Summary: The recent discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada have shocked the world and exposed the brutal legacy of colonialism. However, for most of human history, such atrocities were common and accepted. This article argues that we should appreciate the human progress that has made us more sensitive to this suffering.

Revelations of graveyards containing the bodies of some 4,000 children from the First Nations in Canada have shocked the world. The dead were some of the 150,000 indigenous children sent or forcibly taken to residential schools meant to divorce the former from their birth culture.

The graves represent the injustice and misery of the past, but our reaction to them is proof of our advancement. In pre-industrial times, child deaths were so common that those graves wouldn’t have shocked anyone. In fact, a death rate of some three percent of children is low by historical standards. It was only in the past 50 or 60 years that the child mortality rate fell below 3 percent – even in rich countries.

The usual estimation is that half of all children died before adulthood in archaic societies, one quarter before their first birthday and another quarter before the age of 15, which is the end of puberty and our reasonable definition of becoming an adult. That seems to hold over all societies examined, including the Roman Empire, 18th century Britain, and all other groups of humans over time. (It is also, roughly speaking, true of the other Great Apes.)

This sorry state of affairs was brought to an end in three stages. The first stage was the discovery of infectious disease. John Snow, for example, showed that cholera cycled through the sewage and water systems. His discovery led to the single greatest aid to human health ever: the development of proper water systems, which provide fresh water and carry away sewage. Essentially, drains were the first step in reducing child mortality.

The second stage was the development of antibiotics. As late as 1924, an infected blister killed the U.S. President’s son. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that effective antibiotics were deployed at any scale. It took another decade to discover a treatment for tuberculosis, which was one of the great killers of the first half of the 20th century.

The third stage was the development of vaccines for common childhood diseases. Smallpox had been preventable since the 1790s with vaccination and through variolation before that. But polio remained a problem until the 1950s and measles into the 1960s. That last disease could, if unleashed against a population with no resistance at all, kill over 10 percent of people infected.

The combined effect of these discoveries – alongside better medical care, nutrition, shelter, and heating – has been a 100-fold reduction in youth mortality over the 20th century. The process isn’t finished yet. Far too many children still die due to a lack of access to clean water, antibiotics, and desirable immunizations. But those discoveries are all spreading, and, in that sense, the world is getting better at record speed.

In rich nations, such as Canada, Britain, the United States, the child mortality rate ranges from 0.5 percent to 0.8 percent – down from 50 percent in human history. A significant portion of the remaining mortality is due to accident, not disease.

This article is not meant to diminish the pain of losing a child or to suggest that pain was lighter in the past because it was reasonable to expect to lose a child. Rather, it is to point out how that loss is so much less common today.

Nor is it implying that the First Nations children in Canada were treated acceptably. Rather, the above data is meant to remind the reader that previous generations of humans would have found nothing strange at all about graveyards full of children. That we find them shocking today is proof of human progress.

Today’s expectation, an entirely reasonable one, is that any child born today will live between 70 and 80 years. We’re in the first two or three generations of humans who ever existed where the assumption of reaching adulthood is better than a 50/50 break. How can that not be thought of as progress?