Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth: “Report to the I.I.A.S.”

"Letters from the Earth"

One of the articles in Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth is the “Report to the I.I.A.S.” or Indianapolis Institute of Applied Science, written in 1909. In this letter, the secretary of the Institute must decide upon the truth of a report that an explorer has reached the North Pole.
He consults a professor of Comparative Science and Theology:

Professor Bledso asked leave to consider the question for a few minutes. Then he said, “The answer, yes or no, depends entirely upon the answer to this question: Is it claimed that Dr. Cook’s achievement is a Fact, or is it a Miracle?”

“Why so?”

“Because if it is a Miracle, any sort of evidence will answer, but if it is a Fact, proof is necessary…. A very pertinent remark has been quoted from the Westminster Gazette, which points out that ‘the golfer, when he puts in a record round, has to have his card signed, and that there is nobody to sign Dr. Cook’s card; there are two Eskimos to vouch for his feat, but they were his caddies, and at golf their evidence would not be accepted.’ There you have the whole case. If Dr. Cook’s feat is put forward as a Fact, the evidence of his two caddies is inadequate; if it is put forward as a Miracle, one caddy is plenty.”

“Is there really all that difference between Fact and Miracle?”

“Yes, there is history for it—ages of history. There has never been a Miracle that noticeably resembled a Fact. Take an illustration. Mr. Janvier quotes this item from Henry Hudson’s log—Hudson wrote it fourteen months before his discovery of the River:

‘This morning one of our companie looking overboard saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up and by that time shee was come close to the ships side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after a sea came and overturned her. From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a woman, but her body as big as one of us. Her skin was very white, and long hair hanging downe behinde of colour blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porpoise, and speckled like a macrell. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner.’

“Observe, to Hudson that was not a Fact, it was a Miracle. How do I know this? Because he believes, on the mere say-so of a couple of sailors. He knows they saw the mermaid, for he doesn’t say he thought they saw, he says with convinced positiveness, they saw. Very well. As a Miracle, the sailors’ say-so is quite sufficient—indeed, more than sufficient; there isn’t a better-grounded Miracle in history. But to Dr. Asher, a recent commentator, who considered that Hudson was registering the incident as a Fact, the evidence was but caddy evidence and quite inadequate. He remarks, ‘Probably a seal.'”

“Then the difference—”

“Quite so. The difference between a Miracle and a Fact is exactly the difference between a mermaid and a seal.

Mark Twain has given us a new term for biased evidence from interested parties: “caddy evidence.”

A manatee swimming beside a mermaid

Whence came mermaids?

See also:
Letters from the Earth: Noah, his Ark, and the dinosaurs
Letters from the Earth: An unjust war

Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth: Papers of the Adam family

"Letters from the Earth"

Mark Twain still has a lot to say to us. In Mark Twain’s partially completed “Papers of the Adam family,” this is his ‘translation from the Adamic of a letter from Methuselah:’

Against our traditions we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war, a war against a helpless people, and for a base object—robbery. At first our citizens spoke out against this thing, by an impulse natural to their training. Today they have turned, and their voice is the other way. What caused the change? Merely a politician’s trick—a high-sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads. Our country, right or wrong! An empty phrase, a silly phrase. It was shouted by every newspaper, it was thundered from the pulpit, the Superintendent of Public Instruction placarded it upon every schoolhouse in the land, the War Department inscribed it upon the flag. And every man who failed to shout it, or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor–none but those others were patriots. To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, “Our country right or wrong,” and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?… Only when a republic’s life is in danger should a man uphold his government when it is in the wrong. There is no other time.

This Republic’s life is not in peril. The nation has sold its honor for a phrase. It has swung itself loose from its safe anchorage and is drifting, its helm is in pirate hands. The stupid phrase needed help, and it got another one: “Even if the war be wrong we are in it and must fight it out: we cannot retire from it without dishonor.” Why, not even a burglar could have said it better. We cannot withdraw from this sordid war because to grant peace to those little people upon their terms–independence–would dishonor us. You have flung away Adam’s phrase–you should take it up and examine it again. He said, “An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.”

… But it was impossible to save the Great Republic. She was rotten to the heart. Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home; multitudes who had applauded the crushing of other people’s liberties, lived to suffer for their mistake in their own persons.

‘Kill every one over ten’ orders U.S. General Jacob H. Smith in Philippine-American War.

See also:
Letters from the Earth: Facts vs. miracles
Letters from the Earth: Science and diseases

Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, Letter 7: science and diseases

Exerpt from Letter 7:

If science exterminates a disease which has been working for God, it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising-raptures and call attention to how good he is! Yes, he has done it. Perhaps he has waited a thousand years before doing it. That is nothing; the pulpit says he was thinking about it all the time. When exasperated men rise up and sweep away an age-long tyranny and set a nation free, the first thing the delighted pulpit does is to advertise it as God’s work, and invite the people to pour out their thanks to him….

…in all history there is not an instance where he thought of a noble deed first, but always thought of it just a little after somebody else had thought of it and done it….

All of the Creator’s special deadly disease-producers are invisible. It is an ingenious idea. For thousands of years it kept man from getting at the roots of his maladies, and defeated his attempts to master them. It is only very recently that science has succeeded in exposing some of these treacheries.

See also:
Letters from the Earth: Papers of the Adam family – an unjust war
Letters from the Earth: Naked and unashamed

Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, Letter 3

Consider this quotation from Mark Twain.

Exerpt from Letter 3:

Adam and Eve entered the world naked and unashamed—naked and pure-minded; and no descendant of theirs has ever entered it otherwise. All have entered it naked, unashamed, and clean in mind. They have entered it modest. They had to acquire immodesty and the soiled mind…. A Christian mother’s first duty is to soil her child’s mind, and she does not neglect it.

See also:
Letters from the Earth: Science and diseases
Letters from the Earth: Man’s ideas about heaven

Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, Letter 2

Science blogger PZ Myers and author Mark Twain would get along like a house afire.

Excerpt from Letter 2:

There is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal. … For instance, take this sample: he has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race—and of ours—sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer that he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!

His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque. I give you my word, it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists—utterly and entirely—of diversions which he cares next to nothing about, here in the earth, yet he is quite sure he will like in heaven….

All nations look down upon all other nations.

All nations dislike all other nations.

All white nations despise all colored nations…

Further. All sane people detest noise.

All people, sane or insane, like to have variety in their life….

Every man, according to the mental equipment that has fallen to his share, exercises his intellect constantly, ceaselessly, and this exercise makes up a vast and valued and essential part of his life. The lowest intellect, like the highest, possesses a skill of some kind and takes a keen pleasure in testing it, proving it, perfecting it. The urchin who is his comrade’s superior in games is as diligent and as enthusiastic in his practice ass are the sculptor, the painter, the pianist, the mathematician and the rest. Not one of them could be happy if his talent were put under an interdict.

Now then, you have the facts. You know what the human race enjoys, and what it doesn’t enjoy. It has invented a heaven…: guess what it is like!

  1. First of all, I recall to your attention that extraordinary fact with which I began. To wit, that the human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys—yet he has left it out of his heaven! …
  2. In man’s heaven, everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there… It goes on all day long, and every day…
  3. Meantime, every person is playing a harp…. Consider the deafening hurricane of sound… It is a service of praise…. Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment?… It is God! … It is easy to see that the originator of the heaven… copied it from the show-ceremonies of some sorry little State up in the back settlements of the Orient somewhere.
  4. The inventor of their heaven empties into it all the nations of the earth, in one common jumble…. They have to be brothers…. Here in the earth all nations hate each other…. Yet every pious person adores that heaven and wants to get into it.
  5. Every man in the earth possess some share of intellect … and takes pride in it. And then he contrives a heaven that hasn’t a rag of intellect in it anywhere.

The way Twain puts it, you can see why some people have said they’d take “Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”

See also:
Letters from the Earth: Naked and unashamed
Letters from the Earth: Mark Twain and PZ Myers

PZ Myers, intellectual heir to Mark Twain

I’ve mentioned before that Mark Twain is one of my heroes. It’s not because of Huckleberry Finn. It’s only because I love his attitude as expressed by quotations–about facing fear and so on. Bet when I found Twain’s Letters from the Earth, which were not published until 1962, I found a whole other dimension. The first section of the book is a series of letters written by an archangel on Earth to his colleagues back in heaven. Twain’s fierce love of rationality, his hatred for hypocrisy and the cruelties of religion as expressed both in the Bible and by its practitioners, suddenly rang familiar. It’s a campaign that science blogger PZ Myers, knowingly or not, has taken up.

Excerpt from Letter 1:

Man is a marvellous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low-grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the “noblest work of God.”

Moreover–if I may put another strain upon you–he thinks he is the Creator’s pet…. He prays for help, and favor, and protection, every day; and does it with hopefulness and confidence, too, although no prayer of his has ever been answered.

See also:
Letters from the Earth: Man’s ideas about heaven
Currently reading: Letters from the Earth

Four Stone Hearth


There’s a new Four Stone Hearth collection of writing about anthropology on the Web.

The Art of Science exhibition at Princeton

Follow the link for some beautiful, science-related images from Princeton University.

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