwM said...

He has an interesting bit about it from the other side of the equation. Though "kuru" infamously devastated the Fore people, many of us would be immune to CJD because we're heterozygous on the gene for human prion protein. Generally, cannibalism is a massive disease vector due to the level of genetic sameness between eater and eaten, but that and other curious protections from cannibal-spread diseases are used to argue for its adaptive nature.

Shon Richards said...

It is articles like these that make me want to go into those mythical backwoods of America and check out the cannibal societies that dominate horror fiction. I always thought the argument against cannibalism came down to how little meat you can get for the years it takes for a body to grow.

Bill said...

I've never understood the whole gut-munching bit in zombie films. I'm certain they could care less about e. coli, and the image has its impact, but Christ, anyone who's ever seen the aftermath of an animal attack knows the lower extremities and arms are critters subject of interest, and probably for good reason. I'll never forget when I first surfed the internet, I saw a photo of man half-eaten by a bear, his poor wang just forlornly out there for people to see, and below that just stripped bones.

Bill said...

BTW the bear comparo is absolutely reasonable, since their diets are much the same as ours. I've always wondered about ungulates and their diseases. My dad told me during hunting season you have to wait until there's been at least two hard frosts to kill off the parasites (fleas, ticks) that could get you sick. I'm not sure if they have anything to do with prionic diseases, but it can't hurt.