“That man is an animal!” we say when we mean that a fellow acts unreasonably, in a crude and brutish manner. And yet, isn’t this expression unfair to animals? Isn’t the man merely acting like a human being?
Evidence throughout the ages, including events in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, demonstrates that men regularly and often act like louts toward one another.
Animal behavior is quite civil by comparison. Indeed, perhaps the expression “inhuman” ought to be upgraded to a compliment.
An astute student of human nature, Mark Twain (1835-1910) noted this phenomenon and posed the question: Which are the worthier creatures, men or animals?
Tongue in cheek, Twain claimed to have conducted “painstaking and fatiguing” experiments at the London Zoo. The results caused him to renounce his allegiance to the Darwinian theory of the Ascent of Man from the Lower Animals, in favor of a new theory he christened “the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals.”
Following are a few of his specific observations from “The Damn Human Race,” printed in Letters from the Earth:
“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—that, and to provide some fresh meat for his larder.
“They had charming sport. They killed 72 of those great animals, ate part of one of them, and left the 71 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 greatful reptile immediately crushed one of them and swallowed it, then lay back satisfied. It showed no further interest in the calves, and no disposition to harm them.
“I tried this experiment with other anacondas, always with the same result.
“The fact stood proven that the difference between an earl and an anaconda is that the earl is cruel and the anaconda isn’t; and that the earl wantonly destroys what he has no use for, but the anaconda doesn’t.
“This seemed to suggest that the anaconda was not descended from the earl. It also seemed to suggest that the earl was descended from the anaconda, and had lost a good deal in the transition.
“Man is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.
“In truth, man is incurably foolish. Simple things which the other animals easily learn, he is incapable of learning.
“Among my experiments wsa this. In an hour I taught a cat and dog to be friends. I put them in a cage.
“In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel, and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace, even affectionately.
“Next, in another cage, I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares.
“Finally, a Salvation Army colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away for two whole days.
“When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh—not a specimen left alive.
“These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.”
Donna Murphy, "Darwin, animals, and humans," Irondequoit Press, July 14, 1994.