There's a darkness in human beings—or at least, in some human beings—that manifests as a senseless urge to destroy just for the sake of destruction. From cutting down defenseless trees to killing innocent civilians, it's the motivation behind so many acts of evil.

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I want to touch a bristlecone pine before I die.

Bristlecone pines grow only in the Great Basin region of the American West. They live in arid, rocky soil just below the tree line, where most plants can’t survive. They’re not much to look at: stunted, twisted and gnarled, with only a few living branches among the dead wood. They barely seem alive.

But for all their humble appearance, they have a secret. Bristlecone pines grow extremely slowly, and because of this, they can live for a fantastically long time. Not counting clonal organisms, which are old only in a ship-of-Theseus sense, they’re the most ancient living things on the planet.

One especially ancient bristlecone pine, named Methuselah, has been dated by tree-ring core samples at 4,855 years old. It’s older than European arrival in the Americas, older than the English language, older than the Roman Empire, older than the Great Pyramid. It’s been patiently growing in its cold, windswept mountain fastness since Sumer and Egypt were young new civilizations.

However, while you can see other bristlecone pines, you can’t plan a pilgrimage to Methuselah. Its exact location is kept secret, to protect it from vandals who might want to break off a twig as a souvenir or carve their initials in its bark. There aren’t even any official pictures. It’s as if the tree is in witness protection.

Methuselah only gained its status after a tragic incident involving not vandals, but a scientific researcher.

In 1964, a graduate student in geography named Don Currey was working in a previously unknown stand of bristlecone pines on the isolated crest of a glacial moraine in the Great Basin. He wanted to know how old the trees were and so attempted to take a core sample of the trunk of a randomly selected tree in the stand to count the rings. But the core borers Don had brought along were too small to handle the immense trunk. After two borers broke off in the trunk, he asked the Forest Service for permission to cut the tree down so he could count the rings. Because the tree was (falsely) assumed to be dead, permission was granted.

The count was 4,862. Subsequent recalculations put the age somewhere north of 5,000 years.

Currey had found the oldest living thing in the world and killed it. He was sickened and devastated.

It was after the Forest Service was eviscerated for giving permission to cut the tree down that Methuselah was put under protection. Sadly, evidence suggests that their caution is warranted. Just this year, another famous tree met a tragic end.

A senseless act of destruction

A police investigation has been launched into the felling of one of the most photographed trees in the UK, the Sycamore Gap tree at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, which was found cut down on Thursday morning.

The world famous tree, voted English tree of the year in a Woodland Trust competition in 2016 and featured in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, is thought to have been deliberately felled.

Famous Sycamore Gap tree at Hadrian’s Wall found cut down.” Robyn Vinter, The Guardian, 28 September 2023.

The Sycamore Gap Tree grew in Northumberland, in northern England, alongside the foundation of Hadrian’s Wall. It stood between two hills that framed it dramatically against the landscape, which made it one of the most photographed and most famous trees in the United Kingdom. It’s been a tourist destination, a backdrop for film shoots, a site for wedding proposals, a place for scattering ashes.

At the time of its destruction, it was at least 150 years old. Police have arrested two people in connection with the crime, though they haven’t said what they believe the motive was. On the slightly bright side, it’s possible the stump can be coppiced—that is, induced to grow new shoots—but even in the best case, it will take many decades before it’s anything like its original splendor.

This was a horrifying, senseless act. There are good reasons why people might want to topple a statue of a slave owner. But what offense can a tree commit?

Trees do so much for us. They bestow their gift of shade on all comers, asking nothing in return. They’re homes and food sources for birds and other animals. They clean the water and the air. Not least, they give us beauty. To use a poetic metaphor, they’re a balm for the spirit.

And that’s no small thing. Natural beauty has measurable beneficial effects on us. A famous study found that hospital patients who could see trees and greenery from their window recovered faster, with less pain and fewer complications. Time spent in nature also calms stress, anxiety and depression. If you’ve ever read a fantasy story about nature-loving elves dwelling among trees… well, it turns out we’re the elves.

The darkness in us

Human beings invent all kinds of creative reasons for hating each other. But it takes a special brand of malice to chainsaw a tree that can’t run away or fight back, for no reason other than the sheer joy of destruction. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the vandals targeted this tree because it was so beloved, because they wanted to revel in the anguish it would create.

There’s a darkness in human nature, and this is proof of it. The urge to cut down a tree, just because, is the same one that lies at the root of so much war and bloodshed.

It’s the impulse driving everyone who wants to stomp on an anthill, burn a book, throw a punch… or, on a larger scale, the Hamas terrorists who slaughter Israeli civilians, or the Israeli politicians who bomb Palestinian settlements in return. The perpetrators wrap their acts in rhetoric about God’s holy will, or the heroic struggle for freedom, or the defense of civilization against barbarism. But whatever justifications they point to, deep down, the real reason is this secret, savage urge to destroy.

READ: People of light and darkness

This is where some religious believers would start talking about original sin. They’d say this is proof that humans are depraved, that evil desires lurk in our souls. And while I wouldn’t argue the point when it comes to the perpetrators of these specific acts, there’s a difference between us, and it’s this: I don’t believe this urge exists in every human heart.

The overwhelming majority of people would never think of doing something like this. It wouldn’t even cross their minds. Indeed, the reaction to the news of the Sycamore Gap Tree was an immense outpouring of anger, grief and condemnation. Loving tributes to the tree poured in from all over the world.

Just the same way, I believe most humans are peaceful. The vast majority of people would never willingly point a gun at another human being and shoot. However, there are some who would. And just as it only takes one person to chop down a tree, it only takes a few people who want to fight to start a war.

Unfortunately, this isn’t merely a matter of finding the bad people and removing them from society. It’s more likely that the potential for violent behavior exists in everyone. It’s one shade in the almost infinite spectrum of outcomes that our genes can create.

It’s just that in most people, this trait never develops. As we grow and mature, we learn why violence is wrong. That moral knowledge becomes a deep-rooted part of our character, until it’s no longer even thinkable to do otherwise.

But sometimes, with the right—or wrong—combination of upbringing, culture and incentives, that bitter seed takes root and grows. The violence that still plagues our world is the consequence.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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