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Rediscovering AnimalsĀ 

The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--1. No Other Animal Wantonly Destroys

Today I’ll begin a series that may not be entirely fair, since the author can’t fight back (at least not directly). The writings I’ll cite were not published until Mark Twain was long dead. His daughter Clara finally allowed DeVoto’s 1939 edition to be published in 1962, says Henry Nash Smith, Editor at Berkeley.

I’ll begin by quoting from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.” In this ten-page article, Mark Twain (MT) lays out the evidence—thirteen horrendous reasons why humans are inferior to all other animals. MT’s tone is serious, usually, and seriously distraught at times. The satire is nearly gone. Now, fifty years after this writing was resurrected, I’ll review the thirteen faults he finds in Homo sapiens and test them against our modern perspective from the Hen House.

According to MT, given a choice of many calves, an anaconda ate only one, refusing all others, [with] “...no disposition to harm them,” but an English earl, with “charming sport...killed seventy-two of those great animals [buffalo]; and ate part of one of them and left the seventy-one to rot.” The excess calves offered to the anaconda were perfectly safe while shut up with him.

Now, I must admit that, in the Hen House, chickens will go after blood, if it appears after a rooster brawl or an overzealous pecking order enforcement. But there doesn’t seem any conscious will to kill going on—just a mindless attraction to the wound. Blood must taste good. Maybe it smells good, too.

Chickens, however, don’t treasure the head of their bloodlust, stuff it, and hang it up for display in the Hen House. What kind of sick treasure is that? What is it supposed to mean? MT has an explanation that counts as Horrendous Reason Number One that man is the lowest of animals. No other animal “...wantonly destroys what he has no use for...[even] the anaconda doesn’t.”

In defense of Homo sapiens, there are not many stories of wanton killing or waste by animals, nor by most people. There’s usually a reason for destructive mayhem—frustration, fear, dementia, rabies, greed, rage, etc. The more complex the brain, the more aberrant behaviors are possible, but on the average we humans deplore unnecessary destruction of life or property.
Over the decades, we have learned a few things. Safaris in Africa now provide opportunities for shooting with cameras, not guns. Collecting and preserving heads of exotic animals is no longer valued by most humans. Soon we will be recycling everything, reducing our garbage to nothing, repairing instead of replacing, not upgrading iPhones or cars every year if we don’t really need the upgrade. We can do this, once we understand the irrational amorality of wasteful destruction. If we have no use for something, we will certainly find something better to do with it than demolish it.

Surely we can agree that killing 72 buffalo and leaving them to rot is beyond any imaginable sense of decency or respect for life. Likewise, stomping spiders who keep flies in check. Smashing mosquitoes, however, may be justified on the grounds of self-preservation. Life never poses questions with simple black or white answers. The point—killing for killing’s sake—or worse, for no reason at all—is a sick trait, not a feature built into the entire human race, as MT implied.

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