The evolution of killing: more skill but not more virtue.

My wife and I recently toured the Tower of London. Upon returning to the hotel, we commented to the doorman that the English were fond of dismemberment. With the rack in mind, he responded, “Yes, people used to be brutal.” Nodding and laughing, we agreed.

But, with our “were” and his “used to be,” we and our good doorman had made a common mistake. The three of us had relied on the comfortable assumption that we, broadly speaking, have changed for the better. We have not.

We are soaked in this presumption that we are not only the latest, but the greatest — in modern, faux-ambivalent terms, the “coolest”. Our self-congratulatory misuse of the word “evolved” is a testament to this fact, as is the arrogant and Marxist “arc of history”.

When speaking of ourselves we tend toward exaggeration. G K Chesterton cautioned against submitting “to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about;” because our opinions, particularly of ourselves, are highly suspect.

Anointing ourselves “evolved”, particularly in social matters, confirms Chesterton’s criticism. When we deem ourselves such, we who merely happen to be walking about are off base.

This is true because the concept of social evolution is bogus. There is a critical and fatal disconnect between social evolution pseudoscience and biological evolution. Biological evolutionary timetables indicate the emergence of anatomically modern humans about 200,000 years ago and the achievement of behavioral modernity at least 50,000 years ago.

In contrast, social evolution hinges on comparisons applied within the last two thousand years, a period that doesn’t register on real evolutionary calendars. Many arguments critical of tradition are guilty of the hokum of social evolution and the faulty assumption that we have not only changed, but recently improved.

Although ours, like every generation, fancies itself modern and unprecedented, particularly in goodness, we are no better now than our ancestors of two thousand or two hundred years ago. We have not evolved with respect to intelligence or goodness, much less greatness (aka “coolness”), and to assert otherwise is to confuse growth in technology with growth in virtue. If technological progress has done anything, it has allowed us to do more skillfully the wrong humankind has always done.

To some this may be obvious, but others may be surprised and disturbed by the idea. To the holdouts I offer the following survey of whom and how we kill. It shows that although we may not be worse, morally, we are certainly not better.

First, we still crucify. The Romans crucified in the first century AD and ISIS crucifies today. 

We still practice human sacrifice. The Phoenicians and the Canaanites made propitiatory human, and specifically child, sacrifices to the god Moloch. The Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayas did similarly. And in America, since 1973, we’ve sacrificed about fifty-eight million children to the god Autonomy.

We still poison. The Roman emperor Claudius was poisoned with mushrooms, allegedly by his dear Agrippina. In 1521, Ponce de Leon died of a wound from a poison arrow. In the middle of the 20th century, Hitler poisoned a million Jews with Zyklon B; Joe and Magda Goebbels poisoned their children; and the United States killed at least 129,000 people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, many of whom died of poisoning after the initial bomb blast. In 1995, sarin gas was used to kill twelve on a Tokyo subway and in 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium.

We still burn. In 64 AD, Nero nailed live Christians to poles, covered them in oil and set them on fire, creating long-lasting human torches. A few years later, hot oil was used to incinerate infantrymen at Jotapata, and again on Mt Tabor in the middle ages. In 1498, Florentines burned Savonarola and a few years later hundreds were burned at the stake in England. In the Second World War we used flame throwers on the Japanese and a few years later napalmed the Vietnamese.

Our tendency not to do less killing, but to do it more skillfully is not just apparent in retrospect. Consider bombing. In an impressively accurate bit of prophecy, George Bernanos wrote the following in his 1936 book, Diary of a Country Priest:

“The cleverest killers of tomorrow will kill without any risk. Thirty thousand feet above the earth, any dirty little engineer, sitting cosily in his slippers with a special bodyguard of technicians, will merely have to press a button to wipe out a town, and scurry home in fear – his only fear – of being late for dinner.”

With drones, we have “evolved” into better bombers.

Finally, we still dismember. In the first century AD, the Romans beheaded St. Paul and the Armenians skinned alive Bartholomew the apostle. In the late 1500s, many of Queen Elizabeth’s subjects were “hung, drawn and quartered” – drawn by horse on a hurdle, hanged until not quite dead, disemboweled through incisions made in the torso, genitals snipped, beheaded, and the rest of their body chopped into four parts. In the late 1700s, the Jacobins beheaded tens of thousands of people with their guillotine.

Now, in dilation and curettage abortions, we cut a human, limb by limb, until dead. And if the confession at the 5:57 mark of the seventh Planned Parenthood video is accurate, we still remove beating hearts and cut into faces to “get the brain”.

Although a just war defense may be made for some of the killing above, such a defense is non-responsive to the fact that we kill just as much, actually more, than we ever have.

When it comes to killing, we are not more virtuous. We are merely more technically skilled. We are better at killing, and at hiding the evidence, but this is not a moral evolution. No one is exempt from the fact that we are not socially evolved, and any effort to claim otherwise by way of nationality, education, wealth, political persuasion or otherwise is egotistical and a denial of our common fallen human nature.

This lack of growth in goodness and virtue is mirrored elsewhere. We are now better at both infidelity and intemperance. Pornography and websites promoting and enabling cheating have made us more skillful infidels. Ditto for temperance. In the middle ages, mead and honey wine did the trick, now we have beer, wine, vodka, bourbon, tequila, marijuana and a host of prescription drugs that allow us to get bombed in bespoke ways.

The arc of history is flat because we keep asking, “Can we?” instead of, “Should we?” We are not evolved in comparison to any generation of the last two thousand years, we are just more skilled at all the awful things we have always done. A little less congratulation and a little more introspection seems appropriate.

Steve C. Craig is a financial analyst who lives in Texas.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...