Cannibalism, So What?

My second thread, and in the same day too, what cheek.
So, I’ve thought about this for a while. Given the condition of the world in the sci-fi “classic” Soylent Green, what is the moral/ethical status of cannibalism? To state it more simply, the world (in the movie) is suffering from massive overpopulation/pollution. Isn’t it more immoral to waste the resources of a human body (100+ lbs of food) by disposing of the body in traditional fashion (burial, cremation) than it is to break the cultural taboo of cannibalism? Furthermore, given that the bodies in question are voluntary suicides, isn’t there nobility in giving oneself up for food? (I’m unsure of whether those people taken by the “Scoops” were made into Soylent Green.


A plot summary can be found here:

This may have nothing to do with anything and I may be way off the mark, (Wow! perfect for great debates, eh? :rolleyes: ) but is not cannibalism dangerous as witnessed by the recent outbreaks of Mad Cow disease?

I hear that Mad Cow is caused by animals eating themselves. (my cite is my mother, if I find a more reputable one, I’ll post it :slight_smile: ) Cows eating ground up cows, pigs eating ground up pigs, etc. It naturally follows that people eating people would result in a widespread plague, no?



It’s true, Foot and Mouth disease is thought to caused by feeding ground up livestock to other livestock. And there is at least one disease that has evolved to take advantage of human cannibalism: kuru, also know as the laughing sickness. Uncle Cecil mentions it in a columm here:

Foot and Mouth? Or Mad Cow? From what I’ve read, it’s true for mad cow disease but foot-and-mouth is a virus which can’t survive in the tissue after rigor mortis occurs, due to the pH changes. And it can be carried by human/inanimate vectors and on the air, provided temps and pH are suitable. But then again, I’ve just looked into it so I’m bound to have missed something.

As for eating people - I would think if they are properly cooked, they’d be safe to eat. I’ve not seen a case reported in the news anyway where someone got sick from eating a properly cooked hamburger or steak. Of course, there’s just something disturbing in imagining your best friend on a platter on your table.

Now, in a situation like Alive, all bets are off…

Welcome, that_darn_cat.

First things first – Soylent Green isn’t, to my mind, a classic. It’s based on Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room, Make Room!, which arguably IS a classic. Ain’t no cannibalism in MRMR – Soylent Green is foodstuff made of SOYbeans and LENTils. The cannibalism angle was made up by the film-makers, and Harrison – one of the SF greats – has complained about the bastardization of his work numerous times. According to him, the actors were asking about it, too.

There are people who question whether institutional cannibalism has ever really existed (as opposed to survival-situation cannibalism, a la the Donner Party). One book on this is ** The Man-Eating Myth**. Others, however, argue that it certainly has, and that it has been the basis for civilizations. One of these is Marvin Harris, in his books Cannibals and Kings and Good to Eat. I’m a big fan of Harris.

None of the situations the books describe resemble the “altruistic” cannibalism of the film Soylent Green (yep, Edward G. Robinson and the others who voluntarily suicided WERE made into patties in the film. That’s the point of that chase near the end – to show you the process). Cannibalism for nourishment (rather than ritual purposes) seems to have been an unfriendly action in most cases. It’s hard for me to defend such a system, which Harris argues the Aztecs had. Killing people for meat is nasty.

On the other hand, self-destruction to provide food looks benevolent, except I suspect that the pressure put upon people to perform this service would look pretty nasty. It doesn’t in the film, but read the books of T.J. Bass (for one) to see what it could look like.

Finally, I could see how this could provide a new and nasty way for diseases to spread, as you say. Just another argument against the practice.

jarbabyj wrote:

Mad Cow Disease, more properly called Bovine Spongiform Encephalitus (BSE), only seems to be spread by eating the brain matter of the infected cow/pig/person. Eating the other parts of the critter seems to be safe, BSE-wise.

There was an episode of Nova on PBS a couple of years back about BSE, which featured an African tribe that practiced cannibalism (they ate members of their own tribe that had died of natural causes). They did, indeed, seem to have a BSE-like disease running through their community, but only among the women and children. It was then discovered that when a dead person was eaten, the adult males of the tribe got to eat the “good” parts, while the women and children had to make do with the “leftovers”. The brain was among those “leftovers” eaten by the women and children.

Similarly, when cows are ground up and fed to cows, the whole cow is put through the meat grinder. Had the brain been scooped out first, Mad Cow Disease would not be the threat it is today.

Health reasons aside, the taboo’s a sticky wicket. I used to think sure, why not. In that abstract, I still don’t have a moral problem with it. But one night I had a really graphic dream wherein I made soup from the head of a corpse, and after that, well, I admit, my stomach turns at the thought.

Of course, there are cultures where cannibalism serves an important ritual function. I wonder if they are still creeped out by it, but do it because they feel there’s something spiritual to be gained from it. If not, maybe cannibalism could become a widespread practice, but I think it would take a major cultural shift, generations of deconditioning.

The problem in Soylent Green was that the populace wasn’t informed what they were eating, and if I’ve heard right (I haven’t seen the movie) they were deliberately mislead into thinking it came from plankton or something. That’s immoral, even ignoring the cannibalism issue.

How about grinding people up and using them for fertilizer instead of burial or cremation? You’re still recycling some of their biomass, but it’s one step away from the taboo.


Whoops, slip of the brain. I meant Mad Cow, not Foot and Mouth.

Anyway, any response to the OP?

Cal That’s why “classic” was in quotes. :slight_smile:

I may have to check out Marvin Harris.

super_head wrote:

If Mad Cow Disease (BSE) does indeed enter the human population, then cannibalism – at least of the brain tissue – will be an absolute no-no. No amount of cooking can destroy the prion molecules thought to be responsible for BSE, without reducing the rest of the proteins to ash as well.

Given that the OP is concerned with the moral/ethical issues, I’d have to say that if people volunteered to be eaten in large enough numbers to make a difference, the world population would probably drop quickly back down to the numbers the planet is capable of supporting. You’d have to slaughter millions of people a day to feed billions of people. The process would, literally, feed on itself until it was no longer necessary. Thus, those who volunteered would be sacrificing themselves for a foreseeable goal.

The version of “mad cow” disease (not hoof and mouth disease) that humans get is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

Here’s a transcript of the NOVA that Tracer was talking about.

It wasn’t Africa, it was the Papua New Guinea “kuru” thing.

Mmmm, SOY LENT(ils) green. With extra butter please.

Ethilrist That was my thought, that the process would solve the problem far more than the actual impact of the extra food.

tracer IIRC, kuru is a prion as well, but only exists in brain matter. So, if we toss the brains and cook the rest, are we golden?

Podkayne I agree, not tellling people is immoral. However, is it more immoral to let people starve, or to fee (volantary) suicides to them on the sly?

Trivia : - Years ago, I heard Harry Harrison speak at an SF con in Britain, and he related the following anecdote :
At a cinema where they were screening Soylent Green the cinema manager had the bright idea of relabelling thr Slurpies as ‘Soylent Red’, ‘Soylent Blue’ and (you’ve guessed it) ‘Soylent Green’. He noted that a significant portion of the audience looked more than averagely nauseous when they exitted after the film :D.

Don’t they call it the World’s Oldest Taboo?

I saw an episode of History’s Mysteries not too long ago on cannibalism. The Papua New Guinea (btw, I just love that name-Papua New Guinea. It just sounds cool) tribe that contacted kuru ate only those who died of natural causes. They wouldn’t show symptoms of kuru until years later.
An elderly lady said that they would let the flesh rot until maggots were there…ick.
Thanks, but no thanks.

Here’s a site especially for you, that_darn_cat:

I believe it’s just a joke…but what if it isn’t???

that were supposed to be cannibals were the Carib indians. Supposedly their name is the actual root of the word cannibal. According to the Spanish (an unbiased source, I know) the Caribs actually preferred eating folks from neighboring tribes.

Personally, I can’t see eating people. Think of looking into a stewpot and seeing a hand, ear, or some other recognizable bit bubble up to the surface.

Just my 2 cents worth.



That’s a false dichotomy. You can give people the informed choice to starve or to be cannibals. Under extreme circumstances, many people have chosen option B in the past, but if people choose to starve rather than eat human flesh, they have that right. If I were starving, I believe I’d plug my nose and eat corpse, but I would be extremely offended if I was tricked into it.

This doesn’t square well with the ban on importation of meat from areas with hoof and mouth. I also understand that the suspected route to england was through a restaurant which used smuggled meat from the far east and sold its left overs to someone who used them as pig slop. Apparently the slop was not heated to a sufficient temperature to kill the virus.