Darwin’s Bulldog and the Time Machine

Georgia Tech scientists found that the rate of molecular evolution of chimpanzees is closer to that of humans than it is to other apes.

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.

Darwin’s Influence

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.

"… some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etc…", Charles Darwin, on the origins of life in tidal pools
Credit:Smithsonian

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.

The Time Machine has two major themes: evolution and social class.

Both subjects are ingeniously explored in a voyage of discovery through the invention of a machine, which is central to the book’s concern with the dialectic of evolutionary time. The machine itself symbolises the power of science and reason. The Time Traveller sets out in his machine to navigate and dominate time, only to discover the grim truth: time is lord of all. The real significance of the story’s title becomes clear; Man is trapped by the diabolical mechanism of time, and bound by an inexorable history that leads to his inevitable death and extinction signalled by the new science.

The Traveller’s headlong fall into the future begins at home. The entire voyage through the evolved worlds of Man shows little spatial shift, with the terror of each age unravelling in the vicinity of the Traveller’s laboratory. “It is not what man has been, but what he will be, that should interest us” Wells had written in his essay The Man of the Year Million. And in The Time Machine we had Wells’ answer – a vision calculated to “run counter to the placid assumption … that Evolution was a pro-human force making things better and better for mankind”. Time’s arrow initially thrusts the narrative forward to the year 802701 AD. The Traveller meets the Eloi, a race of effete, virtually androgynous and child-like humans living an apparently peaceful and pastoral life. Man’s total conquest of nature, it seems, has led to decadence. But on discovering the dark subterranean machine world of the albino, ape-like Morlocks, a new theory emerges.

Over time, the gulf between the classes in Victorian society has produced separate species:

“At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seems clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you – and wildly incredible! – and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way”

H. G. Wells, was an English writer best known for such science fiction novels as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Credit: Wikipedia

Initially believing the Eloi to be dominant descendants of the ruling class, the Traveller ultimately discovers that a potentially predatory working class have evolved into the bestial Morlocks, cannibal hominids who man the machinery that keeps the Eloi – their flocks – passive and plentiful:

“The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general cooperation … Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of today. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over nature, but a triumph over nature and the fellow-man.”

An Astrobiological Future?

Wells foresaw a bifocal future. One image in the lens, “upper-world man had drifted towards his feeble prettiness”, focuses on what Man may become when a vigorous natural selection is eradicated, as with the Eloi. And the lens of the Morlockian future, “the under-world [of] mere mechanical industry” arises when the cultural condition of industrialisation serves as a natural, though chronic, selective environment. Wells’ warning vision is all the more powerful for making the reader feel responsible; it is the inequities of contemporary class society that leads to such monstrous futures.

But Wells took a further momentous leap in the fictional portrayal of evolution; “People unfamiliar with such speculations as those of the younger Darwin, forget that the planets must ultimately fall back one by one into the parent body”. For the first time, the evolution of Man was revealed not merely as a biological and social process, but also as an astrobiological development, played out against a backdrop of dying planets and dying Sun; a vision of Man being swept away “into the darkness from which his universe arose”. Rescuing his machine from the Morlocks, the Traveller journeys to the far future. The solar system is in meltdown. The Earth is locked by tidal forces, as the planets spiral toward a red giant Sun, which appears to hang motionless in an endless sunset on a terminal beach upon which the time machine reappears. And in this death, where the strange round black creatures Man has become hop about “against the weltering blood-red water”, Wells ends his terrible account of our progressive devolution, set in the entropic decay of the cosmic machine.”


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