For most of us, it’s unthinkable: Human is never what’s for dinner. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but in this episode, we discover that not only is cannibalism widespread throughout the natural world, it’s also much more common among our own kind than we like to think. Spiders and sharks do it; so do both ancient and modern humans. So why it sometimes make sense to snack on your own species—and what are the downsides? From Hannibal Lecter to the Donner party, cannibals are now the subject of morbid fascination and disgust—but how did eating one another become such a taboo? Join us this episode for our Halloween special: the science and history of cannibalism!
According to the zoologist Bill Schutt, the author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, until recently, “the party line was basically that if you saw cannibalism in nature it was because of a lack of nutrition or cramped captive conditions.” In the past three decades, however, scientists have come to realize that cannibalism is surprisingly common, and that it occurs for a variety of different reasons: Male spiders who become their consort’s dinner gain a reproductive advantage, Schutt explains, while sand tiger sharks take advantage of their spare siblings in utero to hone their hunting skills before they’re even born.