Mark Twain is a central figure in American literature. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his finest work, is the story of a journey down the Mississippi by two memorable figures, a white boy and a black slave. Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 and was raised in Hannibal, Missouri. During his early years, he worked as a riverboat pilot, newspaper reporter, printer, and gold prospector.
Although his popular image is as the author of such comic works as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Prince and the Pauper, Twain had a darker side that may have resulted from the bitter experiences of his life: financial failure and the deaths of his wife and daughter. His last writings are savage, satiric, and pessimistic. The following selection is taken from Letters from the Earth, one of his last works. It has been under the title The Damned Human Race and has been printed in numerous essay anthologies.
Did today’s newspaper feature headlines about people fighting somewhere in the world (Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa)? Most likely, it did. In the following selection, Mark Twain concludes that the combative and cruel nature of human beings makes them the lowest of creatures, not the highest. With scathing irony, he supplies a startling reason for humans’ warlike nature. The Damned Human Race
I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the lower animals (so-called), and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me. For it obliges me to renounce my allegiance to the Darwinian theory of the Ascent of Man from the Lower Animals; since it now seems plain to me that the theory ought to be vacated in favor of a new and truer one, this new and truer one to be named the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals. In proceeding toward this unpleasant conclusion I have not guessed or speculated or conjectured, but have used what is commonly called the scientific method. That is to say, I have subjected every postulate that presented itself to the crucial test of actual experiment, and have adopted it or rejected it according to the result. Thus I verified and established each step of my course in its turn before advancing to the next. These experiments were made in the London Zoological Gardens, and covered many months of painstaking and fatiguing work.
Before particularizing any of the experiments, I wish to state one or two things which seem to more properly belong in this place than further along. This, in the interest of clearness. The massed experiments established to my satisfaction certain generalizations, to wit: 1.
That the human race is of one distinct species. It exhibits slight variations (in color, stature, mental caliber, and so on) due to climate, environment, and so forth; but it is a species by itself, and not to be confounded with any other.
That the quadrupeds are a distinct family, also. This family exhibits variations (in color, size, food preferences, and so on; but it is a family by itself).
That the other families (the birds, the fishes, the insects, the reptiles, etc.) are more or less distinct, also. They are in the procession. They are links in the chain which stretches down from the higher animals to man at the bottom.
Some of my experiments were quite curious. In the course of my reading I had come across a case where, many years ago, some hunters on our Great Plains organized a buffalo hunt for the entertainment of an English earl. They had charming sport. They killed seventy-two of those great animals; and ate part of one of them and left the seventy-one to rot. In order to determine the difference between an anaconda and an earl (if any) I caused seven young calves to be turned into the anaconda’s cage. The grateful reptile immediately crushed one of them and swallowed it, then lay back satisfied. It showed no further interest in the calves, and no...