“Let my carcass rot where it falls”.
April 21, 2006 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Born To Rot. Living people are often deeply disturbed by dead people. Particularly when those dead people have only recently died and are rotting. But what’s the big deal? Are rotting things intrinsically gross? Why does it disturb us so? Is decomposition helpful in attaining greater spirituality, or is it proof of a Godless universe? [many images linked NSFW]
posted by stinkycheese (29 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your username is particularly apropos.

Rotting meat is repellent because we are evolved not to eat it; the stuff is often poisonous to us. Combine that nausea with the typical distress at seeing incomplete/maimed people, and the human propensity to project personality where none exists, and you get a very, very powerful 'yuck!' reaction.

It's so powerful, in fact, that it very likely has been one of the major driving factors in the creation of religion.

(Note: I did not read any of your links at all, and I don't plan to. Yuck.)
posted by Malor at 11:48 AM on April 21, 2006

Death (and what follows) repels us because all living things exist to stay alive and reproduce (or, at least, contribute to keeping the species alive.)

Rotting flesh repels us because it's very dangerous. It breeds disease.

Is it too much of a stretch to say that the first link might be evidence of the total pervasiveness of our celebrity culture--that getting oneself on camera must be acheived, even if it's only after death?

The "spirituality" link is broken.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 11:54 AM on April 21, 2006

I have to say that the "Argument from Physiological Horrors" is definitely not one of atheism's better ones. Still, we hardly need it when there are so many absolute killers. For example, the "Argument From Not Believing Obviously Batshit-Demented Nonsense Supported Neither By Evidence Nor Reason." That one's much stronger.
posted by Decani at 11:55 AM on April 21, 2006

Corrected link for "sprituality". Sorry about that.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:58 AM on April 21, 2006

Nice post!
posted by erebora at 11:59 AM on April 21, 2006

If I can oversimplify for a second (ahem), it seems to me that the evolutionary explanations for the origins of "universal" or "near-universal" behaviors (such as revulsion over rotting cadavers, and disregarding pathologies) in people are only surprising to people who have been taught that there is no such thing as "human nature" and that all human behavior is therefore learned behavior.

Conversely, if you have some understanding of the processes of natural selection, and how adaptive behaviors arise and are selected for, such "universal" behaviors don't seem quite as mystifying.

While I agree that the physical processes of death and dying and decomposition and of our emotional reactions to the attendant sights, sounds and smells may be endlessly fascinating in an abstract sense, the reality to me seems rather prosaic - the smell of rotting flesh is "abhorrent" to us humans precisely because we have evolved to find it so, for example.
posted by kcds at 12:01 PM on April 21, 2006

Everyone should read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. It's a *great* book.
posted by mrbill at 12:02 PM on April 21, 2006

This is a really nice post, by the way.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 12:03 PM on April 21, 2006

kcds, please. Take a moment to consider what you're saying. You're saying that humans find X to be repulsive because they evolved to find X repulsive. Tell me, how is this an explanation? How can it be verified? How can it be tested? How can we isolate possible correlative influences? How do you distinguish between evolutionally constructed and socially constructed behaviors? Really, it seems like you're just arguing by assertion. You might as well say humans find X to be repulsive because that's how God made them.

What actually is interesting is that the various social taboos against fucking around with corpses are really not so clear. The Greeks especially had some interesting ideas about necrophillia.
posted by nixerman at 12:16 PM on April 21, 2006

Beethoven's gone, but his music lives on,
And Mozart don't go shopping no more.
You'll never meet Liszt or Brahms again,
And Elgar doesn't answer the door.
Schubert and Chopin used to chuckle and laugh,
Whilst composing a long symphony,
But one hundred and fifty years later,
There's very little of them left to see.

They're decomposing composers.
There's nothing much anyone can do.
You can still hear Beethoven,
But Beethoven cannot hear you.

Handel and Haydn and Rachmaninov
Enjoyed a nice drink with their meal,
But nowadays, no one will serve them,
And their gravy is left to congeal.

Verdi and Wagner delighted the crowds
With their highly original sound.
The pianos they played are still working,
But they're both six feet underground.

They're decomposing composers.
There's less of them every year.
You can say what you like to Debussy,
But there's not much of him left to hear.

Claude Achille Debussy-- Died, 1918.

Christophe Willebald Gluck-- Died, 1787.

Carl Maria von Weber-- Not at all well, 1825. Died, 1826.

Giacomo Meyerbeer-- Still alive, 1863. Not still alive, 1864.

Modeste Mussorgsky-- 1880, going to parties. No fun anymore, 1881.

Johan Nepomuk Hummel-- Chatting away nineteen to the dozen with his mates down the pub every evening, 1836. 1837, nothing.

posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:17 PM on April 21, 2006

Yes, rotting things are intrinsically gross. I find them so intrinsically gross that I know better than to click on any of the links you provided.

I agree, mrbill, that Stiff is probably a good book. The first three chapters that I made it through were well-researched and well-written. Unfortunately, I found the subject matter so--for lack of a better term--gross, that I literally vomited. I guess that the printed word is pretty powerful for me.
posted by leftcoastbob at 12:28 PM on April 21, 2006

Hygiene theory.

(The first link is a nifty 'quiz')
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:31 PM on April 21, 2006

A propos the last link: C. S. Lewisused to say that the fear humans have of dead things is an indication that our souls desire something more or different, and that a body without something animating it isn't really 'human' to us. This makes some sense to me.
posted by koeselitz at 12:43 PM on April 21, 2006

nixerman, I think what kcds said is so obviously true that I'm mystified by your confusion about it. Rotting flesh smells bad because if we eat it we may get very sick and even die. If we didn't get sick from it the smell itself wouldn't seem bad. Same with acrid tastes that may signal other poisons, just like pain is useful to alert us that we are injured or ill. As we evolved the humans who perceived bad smells, and so avoided eating poisons lived and reproduced. What's so confusing? It's the very basis of Darwinism, just the opposite of 'god just made me so'.
posted by tula at 1:10 PM on April 21, 2006

i've always attributed our distaste with corpses to the basic human psychology that when faced with death, we are reminded of our own fragile mortal coils. Our revulsion with rot is, as said repeatedly above, a reaction to something that could poison to us.

Aa to whether it is an evolved or learned response, i know not.
posted by quin at 1:23 PM on April 21, 2006

posted by Artw at 2:13 PM on April 21, 2006

The webcam on seemerot.com is fake, by the way. It's just an animated GIF which occasionally blurs to look like a jaggy video feed.
posted by brownpau at 2:51 PM on April 21, 2006

Maybe part of what bothers us when we see a rotting corpse is that if it had the same appearance and were alive it would be in a lot of pain.
posted by obol at 3:06 PM on April 21, 2006

This is a nice and well put together post. Thank you. I looked at most of the links, including the rotting pig and the coffin cam.

The webcam on seemerot.com is fake, by the way. It's just an animated GIF which occasionally blurs to look like a jaggy video feed.
posted by brownpau at 5:51 PM EST on April 21 [!]

posted by marxchivist at 3:14 PM on April 21, 2006

Conversely, if you have some understanding of the processes of natural selection, and how adaptive behaviors arise and are selected for, such "universal" behaviors don't seem quite as mystifying.

kcds, I couldn't have said it better myself. There are plenty of examples of this - E. O. Wilson pointed out a near universal fear of serpents in one of his books as being an example of evolutionary behavior. Good stuff.
posted by wfrgms at 3:37 PM on April 21, 2006

I'm deeply disturbed by the rotting people who moved into our neighborhood. Bad for property values. I'm sending a petition around to get them the hell out.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:12 PM on April 21, 2006

But Beethoven cannot hear you.

Not suprising, dude was deaf.
posted by Sparx at 4:15 PM on April 21, 2006

Our revulsion with rot is, as said repeatedly above, a reaction to something that could poison to us.
posted by quin

Time for me to clean the refrigerator. While the gloopy stuff inside may not poison me, it is still revolting. (It is so revolting, in fact, that I thought I heard a long dead cucumber yell, "Viva la revolucion!" the last time I opened the fridge door.)
posted by leftcoastbob at 4:22 PM on April 21, 2006

Nixerman: one area of study to see if something is learned or instinctive is with children, before they've had much chance to learn behaviours from their parents. Our treatment of human excretion, and our general repulsion for it appears to be a learned behaviour, interestingly enough. Very young children have no fear of poop at all, yet most adults consider human waste disgusting; and who wasn't revolted by that toilet in Trainspotting? Presumably we learned to avoid human waste because of the disease aspects, but it's not really an evolved 'built-in' behaviour, though there's some evidence the reaction to the smell might be. More on that later.

Death is more difficult to examine with children, since there's ethical problems with putting them with rotting corpses and seeing what happens. Non-rotting corpses is another matter. I highly recommend body worlds (NSFW) - people often go in with revulsion, but it rapidly becomes fascination. The 'plastinated' dissected bodies and body parts are very strange, and beautiful. Pictures don't really do them justice - and I have to admit, seeing the inside of clotted arteries, and the effect smoking has on your lungs, really does make you want to change your lifestyle.

The question remains though - why are rotting corpses disgusting on the visceral level? I think it is partly learned behaviour, as young children don't really fear death or corpses, they don't understand them. Children have far less exposure to death than they used to, but children on farms soon learn that death is a natural part of life, and fear it a lot less. The smell of decomposition though - wow, that affects everybody. Just waft the smell of a piece of rotting meat near anyone, young or old, and they don't like it. You can learn to tolerate it, to a point, but it's a smell that even young children have a strong negative reaction to - which indicates some form of biological evolved reaction to the nasal cue.

Scents have a big impact on our actions, including subconcious ones. Pheremones for example, or that smelling a scent improves recall of other memories when later smelling the same scent (a useful trick in exams!) It's fairly conclusive from the study excerpts I've seen that scent is a powerful influence on our subconcious behaviour, often more so than visual cues.

Some animals, such as cats, avoid rotting corpses unless they have no other choice. Other animals specialise in scavenging, and go miles to head straight for the scent of a rotting corpse. Since we're not particularly good at handling infections from diseased flesh - like cats - it's logical to assume our revulsion is a biological imperative. We can overcome that, just as we can overcome other imperatives like lust or fight/flight, or we can reinforce it with social training, but that doesn't mean it's not also an instinctive behaviour.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:24 PM on April 21, 2006

Um.... where are we getting this idea of a universal repulsion to rotting flesh? Or the idea that rotting flesh is automatically deadly? I love me some aged Angus beef, but my uncle says it tastes like rot to him. There's lots of examples of variation in the treatment of rotting flesh, for those of you who don't consider "aging" to be the same as "rotting":

anecdotal: my advisor was offered rotting meat while in the field (which she ate, since that's the only food there was. She was grossed out but unharmed. Those offering were not grossed out in the slightest... this was a specific preparation technique that included letting the meat rot).

ethnographical: I'm reading an ethnography that describes a sorcery divining technique that includes letting a person's body rot for several days and then having the accused shake it. There's nothing about anyone being particularly squeemish about or repulsed by this activity.

primate models: A primates prof once told us that a chimp will care for her dead baby for a few days after it dies, trying to revive it. Eventually, the mother may eat it. This happens after the baby is decomposed enough that it is no longer identifiable by smell or sight as a chimp baby. The mothers who have been observed to do this do not die from the rotted meat.

In fact, several of the links themselves suggest that many people are not revolted by death or decomposition, but rather fascinated by it. The first link says "Feb 2006, We WON our legal battle! We have resumed the right to install and broadcast live cams from the grave- ...", which suggests to me that there are a large number of people who want to look at this kind of thing (regardless of whether the cam itself is fake or not).

It also seems rather unlikely that early humans would fail to notice and communicate the dangers of a food source long enough for natural selection to weed out everyone without an intrinsic aversion to the dangerous substance. We can observe monkeys with (relative to us) pretty small brains (proportionally) who teach their young about which foods to eat and how to get those foods. Are we going to accept that much more advanced thinkers would simply ignore the fact that everyone who ate a rotting corpse died for hundreds of generations? That they would never run up to a child and slap their hand away (pre-language) or say "No! Bad!" (post-language) if they went for a deadly food source? I find it hard to imagine.
posted by carmen at 4:56 PM on April 21, 2006

I'm a Wendell Berry fanboy, and one of the things I find really interesting about him is a balance between Christian imagery and themes that you'd expect from his Southern Kentucky roots and the transcendental naturalism. You read enough of his work, you spend enough time napping or even walking in the shade of some trees out of doors and suddenly, it's not too hard or even violent to think of your body resting, then stopping, then ceasing to maintain itself as a structure. then breaking down into constituent parts which other life uses for other things. This is, of course, another way of describing "rot" -- but with a different set of aesthetics than a living animal has.

And if you can adopt it, I think that while thought of laying down living agendas and plans and loves still is distressing, it's less dark and more, simply, quiet. I've heard this is very buddhist -- letting the sense of self not so much fade as become merged with other things, and even from a strictly materialist standpoint, this would seem to be a fair description of what actually happens (unless you go the mummification/preservation route).

Of course, Berry tends to talk more about plants. The idea of getting munched on by carnivores or scavengers isn't peaceful at all. And microorganisms and parasites aren't that reassuring either.
posted by weston at 6:15 PM on April 21, 2006

The unadulterated smell of human decay stays with you for hours after you first encounter it, which only compounds and prolongs your distress. It's as if the thickly pungent organic nature of it clings to the hairs in your nostrils. It makes such an impact on your psyche I think it would be recognized in an instant even if encountered many decades later.
posted by CynicalKnight at 6:56 PM on April 21, 2006

the stinkymeat project is also rather entertaining
posted by Sharcho at 5:17 AM on April 22, 2006

posted by nlindstrom at 2:16 PM on April 25, 2006

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