Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLII

Theology and Evolution

From the Washington trip dates a period of still closer association with Mark Twain. On the way to New York he suggested that I take up residence in his house — a privilege which I had no wish to refuse. There was room going to waste, he said, and it would be handier for the early and late billiard sessions. So, after that, most of the days and nights I was there.

Looking back on that time now, I see pretty vividly three quite distinct pictures. One of them, the rich, red interior of the billiard-room with the brilliant, green square in the center, on which the gay balls are rolling, and bending over it that luminous white figure in the instant of play. Then there is the long, lighted drawing-room with the same figure stretched on a couch in the corner, drowsily smoking, while the rich organ tones fill the place summoning for him scenes and faces which others do not see. This was the hour between dinner and billiards — the hour which he found most restful of the day. Sometimes he rose, walking the length of the parlors, his step timed to the music and his thought. Of medium height, he gave the impression of being tall-his head thrown up, and like a lion’s, rather large for his body. But oftener he lay among the cushions, the light flooding his white hair and dress and heightening his brilliant coloring.

The third picture is that of the dinner-table — always beautifully laid, and always a shrine of wisdom when he was there. He did not always talk; but it was his habit to do so, and memory holds the clearer vision of him when, with eyes and face alive with interest, he presented some new angle of thought in fresh picturesqueness of speech. These are the pictures that have remained to me out of the days spent under his roof, and they will not fade while memory lasts.

Of Mark Twain’s table philosophies it seems proper to make rather extended record. They were usually unpremeditated, and they presented the man as he was, and thought. I preserved as much of them as I could, and have verified phrase and idea, when possible, from his own notes and other unprinted writings.

This dinner-table talk naturally varied in character from that of the billiard-room. The latter was likely to be anecdotal and personal; the former was more often philosophical and commentative, ranging through a great variety of subjects scientific, political, sociological, and religious. His talk was often of infinity — the forces of creation — and it was likely to be satire of the orthodox conceptions, intermingled with heresies of his own devising.

Once, after a period of general silence, he said:

“No one who thinks can imagine the universe made by chance. It is too nicely assembled and regulated. There is, of course, a great Master Mind, but it cares nothing for our happiness or our unhappiness.”

It was objected, by one of those present, that as the Infinite Mind suggested perfect harmony, sorrow and suffering were defects which that Mind must feel and eventually regulate.

“Yes,” he said, “not a sparrow falls but He is noticing, if that is what you mean; but the human conception of it is that God is sitting up nights worrying over the individuals of this infinitesimal race.”

Then he recalled a fancy which I have since found among his memoranda. In this note he had written:

The suns & planets that form the constellations of a billion billion solar systems & go pouring, a tossing flood of shining globes, through the viewless arteries of space are the blood-corpuscles in the veins of God; & the nations are the microbes that swarm and wiggle & brag in each, & think God can tell them apart at that distance & has nothing better to do than try. This — the entertainment of an eternity. Who so poor in his ambitions as to consent to be God on those terms? Blasphemy? No, it is not blasphemy. If God is as vast as that, He is above blasphemy; if He is as little as that, He is beneath it.

“The Bible,” he said, “reveals the character of its God with minute exactness. It is a portrait of a man, if one can imagine a man with evil impulses far beyond the human limit. In the Old Testament He is pictured as unjust, ungenerous, pitiless, and revengeful, punishing innocent children for the misdeeds of their parents; punishing unoffending people for the sins of their rulers, even descending to bloody vengeance upon harmless calves and sheep as punishment for puny trespasses committed by their proprietors. It is the most damnatory biography that ever found its way into print. Its beginning is merely childish. Adam is forbidden to eat the fruit of a certain tree, and gravely informed that if he disobeys he shall die. How could that impress Adam? He could have no idea of what death meant. He had never seen a dead thing. He had never heard of one. If he had been told that if he ate the apples he would be turned into a meridian of longitude that threat would have meant just as much as the other one. The watery intellect that invented that notion could be depended on to go on and decree that all of Adam’s descendants down to the latest day should be punished for that nursery trespass in the beginning.

“There is a curious poverty of invention in Bibles. Most of the great races each have one, and they all show this striking defect. Each pretends to originality, without possessing any. Each of them borrows from the other, confiscates old stage properties, puts them forth as fresh and new inspirations from on high. We borrowed the Golden Rule from Confucius, after it had seen service for centuries, and copyrighted it without a blush. We went back to Babylon for the Deluge, and are as proud of it and as satisfied with it as if it had been worth the trouble; whereas we know now that Noah’s flood never happened, and couldn’t have happened — not in that way. The flood is a favorite with Bible-makers. Another favorite with the founders of religions is the Immaculate Conception. It had been worn threadbare; but we adopted it as a new idea. It was old in Egypt several thousand years before Christ was born. The Hindus prized it ages ago. The Egyptians adopted it even for some of their kings. The Romans borrowed the idea from Greece. We got it straight from heaven by way of Rome. We are still charmed with it.”

He would continue in this strain, rising occasionally and walking about the room. Once, considering the character of God — the Bible God-he said:

“We haven’t been satisfied with God’s character as it is given in the Old Testament; we have amended it. We have called Him a God of mercy and love and morals. He didn’t have a single one of those qualities in the beginning. He didn’t hesitate to send the plagues on Egypt, the most fiendish punishments that could be devised — not for the king, but for his innocent subjects, the women and the little children, and then only to exhibit His power just to show off — and He kept hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that He could send some further ingenuity of torture, new rivers of blood, and swarms of vermin and new pestilences, merely to exhibit samples of His workmanship. Now and then, during the forty years’ wandering, Moses persuaded Him to be a little more lenient with the Israelites, which would show that Moses was the better character of the two. That Old Testament God never had an inspiration of His own.”

He referred to the larger conception of God, that Infinite Mind which had projected the universe. He said:

“In some details that Old Bible God is probably a more correct picture than our conception of that Incomparable One that created the universe and flung upon its horizonless ocean of space those giant suns, whose signal-lights are so remote that we only catch their flash when it has been a myriad of years on its way. For that Supreme One is not a God of pity or mercy — not as we recognize these qualities. Think of a God of mercy who would create the typhus germ, or the house-fly, or the centipede, or the rattlesnake, yet these are all His handiwork. They are a part of the Infinite plan. The minister is careful to explain that all these tribulations are sent for a good purpose; but he hires a doctor to destroy the fever germ, and he kills the rattlesnake when he doesn’t run from it, and he sets paper with molasses on it for the house-fly.

“Two things are quite certain: one is that God, the limitless God, manufactured those things, for no man could have done it. The man has never lived who could create even the humblest of God’s creatures. The other conclusion is that God has no special consideration for man’s welfare or comfort, or He wouldn’t have created those things to disturb and destroy him. The human conception of pity and morality must be entirely unknown to that Infinite God, as much unknown as the conceptions of a microbe to man, or at least as little regarded.

“If God ever contemplates those qualities in man He probably admires them, as we always admire the thing which we do not possess ourselves; probably a little grain of pity in a man or a little atom of mercy would look as big to Him as a constellation. He could create a constellation with a thought; but He has been all the measureless ages, and He has never acquired those qualities that we have named — pity and mercy and morality. He goes on destroying a whole island of people with an earthquake, or a whole cityful with a plague, when we punish a man in the electric chair for merely killing the poorest of our race. The human being needs to revise his ideas again about God. Most of the scientists have done it already; but most of them don’t dare to say so.”

He pointed out that the moral idea was undergoing constant change; that what was considered justifiable in an earlier day was regarded as highly immoral now. He pointed out that even the Decalogue made no reference to lying, except in the matter of bearing false witness against a neighbor. Also, that there was a commandment against covetousness, though covetousness to-day was the basis of all commerce: The general conclusion being that the morals of the Lord had been the morals of the beginning; the morals of the first-created man, the morals of the troglodyte, the morals of necessity; and that the morals of mankind had kept pace with necessity, whereas those of the Lord had remained unchanged. It is hardly necessary to say that no one ever undertook to contradict any statements of this sort from him. In the first place, there was no desire to do so; and in the second place, any one attempting it would have cut a puny figure with his less substantial arguments and his less vigorous phrase. It was the part of wisdom and immeasurably the part of happiness to be silent and listen.

On another evening he began:

“The mental evolution of the species proceeds apparently by regular progress side by side with the physical development until it comes to man, then there is a long, unexplained gulf. Somewhere man acquired an asset which sets him immeasurably apart from the other animals — his imagination. Out of it he created for himself a conscience, and clothes, and immodesty, and a hereafter, and a soul. I wonder where he got that asset. It almost makes one agree with Alfred Russel Wallace that the world and the universe were created just for his benefit, that he is the chief love and delight of God. Wallace says that the whole universe was made to take care of and to keep steady this little floating mote in the center of it, which we call the world. It looks like a good deal of trouble for such a small result; but it’s dangerous to dispute with a learned astronomer like Wallace. Still, I don’t think we ought to decide too soon about it — not until the returns are all in. There is the geological evidence, for instance. Even after the universe was created, it took a long time to prepare the world for man. Some of the scientists, ciphering out the evidence furnished by geology, have arrived at the conviction that the world is prodigiously old. Lord Kelvin doesn’t agree with them. He says that it isn’t more than a hundred million years old, and he thinks the human race has inhabited it about thirty thousand years of that time. Even so, it was 99,970,000 years getting ready, impatient as the Creator doubtless was to see man and admire him. That was because God first had to make the oyster. You can’t make an oyster out of nothing, nor you can’t do it in a day. You’ve got to start with a vast variety of invertebrates, belemnites, trilobites, jebusites, amalekites, and that sort of fry, and put them into soak in a primary sea and observe and wait what will happen. Some of them will turn out a disappointment; the belemnites and the amalekites and such will be failures, and they will die out and become extinct in the course of the nineteen million years covered by the experiment; but all is not lost, for the amalekites will develop gradually into encrinites and stalactites and blatherskites, and one thing and another, as the mighty ages creep on and the periods pile their lofty crags in the primordial seas, and at last the first grand stage in the preparation of the world for man stands completed; the oyster is done. Now an oyster has hardly any more reasoning power than a man has, so it is probable this one jumped to the conclusion that the nineteen million years was a preparation for him. That would be just like an oyster, and, anyway, this one could not know at that early date that he was only an incident in a scheme, and that there was some more to the scheme yet.

“The oyster being finished, the next step in the preparation of the world for man was fish. So the old Silurian seas were opened up to breed the fish in. It took twenty million years to make the fish and to fossilize him so we’d have the evidence later.

“Then, the Paleozoic limit having been reached, it was necessary to start a new age to make the reptiles. Man would have to have some reptiles — not to eat, but to develop himself from. Thirty million years were required for the reptiles, and out of such material as was left were made those stupendous saurians that used to prowl about the steamy world in remote ages, with their snaky heads forty feet in the air and their sixty feet of body and tail racing and thrashing after them. They are all gone now, every one of them; just a few fossil remnants of them left on this far-flung fringe of time.

“It took all those years to get one of those creatures properly constructed to proceed to the next step. Then came the pterodactyl, who thought all that preparation all those millions of years had been intended to produce him, for there wasn’t anything too foolish for a, pterodactyl to imagine. I suppose he did attract a good deal of attention, for even the least observant could see that there was the making of a bird in him, also the making of a mammal, in the course of time. You can’t say too much for the picturesqueness of the pterodactyl — he was the triumph of his period. He wore wings and had teeth, and was a starchy-looking creature. But the progression went right along.

“During the next thirty million years the bird arrived, and the kangaroo, and by and by the mastodon, and the giant sloth, and the Irish elk, and the old Silurian ass, and some people thought that man was about due. But that was a mistake, for the next thing they knew there came a great ice-sheet, and those creatures all escaped across the Bering Strait and wandered around in Asia and died, all except a few to carry on the preparation with. There were six of those glacial periods, with two million years or so between each. They chased those poor orphans up and down the earth, from weather to weather, from tropic temperature to fifty degrees below. They never knew what kind of weather was going to turn up next, and if they settled any place the whole continent suddenly sank from under them, and they had to make a scramble for dry land. Sometimes a volcano would turn itself loose just as they got located. They led that uncertain, strenuous existence for about twenty-five million years, always wondering what was going to happen next, never suspecting that it was just a preparation for man, who had to be done just so or there wouldn’t be any proper or harmonious place for him when he arrived, and then at last the monkey came, and everybody could see at a glance that man wasn’t far off now, and that was true enough. The monkey went on developing for close upon five million years, and then he turned into a man — to all appearances.

“It does look like a lot of fuss and trouble to go through to build anything, especially a human being, and nowhere along the way is there any evidence of where he picked up that final asset — his imagination. It makes him different from the others — not any better, but certainly different. Those earlier animals didn’t have it, and the monkey hasn’t it or he wouldn’t be so cheerful.”178

178 [Paine records Twain’s thoughts in that magnificent essay: “Was the World Made for Man” published long after his death in the group of essays under the title “Letters from the Earth. There are minor additions in the published version: ‘coal’ to fry the fish in; and the remnants of life being chased from pole to pole “without a dry rag on them,”; and the coat of paint on the top of the bulb on top of the Eiffel Tower representing man’s portion of this world’s history.” D.W.]

He often held forth on the shortcomings of the human race — always a favorite subject — the incompetencies and imperfections of this final creation, in spite of, or because of, his great attribute — the imagination. Once (this was in the billiard-room) I started him by saying that whatever the conditions in other planets, there seemed no reason why life should not develop in each, adapted as perfectly to prevailing conditions as man is suited to conditions here. He said:

“Is it your idea, then, that man is perfectly adapted to the conditions of this planet?”

I began to qualify, rather weakly; but what I said did not matter. He was off on his favorite theme.

“Man adapted to the earth?” he said. “Why, he can’t sleep out-of-doors without freezing to death or getting the rheumatism or the malaria; he can’t keep his nose under water over a minute without being drowned; he can’t climb a tree without falling out and breaking his neck. Why, he’s the poorest, clumsiest excuse of all the creatures that inhabit this earth. He has got to be coddled and housed and swathed and bandaged and up holstered to be able to live at all. He is a rickety sort of a thing, anyway you take him, a regular British Museum of infirmities and inferiorities. He is always under going repairs. A machine that is as unreliable as he is would have no market. The higher animals get their teeth without pain or inconvenience. The original cave man, the troglodyte, may have got his that way. But now they come through months and months of cruel torture, and at a time of life when he is least able to bear it. As soon as he gets them they must all be pulled out again, for they were of no value in the first place, not worth the loss of a night’s rest. The second set will answer for a while; but he will never get a set that can be depended on until the dentist makes one. The animals are not much troubled that way. In a wild state, a natural state, they have few diseases; their main one is old age. But man starts in as a child and lives on diseases to the end as a regular diet. He has mumps, measles, whooping-cough, croup, tonsilitis, diphtheria, scarlet-fever, as a matter of course. Afterward, as he goes along, his life continues to be threatened at every turn by colds, coughs, asthma, bronchitis, quinsy, consumption, yellow-fever, blindness, influenza, carbuncles, pneumonia, softening of the brain, diseases of the heart and bones, and a thousand other maladies of one sort and another. He’s just a basketful of festering, pestilent corruption, provided for the support and entertainment of microbes. Look at the workmanship of him in some of its particulars. What are his tonsils for? They perform no useful function; they have no value. They are but a trap for tonsilitis and quinsy. And what is the appendix for? It has no value. Its sole interest is to lie and wait for stray grape-seeds and breed trouble. What is his beard for? It is just a nuisance. All nations persecute it with the razor. Nature, however, always keeps him supplied with it, instead of putting it on his head, where it ought to be. You seldom see a man bald-headed on his chin, but on his head. A man wants to keep his hair. It is a graceful ornament, a comfort, the best of all protections against weather, and he prizes it above emeralds and rubies, and Nature half the time puts it on so it won’t stay.

“Man’s sight and smell and hearing are all inferior. If he were suited to the conditions he could smell an enemy; he could hear him; he could see him, just as the animals can detect their enemies. The robin hears the earthworm burrowing his course under the ground; the bloodhound follows a scent that is two days old. Man isn’t even handsome, as compared with the birds; and as for style, look at the Bengal tiger — that ideal of grace, physical perfection, and majesty. Think of the lion and the tiger and the leopard, and then think of man — that poor thing! — the animal of the wig, the ear-trumpet, the glass eye, the porcelain teeth, the wooden leg, the trepanned skull, the silver wind-pipe — a creature that is mended and patched all over from top to bottom. If he can’t get renewals of his bric-a-brac in the next world what will he look like? He has just that one stupendous superiority — his imagination, his intellect. It makes him supreme — the higher animals can’t match him there. It’s very curious.”

A letter which he wrote to J. Howard Moore concerning his book The Universal Kinship was of this period, and seems to belong here.

DEAR MR. MOORE, The book has furnished me several days of deep pleasure & satisfaction; it has compelled my gratitude at the same time, since it saves me the labor of stating my own long-cherished opinions & reflections & resentments by doing it lucidly & fervently & irascibly for me.

There is one thing that always puzzles me: as inheritors of the mentality of our reptile ancestors we have improved the inheritance by a thousand grades; but in the matter of the morals which they left us we have gone backward as many grades. That evolution is strange & to me unaccountable & unnatural. Necessarily we started equipped with their perfect and blemishless morals; now we are wholly destitute; we have no real morals, but only artificial ones — morals created and preserved by the forced suppression of natural & healthy instincts. Yes, we are a sufficiently comical invention, we humans.

Sincerely yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00