Anthropologists, pundits, armchair cultural critics (like me), and others sometimes offer an aspect or characteristic, usually singular, that separates the human species from other animals. (Note: humans are animals, not the crowning creation of god in his own image, the dogma of major religions.) Typical singular aspects include tool use (very early on, fire), language, agriculture, self-awareness (consciousness), and intelligence, that last including especially the ability to conceptualize time and thus remember and plan ahead. The most interesting candidate suggested to me is our ability to kill from a distance. Without going into a list of things we don’t think we share with other species but surprisingly do, it interests me that none other possesses the ability to kill at a distance (someone will undoubtedly prove me wrong on this).
Two phrases spring to mind: nature is red in tooth and claw (Tennyson) and human life is nasty, brutish, and short (Hobbes). Both encapsulate what it means to have to kill to eat, which is hardly unique to animals. All sorts of plants, insects, and microorganisms embed themselves in hosts, sometimes killing the host and themselves. Symbiotic relationships also exist. The instance that interests me, though, is the act of killing in the animal kingdom that requires putting one’s own body at risk in life-or-death attack. Examples falling short of killing abound, such as intimidation to establish hierarchy, but to eat, an animal must kill its prey.
Having watched my share of historical fiction (pre-1800, say, but especially sword-and-sandal and medieval epics) on the TeeVee and at the cinema, the dramatic appeal of warring armies slamming into each other never seems to get old. Fighting is hand-to-hand or sword-to-sword, which are tantamount to the same. Archer’s arrows, projectiles launched from catapults and trebuchets, thrown knives, spears, and axes, and pouring boiling oil over parapets are killing from a relatively short distance, but the action eventually ends up being very close. The warrior code in fighting cultures honors the willingness to put oneself in harm’s way, to risk one’s own body. Leaders often exhibit mutual respect and may even share some intimacy. War may not be directly about eating, since humans are not cannibals under most circumstances; rather, it’s usually about control of resources, so secondarily about eating by amassing power. Those historical dramas often depict victors celebrating by enjoying lavish feasts.
Modern examples of warfare and killing from a distance make raining down death from above a bureaucratic action undertaken with little or no personal risk. Artillery, carpet bombing from 20,000 feet, drone strikes (controlled from the comfort of some computer lab in the Utah desert), and nuclear bombs are the obvious examples. No honorable warrior code attaches to such killing. Indeed, the chain of command separates the execution of kill orders from moral responsibility — probably a necessary disconnect when large numbers of casualties (collateral damage, if one prefers the euphemism) can be expected. Only war criminals, either high on killing or banally impervious to empathy and compassion, would dispatch hundreds of thousands at a time.
If killing from a distance is in most cases about proximity or lack thereof, one further example is worth mentioning: killing across time. While most don’t really conceptualize the space-time continuum as interconnected, the prospect of choices made today manifesting in megadeath in the foreseeable future is precisely the sort of bureaucratized killing from a distance that should be recognized and forestalled. Yet despite our supposed intellectual superiority over other species, we cannot avoid waging war, real and rhetorical, to control resources and narratives that enable us to eat. Eating the future would be akin to consuming seed corn, but that metaphor is not apt. Better perhaps to say that we’re killing the host. We’re embedded in the world, as indeed is everything we know to be alive, and rely upon the profundity of the biosphere for survival. Although the frequent charge is that humanity is a parasite or has become as cancer on the world, that tired assessment, while more accurate than not, is a little on the nose. A more charitable view is that, as a species, humanity, as the apex predator, has expanded its habitat to include the entire biosphere, killing to eat, and is slowly consuming and transforming it into a place uninhabitable by us, just as a yeast culture consumes its medium and grows to fill the space before dying all at once. So the irony or Pyrrhic victory is that we while we may fatten ourselves (well, some of us) in the short term, we have also created conditions leading to our own doom. Compared to other species whose time on Earth lasted tens of millions of years, human life on Earth turns out to be exactly what Hobbes said: nasty, brutish, and short.