Mark Twain on the Inferiority of Humans to other Animals, and Its Importance in the Animal Rights Argument

“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.”

Mark Twain, the Damned Human Race

Although Mark Twain is widely read, not so widely read is one of his last essay works, Letters From the Earth, often titled in collections as the Damned Human Race, in which he summarized his views on Human Nature. They were not encouraging.

Using the daily newspaper as reference, he pointed out examples of human behavior (wars, domestic abuse, crime, greed, perversion) demonstrating that humans were not rational or as benign as they claim.

This in itself is nothing startling to many people who contemplate current events or history.
We know humans can be rotten. To err is human. But there is usually added to this a comforting proviso that while we do horrible things, we are still the best there is.
Even the most hateful fundamentalist religious adherent who believes that humanity has fallen from their creator and most shall burn in eternal hellfire will likely claim that they are still the highest achievement of the universe. In traditional Christianity, the natural world is regarded as the domain of Satan, and thus the reason a pact with the Devil can involve animal familiars or as in the case of Lycanthropy, the transformation into the stereotypically evil wolf.
During the Middle Ages and Inquisition period such a connection led to cats, dogs, roosters and other animals being tortured to make confessions in front of Church witch finders.

Likewise, the secularist will often make the distinction between human and animal while acknowledging a biological kinship, and fabricate a materialistic equivalent to the medieval Christian “Great Chain of Being.” Survival of the Fittest, Evolution, Progress.
Like the concept of demonic possession in Christian folklore, there is the Darwinian counterpart of Jekyll and Hyde, and the assumption that the most evil of human characteristics result from a primordial origin. Such a connection led to cats, dogs, roosters and other animals being tortured  in front of the secular equal to the clergy, the research scientist.

It is an ironic fact that the most stupid of human beings are often those who claim that humans are the most wonderful achievement in the universe, and usually due to some alleged intellectual greatness which they themselves claim to possess.
Mark Twain opined that a casual glance of human history and the daily news would actually show that humanity is the unreasoning and deranged animal and that by observing nonhuman behavior, the standards that humans claim  show  they  are categorically superior to other animals actually demonstrate the opposite.

He concluded that other lifeforms were the civilized ones, moderate in behavior, not greedy or excessively violent.
This work has resulted in Mark Twain being characterized as a misanthrope, which is usually defined negatively. But the writer was socially conscious, and commented about many of the issues of his day, including war and vivisection. Perhaps his bitter writing was merely a reflection of his experiences and disappointment after a lifetime of experiencing and studying human nature and its ill-effects.

The ideas he wrote about have considerable importance in animal rights. For the foundation of  every argument put forth in defense of systemic exploitation of nonhumans in farms, zoos, circuses, labs, or the wilderness is the belief that humans are categorically and empirically superior in value to other lifeforms. It is taken as axiomatic–something beyond question.
Even the animal rights side does not emphatically dismiss this belief, and are more inclined to base their efforts at persuasion on bolstering the value of nonhuman lives, not bringing humanity down to an equal level.

Evidence of this deranged state is the common tendency to slander other lifeforms and accuse them of being the true role models for evil.
The words humane and inhumane demonstrate this. To be kind is to be humane or human. To be cruel is to be inhumane or inhuman-nonhuman.
But as Twain realized:

“Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel.  He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.  It is a trait that is not known to the higher animals.”

I once encountered a man who said that the only thing that separates humanity from the other animals was the ability to make art.  I said we cannot be sure that a bird is always singing for some territorial or instinctual reason, it may well be a form of entertainment. I said what really separates humanity from other animals is the ability to be cruel and sadistic and take pleasure from knowing that you are causing suffering.
He protested, claiming that in observing his cat playing with a mouse, the cat seemed to enjoy the suffering he inflicted. I replied that it would truly be remarkable to discover that a cat not only thought about the physical and mental health of mice, but could then derive pleasure from destroying them as humans can and do. Perhaps they are also conscious of their own state of existence and have religion. I am more inclined to believe a bird can sing for entertainment than I am that a cat knows the suffering of a mouse. The evidence I would submit is that other cats do not gather around the cat to watch the mouse being tortured. Humans on the other hand have created great buildings to seat many thousands of their fellows to watch animals tortured to death. We have yet to find the type of egregious barbarity one observes in laboratories or cockfighting arenas (having two birds attack each wasn’t enough, they have to be fitted with sharp spurs and injected with drugs to make them more aggressive so they cause maximum damage to each other). No equivalent in the rest of nature.
In ancient Rome the Flavian Amphitheater, aka Coliseum, was constructed (by artists) for the sole purpose of accommodating various ways of killing. This included the slaughter of wild animals, the execution of war prisoners, the forced combat between children, the blind, the crippled, and acts of staged bestiality.

I told the man that he could not prove the cat was aware of the mouse’s suffering, but his observations revealed that in a characteristically human fashion he gained such entertainment value from watching the cat thus engaged that he could not bring himself to interrupt it.

I await proof that nonhuman animals have the equivalent of conducting learned helplessness experiments or urging a suicidal person to jump from a building or laughing at the disabled.

Humans are capable of mental torment, verbal abuse, and psychological torture. They can derive sexual arousal from suffering, as evidenced by the existence of Crush videos. In Ancient Rome prostitutes were said to have gathered outside the Coliseum to service spectators who became aroused by the violence within.

In animal rights discussions one encounters adversaries who are  so  smug and arrogant about their childish illusion of human superiority that they mock the suffering of nonhumans.
In such cases highlighting the endless examples of humans taking pleasure from the torture of nonhuman victims has little effect, however, if you cite examples of humans torturing other humans, you may generate some shame or embarrassment in them to counter the severe arrogance. All you need is access to a daily news source.
You can find endless examples of humans preying upon each other–injecting offspring with Aids viruses to escape alimony payments, chaining starving beaten children to beds or rooms for years until they become dysfunctional (usually treating them as they would a chained dog or laboratory specimen, but the human supremacist isn’t easily moved by such stories). Then there are the more exotic cases, like the gang of youths who deceptively sought aid from a mother and son only to force them to engage in a sexual act and then doused the son’s eyes with cleaning liquid as many a lab scientist has done to rabbits. Or parents having sex with babies.

One response to this factual assault is to highlight human altruism, including wildlife rehabilitation.
But we know that other species have been observed exhibiting what may be characterized as altruistic behavior, even across species, so this is not an exclusively human quality either.

Furthermore, mad experiments attempting to examine altruistic sentiments among captive animals have shown that even when tortured with electric shocks, nonhuman animals would not harm another to spare themselves.
By contrast the Milgram experiments demonstrated that not only were humans quite able  to harm another in similar circumstances, they were willing to do so merely to satisfy an authority figure.

And much of what we call human stewardship is actually damage control-attempting to correct mistakes caused by human action. Domestication, pollution, deforestation.

It is commonly the case that the animal rights advocate is accused of romanticizing nature, much as factions of the human supremacist-leaning ecology movement will romanticize pre-industrial human societies, turning a blind eye to their destructive practices like slavery, animal sacrifice, and mutilation found among some tribal communities.

One does of course observe violence and cruelty in nature beyond human influence, but to extrapolate from that to conclude that nonhumans engage in the kinds of calculated sadism and lack of behavioral control that is so common among human cultures is not only unsubstantiated and unfair, but typically human. We are far more eager to slander other lifeforms with the worst of our traits than to assume the opposite.

Human inferiority in comparison to other lifeforms using the very standards humans put forth in an effort to prove their superiority is a difficult pill to swallow for some, but on the other hand, pride or hubris have been considered a negative quality for millennium and exposing this can be taken as a noble purpose.

How an identification of this truth can aid in animal rights theory stems from the fact of all objections to animal rights being based upon this unfounded claim of human superiority. It is accepted as absolute, objective truth when such a judgement (a is greater than b due to the quality of c) cannot be shown to be possible by Nature–it would require a mind-like function behind the universe that plays favorites. Natural phenomenon cannot be observed to alter its functions to accommodate the alleged superior worth of human beings. Gravity, weather, volcanic eruptions, and the uncontrolled violent behavior of humans themselves do not demonstrate this alleged truth.

But the spiritual or specific revelatory theistic alternative which argues that a supreme human-like being is the ultimate judge cannot be proven as an absolute either(any attempt to give such a being human-like attributes can be questioned–an absolute would have to be beyond all doubt to be defined as one). And one can counter the dictates of one supposedly divine being with those of another. Again Twain:

“Man is the Religious Animal.  He is the only Religious Ani­mal.  He is the only animal that has the True Religion, several of them.  He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isnt straight.  He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brothers path to happiness and heaven.  He was at it in the time of the Caesars, he was at it in Mahomets time, he was at it in the time of the Inquisition, he was at it in France a couple of cen­turies, he was at it in England in Marys day, he has been at it ever since he first saw the light, he is at it today in Crete (as per the telegrams quoted above) he will be at it somewhere else tomor­row.  The higher animals have no religion.  And we are told that they are going to be left out, in the Hereafter.  I wonder why?  It seems questionable taste.”

Without this proof of human superiority then it is categorically and logically the same as a racial supremacist who claims their race is superior to others based upon skin colour, which they also say is of absolute importance (again without proof since neither nature nor a divine being seems to show this truth in the behavior of weather or physics or humanity). Same for a gender supremacist or a religious supremacist or any other criteria for  discrimination cited by humans. Skin colour or gender or brain capacity, intelligence, religious persuasion, dna, the ability to understand moral contracts, any and all such criteria is equally subjective in the macrocosmic sense of things.We may think intellect is of greater value that skin colour but neither Nature nor a Divine Being settle the matter.

This means that a human who does not value humanity as a species but discriminates against other humans according or race, or gender or wealth or age or religion can defend their position ethically by using the same basis that a human supremacist does in their discrimination against nonhumans. This is intolerable for those who are trying to establish a consistent and fair moral system that protects humans as a whole. In which case the only solution is to drop the claims of superiority based upon subjective criteria and extend the ethical concern to human interaction with nonhuman life. It is a one way proposition since nonhumans cannot be reasonably expected to understand or honor human moral systems and to punish them for that inability would be like punishing a man without eyes for not being able to see.
This would cover the industrialized exploitation of nonhumans-from laboratories to farms to zoos. (see  this for full details on argument).

I would suggest that in lieu of being unable to stop the kinds of injustice and exploitation that goes on endlessly (though it should be highlighted that most exploitation of nonhumans involves domesticated ones, and that is easier to eliminate than child abuse as long as humans can breed), one way to find some consolation is in crushing the arrogant spirits of those shadow puppet intellectuals who claim humans are the greatest achievement in the universe.
Arm yourself with access to the daily news and study the habits of fauna in your neighborhood and get on the battlefield.
Watching the smugness melt from those with enough intelligence to feel shame can be a satisfying feeling (being humans, we cannot help but take pleasure from the suffering of others we know to be suffering, but at least its in the cause of standing up for the downtrodden).

“Man is the Reasoning Animal.  Such is the claim.  I think it is open to dispute.  Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal.  Note his history, as sketched above.  It seems plain to me that whatever he is he is not a reasoning animal.  His record is the fantastic record of a maniac.  I consider that the strongest count against his intelligence is the fact that with that record back of him he blandly sets himself up as the head animal of the lot: whereas by his own standards he is the bottom one.”

Mark Twain, The Damned Human Race


For a modern confirmation of Mark Twain’s views on human violence as compared to nonhuman violence simply read through the entries on here.

There may be those who would attempt to refute the overwhelming evidence of human moral inferiority by highlighting examples of nonhumans bullying another  as proof that they do take pleasure from causing suffering. This is a very human assumption that the enjoyment stems from knowledge of the other animal’s psychological state and not from the bodily pleasure of being aggressive. An enjoyment of violence can have nothing to do with how it causes suffering to another, but we do know there are humans who take enjoyment from the suffering caused to others, even if they are merely spectators in an arena, watching it on television, or laughing at a story about someone’s suffering. I will not hold my breath waiting for evidence that there are nonhumans walking about who take pleasure from the suffering they cause to others like your common vivisector can be proven to just by reading their research notes.

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