Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Evolution and 19th century English and French Science Fiction

I stood amazed. My uncle had uplifted his long arms to the vault which was our sky; his mouth gaping wide, his eyes flashing behind his shining spectacles, his head balancing with an up-and-down motion, his whole attitude denoted unlimited astonishment. Here he stood facing an immense collection of scattered leptotheria, mericotheria, lophiodia, anoplotheria, megatheria, mastodons, protopithecæ, pterodactyles, and all sorts of extinct monsters here assembled together for his special satisfaction. Fancy an enthusiastic bibliomaniac suddenly brought into the midst of the famous Alexandrian library burnt by Omar and restored by a miracle from its ashes! just such a crazed enthusiast was my uncle, Professor Liedenbrock.

But more was to come, when, with a rush through clouds of bone dust, he laid his hand upon a bare skull, and cried with a voice trembling with excitement:

"Axel! Axel! a human head!"

"A human skull?" I cried, no less astonished.

"Yes, nephew. Aha! M. Milne-Edwards! Ah! M. de Quatrefages, how I wish you were standing here at the side of Otto Liedenbrock!"
- Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)

Astrobiology Magazine European Edition has an interesting series on the influence of astrobiology on history, philosophy and literature called "Retrospections." In the inaugural Winter 2006 issue, they take a look at the influence of Darwin's theory of evolution and Thomas Huxley on 19th century English fantastic fiction in "Darwin's Bulldog and the Time Machine."

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.

H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was one of the best examples of the genre. Wells was inspired by Thomas Huxley, Victorian science communicator and fervent supporter of Darwin. The result was a novel that showed a dark future for the human race.

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.

In a commentary on Victorian class issues, the Morlocks turn out to be descendants of the working class. The inequities between the ruling and working classes lead to this terrible future.
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”.
I'd quibble with that a bit. Just because Darwin described the aging of the solar system doesn't make that an aspect of evolution. However, it's right to say that the changing climate of the far future would indeed affect the evolution of humanity. Read The Time Machine to see Wells' vision for yourself.

The Spring 2007 continues the series by looking at the effect of 19th century scientific advances on the French writer of fantastic fiction, Jules Verne. In the early 19th century "new geology" that proposed that the Earth was millions, not thousands, of years old. The geologists were followed by astonishing fossil discoveries by the paleontologists, and Verne incorporated all this new science into his 1864 classic, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
And once into the dominion of subterranean caverns, grottos and waters, Axel and the Professor find the interior alive with prehistoric plant and animal lifeforms , including a herd of mastodons, giant insects, and witness a deadly battle between an Ichthyosaurus and a Plesiosaurus. A giant prehistoric man found overlooking the mastodon herd is another of Verne's nods to contemporary science. When the Professor lectures on the latest anthropological discoveries, he refers to Boucher de Perthes , who in 1863 had unearthed a human jaw in northern France, suggesting Man was over 100,000 years old. Verne waited until the discovery was confirmed before including it in his 1864 novel. Significantly, this entire panorama is subjected to an orgy of classification at the hands of the travellers Axel and the Professor; to name is also to appropriate and conquer. And through this taxonomy of nature is the attempt to bleed it of its strangeness, to render it human.
As you can tell from the excerpt at the beginning of this post, Verne loved to name drop contemporary French scientists, such as zoologists Henri Milne-Edwards and Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages. Read the English translation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth (or as called more accurately in this translation, Journey to the Interior of the Earth) to get a glimpse of 19th century science wrapped up in an exciting adventure story.

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