In the era prior to the cognitive revolution, fossil records suggest that humankind occupied a lower rung on the food chain. The incisor marks of apex carnivores on hominid skulls suggest that the human young were especially susceptible to predation.
The arrival of homo sapiens, it can be argued, changed the balance of power with the invention of tools, weaponry chief among them. The science of killing at a distance quickly became the hallmark of our species. The testosterone-driven aggression of our distant ancestors proved a useful adaptation in the protection of our human clans from external threats.
Having reduced the injuries involved with direct physical confrontation with our prey, our numbers increased. The children of mitochondrial Eve became migratory beings. Over millennia we covered the entire planet encroaching on the territory of other hominids, apparently eliminating all rivals with dispatch.
It is not difficult to imagine the outcome of those initial encounters between club-wielding Neanderthals and modern humans brandishing bows and arrows. This scene must have played out repeatedly since no other species of hominid has survived the onslaught of our rise to the apex predator.
In his book “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari presents a compelling case for the extinction of mega-fauna on both the North American and Australian continents coinciding with the migration of humankind to those continents. Since our appearance on the planet, our species has attempted to establish complete dominion over nature to guarantee our survival and the survival of our domesticated animals.
Humans have had a chilling effect on biodiversity. Nature continues to suffer the impact of our shortsightedness as proposed by Elizabeth Kolbert in “The Sixth Extinction.” The first five extinctions were natural catastrophes of biblical proportions, but the sixth will likely be self-inflicted. Soon, there may no game left to hunt.
As a result, we have turned upon ourselves. The essence of human-on-human atrocities staggers the imagination.
The 20th century endured two wars on a global scale that cost the lives of tens of millions. In the 21st century, armed conflicts still span the globe, and we inhabit a nation that appears to believe it possible to kill its way to peace. Meanwhile, we have achieved a new level of distance-killing, half a world away, where our anonymous victims are vaporized without our direct knowledge or consent.
Unfortunately, this is who we have always been, not who we have become. Only the efficiency of the technology has changed. The potential for our destructive tendencies has achieved a planetary scale.
Are we, as a species, courageous enough to contend with our demons? Will we ever possess the wisdom to beat our swords into ploughshares?
Listening to the students in Parkland, FL may be a crucial first step, because the very first of our enumerated rights in the Declaration of Independence is the right to life. By such a prominent placement, could the intent of the Founding Fathers have been any more clear? Any so-called “right” that unjustly impinges on our right to life must be limited, just as we place reasonable limits on liberty and speech.
It simply defies the faculty of reason that our society allows the sale of military assault rifles to all comers. We may never fully understand the sociopathy of mass shooters or how their minds can be so void of conscience, but until we do, the common good requires that we limit access to weapons of war that can, in a few seconds, deprive so many of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
These crimes are not committed by well-ordered militias.
We must never become a nation that shrugs off the slaughter of innocents in their classrooms as the cost of conducting business in the arms market. Otherwise, the irony of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” will have been lost, and we will need to ask in earnest, “What a piece of work is man?”