As a general rule savage and semicivilized countries are more crowded proportionately to their saturation point than the civilized, and there results a greater contempt for human life. Its cheapness astounds white men on their first visit to the Orient, where, under native rulers, death is the penalty for so many trivial offenses. As we go back to our own ancestry we find similarly a greater and greater cheapness of life, until we reach the time when a man had to murder his neighbors or starve to death. The large numbers of executions for witchcraft a few centuries ago are almost incredible,* but they resulted from the very cheapness of life. In England there were two hundred offenses punishable by death,*
* Ferrero says: "Who could enumerate all the means invented by men to exterminate each other in turn, from the spear and the yataghan to shrapnel, from hemlock to prussic acid, from Greek fire to dynamite? Were we to try and calculate, even roughly, the number of human beings who have died a violent death at the hands of their own kind, even during that period alone which has elapsed since the dawn of history, the total reached would be undoubtedly monstrous. One of our ancestors' chief amusements consisted in the destruction of other men - the exterminating of other human beings. History is little more than an interminable series of murders, individual and collective, one more ferocious than the other".
It is a curious fact that crowded people frequently tolerate fatal habits and fatal superstitions, and they can be explained in no other way than as of some benefit to the species. This law of biology, by the way, is universal, and extends to such an extreme that now and then we find species survive only by the death of the parents at procreation. For instance, by natural selection, only those salmon survived which could go up the streams to the head waters, probably during the time that the ranges of mountains were being formed. Finally, the streams became so long and swift that not a single one reached the ocean alive. It is a popular error that self-preservation is the first law of nature, whereas, it is only a small part of the law, and at times self-destruction is necessary. Every habit exists because its ultimate use is for the species; if it is also good for the individual it is only because it permits him to care for the survival of the species. It is certain, then, that when we find fatal human habits, they must be useful to the species, as, for instance, the awful loss of life from serpents in India, due to the veneration and religious worship of these animals.* Surely the only possible reason for the survival of this custom, centuries old, must be getting rid of surplus men. It might be said that these few thousand deaths are not a drop in the bucket when compared to the 400,000,000 living yet; these deaths are merely one form of many fatal habits in dense populations. In savage life the king's spirit is supposed to be accompanied to heaven by those of the attendants slaughtered at his funeral - wives, slaves, and even his children.
* J. H. Long, Popular Science Monthly, July, 1893.
* "A great variety of methods of inflicting the death penalty has been devised by the inventive mind of man. There is the burning at the stake by the Romans, Jews, ancient Britons, Chinese and by the Spanish Inquisition; beating with clubs in Greece and many African countries; beheading by axe and block, the sword and the guillotine; blowing from a cannon, either by lashing the condemned to the muzzle or by thrusting him into it as a part of the charge; boiling in water, oil, melted sulphur, melted lead; breaking on the wheel; burial alive; crucifixion, a lingering method in which death was sometimes hastened by the thrust of a spear or a blow with a club; crudfrangium, inflicted on Roman slaves and Christian martyrs by laying the legs of the condemned upon an anvil and fracturing the bones with a heavy hammer; decimation, used upon mutinous regiments by shooting every tenth man; dichotomy or bisecting the body with a saw; dismemberment; drawing and quartering; drowning; exposure to wildbeasts; flaying alive; flogging; knouting; garroting; impalement; the "Iron Maiden"; "peine forte et dure"; poisoning; pounding in a mortar; precipitation from a great height; the rack; running the gauntlet; shooting; stabbing; stoning; strangling; suffocating." - Dr. E. A. Spitzka. Proceedings American Philosophical Society. 1908.