A Perfectly Natural History


By Bill Schutt

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“Surprising. Impressive.  Cannibalism restores my faith in humanity.” Sy Montgomery, The New York Times Book Review

For centuries scientists have written off cannibalism as a bizarre phenomenon with little biological significance. Its presence in nature was dismissed as a desperate response to starvation or other life-threatening circumstances, and few spent time studying it. A taboo subject in our culture, the behavior was portrayed mostly through horror movies or tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life flesh-eaters. But the true nature of cannibalism–the role it plays in evolution as well as human history–is even more intriguing (and more normal) than the misconceptions we’ve come to accept as fact.

In Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,zoologist Bill Schutt sets the record straight, debunking common myths and investigating our new understanding of cannibalism’s role in biology, anthropology, and history in the most fascinating account yet written on this complex topic. Schutt takes readers from Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, where he wades through ponds full of tadpoles devouring their siblings, to the Sierra Nevadas, where he joins researchers who are shedding new light on what happened to the Donner Party–the most infamous episode of cannibalism in American history. He even meets with an expert on the preparation and consumption of human placenta (and, yes, it goes well with Chianti).

Bringing together the latest cutting-edge science, Schutt answers questions such as why some amphibians consume their mother’s skin; why certain insects bite the heads off their partners after sex; why, up until the end of the twentieth century, Europeans regularly ate human body parts as medical curatives; and how cannibalism might be linked to the extinction of the Neanderthals. He takes us into the future as well, investigating whether, as climate change causes famine, disease, and overcrowding, we may see more outbreaks of cannibalism in many more species–including our own.

Cannibalism places a perfectly natural occurrence into a vital new context and invites us to explore why it both enthralls and repels us.


Also by Bill Schutt

Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures


A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.

—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

To mark its 100-year anniversary in 2003, the American Film Institute polled a jury of 1,500 actors, writers, directors, and historians, to determine the 50 greatest screen villains of all time. Topping the AFI list was the ultimate in fictionalized cannibals, Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. In The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme's Academy Award–winning vision of the Thomas Harris novel, Lecter, memorably portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins, helps recently graduated FBI recruit Clarice Starling track down "Buffalo Bill," a serial killer who skins his female victims in order to tailor a "woman suit."

Second place in the poll went to Norman Bates, the mother-fixated hotel manager inhabiting Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho. Okay, I know what you're thinking: Norman Bates wasn't a cannibal, but just give me a minute.

From the opening scene, Hitchcock invited Eisenhower-era audiences to indulge in some long-held taboos. Filmgoers titillated the previous year by the first of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day bedroom comedies suddenly found themselves transformed into voyeurs, peering into shadowy corners previously unseen by mainstream movie audiences of the 1950s. From an amorous lunch-hour rendezvous (where the half-clad lovers had obviously just risen from their unmade hotel room bed) to a peephole in the Bates Motel, nobody would be confusing Hitchcock's masterpiece with Pillow Talk.

Released to a mixed critical response, the movie became a sensation with audiences, and remains so today. More than a half-century after its release, Bernard Herrmann's strings-only score is perhaps the most instantly recognizable music ever written for a film. Less well known is the fact that Joseph Stefano's screenplay for Psycho had been adapted from a Robert Bloch pulp novel about Wisconsin native Edward Gein (pronounced Geen), a real-life murderer, grave robber, necrophile, and cannibal.

Born in 1906, Gein lived a solitary and repressive life under the thumb of a domineering mother. The family owned a 160-acre farm, seven miles outside the town of Plainfield, but when his brother died in 1944, Gein abandoned all efforts to cultivate the land. Instead, he relied on government aid and the occasional odd job to support himself and his mother. When she died in 1945, Gein found himself alone in the large farmhouse, sealing off much of it and leaving his mother's room exactly as it looked when she was alive. The house itself fell into such serious disrepair that the neighborhood kids began claiming that it was haunted.

On the night of November 17, 1957, things began to unravel for the recluse known as Weird Old Eddie. The police were investigating the disappearance of local storeowner Bernice Worden when they got a tip that Gein had been seen in her hardware store several times that week. They picked him up at a neighbor's house where he was having dinner and questioned him about the missing woman. "She isn't missing," Gein told them, "she's down at the house now."

Gein's dilapidated farmhouse had no electricity, so the cops used flashlights and oil lamps to pick their way through the debris-laden rooms. In a shed out back, one of the men bumped into what he thought were the remains of a dressed-out deer hanging from a wooden beam. But the fresh carcass hanging upside down was no deer: It was the decapitated body of Mrs. Worden. As the stunned lawmen moved through the gruesome crime scene, it became clear that the neighborhood kids had been right. The Gein house was haunted. Each room they entered presented them with a new nightmare: soup bowls made from human skulls, a pair of lips attached to a window shade drawstring, and a belt made from human nipples. In the kitchen, the police reportedly found Bernice Worden's heart sitting in a frying pan on the stove and an icebox stocked with human organs.

Soon after Gein's arrest, media correspondents from all over the world began descending on the town and its shocked populace. The reporters poked around the Gein farm and interviewed neighbors. Some of the locals recounted how they'd been given "venison" by Gein, who later told authorities that he had never shot a deer in his life. The Plainfield Butcher had also been a popular babysitter.

With the publication of a seven-page article in Life magazine (and a three-page spread in Time), millions of Americans became fascinated with Ed Gein and his crimes. Plainfield became a tourist attraction with bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling through the narrow streets. Jokes called "Geinisms" became popular.

Q: What did Ed Gein give his girlfriend for Valentine's Day?

A: A box of farmer fannies.1

The following year, Robert Bloch loosely adapted the Gein crimes for his novel, relocating his tale to Phoenix and concentrating on the mother-fixation aspects of the story while playing down the mutilation and cannibalism. An assistant gave Alfred Hitchcock the book and he procured the film rights soon after reading it. The director also had his staff buy up as many copies of the novel as they could find. He wanted to prevent readers from learning about the plot and then revealing its secrets. After some initial resistance from Paramount Pictures, the "Master of Suspense" directed his most famous and financially successful film—one that would never have been made if not for Ed Gein, a quiet little cannibal, who explained to the authorities, "I had a compulsion to do it."2

Is it really a surprise, though, that our greatest cinematic villain is a man-eating psychiatrist while the mild-mannered runner-up is based on a real-life cannibal killer? Perhaps not, if one considers that many cultures share the belief that consuming another human is the worst (or close to the worst) behavior that a person can undertake. As a result, real-life cannibalistic psychopaths like Jeffrey Dahmer (another Wisconsin native) and his Russian counterpart, Andrei Chikatilo, have attained something akin to mythical status in the annals of history's most notorious murderers. Whether through a filter of fictionalization, where man-eating deviants are transformed into powerful antiheroes, or through tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life cannibals, these tales feed our obsession with all things gruesome—an obsession that is now an acceptable facet of our society.

A different attitude was taken toward "primitive" social or ethnic groups whose members might not have shared the Western take on cannibalism taboos. At best, these "savages" were pegged as souls to be saved, but only if they met certain requirements. In the first half of the 20th century, for example, explorers and the missionaries who followed them ventured into the foreboding New Guinea highlands and quickly imposed one hard-and-fast rule for the locals: Cannibalism in any form was strictly forbidden.

But far worse instances of cultural intrusion occurred elsewhere and throughout history, as those accused of consuming other humans, for any reason, were brutalized, enslaved, and murdered. The most infamous example of this practice began during the last years of the 15th century when millions of indigenous people living in the Caribbean and Mexico were summarily reclassified as cannibals for reasons that had little to do with people-eating. Instead, it paved the way for them to be robbed, beaten, conquered, and slain, all at the whim of their new Spanish masters.

Similar atrocities were carried out on a massive scale by a succession of flag-planting European powers who (if one believes their accounts) wrested South America, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific away from man-eating savages, whose behavior placed them beyond the pale of anything that could remotely be described as human.

So were European fears about cannibalism simply an invention used to justify conquest, or were there cultures, including those encountered by the Spaniards, where the consumption of humans was regarded as normal behavior? Although defining someone as a cannibal became an effective way to dehumanize them, there is also evidence that ritual cannibalism, as embodied in various customs related to funerary rites and warfare, occurred throughout history.

As I began studying these forms of cannibalism, I sought to determine not only their perceived functions, but just how widespread they were or weren't. Surprisingly—or perhaps not surprisingly given the subject matter—there is disagreement among anthropologists regarding ritual cannibalism. Some deny that it ever occurred, while others claim that the behavior did occur but was uncommon. Still others claim that cannibalism was practiced by many cultures throughout history and for a variety of reasons. One such body of evidence led me straight back to European history, where I learned that a particularly macabre form of cannibalism had been practiced for hundreds of years by nobility, physicians, and commoners alike, even into the 20th century.

As a zoologist, I was, of course, intrigued at the prospect of documenting cases of non-human cannibalism. Looking back now, I can see that I'd started my inquiry with something less than a completely open mind. Part of me reasoned that since cannibalism was presumably a rare occurrence in humans (at least in modern times), it would likely be similarly rare in the animal kingdom.

Once I dug further, though, I discovered that cannibalism differs in frequency between major animal groups—nonexistent in some and common in others. It varies from species to species and even within the same species, depending on local environmental conditions. Cannibalism also serves a variety of functions, depending on the cannibal. There are even examples in which an individual being cannibalized receives a benefit.

In several instances, cannibalism appears to have arisen only recently in a species, and human activity might be the cause. In one such case, news reports informed horrified audiences that some of the most highly recognizable animals on the planet were suddenly consuming their own young. "Polar bears resort to cannibalism as Arctic ice shrinks," reported CNN, while the Times of London echoed the sentiment: "Climate Change Forcing Polar Bears to Become Cannibals." It was Reuters, though, that scored a perfect ten on the gruesome scale with an online slide show in which an adult polar bear was seen carrying around the still cute-as-a button head of a dead cub, the remains of its spinal cord trailing behind like a red streamer.

The real story behind polar bear cannibalism turned out to be just as fascinating, though it would also serve as a perfect example of how many accusations of and stories about cannibalism throughout history were untrue, unproven, or exaggerated—distorted by sensationalism, deception, a lack of scientific knowledge, and just plain bad writing. With the passage of time, these accounts too often become part of the historical record, their errors long forgotten. Part of my job would be to expose those errors.

I was also extremely curious to see if the origin of cannibalism taboos could be traced back to the natural world, so I developed a pair of alternative hypotheses. Perhaps our aversion to consuming our own kind is hardwired into our brains and as such is a part of our genetic blueprint—a gene or two whose expression selects against such behavior. I reasoned that if such a built-in deterrent exists, then humans and most non-humans (with the exception of a few well-known anomalies such as black widow spiders and praying mantises) would avoid cannibalism at all costs. Thus, the taboo would have a biological foundation.

Conversely, I weighed the possibility that the revulsion most people have at the very mention of cannibalism might stem solely from our culture. Of course, this led to even more questions. What are the cultural roots of the cannibalism taboo and how has it become so widespread? I also wondered why, as disgusted as we are at the very thought of cannibalism, we're so utterly fascinated by it? Might cannibalism have been more common in our ancestors, before societal rules turned it into something abhorrent? I looked for evidence in the fossil record and elsewhere.

Finally, I considered what it would take to break down the biological or cultural constraints that prevent us from eating each other on a regular basis. Could there come a time, in our not-so-distant future, when human cannibalism becomes commonplace? And for that matter, was it already becoming a more frequent occurrence? The answers to these questions are far from certain but, then again, there is much about the topic of cannibalism that cannot be neatly divided into black and white. Likely or not, though, the circumstances that might lead to outbreaks of widespread cannibalism in the 21st century are grounded in science, not science fiction.

My aim was to stay away from the clichéd ideas about cannibalism that are already ingrained in our collective psyche and, with such a wealth of relevant material to explore, I quickly realized that this wouldn't be difficult. Even the most famous cannibal stories, it turned out, had factual gaps that are only now being filled. In the case of the Donner Party, for example, I joined researchers whose scientific approach to the most infamous cannibalism-related event in American history had shed new light on this 19th-century tale of stranded pioneers.

I've tried to approach each example from a scientific viewpoint, delving into what I considered the most intriguing aspects of anthropology, evolution, and biology to provide the broadest yet most engaging natural history of this behavior. What happens to our bodies and minds under starvation conditions? Why are women better equipped to survive starvation than men? And what physiological extremes would compel someone to consume the body of a friend or even a family member?

With regard to criminal cannibalism (Jeffrey Dahmer and his ilk), I was less interested in the overhashed and gory details of the crimes than the reasons for our enthrallment with the overhashed and gory details. This is not a book that explores the minds of our so-called cannibal killers, though it does seem that instances of cannibalism-related crime may be on the uptick. I've also taken a hard line on sensationalism by highlighting and differentiating between physical evidence, ethno-history, unfounded information, and horse feathers.

In the pages ahead, you will encounter everything from cannibalism in utero to placenta-munching mothers who carry on a remarkably rich tradition of medicinal cannibalism. Yes, the ick factor is high, but I hope you'll find this journey as fascinating and unusual as I have—a journey whose goal is to allow us to better understand the complexity of our natural world and the long and often blood-spattered history of our species.

With this in mind, why not grab a glass of red wine, and let's get started.3

1 In the 1940s and 1950s Fanny Farmer was the largest producer of candy in the U.S.

2 When Psycho opened on June 16, 1960, it was an instant hit, with long lines outside theaters and broken box office records all over the world. More than 50 years later the film is remembered best for its famous shower scene, one which reportedly caused many of our Greatest Generation to develop some degree of ablutophobia, the fear of bathing (from the Latin abluere, "to wash off"). Few theatergoers realized that the "blood" in Psycho was actually the popular chocolate syrup, Bosco (a fact the company somehow neglected to mention in their ads and TV commercials).

3 For suitable background music, for starters I suggest "Timothy", the catchy one-hit-wonder by The Buoys. The song, written by Rupert Holmes ("The Piña Colada Song"), tells the tale of three trapped miners, two of whom survive by eating the title character. In 1971 "Timothy" reached number 17 on the Billboard Top 100, even though many major radio stations refused to play it. In an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the ban, executives at Scepter Records began circulating a rumor that Timothy was actually a mule.

1: Animal the Cannibal

Cannibals prefer those who have no spines.

—Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, Holiday, 1963

I was knee-deep in a temporary pond that seemed to be composed of equal parts rainwater and cow shit when the cannibals began nibbling on my leg hair.

"If you stand still for long enough, they'll definitely nip you," came a voice from the shore.

The "they" were cannibalistic spadefoot toad larvae (commonly known as tadpoles) and the warning had come from Dr. David Pfennig, a biology professor at the University of North Carolina who had been studying these toads in Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains for more than 20 years.

At Pfennig's invitation, I had arrived at the American Museum of Natural History's Southwestern Research Station in mid-July—just after the early-summer monsoons had turned cattle wallows into nursery ponds and newly hatched tadpoles into cannibals. But the real reason I had come to the ancestral land of Cochise and the Chiricahua Apaches wasn't because the tadpoles were eating each other. It was because some of them weren't eating each other. In fact, when this particular brood had hatched about a week earlier, they were all omnivores, feeding on plankton and the suspended organic matter referred to in higher-class journals as "detritus." Then, two or three days later, something peculiar took place. Some of the tiny amphibians experienced dramatic growth spurts, their bodies ballooning in size overnight. Now, as I waded, scoop-net in hand, through Sky Ranch Pond (a slimy-bottomed mud hole with delusions of grandeur), the pumped-up proto-toads were four or five times larger than their poop-nibbling brethren.

"These look like two different species," I said, examining a handful of tadpoles that I'd just scooped up. I also noted that the larger individuals were light tan in color while the little guys had bodies flecked with dark green.

"Initially, people thought they were different species," Pfennig replied.

Using a magnifying glass to get a better look at my squirmy captives, I saw that the differences went beyond body size and color. The larger tadpoles were also sporting powerful tails and serious-looking beaks.

"Yikes, nice choppers," I commented, always the scientist.

"They're made of keratin," Pfennig said. This was the same tough, structural protein found in our nails and hair.

Later, while comparing the two tadpole morphs under a dissecting 'scope, I saw that behind a set of frilly lips, the flat keratinous plates (which worked fine for detritus dining) had been transformed into a jack-o-lantern row of sharp-edged teeth in the cannibalistic forms. It was also evident that the jaw muscles were significantly enlarged in the cannibals, especially the jaw-closing levator mandibulae, whose bulging appearance reminded me of a kid with six pieces of Dubble Bubble jammed into each cheek (a dangerous behavior I only rarely attempt anymore ). Studies had shown that myofibers, the cells making up these muscles, were larger and greater in number (or hypertrophied and hyperplasious, respectively)—producing a more powerful bite. Of course, the extra bite force was necessary because, beyond latching onto the occasional unshaved human leg, these critters were using bulked-up bodies and the weaponry that accompanied it to subdue and consume their omnivorous pondmates.

Not quite so obvious was a significant shortening of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in the cannibals, with the explanation relating to the dietary differences that accompanied the tadpole transformations. In the omnivores, a long GI tract is required for the breakdown of tough-to-digest plant matter, while a shorter GI tract works just fine when the diet is a fleshy one.4

Over a three-day period, I watched and captured tadpoles in bodies of water that ranged from tire-carved puddles to bovine swimmin' holes of the double-wide Olympic variety. Accompanied at various times by Pfennig, his wife, Karin, their two young daughters, and a pair of extremely personable UNC grad students, Antonio Serrato and Nick Levis, I learned a great deal about the three species of Spea that laid their eggs in such dangerously unpredictable conditions. Much of this information centered on the ecology, behavior, and evolution of these creatures. Of course, the cannibalism angle was there as well, although these researchers (including the kids) treated that particular behavior as perfectly normal.

Until relatively recently though, and with a very few exceptions, cannibalism in nature would have been regarded as anything but normal. As a result, until the last two decades of the 20th century, few scientists spent time studying a topic thought to have little, if any, biological significance. Basically, the party line was that cannibalism, when it did occur, was either the result of starvation or the stresses related to captive conditions.

It was as simple as that.

Or so we thought.

In the 1970s, Laurel Fox, a University of California Santa Cruz ecologist, took some of the first steps towards a scientific approach to cannibalism. She had been studying the feeding behavior of predatory freshwater insects called backswimmers (belonging to the order Hemiptera, the "true bugs"). Fox determined that, while the voracious hunters relied primarily on aquatic prey, "cannibalism was also a consistent part of their diets."

I contacted Fox and asked her about the transition that had taken place in the scientific community regarding this behavior. She told me that her observations in the field had sparked her interest and that, soon after, she began compiling a list of scientific papers in which cannibalism had been reported. Although there turned out to be hundreds of references documenting the behavior in various species, no one had linked these instances together or come up with any generalizations regarding the behavior. By the time Fox's review paper came out in 1975, she had concluded that cannibalism was not abnormal behavior at all, but a completely normal response to a variety of environmental factors.

Significantly, Fox also determined that cannibalism was a far more widespread occurrence than anyone had previously imagined and that it took place in every major animal group, including many that were long considered to be herbivores . . . like butterflies. She emphasized that cannibalism in nature, which some researchers referred to as "intraspecific predation," also demonstrated a complexity that seemed to match its frequency. Fox suggested that the occurrence of cannibalism in a particular species wasn't simply a "does occur" or "doesn't occur" proposition, but was often dependent on variables like population density and changes in local environmental conditions. Fox even followed cannibalism's environmental connection onto the human branch of the evolutionary tree. After pondering reports that humans practicing non-ritual cannibalism lived in "nutritionally marginal areas," she proposed that consuming other humans might have provided low-density populations with 5 to 10 percent of their protein requirements. Conversely, she suggested that cannibalism was rare in settlements where populations were dense enough to allow for the production of an adequate and predictable food supply.

In 1980, ecologist and scorpion expert Gary Polis picked up the animal cannibalism banner and began looking at invertebrates that consumed their own kind. Like Fox, he noted that while starvation could lead to increases in the behavior, it was certainly not a requirement. Perhaps Polis's most important contribution to the subject of cannibalism in nature was assembling a list of cannibalism-related generalizations under which most examples of invertebrate cannibalism could be placed. 1) Immature animals get eaten more often than adults; 2) Many animals, particularly invertebrates, do not recognize individuals of their own kind, especially eggs and immature stages, which are simply regarded as a food source; 3) Females are more often cannibalistic than males; 4) Cannibalism increases with hunger and a concurrent decrease in alternative forms of nutrition; and 5) Cannibalism is often directly related to the degree of overcrowding in a given population.

Polis emphasized that these generalizations were sometimes found in combination, such as overcrowding and a lack of alternative forms of nutrition (a common cannibal-related cause and effect), both of which now fall under the broader banner of "stressful environmental conditions."5

In 1992, zoologists Mark Elgar and Bernard Crespi edited a scholarly book on the ecology and evolution of cannibalism across diverse animal taxa. In it, they refined the scientific definition of cannibalism in nature as "the killing and consumption of either all or part of an individual that is of the same species." Initially the researchers excluded instances where the individuals being consumed were already dead or survived the encounter—the former they considered to be a type of scavenging. Eventually, though, they decided these were variants of cannibalistic behavior observed across the entire animal kingdom. Although there are certainly gray areas (encompassing things like breastfeeding or eating one's own fingernails), my fallback definition of cannibalism for this book is: The act of one individual of a species consuming all or part of another individual of the same species. In the animal kingdom, this would include behavior like scavenging (as long as the scavenged body was from the same species as the scavenger) and maternal care in which tissue (i.e., skin or uterine lining) was consumed. In humans, cannibalism would extend beyond the concept of nutrition into the realms of ritual behavior, medicine, and mental disorder.


  • A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice
    “Refreshing…A jolly book, written in a breezy style, but the research behind it is impressive.”
    —Sy Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus) for the New York Times Book Review

    “[A] deeply researched account. The book is full of wondrous details . . . but its most valuable contribution is in challenging ingrained attitudes.”
    The New Yorker
    “Delectable reading.”
    “In this comprehensive account of a taboo practice, Schutt (Dark Banquet), professor of biology at LIU-Post, finds that cannibalism is more widespread than generally believed and proffers insight as to why different species resort to the practice of cannibalism, with plenty of scientific evidence to support his conclusions….With plenty of examples of cannibalism in humans past and present, Schutt’s well researched and suspenseful work is a must read for anyone who’s interested in the topic—and can stomach the gore.”
    Publishers Weekly, starred review
    “A delightful mixture of humor and scholarship. Erudite, amusing and often moving, this is a compelling examination of a serious topic.”
     “A wide-ranging, engaging and thoroughly fun read.”
    Science News
    “Cannibalism has seemingly always held a place of the utmost abhorrence in human society. But why, asks Schutt, when cannibalism is such a normal part of nature as a whole? In a witty, often funny, and thoroughly fascinating study, Schutt delves into cannibalism as an everyday occurrence throughout the animal kingdom….VERDICT Schutt’s writing is delightfully accessible…and utterly captivating.”
    School Library Journal, starred review
    “A learned, accessible, and engaging approach to a meaty and always-controversial subject.”
    Kirkus Reviews
    “The perfect literary entrée for those willing to contemplate mummy umami or Tex-Mex placenta while touring the history of animals and people eating their own kind.”
    Scientific American
    “Schutt mixes science and history with equal deftness, never indulging in gore for the sake of shock value. His scholarly approach, bolstered by his own investigations and interviews…all make for an endlessly fascinating read.”
    Seattle Book Review
    "A fascinating exploration of a normally taboo subject."
    John de Cuevas, contributing editor, Harvard Magazine
    “Bill Schutt serves up a deliciously entertaining smorgasbord of scientific reality. He gives us a deeper insight into the way nature really works.” 
    Darrin Lunde, Museum Specialist, Smithsonian Institution, and author of The Naturalist.
    “Butterflies do it. So do some toads, birds, and polar bears. Did dinosaurs do it? What about the Neanderthals? And what about us, for that matter? If you're hungry for a fun, absorbing read about which animals eat their own kind and why, read this book.” 
    Virginia Morell, New York Times bestselling author of Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel
    “A clear-headed, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic—and always fascinating—compendium of one of Western culture’s strongest taboos. From the Australian redback spider to the Donner Party, Schutt examines the evolutionary purposes that eating one’s own can serve. But he goes beyond scientific explanation to show how deeply cannibalism is woven into our own history and literature.”
    Cat Warren, New York Times bestselling author of What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World
    "A masterful and compulsively readable book that challenges our preconceived notions about a behavior often sensationalized in our culture -- and frequently misunderstood in the scientific world.”
    Ian Tattersall, author of The Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution
    “A fun, entertaining read, and Bill Schutt’s insatiable curiosity for his subject is infectious. If you’re a fan of Mary Roach, you’ll definitely want to check this out.”
    —Gina Nicoll, Book Riot
    “This wonderful book will speak to the science-minded, to folks who like history, or to anyone who’s crazy-curious about taboo subjects like this.”
    Terri Schlichenmeyer, The Bookworm Sez

    “Drawing from an impressively broad span of history and zoology, and with a good dose of humour, Bill Schutt offers a fascinating and not-too-gruesome exploration of cannibalism as it appears in both human society and the animal kingdom…. Delightfully engaging and entertaining.”
    Winnipeg Free Press
    “A well-organized, thorough, and highly readable study of a phenomenon few of us pause to think about. This is a book you can sink your teeth into.”
    —The East Hampton Star

On Sale
Feb 14, 2017
Page Count
352 pages
Algonquin Books

Bill Schutt

Bill Schutt

About the Author

Bill Schutt is a vertebrate zoologist and author of six nonfiction and fiction books, including Pump: A Natural History of the Heart and the New York Times Editor’s Choice, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. Recently retired from his post as professor of biology at LIU Post, he is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, where he has studied bats all over the world. His research has been featured in Natural History magazine as well as in the New York Times, Newsday, the Economist, and Discover.

This author is represented by the Hachette Speakers Bureau.

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