H.G. Well’s Mankind: Mudfish

Stalin: Much more could have been done had we Bolsheviks been cleverer.

Wells: No, if human beings were cleverer. It would be a good thing to invent a Five-Year Plan for the reconstruction of the human brain, which obviously lacks many things needed for a perfect social order. [Laughter]

                                                                                                       New Statesman, 1934

Stalin, as it happens, had already commissioned such a project. Not one that would perfect the human mind, as Wells might have hoped; but one that aimed to create a new breed of super-soldier. To achieve this feat, Stalin appointed the biologist and pioneer of artificial insemination, Ilya Ivanov, who endeavoured to shock forward human biology beyond the slow, bumpy gradualism of natural selection, by electing to cross-breed humans with – apes. The experiment happened out predictably. Women volunteered; the volunteers were inseminated with ape-sperm. None conceived.

‘I see you look horrified,’ says Wells’s Doctor Moreau, after discoursing at length on his own experiments in vivisection to the hapless narrator Prendick. Like Doctor Moreau’s ‘humanised animals,’ Ivanov’s super-soldiers were a failure. According to the philosopher John Gray, writing in Black Mass (2008) about this grim chapter of Utopian politics, Ivanov was dutifully exiled to Kazakhstan and died three years before Wells’s interview with Stalin.

Gray dedicates a chapter to Wells in a later book, The Immortalisation Commission, which charts the Edwardian author’s trip to the Soviet Union, and then looks back with irony to his second novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. In that slim, wicked little masterpiece, Moreau’s experiments culminate in what Gray calls a ‘travesty of humanity’. The novel, argues Gray, serves as a warning to those who would attempt to manipulate human biology in the name of utopian ideals.

And yet, only five years later, Wells would advocate selective breeding by a racialist criteria, favouring ‘strong’ Aryan bodies over the blacks and the yellows. Large portions of his later work are a dead weight; unread, untouched, out of print. Saul Bellow’s portrait of him in Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970) shows a woeful, melancholy, great man of letters crawling full of burdens towards death.

Well’s early novels nonetheless remain a timeless and powerful reminder that the strange, prodigious creature, man, is in fact more animal than he is ‘human’; that our place in the cosmos is never entirely assured; that our extinction is inevitable. These are the logical conclusions made by the Enlightenment, which have not yet been and may never be fully absorbed into our self-reflection. For it is the undoing of its own ideals, Christian or Marxist: mankind has discovered that it has no unique destiny.

Jorge Luis Borges was right when he called Wells’s early works Darwinian fables. The ideas in the best of them, The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau(1896), and The War of the Worlds (1898), along with many shorter pieces, are so grand, and so simple to recount, that they may very well be told, and still amaze, a circle of campfire dwellers a thousand years’ hence. It is worth taking the time to ask why.

***

Born in Bromley, Kent, in 1866, Wells was the third son to a shopkeeper, and he shares with Dickens and Kipling the experience of near-failure, which taught him to work hard to avoid the purgatory of lower-middle class life. He obtained a government scholarship to study at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, where he was taught zoology and biology by T.H. Huxley, ally and friend of Charles Darwin. Huxley is still worth reading, because he understood natural selection rather better than most of his contemporaries. In his long essay ‘Evolution and Ethics’ he coined the term ‘struggle for existence’ as a counter to the popular notion, ‘survival of the fittest’. He describes Darwinian evolution as part of a larger ‘cosmic process,’ something far beyond our means to meddle with or accelerate. Wells’s early fiction seems like an exhilaration of those ideas by means of fiction and fantasy.

Approaching middle-age, Wells, after a patchy career in teaching and tutoring, took up writing as a means to pay the bills and rest his quivering body during bouts of sickness. He wrote articles and short stories which won him notice, but great expectations came with The Time Machine, a work which practically invents modern science-fiction.

Pure science was his passion, to begin with. As a prominent thinker and political figure in his own right, he distanced himself from the progressive Fabian set, as evident in his semi-autobiographical novel Ann Veronica. Ann – a faint disguise for the author himself – surveys the biological laboratory at the Imperial College and finds ‘the quiet, methodical chamber’ more conducive to the discovery of truth than the ‘confused movements’ of a Fabian meeting.

Written in 1909, this is merely nostalgia; but Wells also wrote, in a biology textbook from 1893, that the discipline in which he trained teaches us ‘the triumphs of survival, the tragedy of death and extinction… the gruesome lesson of parasitism, and the political satire of colonial organisms’. Zoology, concludes Wells, ‘is indeed a philosophy and a literature to those who can read its symbols’. This passage reads now like a singular point of high density, from which all of his ideas would eventually emerge.

Indeed, many of his earliest writings can be viewed as providing the groundwork for his novels. In ‘Zoological Retrogression,’ a journal article written a few years before The Time Machine, Wells addresses one of the most enduring early myths about Darwinian evolution. To many Victorians, Natural Selection was an Englishman or European, who favoured a particular tribe of mankind for ascendance in perpetuity. This myth inevitably contained its own nemeses: degradation and degeneracy. Adherents to this myth looked around them – in the streets, in the schools, in the bars and the carriages, in the literature and in the factories – and saw worrying signs. If we are not careful, if we don’t do something, our tribe of mankind will regress; it will be wiped out. The race must be saved!

Wishing to console everyone, Wells’s article compares humans to the Silurian mud-fish. This ancient creature, because it was ‘less active and powerful’ than other monsters of the ocean deep, fled landward, and found itself in a murkier, narrower water – a mud-river. In other words, it arrived on land out of nothing less heroic, nothing less triumphal, than pure cowardice. Now, argues, Wells, a misinformed zoologist would class the mud-fish’s behaviour as ‘degenerate’. And yet it is this mud-fish which we now claim as an ancestor to the homo sapiens… In the second part of this essay, I shall consider how Well’s great novels looked at our notion of humanity even more askance and strangely.

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