If we are going to free ourselves from our mental schemas, the first task is to understand what they are. Since we're talking about history and the past, the first thing to do is take a look at how we conceive of the passage of time over the course of human history. Well, it is quite obvious how we tend to see our history: we see evolution as being a process of improvement.
However, a biological phenomenon is a physical phenomenon, like everything else in the universe. Biological evolution is the change over time of a physical system, and it has nothing at all to do with improvement. Giraffes with longer necks are neither better nor worse than the shorter-necked giraffes that came before them. The trees that giraffes eat grew taller, provoking change.
Such a system interacts with itself, and maybe the trees will eventually develop thorns so as to be less appetizing. But the resulting new trees will not be better. When something evolves over time, which in physics means it simply changes, if the original state is known, it is in principle possible to calculate the new state at a later time. This does not mean improvement; nor does it mean decline. All it means is change, by virtue of the forces to which something is subjected. Does this also hold true for human beings? Yes, because evolution does not in itself entail the concept of improvement.
Man is a biological, and thus physical, system, and as such there is no scale that measures improvement. Only when we refer to meta-physical concepts, can we justify the notion of the "improving" man. Thus the evolutionary "progress" of a creature as he becomes ever less hunched and hairy and less ape-like is potentially misleading; modern human evolution biologists consequently avoid using this concept, but it is used in museums and children's books.
Even more dangerous, we tend to assign evolution the time scale of our own past, thinking of our ancestors as being less evolved beings. Are we more evolved, say, than the Similaun Man? How many of us would have the courage to say no? Yet look at him: he is perfect in terms of his own needs and the technology required to fill them. If we take the same copper he used to make an ax, it is very unlikely that we could make one better than his. We would not be able to reproduce his flint knife without the proper training. And so on . . .
Technology progresses, and the scale that measures technology is absolute: a Pentium computer with a central processing unit of 2-gigahertz is literally billions of times better than one of those 286 processors from 1985. However, the purposes necessitating the technology do not progress at the same speed; in 1985 most computers were used only to write text and to manage small databases and simple graphics. Today, most computers are used only to write text and to manage databases and graphics (and also to navigate the Internet, an operation that hardly requires huge computing capacity, however). And though it would be impossible to convince a 286 processor to run a 2008 word processing program (and vice versa), the outcome does not change much. If I am good at writing, the result will be the same as in 1985; if I am not good, my writing will not be any better just because my processor is.
From this point of view, it becomes difficult to establish an evolution of any kind at any temporal scale (with the notable exception of gaming software, which invariably requires the latest and most powerful processors). Are we, for example, more evolved than in the mid-1960s, when we began planning the first trip to the moon? Today those images of the astronauts seem almost comical to us, as if they had been lifted from some low-budget science-fiction movie, all aglow with those green computer screens of earlier decades. However, we do not go to the moon anymore, and would we be able to put men on the moon today using the technology of 40 years ago?
Apart from the fact that it would be hard finding anyone willing to try, the answer is probably no. Who today knows how to program with the punch cards that were used back then? Who has the patience to wait an hour for a calculation that a cheap pocket calculator can do instantly? Let's admit it: it seems strange to us today that people managed to land on the moon in 1969. It is almost not to be believed (and in fact there are even people who are convinced the moon landing was a hoax). Perhaps in another 200 years it will be difficult to understand how they did it. Perhaps in, say, 4500 years it will be almost impossible. So what explanation might an archaeologist of the future invent to explain the motivation, the determination, the intelligence, and the sheer audacity that led astronaut Neil Armstrong and an entire civilization with him to set foot on the moon? Who is more "evolved", us or them?
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