A new bestseller delves into the history and science of books bound in human skin, NPR reported. Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives traces the origins of the books, how they’re tested, and more. Why do humans commit morbid acts?
According to NPR, a recently released book explores a dark side of bookbinding: anthropodermic bibliopegy, which means books with human flesh for their covers. “Driven by an engine of curiosity, Rosenbloom moves through history at a brisk pace, bookending each chapter with excellent hooks and cliffhangers, all of which makes for propulsive reading,” the article said.
Most of the books were bound by “gentleman doctors,” the article explained, and their covers came from unwitting cadavers. “A species of reparative writing, Dark Archives excavates the hidden stories stitched into the binding of anthropodermic books and, in doing so, restores some humanity to victims of medical exploitation.”
Why do humans have such dark impulses? Murder is a perfect example. Why do we kill—nature or nurture?
Making a Killing
Dr. Daniel Breyer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, said that a classicist named Walter Burkert coined the Latin phrase Homo necans, or “the killing human.” Burkert also made a compelling hypothesis for murder—more specifically, ritual sacrifice and how it may tie into our evolution from a hunting culture.
“Burkert’s evolutionary hypothesis is that ritual sacrifice originated in our early attempts to resolve the tension between our social nature and our predatory nature—the tension between the sphere of the home and the sphere of the hunt,” Dr. Breyer said. “In acts of sacrifice, Burkert argues, humans domesticated and ritualized the violence and aggression of the hunt so that our destructive and violent tendencies could express themselves ‘harmlessly’ in society.
“Burkert’s account is masterful and fascinating, but it goes well beyond our scope into details about ancient Greek religion that we can’t explore.”
Dr. Breyer said that most importantly, Burkert’s hypothesis says that we have two separate natures—one geared towards the social and one geared towards survival. He also said that the idea that murder is a predisposition in most or all of us is referred to as a dispositional model. The other side of that coin is the situationist model.
“According to situationism, the internal factors that contribute to violent behavior matter less than the external factors,” he said. “Perhaps the most ardent proponent of situationism is Philip Zimbardo, who is most famous for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971.”
In this experiment, male undergraduates of Stanford University made a simulated prison out of an unused basement in the college. Nine students were randomly chosen to play guards while another nine played prisoners. The experience was made as real as possible, complete with arrests, fingerprinting, delousing, and the assignment of an ID number to replace their name.
“What happened surprised even Zimbardo,” Dr. Breyer said. “Although prisoners and guards were assigned their roles randomly and not based in any way on their personalities or interests or preferences, everyone settled into their roles rather quickly.”
On the first night, guards decided to harass the prisoners by waking them up at 2:30 in the morning, insulting them, and making them perform dehumanizing tasks. On the second day, the prisoners rebelled by barricading themselves in their cells, only to be flushed out by guards with fire extinguishers who put them in solitary.
“As the guards exercised their control, the prisoners became more submissive, and the guards became more aggressive, demanding strict obedience,” Dr. Breyer said. “Things continued to deteriorate. And so, although the experiment was supposed to last for two weeks, Zimbardo terminated it after six days, because the guards’ abusive behavior continued to escalate, and prisoners began to break down emotionally, growing seriously despondent, extremely anxious, and increasingly confused about their identities.”
Both the dispositional and situationist models that seek to explain violent behavior have their merits. The exact psychological trait that enables one to wrongly take a life—or use someone’s skin as a book cover—remains an unsolved mystery.
Dr. Daniel Breyer contributed to this article. Dr. Breyer is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, where he also serves as the director of the Religious Studies program. Dr. Breyer received a BA in Classics from the University of Montana, an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College, and a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University.