Cannibalism and Sex: Shared Standards of Social Disgust

Steven J. Scher, Matthew Vlasak, and Chris M. White
Eastern Illinois University

In 4 studies conducted to explore the evolution of the cannibalism taboo, participants were asked to judge which targets would be more disgusting to cannibalize. Results support a disease avoidance hypothesis, suggesting that the cannibalism taboo evolved because eating members of one's own species provides a greater risk of disease, and an inclusive fitness hypothesis, suggesting that people avoided cannibalism because it presented a risk of killing genetic relatives - although none of the evidence is conclusive. Two further studies confirmed an observation that the most disgusting targets to eat were those most disgusting for sexual intimacy (correlations greater than .90). This suggests that a general mechanism may be involved in the cannibalism and sexual taboos. We speculate that this mechanism may have evolved for one purpose, but been subsequently adopted for the other purpose (i.e., exaptation). These findings have implications for the study of the evolution of taboos, for the psychology of disgust, and for the nature of evolved psychological mechanisms. It is suggested that these findings question some assumptions of the dominant approach to evolutionary psychology (cognitive adaptationism or narrow evolutionary psychology).

E-mail Steve Scher to request a preprint (

Return To Steve Scher's Vita