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Evolution Before Culture Took Over

aybala50's picture

We in this high culture think that we have evolved beyondcannibalism which in the past was much more prevalent than it is now. Accordingto one theory of evolution, species evolve up a scale in which humans are atthe top. Is it possible to move back on this evolutionary scale? Could humans,if put in the right conditions de-evolve? Several events in history suggestthat the answer could be yes, but at the same time the world is supposed to bemoving forward, not backward. Darwin argued that an environment a species isplaced in, if given enough time and the right circumstances, can lead to thatspecies evolving into something new. I would argue that the same concept couldwork to move a species backwards on an evolutionary scale.

In the present,most societies, especially the one we are presently in, view cannibalism as animmoral even unimaginable act. This does not mean that acts of humans eatingother humans do not happen. Going back in history cannibalism can be found inseveral parts of the world. The Donner Party, which consisted of severalfamilies and individuals, headed west in the United States to find a new life.Running into complications during this journey, the party ended up with limitedresources in a foreign land. The environment they found themselves in did notsuit their usual life. They were hungry, but there was no food, they were coldbut there was no warmth. Darwin would consider this situation as being in a newenvironment. It is possible, if these people could survive long enough, at thesame time reproducing, that they would create offspring that would eventuallyadapt to this new environment, creating characteristics that would aid in theirsurvival. In fact the problem was the lack of resources and time. Theenvironment was not stable enough to create this situation.

In turn I wouldargue that the people a part of the Donner Party fought to live by de-evolving.After running out of resources and with the winter cold not being able to findnew resources, many members of the Donner Party resorted to the act ofcannibalism. Since in today’s standards cannibalism is “bellow human”, thepeople who participated in this could be considered less than human. Theenvironment could have pushed these humans back on the evolution scale wherethey were more open to eating their own kind.

In an eventoccurring more recently in the Amazon, five members of the Kulina tribe wereaccused of murdering, butchering and eating a farmer. This particular tribe isclassified as an “isolated” tribe. Darwin’s theory of evolution requires acertain mixture of genes. The Kulina tribe consists of 4,500 members who speakcompletely different languages even amongst themselves (Moura). This newerevidence suggest that it is possible that not all humans have evolved to apoint past cannibalism. The lack of Kulina Indians interaction with the outsideworld could have resulted in the tribe members being not as evolved as the restof the world. Is this why the five members accused of cannibalism participatedin this gruesome act? There could be a different reason as to why both themembers of the Donner Party and the few members of the Kulina tribeparticipated in cannibalistic acts.

When thought aboutit the similarity between these two cases is the absence of a strong,opinionated, “modern” culture.  Themembers of the Donner Party were in an environment that lacked the usual socialpressures such as those that would disagree with cannibalism. Only people whowere in the same kind of distressing situation surrounded the members of theDonner Party. None of the members had the resources they needed, but they stillhad the instinctual, most basic human need of survival and so they ate.

In the secondscenario the humans that participated in cannibalism are a part of a tribe thathas been isolated from the “modern” world. They have not been exposed to themoral ideas of the surrounding world enough to make these moral ideas theirown. Also, it is reasonable to assume that the gene pool for this tribe has notbeen spread as widely as in many areas of the world. The spreading of genes tocreate new offspring is a part of Darwin’s idea of evolution.

De-evolution couldbe possible if put in the right environment as seen in the above examples, butis this what really happens when acts of cannibalism take place? The DonnerParty may have escaped social pressures and the members of the Kulina tribe whoparticipated in cannibalistic acts may be examples of where humans were beforea cultural evolution took over. Humans may have not evolved passed the point ofcannibalism. We are all still capable of eating one of our own, we are allstill instinctual animals, and we are, in this way, not superior to otherspecies on this planet.


De Moura, Helena. Amazon Indians Accused of CannibalizingFarmer. CNN. February

9, 2009. February11, 2009. <



Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution moving back?

"According to one theory of evolution, species evolve up a scale in which humans are at the top. Is it possible to move back on this evolutionary scale? Could humans, if put in the right conditions de-evolve?"

According to a non-foundationalist story of evolution, there isn't any "top." At least not without some culture that values certain things over others. In which case, the issue of cannibalism isn't actually about evolution or genes at all, but rather about culture? And about what "de-evolve" might mean in cultural terms? Or in terms of individual behavior? Is there a way to define "de-evolve" in non-foundationalist evolutionary terms? Might that help to define it culturally/individually?


Anonymous's picture


The Kulina do not practice cannibalism, and are disgusted by the thought of it. The Brazilian government has expressed its skepticism about the wild claim that any members of the Kulina community at Envira ate anyone. Making claims about cannibalism is an old strategy to make your enemies look savage, and that is probably what the farmers in that region of Acre were doing.

The claim that the Kulina "speak completely different languages, even among themselves" is not just wrong, it is not even an accurate report of the false news article, which claimed simply that Kulina men and women speak different languages. I can assure you, as someone who has worked with Kulina for years, and who speaks their language, that this is nonsense.