Wednesday, September 05, 2012

HG Wells, the Book of Nature, and the Ever Continuing Processes of Evolution

H.G. Wells , c1890It is sometimes forgotten that the great early science fiction author HG Wells studied biology under Thomas Henry Huxley (known as "Darwin's Bulldog") and earned a Bachelor's degree in Zoology. He taught science for a number of years before becoming a full time writer. He wrote both non-fiction and fiction, with similar themes in both sorts of works. For example, in the 1893 edition of his Text-Book of Biology, he writes of the importance of evolution:
It is in the demonstration of this wonderful unity in life, only the more confirmed the more exhaustive our analysis becomes, that the educational value and human interest of biology chiefly lies. In the place of disconnected species of animals, arbitrarily created, and a belief in the settled inexplicable, the student finds an enlightening realization of uniform and active causes beneath an apparent diversity. And the world is not made and dead like a cardboard model or a child's toy, but a living equilibrium; and every day and every hour, every living thing is being weighed in the balance and found sufficient or wanting. 
He concludes that the "book of nature" is as dramatic as a novel.
In the book of nature there are written, for instance, the triumphs of survival, the tragedy of death and extinction, the tragi-comedy of degradation and inheritance, the gruesome lesson of parasitism, and the political satire of colonial organisms. Zoology is, indeed, a philosophy and a literature to those who can read its symbols.
It's not surprising, then, that his 1895 novella The Time Machine the drama derives at least in part from the time traveler's discovery that 800,000 years in the future humanity had evolved into two different species, the beautiful but passive and not particularly bright Eloi, descended from the aristocracy, and the monstrous machine-using Morlocks, originally the working class.

The original serialized version of The Time Machine included a chapter in which the time traveler journeys even further into the distant future and finds that humans have evolved further into grey-furred herbivores. Wells' time traveler concludes that
If you come to think, there is no reason why a degenerate humanity should not come at last to differentiate into as many species as the descendants of the mud fish who fathered all the land vertebrates.
(This chapter was excluded in the book edition, but later published separately as the short story "The Grey Man".)

This is quite different from the popular view of evolution as a ladder, with humans occupying the top-most rung and thus never changing, except, perhaps, to become smarter, longer lived, or otherwise "improved".

It is not that much of a surprise, then, that scientific journal Nature's contemporary review of The Time Machine pointed specifically to Wells' use of realistic science in the narrative.
Apart from its merits as a clever piece of imagination, the story is well worth the attention of the scientific reader, for the reason that it is based so far as possible on scientific data, and while not taking it too seriously, it helps one to get a connected idea of the possible results of the ever-continuing processes of evolution.  Cosmical evolution, it may be remarked, is in some degree subject to mathematical investigations [...] It is naturally in the domain of social and organic evolution that the imagination finds its greatest scope.
I think of this when science fiction writers play fast and loose with evolutionary biology while going into excruciatingly accurate details about planetary orbits or the engineering details of improbable alien artifacts or future technologies. There's no reason not to at least try to be as accurate in the details of evolutionary science, as Wells tried to do well over a century ago.

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Image: Picture HG Wells about 1890 by LSE Library on Flickr (no known copyright restrictions)


  1. Jackie K10:07 AM

    Most interesting, fascinating comments. Thanks for your research!

  2. Glad you enjoyed the article!


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