I would have liked to make this a post about a journal paper on the subject, but there aren't that many on the whole, and those I can find are all about the history, culture, and crimes of cannibalism. Not a single one that I can find deals with our feelings towards the practice.
On TruTV there is an article about cannibalism with emphasis on the criminal aspects of it, including many stories of famous cannibals.
The author of the article states that the exact origin of cannibalism is a mystery and will most likely remain so. I bring this up because the origin of cannibalism would seem to precede the onset of any feeling towards the practice. I obviously don't have any data to support a claim, but would venture a guess that cannibalism is at least as ancient as humanity. There are many other species of animals that practice cannibalism on occasion, and so it would be most parsimonious if cannibalism existed as humans evolved from our non-human ancestor. I mention this in this context only because it forces us to consider that the origin of the taboo is possibly as old as humanity as well, predating laws, religion, and other established moral codes.
Christianity (and other religions) is often invoked to explain the ultimate cause for people thinking that the practice of cannibalism is morally wrong. From the article:
the spread of Christianity is believed to have significantly diminished cannibalism worldwide.This of course begs the question why the Christians were against it in the first place. Christianity has been exemplary in hijacking moral instincts (and celebrations, traditions, myths, and rites), and it should be apparent that anti-cannibalism did not originate within the last 2000 (or 6000) years. (If you are of the
The article tells of the Donner Party survivors:
Half of the travelers perished before the remaining people eventually succumbed to their situation and began to feed on the flesh of the dead in an attempt to survive. The forty-six survivors were eventually rescued, however upon reaching civilization they were regarded as monstrous criminals and tried for their actions. The travelers served around six months before they were re-released back into their communities.And this reaction is not even the worst that survivors forced to cannibalize the dead have been subject to.
Even in the most extreme cases, the act of cannibalism is treated with scorn and disgust by many cultures and is sometimes punishable by social ostracization, institutionalization in a mental facility, arrest, incarceration or even death. Cannibalism is most commonly believed to be the epitome of savage behavior.Still, it begs the question. Can we form a solid hypothesis as to the fear of cannibalism? Or, let's say, is there a reason why we should distrust those with cannibalistic tendencies so much that it has become an instinct? The article continues
Most acts of cannibalism are, to a degree, motivated by a desire to express power or control over the victim. Cannibalism is the ultimate expression of dominance over another person. Aggression cannibalism includes acts of cannibalism that are motivated by feelings of hostility and/or fear, creating an overriding need to exert power, revenge or control over the victim by murdering and then consuming him.It should be clear from the examples above, and from the famous 1972 Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 which crashed in the Andes and whose survivors ate the deceased, that killing is not the issue. No one killed anybody, and yet the instinctive feeling is that it is still reprehensible to eat humans. It would thus appear that we cannot associate fear of cannibalism with fear of murder, and yet I will argue that we still can.
My own preferred guess is that as humans evolved to cooperate with each other, the negative side-effects of cannibalism (i.e. killing humans) was contrary to fostering good social relations. It may be that cannibalism does not necessarily imply murder, but it is enough that cannibalism is preceded by murder some of the time. If you know that a certain person is a cannibal, then it is better to be on the safe side an avoid him, as it could very well be that he won't sit around waiting for his dinner to die from accident or old age.
The fear of cannibalism is thus adaptive; those who tended to avoid known cannibals were also less liable to be killed and served. And they in turn had more offspring, as the natural selection story goes. Cannibalism is taboo because the instinctive fear of cannibalism is adaptive.
One could argue that there would be nothing wrong with eating the proteinaceous mass of flesh that would otherwise just be buried or cremated, if the cause of death was accidental or disease (provided this would not spoil the meat). But just maybe the diner would enjoy the cooking just a little too much, and start thinking about other means of acquiring more. A taboo makes sense in turns of upholding law and order in the early evolution of man.
Cannibalism is taboo because I am afraid that you would want to eat me.
For a taste of the flavor of human flesh, read this account by a guy who tried it.
Disclaimer: I want to emphasize that these reflections are to be considered hypotheses at best, and wishy-washy at the worst. I have proposed no way to test this hypothesis, which really is what would be needed in order for it to be called scientific in any sense of the word. It's really quite like most research in evolutionary psychology, if you think about it.