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Mark Twain ponders his fellow creatures

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At one point in his life, Mark Twain used phrenology to help explain human nature. Phrenologists sought to explain personality traits by reading features of the skull. Photo illustration by Blake Dinsdale and ©iStock

English Professor Tom Quirk has written a new book, Mark Twain and Human Nature (University of Missouri Press, 2007), which tracks Twain’s ideas on a topic that he studied all his life.

As a youngster, Twain lived in the booming river town of Hannibal, Mo., a place that provided him a parade of exotic strangers to examine. “He was born into a Puritan tradition,” says Quirk, a Twain scholar. “So he believed that human nature was contaminated by original sin.” This eventually played out in various ways, including a story about a bad little boy who skipped school and soon drowned on account of his error.

Twain hit the road young and at age 15 was living in New York. He picked up phrenology, which was a popular way of divining character by “reading” the shape of the head. He had his own head examined in 1885. The reader, Edgar Beall, discovered some indications of wit and mirth, in addition to an inclination toward “hard sense, logic, general intelligence and insight into human nature.”

Twain eventually decided phrenology was poppycock, Quirk says, but he stuck longer with another big idea, which he came upon during his time as a riverboat pilot apprentice. From reading Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, Twain took up the idea of the world as a place of rational laws planned by God, where people could navigate by the power of their reason, not just by belief.

Then came the theory of evolution. Twain not only read Darwin but also met him. “From a strictly scientific point of view, [Twain thought] human nature was a collection of ancient impulses and chemical properties,” Quirk writes. He came to see human behavior as a result of outside influences, like a snowball of circumstances gaining size and speed as it rolls down a hill.

“In later years, he doesn’t see the plan any longer,” Quirk says. “Life is a crap shoot. People act according to habits and temperament. People are blank slates buffeted by circumstances. He says that all human nature is the result of outside influences, that there’s nothing original or noble in people.”

Through it all, Twain believed in the power of humor as an aspect of human nature that broadened possibilities. When he was still new as a humorist, Twain wrote to his brother Orion that was a poor, pitiful business he had embarked upon. But Twain knew he had a gift for making people laugh, and he believed people should develop their gifts. “Besides,” Quirk says, “he couldn’t resist it anyway.”