I know what you’re thinking. What’s up with this girl that she chose to read a book all about Cannibalism? Or maybe if you’re a science geek like me, you’re just as fascinated by the topic. Believe it or not, whether you’re so grossed out about cannibalism that you would never choose to read about it or not, cannibalism is a natural part of the animal world. We, as humans, are kind of aberrations for having mostly abandoned it (though I’m pretty thankful that no one is planning to eat me).
When I included Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History in my February 2017 Releases list, I RAN to Net Galley to make sure I could score a copy, and I devoured the whole thing (no pun intended) in a couple of days. It’s everything that I love in books about a specific scientific topic – filled with disparate and enthralling examples, wide-ranging in its scope and yet super easy to follow, and most importantly, concisely written. If you love learning about science and about weird aspects of the life that surrounds you like me, pick this one up.
Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History
by Bill Schutt
Published: February 14th 2017
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Eating one’s own kind is completely natural behavior in thousands of species, including humans. Throughout history we have engaged in cannibalism for reasons of famine, burial rites, and medicinal remedies; it’s been used as a way to terrorize and even a way to show filial piety. With unexpected wit and a wealth of knowledge, American Museum of Natural History biologist Bill Schutt takes us on a tour of the field, dissecting exciting new research and investigating questions such as why so many fish eat their offspring and some amphibians consume their mother’s skin; why sexual cannibalism is an evolutionary advantage for certain spiders; why, until the end of the eighteenth century, British royalty ate human body parts; how cannibalism may be linked to the extinction of Neanderthals; why microbes on sacramental bread may have led Catholics to execute Jews in the Middle Ages.
What I Liked
The science. This book has a very focused topic – cannibalism – but provides such a broad array of examples of different forms of cannibalism in different types of species. It definitely isn’t solely human focused, though there are chapters on purported cannibalism among the Neanderthals, among people of the West Indies during Columbus’ time, among the Fore tribe of the Pacific islands (with connections to Mad Cow disease) and among the unfortunate members of the Donner Party, who was lost in the Rockies in the summer of 1846. Much of the book is actually focused on animal and insect cannibalism. Did you know, for example, that despite the fact that black widows got their name because the females are supposed to eat the males after copulation, black widows do not have a high incidence of cannibalism among their members for spiders? It’s more common in other species of spiders. I also learned that there’s a type of shark whose fetuses sometimes consume each other to survive while still in the womb. From tadpoles to praying mantises, dinosaurs to placenta, there were so many more ‘natural’ and less ‘murder-maniac’ aspects of cannibalism that I would have never thought about but that are actually biologically necessary for some species.
The fact that the author is an EXPERT. The man clearly breaths, sleeps and eats (hopefully not literally) cannibalism. He has the educational accreditation and the scholarly accomplishments (read his bio below for more info) and this is his SECOND book about the gory biology of nutrition. Schutt published another book that focused on blood consumption in both the animal and human world in 2008. Did you know that blood consumption (when between members of the same species) is considered by some scientists who study the topic as a form of cannibalism? One of the things I learned from reading Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. If I wasn’t so grossed out by the idea of bed bugs (they’re like Voldemort to me and I shiver to even type those words), and if I wasn’t pretty sure that Schutt’s first book – Dark Banquet – must include them, I would make sure to read that one as well. Anyways, when you’re looking to get some serious info about cannibalism (or blood-sucking creatures), Schutt is the man you’re looking for. If you can believe it, his Twitter handle is @draculae.
The fact that it stays away from voyeuristic accounts of cannibalism motivated murders. It would have been easy to take this book in the direction of recounting the stories of the horrifying murderers and serial killers who have taken their victims’ lives with the intention of consuming them. It would have also made for a more sensational book. But Schutt stated very clearly within the book that he made a purposeful decision to exclude all such stories so as not to give the killers additional visibility for their crimes. The focus of the book is scientific, primarily exploring when cannibalism becomes a biological imperative and why. So if you’re worried that there will be sadistic psycopaths a la Hannibal in it, you’re safe. As Schutt states in his title, this is a Perfectly Natural history of cannibalism. For those humans who are no longer experiencing hunger and who live in societies in which competition for territory or resources through physical violence is no longer necessary or accepted, cannibalism cannot obviously be driven by biological or evolutionary needs.
What I Didn’t Like
Nothing. Every chapter in this book taught me something I didn’t know, and it was a complete pleasure to read. No excess bits. No parts that dragged. No lack of wonders and filled with paragraphs that left me wide-eyed or chuckling to myself about how weird evolution and biology are.
If you like books that expertly break down complex scientific topics into understandable histories and if you think you won’t be too grossed out learning about biologically driven (as opposed to murder-maniac) cannibalism, this one’s for you.
About The Author
Bill Schutt is a biology professor at LIU Post and a research associate in residence at the American Museum of Natural History. His first book, Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, was selected as a Best Book of 2008 by Library Journal and Amazon, and was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program.
Born in New York City and raised on Long Island by parents who encouraged his love for turning over stones and peering under logs, Schutt quickly grew a passion for the natural world, with its enormous wonders and its increasing vulnerability.
He received his Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell and held a post-doctoral fellowship at the AMNH where he received a Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Grant. Schutt has published over two dozen peer-reviewed articles on topics ranging from terrestrial locomotion in vampire bats to the precarious, arboreal copulatory behavior of a marsupial mouse. His research has been featured in Natural History magazine as well as The New York Times, Newsday, The Economist, and Discover magazine. Schutt currently serves on the board of directors of the North American Society for Bat Research. He lives on Long Island with his wife and son.
Schutt’s first novel, Hell’s Gate, (with J.R. Finch) was published in 2016 and garnered widespread acclaim. The 2nd “R.J. MacCready Novel”, The Himalayan Codex, will be out on June 6, 2017.
Also By Bill Schutt
Dark Banquet: Blood And The Curious Lives Of Blood-Feeding Creatures (2008)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
For centuries, blood feeders have inhabited our nightmares and horror stories, as well as the shadowy realms of scientific knowledge. In Dark Banquet, zoologist Bill Schutt takes readers on an entertaining voyage into the world of some of nature’s strangest creatures—the sanguivores. Using a sharp eye and mordant wit, Schutt makes a remarkably persuasive case that vampire bats, leeches, ticks, bed bugs, and other vampires are as deserving of our curiosity as warmer and fuzzier species are—and that many of them are even worthy of conservation. Schutt takes us from rural Trinidad to the jungles of Brazil to learn about some of the most reviled, misunderstood, and marvelously evolved animals on our planet: vampire bats. Only recently has fact begun to disentangle itself from fiction concerning these remarkable animals, and Schutt delves into the myths and misconceptions surrounding them.
Have you read Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History? What did you think? If you haven’t read it, did my review make you want to pick it up? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read other recent reviews on the blog including for contemporary fiction novel This Is How It Always Is, feminist memoir How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran, and historical fiction novels Before The Rains by Dinah Jefferies, The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and News Of The World.
I received a copy of Cannibalism: A Perfect History from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository.