[This is a post that is loosely related to my series on Thomas Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population,” first published in 1798. You can find an overview of all my posts here that I will keep updated: “Synopsis: What’s Wrong with the Malthusian Argument?”
One reason I am interested in Malthusianism is that it formed the basis for Darwinism and that again for Eugenics. All three ideologies have associated worldviews with a vision that one person can only be there because another is not. Unfortunately, they are still with us and quite popular although many would perhaps reject the original arguments and the conclusions that those before them found inevitable. My purpose here is to think through what went wrong.]
In 1895, H. G. Wells published his novel “The Time Machine,” which would go on to become one of his most-read works. Much later in 1960, the book was also turned into a movie under the direction of George Pal, starring Rod Taylor and Ivette Mimieux. Two further screen adaptations followed in 1978 and 2002 although those were even more loosely based on the original than the first.
If you have only seen one of the movies, you might come away from it with the conclusion: This is an adventure story exploring the possibility of time travel. H. G. Wells only invents a world of the future as a backdrop to make it more interesting and to create suspense. However, if you read the novel, it becomes abundantly clear that that is not what H. G. Wells was trying to get at. The Time Machine itself is only a prop that drives the plot forward. It could have been something else, e.g. a Time Telescope that lets you see into the distant future or “The Clock that Went Backward” dreamt up by Edward Page Mitchell already in 1881. What is important for H. G. Wells is a description of the distant future of mankind, not the technology.
Before I analyze the “Time Machine” in detail, let me give you some information on Wells and where he came from. Herbert George Wells was born on September 21, 1866, i.e. about seven years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” His background was humble, and so Wells went through mediocre schools, unsuccessfully pursued an apprenticeship as a draper, and mostly educated himself. The life-changing breakthrough for this curious and imaginative young man came in 1884, when Wells won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London. There he would study biology under Thomas Henry Huxley, dubbed “Darwin’s Bulldog” at the time for ferociously defending Darwin’s teachings.
After some detours, H. G. Wells eventually earned a Bachelor of Science in zoology from the University of London External Programme. He then became a teacher at Henley House School. His literary career began in 1893 in earnest with the publication of his first two books which contained non-fiction: “Honours Physiography” and “Text-book of Biology/Zoology.” But already long before that, Wells had started writing fiction that took science seriously. In his short story “The Chronic Argonauts” from 1888, a Time Machine takes central stage for the first time. But there was no imagined future yet. Then in 1894, H. G. Wells landed a first book contract for his novel “The Lord of the Dynamos.” More works followed over the years that brought Wells world renown, among them “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (1896), “The Invisible Man” (1897), and “The War of the Worlds” (1898).
As a scientist trained in biology, H. G. Wells happened to be, as the saying goes, at the right time and in the right place: London. Not only did he get to know T. H. Huxley in person, he also befriended the zoologist E. Ray Lankester (1847–1929) who already in 1880 had published a book on “Degeneration.” The two of them not only shared an interest in biology, but also a similar political outlook. H. G. Wells had been attracted to the teachings of the socialist Fabian Society, and so was Lankester. The latter had been a friend of Karl Marx who lived in exile in London until his death in 1883. What Wells and Lankester found especially interesting was the application of Darwinian thought to the human species: How would evolution work for humankind in the future?
E. Ray Lankaster had a particular angle from which he approached the question. As a scientist, he had worked on one specific topic: degeneration. While most Darwinists seemed to assume that evolution could only lead forward and upward to ever more sophisticated creatures, Lankester had come across some exemplars that contradicted this. There are, for example, lizards with only rudimentary legs that stop growing at an early age. Other lizards have lost two legs completely. And snakes have lost them altogether. But there were cases that were even more bizarre than that.
Barnacles are a species that is related to crabs and lobsters. But they are so unlike them that early biologists classified them along with mussles and snails as Mollusca. That is understandable because most species of barnacles have a rather simple building plan: They have no true heart, hardly a neural system, almost no sensory organs. But they have shells and attach themselves permanently to something solid, e.g. a whale or a wooden ship. Barnacles have only two passtimes: they digest food that floats around and they try to have sex with other barnacles which is hard because they are sessile and cannot move. They are mostly hermaphrodites and have perhaps the longest penises of any species relative to their body size. What they do with them is angle for another barnacle that sits nearby.
In 1830, John Vaughan Thompson realized that barnacles develop from a larva, the nauplius, which is very similar to the larva of crabs or lobsters. Only later do they attach themselves by their head to a permanent domicile and morph into a rather simple adult form which loses much of its previous structure, along with it also its brain. Hermann Burmeister eventually proposed to move them to another phylum in 1834, that of crabs and lobsters. Also Charles Darwin took an interest in barnacles and dedicated two monographs to them in 1851 and 1854.
But it gets even weirder than that. Sacculina is a subspecies of barnacles that lives parasitically on crabs, who are in a way their relatives. The female Sacculina larva searches for a joint on the crab. When she finds one she injects her whole body into the crab from there, moves through it and the grows out of it as a sac at the bottom where the crab’s eggs would normally be. The female Sacculina is not much more than this sac filled with eggs, and gets her food directly from the crab’s body. If barnacles were hard to identify as relatives of the crabs, Sacculina was even harder to spot. Only their larvae betrayed them which are again very similar to those of crabs and lobsters.
After the female Sacculina has made the crab her home, she infertilizes it. And if it is a male crab, she forces it to release hormones that make it grow and act like a female crab. The male Sacculina swims around and looks for a female Sacculina protruding from a crab. He has a rather brutal idea of having sex: He implants himself into her body and fertilizes her eggs. The infertilized and feminized crab now behaves as if the eggs were its own, finds a rock, and after releasing the Sacculina eggs stirs the water with its claw to help the brood.
Lankester gives some further examples along those lines where some species basically starts out with a similar building plan as a related and sophisticated species, but then develops into a rather simple form which sometimes even does away with its brain. Sea squirts, called Ascidians by Lankester, are one example here.
After bringing these exemplars together, E. Ray Lankester summarized the conditions that make degeneration probable in his view (Degeneration, 1880, p.52):
Roughly then we may sum up the immediate antecedents of degenerative evolution as, 1, Parasitism; 2, Fixity or immobility; 3, Vegetative nutrition; 4, Excessive reduction of size.
He explains the first case as resulting from a lifestyle that has no use for higher functions anymore. A parasite can feed itself directly from the host. A sessile species has no use for locomotion, apart perhaps from stirring the water to make food drift into it. It also has little or no use for sensory functions or a brain because it cannot react to stimuli anyway. Vegatative nutrition is simpler than predation, and miniaturization puts constraints on how much sophistication a species can support.
Of course, E. Ray Lankester did not stop at his rather arcane examples like barnacles or sea squirts, but immediately wondered what it all meant for humankind (Degeneration, p.58–61). He starts with observations on the degeneration of languages:
Under certain conditions, in the mouths and minds of this or that branch of a race, a highly elaborate language has sometimes degenerated and become no longer fit to express complex or subtle conceptions, but only such as are simpler and more obvious.
He continues with an explanation for why cultures decline which he interprets as driven by biology:
High states of civilisation have decayed and given place to low and degenerate states. […] Whilst the hypothesis of universal degeneration as an explanation of savage races has been justly discarded, it yet appears that degeneration has a very large share in the explanation of the condition of the most barbarous races, such as the Fuegians, the Bushmen, and even the Australians. They exhibit evidence of being descended from ancestors more cultivated than themselves.
He then turns to what really interests him:
With regard to ourselves, the white races of Europe, the possibility of degeneration seems to be worth some consideration. […] we are accustomed to regard ourselves as necessarily progressing, as necessarily having arrived at a higher and more elaborated condition than that which our ancestors reached, and as destined to progress still further. On the other hand, it is well to remember that we are subject to the general laws of evolution, and are as likely to degenerate as to progress. […] Does the reason of the average man of civilised Europe stand out clearly as an evidence of progress when compared with that of the men of bygone ages? Are all the inventions and figments of human superstition and folly, the self-inflicted torturing of mind, the reiterated substitution of wrong for right, and of falsehood for truth, which disfigure our modern civilisation — are these evidences of progress? In such respects we have at least reason to fear that we may be degenerate. Possibly we are all drifting, tending to the condition of intellectual Barnacles or Ascidians.
With this dim view of human progress, Lankester then puts his hope on controlling evolution:
There is only one means of estimating our position, only one means of so shaping our conduct that we may with certainty avoid degeneration and keep an onward course. We are as a race more fortunate than our ruined cousins — the degenerate Ascidians. For us it is possible to ascertain what will conduce to our higher development, what will favour our degeneration. To us has been given the power to know the causes of things, and by the use of this power it is possible for us to control our destinies.
When you read these lines, keep in mind that E. Ray Lankester was not some kind of extreme right-winger, but a Socialist. Actually, this explains why he is so concerned. The association of Socialism and eugenics at the time is usually shrugged off as accidental, like Socialists perhaps had some aesthetic views that had nothing to do with their politics. But that was not the case. The nagging problem for Lankester,— and influenced by him also Wells — was this: If Socialism brings all the good things: material wealth, security, an end to toil and competition, does this not mean that it also sets humankind on a path to becoming brainless “intellectual Barnacles or Ascidians?”
Unlike Marx who even in the midst of fantastic progress never despaired of his view that things were getting ever worse, Lankester accepted that Capitalism produced more and more wealth, made life easier, safer, more comfortable. But then as a Socialist, he still could view this as a problem, and bring an indictment against the system: It leads to degeneration exactly because of all this progress, but at the same time it lacks the means to counter this sinister development.
Socialism, on the contrary, has a trump card up its sleeve: It is into planning society, and this provides the means to “control our destinies” by which Lankester means the application of eugenics. The reasoning is not outspoken, but it is inevitable if you connect the dots. And if you follow this line of thought, then it becomes apparent why there was nothing accidental about the connection between Socialism and eugenics. Quite the opposite: one necessarily follows from the other. If you want Socialism, you need eugenics. And if you want eugenics, then you need Socialism.
In this light, it is easy to interpret what H. G. Wells wanted to convey with his “Time Machine,” which is actually a pretty faithful rendition of Lankester’s theories, only pursuing their political implication somewhat further. Too speculative for a scientist, but just the ingredient that a writer needs. It is quite conceivable that E. Ray Lankester lurks in the background and was involved in developing the plot. It is known that he and Wells cooperated also in this regard.
Maybe most readers know the novel, but many have perhaps also passed over the relevant passages. That’s why I will provide a condensed version focusing on the underlying theory.
The unnamed Time Traveller (in the 1960 movie identified with H. G. Wells himself) recounts his journey to the year 802,701 AD. At first sight, everything in the future looks nice: The climate is very mild (Lankester pondered whether it would be brought under human control at some point in the future, cf. The Kingdom of Man, 1907, p.44). Diseases have ceased to exist (Lankester explained them as a consequence of human interference with nature, but was sanguine about the possibility to eradicate them, cf. loc. cit., p.32–41).
Then the Time Traveller meets the Eloi who are remotely human. He expects them to be far more advanced, but finds to his surprise that they are not. Their language is rudimentary and lends itself only to simple thought. All in all, they appear to be “on the intellectual level of one of our five-year-old children.” Wells here draws on another theory of Lankester‘s that in some species the adult stage is never reached, which he labeled “super-larvation” (now called “neoteny”).
The Eloi have a purely vegetarian diet, and live on various types of fruits which is in keeping with Lankester’s third condition that makes degeneration likely. And then the male and female Eloi are almost indistinguishable, i.e. hermaphroditic. There is also no major difference between children and adults either:
In costume, and in all the differences of texture and bearing that now mark off the sexes from each other, these people of the future were alike. And the children seemed to my eyes to be but the miniatures of their parents. I judged, then, that the children of that time were extremely precocious, physically at least, and I found afterwards abundant verification of my opinion.
Also in other regards, the Eloi are childlike. They are frail and only four-feet high. The Time Traveller describes their appearance as a “Dresden-china type of prettiness,” and more specifically:
Their hair, which was uniformly curly, came to a sharp end at the neck and cheek; there was not the faintest suggestion of it on the face, and their ears were singularly minute. The mouths were small, with bright red, rather thin lips, and the little chins ran to a point.
Basically, this illustrates the point that the sensory functions of the Eloi are only rudimentary. When they sleep they also huddle down in droves, somewhat like barnacles.
Only later, the Time Traveller learns about another species: the Morlock who have apparently also degenerated. They only live underground as troglodytes and operate machines that they do not understand any longer. In many ways, they are described as ape-like and have a short stature, ie. they are miniaturized like the Eloi. But the Morlocks are carnivores, which means they are somewhat more intelligent. They have become effectively cannibals who prey on the Eloi. Due to their life in the dark, the Morlocks cannot bear bright light and only venture out from dusk till dawn. That’s when things become dangerous for the Eloi who are naive and docile in general, but have evolved a notable fear of the dark.
As the Time Traveller begins to understand, the Eloi and Morlocks have developed out of a class system where the upper classes enjoyed the good things in life, while the lower classes toiled underground. But the former had it too good and that led to their mental degeneration, while the latter have evolved into the brutal creatures fitting for their harsh living conditions.
Of course, this is a parable from a Socialist point of view. And this once more shows how political ideas were intertwined for Wells with his interest in eugenics. The connection is not accidental.
It is sometimes claimed that Wells‘ preoccupation with eugenics was only a passing phase and came soon to an end after the publication of the “Time Machine“ in 1895. He would put his hope on education from then on. (Cf. Mike Jay: “Man of the Year Million,” Times Literary Supplement, September 1997.) But then this is probably a misreading as becomes clear if you consult E. Ray Lankester‘s “The Kingdom of Man” published in 1907.
What changed was that in the mid-1890s the implicit Lamarckianism of both Lankester and Wells ran into a problem. In a series of experiments, the German biologist August Weismann (1834–1914) demonstrated that acquired characteristics could not become heritable. To prove his point, he cut the tails off mice for several generations. Lamarckism predicts that the descendents at some point would lose their tails altogether. But that didn’t happen. The principle is now known as the “Weismann barrier”: heritability runs through germ cells only, not through somatic (body) cells.
That killed Lamarckism although strictly speaking it only showed that tails were an exception to the principle. But then it had been one of Lamarck’s central claims that organs that fell out of use would disappear. Lamarckism refused to die and dragged on to some extent well into the 20th century. Just like many other failed theories, it could be salvaged by a trick that had also kept the Ptolemaic system of astronomy — that the sun, moon, and stars circled around the Earth — on life support: You explain any problems away by adding “epicycles” as adhoc explanations that fix a specific problem, but keep the theory together.
Weismann’s research must have been a huge blow to Lankester and Wells because his result ruled out rather rapid evolution as was assumed in “The Time Machine.” Together with evidence from prehistorical humans, it all led to the conclusion that human evolution was much slower than previously thought, and that perhaps natural selection had not played a major role in it for hundreds of thousands of years. However, that contradicted the view in “The Time Machine.” If you have Elois and Morlocks in 802,701 AD who still live in the ruins of civilization at its peak, then the split into two species could only have been rather fast, maybe within a few thousand or ten thousand years.
Lankester regrouped his argument after this challenge, and embraced a new one. As he explains it in “The Kingdom of Man,” humankind is “Nature’s insurgent son” in that it had escaped natural selection with its mental powers. That also gave Lankester hope because it provided an escape from the degeneration that he still found inevitable (p.40–41, not the Malthusian claims about inevitable population growth strewn in):
By rebelling against Nature’s method, Man has made himself the only animal which constantly increases in numbers. Whenever disease is controlled his increase will be still more rapid than at present. At the same time no attempt at present has been made by the more advanced communities of civilized men to prevent the multiplication of the weakly or of those liable to congenital disease. […] Man can only deal with this difficulty created by his own departure from Nature to which he can never return by thoroughly investigating the laws of breeding and heredity, and proceeding to apply a control to human multiplication based upon certain and indisputable knowledge.
Knowledge here is not an alternative to eugenics, far from it, but the road to it. And H. G. Wells does not dissent from this line of thought in his pronouncements at the time. Why should he when more and more of his Fabian socialist comrades embraced eugenics? His only problem with it was that it should concentrate on eliminating the unfit while he objected to breeding the fit. Here is what he has to say in 1904:
I believe that now and always the conscious selection of the best for reproduction will be impossible; that to propose it is to display a fundamental misunderstanding of what individuality implies […] It is in the sterilisation of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.
It is quite interesting to understand why Wells was so skeptical regarding breeding of “the best.” One speculative explanation is that Wells may have had misgivings whether eugenic breeders could have missed a talent like his. He came from a poor background and had pursued an erratic career, two things that would have made him suspicious in the eyes of an eugenic engineer. Yet, he still advocated the weeding-out part of the program, which is actually far more ominous.
Much is made of Wells‘ declaration in “The Rights of Man: Or What Are We Fighting For?” written in 1940. There he counts among the human rights “a prohibition on mutilation, sterilization, torture, and any bodily punishment.” You could read this as a recantation of sorts. But then I am not sure whether it is really incompatible with allowing the sterilization of “failure” as an exception. The context are cruel methods of punishment or persecution, and not a discussion of Eugenics.
I would expect a few more words in his works, something like: “I am sorry, I have propagated Eugenics for half a century. But now I see I was wrong. I have to apologize for my failure, and those are my reasons to reject it now.” Perhaps there is some such quote, I am not an expert on H. G Wells and may have missed something. So I will give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, this is not about him and his responsibility, just an illustration of how many people went wrong at the time and what made them so obsessed about the subject.