What do a cat, a rooster, and an anaconda have in common? Twain suggests that man is a descendant of all these animals, as he agrees with Darwin that every animal has evolved from the same starting point. However, Twain suggests that Darwin wasn’t exactly correct in his claims of the human species being more evolved than other animal species’. Although men tend to believe that they have evolved from what Twain satirically calls the “lower species” of animals, Twain argues otherwise. Men harbor avarice, cruelty, and a knack for destruction; traits that Twain argues are present in no other animal. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the human species is actually a devolution of other animals, which is precisely what Twain argues in his satirical essay, “The Damned Human Race.”
Twain’s speaker takes the role of a scientist who analyzes the differences and similarities between the animal and human species. In order to acquire credibility, Twain’s speaker begins by suggesting that he performed a scientific experiment in which he “subjected every postulate […] to the crucial test of the actual experiment, and […] adopted it or rejected it according to the result.” By establishing credibility early in the essay, Twain is able to play with the audiences’ expectations later when he reveals his experiments to be a comparison on human and animal traits. The result is a humorous essay, which slowly deteriorates Twain’s credibility as a scientist, but illuminates the satire behind his work. For the rest of the essay, Twain goes on to mention a negative trait that is specific to man, and immediately compare it to an animal that shares the trait but uses it only for survival. In this way, the format of Twain’s essay reveals the ridiculousness of man for possessing certain traits. First, man is compare to an anaconda, revealing that, unlike man, the anaconda destroys only what it must in order to survive. Then man is compared to a squirrel gathering supplies for the winter, revealing that while man wishes to accumulate that which he does not need, the squirrel can in no way be persuaded to do so. Man is compared to a cat, a rooster, and so forth, each time revealing folly within man’s traits. Twain’s experiments seem to conclude that humans do in fact stem from the “lower animals,” but rather than having evolved, they have devolved into a strange, illogical being.
By using satirical contrasts between humans and animals Twain’s impartial speaker demonstrates that humans, in their cruel traits and erratic behaviors, are actually worse than the animal species. Twain’s voice from the perspective of a scientist not only works to make him sound trustworthy to the audience and make his claims about humans sound more valid, but also contributes to the humor of the satirical piece. Twain uses this satire to suggest that man is destructive, avaricious, cruel, and indecent. In his first “experiment,” Twain observes how an English earl kills seventy-two buffaloes, but eats only part of one, leaving the rest to rot. By comparison, when offered seven young calves into its cage, an anaconda chooses only to kill and eat one of the calves, leaving the rest unharmed. “[Man] destroys what he has no use for,” Twain writes, “but the anaconda doesn’t.” Twain’s satirical anaconda example is useful in bringing to light the destructive nature of man. Furthermore, Twain argues that animals have no intent to kill their own kind, while “[man] is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate his kind.” Thus, Twain’s satire reveals that beyond being simply destructive, man is also a killer of his own kind; something none of the “lower species” of animals exhibit in their behaviors.
Twain’s speaker also aims to reveal that man is avaricious by comparing him to a squirrel gathering food for the winter. Twain mentions that even among animals, it is difficult to find species that accumulate vast numbers of items. Twain’s scientist speaker concludes that “the squirrels and bees and certain birds made accumulations, but stopped when they had gathered a winter’s supply, and could not be persuaded to add to it either honestly or by chicane.” By contrasting the squirrels’ disinterest in objects and man’s everlasting hunger for materials, Twain is able to shame people in believing that in some ways, they are worse than a squirrel.
To reveal how man is cruel in nature, Twain uses the example of a cat playing with a mouse. Although the mouse is suffering while the cat plays with it out of sheer entertainment, Twain argues that the cat, unlike humans, does not have the consciousness to know that the mouse is suffering. And although the cat is cruel, her form of torture does not come anywhere near the cruelty of humans for “she doesn’t dig out [the mouse’s] eyes, or tear off its skin, or drive splinters under its nails-man-fashion; when she is done playing with it she makes a sudden meal of it and puts it out of its trouble. Man is the Cruel Animal,” Twain writes, “He alone is of the distinction.” Through this example, Twain argues that in spite of all his beliefs of hierarchy over the rest of the animal species, man should have at least developed the consciousness and morality to know that torturing other human beings is wrong, yet still he has done so through all of history, and proceeds to do so today.
Finally, Twain argues that man is “indecent, vulgar, and obscene,” in ways that no other animal comes close to. Twain uses a rooster for comparison, who, he argues, “keep[s] harems, but it is by consent of [his] concubines; therefore no harm is done.” In comparison, Twain explains that humans keep concubines by “brute force.” Through this example, Twain sheds light on man’s indecency, which he argues is a word man created for himself because animals have no need for ever feeling indecent or obscene in their acts.
The ways in which “The Damned Human Race” shows humans to be lower than animals is eye opening, and gives Twain the ability to criticize people while retaining the spirit of humor. Because people generally do not enjoy being criticized, using humor helps to illuminate negative traits of humanity without being directly offensive. After all, Twain’s observations are supposedly just that of a scientist. Twain’s satire exposes the ridiculousness of humans for destroying others without reason (in the case of the anaconda example), but uses humor in wording, saying that the English earl “had charming sport” in his hunting of the buffalo. The humorous word choice in the essay allows tensions to remain light for the larger portion of the essay, making the satire a success. “Man is the Reasoning Animal,” Twain concludes, “Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal.” While drawing such a conclusion from his “experiments,” Twain remains to be inoffensive for the most part, while arguing that humans are brutish and lower than animals.
Twain’s animals are a vehicle in his satire, used in order to direct the attention of his audience to the terrible crimes humans commit and the unnecessary acts they engage in. Perhaps Twain writes his essay in the hopes of getting humans to change, but it is unlikely that he would take such a great task upon himself. Rather, Twain is most likely using animals to demonstrate the problems that exist in the human world, and call for his audience’s attention to these problems. Man is cruel. Twain argues that man has always been, and will continue to be cruel. Twain’s satirical essay will do little to provoke change in mankind as a species. However, perhaps teaching kindness, encouraging selflessness, and inspiring decency in every separate reader, that is something Twain’s satire can accomplish.