Hannibal Lecter
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Is Hannibal Lecter's cannibalism really that bad? Well, yes, obviously, but it's not that rare...

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Feb 17, 2021, 3:01 PM EST (Updated)

It's been 30 years since The Silence of the Lambs hit theaters and 20 years since the sequel, Hannibal, came out. The movies, based on the Thomas Harris novels of the same name, made famous Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in the former, Julianne Moore in the latter), Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins in both films), and the pairing of a human liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Last week, a crime procedural centered on Agent Starling, Clarice, premiered on CBS. The show takes place one year after the events of Silence, but Clarice takes pains to avoid mentioning Lecter due to some legal issues (ownership of Harris' characters is split between MGM and the Dino de Laurentiis Company). Instead, we get not-so-subtle nods such as, "Your last therapist was an inmate in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane and, you know, ate his patients."

Regardless if Hannibal the Cannibal can be referred to by name, it's what he did, when you really get down to it, that so captures our imaginations. Lecter might have been just another charming and intelligent villain. But he ate people, and he liked it. It's the kind of act that both fascinates and terrifies because it feels so unnatural, but is it?

WHAT'S ON THE MENU?

Despite the taboo nature of cannibalism amongst humans, it's incredibly common in nature. Like, frighteningly common. Animals eat within their own species all the time and for various reasons. Sexual cannibalism is a common practice among invertebrates, specifically insects.

The black widow, of course, takes its name from the practice. Males of the species approach a female in an attempt to reproduce and in so doing place themselves within striking distance of the much larger female's fangs. Reproduction in widow spiders doesn't always result in cannibalism, but it happens enough that any eight-legged male suitors shouldn't count on a second date.

Natural selection seemingly suggests the death of one's own species is always a bad thing, but that's not necessarily the case. When it comes to black widows, there are other pressures at play. Some studies indicate copulation lasts longer when the male is consumed, and a female is less likely to entertain another suitor while they're chowing down. By sacrificing themselves for the cause, male widow spiders increase the likelihood of their genes being passed on to the next generation. And that's all evolution really cares about. This might explain why some males not only allow themselves to be consumed but will somersault themselves into the waiting maw of their mates.

A number of aquatic species, from frogs to fish, also munch on their own stash, so to speak. Anyone who's ever had a pregnant fish in an aquarium might have witnessed the rapid blood bath that can overtake a brood of freshly hatched fry.

When you take a moment to think about it, it makes an odd sort of sense. For animals who produce a large number of offspring, well... not all of their young need to survive. Those early days are a war of attrition with juvenile fish eating one another in pursuit of calories. Parents are also known to eat their young to recover some of the lost energy associated with giving birth.

In species where the males look after the eggs, such as the Common Goby, we observe the males eating the eggs. This could be a strategy for thinning out damaged eggs or reducing the number to leave resources for those who remain.

Sand tiger sharks take this early cannibalism to an incredible extreme: Unborn shark pups are known to eat their smaller siblings while still in the womb. A female sand tiger shark can carry several embryos in each of their two uteri. When one of them hatches it goes about consuming its hatched and unhatched siblings as well as unfertilized eggs. This process is known as embryonic cannibalism and serves to provide the cannibalistic pup with nutrients needed to survive once out of the womb.

The process, though gruesome, works well. Some sand tiger sharks measure up to three feet long at birth, making them less likely targets for other oceanic predators.

This is just a small sampling of cannibalism common in nature. Species from rodents to hippos to primates practice cannibalism when the mood strikes them.

WHAT ABOUT US?

Aberrant instances aside, humans aren't immune from the call of cannibalism. It's little surprise that our early history involves some level of cannibalism. The closer we get to our more animalistic origins, the easier it is to accept this practice.

Nearly a million years ago in what's now modern-day Spain, early hominids were eating each other. Remains of deceased humans show evidence of cannibalism and researchers suggest there's a simple explanation: Humans were easy prey, especially compared to other large game.

While other, more nutritious game was available, they required a significant energy investment. Killing other humans was easier, and the cost-benefit analysis sometimes tipped in favor of cannibalism.

This sort of cannibalism is easy to understand, but humans remained on the menu across cultures until much more recently. In 15th-century Europe, people consumed ground-up, mummified remains, believing it to be a miracle cure. Mumia, as it was known, was initially supplied via stolen Egyptian mummies, but as popularity increased, bodies of the recently dead were stolen and passed off as the genuine article.

Similar practices remained in force for the next several centuries, with various body parts touted as curing all manner of ailments.

To this day, there is really only one form of widely socially acceptable cannibalism: The consumption of the placenta after birth. This shares some characteristics with the cannibalism of the previous centuries in that some believe it to have a positive medicinal effect. The science is still out on if it actually works.

There are also instances of survival cannibalism that often makes history or headlines. The stories of the Donner Party or the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes catch in our collective imaginations because they show the lengths we will sometimes go to in order to survive.

They also illustrate the discomfort experienced at the thought of eating another human being, even when it's the difference between life and death.

WHY SO TABOO?

This might seem like a silly question, but as we’ve seen looking at nature, certain species have been known to eat their own. So why does it feel so wrong?

According to Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, the answer is largely cultural. Aside from the cultural pressure, there are some sound medical reasons not to consume human flesh. We carry all manner of diseases that can be transferred through contaminated flesh — and this can be a problem in certain cultures that do partake in the practice.

The most famous example is an outbreak of a very rare disease called Kuru that devastated the Fore people of New Guinea. In the 1950s, researchers studying the Fore people found a mysterious disease within the population. Called the "laughing death," those afflicted would lose motor and emotional control before succumbing.

Medical anthropologist Shirly Lindenbaum eventually cracked the case, tying it to the practice of funerary cannibalism. The women of the Fore would consume the bodies of the deceased, particularly the brain, as a way of honoring them, and they would sometimes share the meat with their young children. Unbeknownst to them, the brain tissue had prions, twisted proteins, which survive cooking and are passed on to those who consume them. The effects are similar to mad cow disease and are fatal once contracted.

Thankfully, the Fore people discontinued the practice of consuming the dead and the outbreak was declared over in 2012.

Cannibalism has a long, commonplace, and complicated history in the human story, one that continues even now, but it's probably best to avoid it. Just let the census taker test you. Order a pizza or something if you're hungry.