Setting the tone for the battle that was to follow, Wilberforce condemned Darwin’s theory as “a dishonouring view of Nature . . . absolutely incompatible with the word of God”. Becoming quickly carried away by his oratory, the meeting took a decisive twist. Turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, Wilberforce begged to know, was it through Huxley’s grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey? Huxley slowly and deliberately rose, very quiet and very grave, whispering “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands”, and replied:
“A man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling it would rather be a man who plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice”
The effect on the meeting was electrifying. One woman fainted and was carried out. Many others jumped to their feet in the excitement, and Captain FitzRoy of the famous Beagle paced up and down, brandishing the Bible, and chanting “The Book, the Book!”
Once the meeting was over:
“every one was eager to congratulate the hero of the day . . . some naive person wished it could come over again; and Mr Huxley, with the look on his face of the victor who feels the cost of victory, put us aside saying, ‘Once in a life-time is enough, if not too much.’”
But the drama of Darwinism had just begun. Nationalists used Darwinism to argue for a strong state as the fittest among nations, militarists found in it the sanction for war, and imperialists the justification for the conquest of ‘inferior races’. Only an exceptional few took a conscious part in condemning these developments. And one of those radical challengers was Huxley’s own student, H G Wells.
The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species had a tremendous impact upon popular fiction and the communication of astrobiology. It transformed all spheres of thought - scientific, social, spiritual, and artistic. And one of the most popular forms was the utopian tale, which not only provided a fictional vehicle for thinking about the future, it also examined the social implications of evolution itself.
The irresistible rise of the metaphor of evolution spawned around 70 futuristic fantasies in England between 1870 and 1900. As a result, an increasing number of people met the astrobiological ideas of Darwinian evolution, not through science, but as a text. These books inspired emotional as well as intellectual reactions and embedded the idea of evolution and the future of humanity even deeper into the public imagination.
One of the best examples of the age was The Time Machine (1895) by HG Wells. »
The Time Machine
Herbert George Wells emerged from an English lower middle class, that had previously spawned only one other key author - Charles Dickens. Wells’ mother had been in service, his father a gardener. Though they were hopeful of elevating the family status on becoming shopkeepers, the shop failed gradually, year after year. Wells’ own employment began as a draper's apprentice, but ended rather abruptly when the young man was told he was not refined enough to be a draper. Such rejection at the sharp end of a class-conscious Victorian age later became the motivation for Wells’ critique of the world’s distribution of wealth in novels such as Kipps (1905).
But Wells’ watershed came on meeting Darwin’s Bulldog.
Wells had won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science, later the Royal College of Science, studying evolutionary biology under the great TH Huxley. A fervent Darwinian, Huxley was the science communicator in chief of the Victorian age. He had created the phrase ‘agnostic’ for doubters like himself, and impressed humankind’s hominid ancestry on the public imagination, with his writing, and with his rhetoric. His public lectures attracted huge audiences; 2000 were reportedly turned away at St Martin’s Hall in 1866, the year of Wells’ birth.
With Huxley as his inspiration, Wells began as an author, living in the dark, lanterned, black macadam streets of Victorian London, engine-room of the British Empire. The first of Wells’ seminal science fiction novels, The Time Machine plotted a dark future for Man, and pictured a sceptical view of the devilish enginery of progress and imperialism. It was an instant triumph. »