H.G. Wells’s Mankind: Birthright

‘For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night’.

                                                                                                              The Book of Psalms, 90:4

Wells wrote in a moment of transition between two major literary periods and, like other writers of his generation, often slips through the gaps between them. He wrote during a rather murky period in political history, when many writers were often so wrong and so sinister – and are now impossibly dated – in their response to the great questions of their time. Even so, Wells deserves to remain distinguished among them; he is arguably the greatest writer of popular science, that young and necessary genre. In the final part of this essay, I shall consider his place in it.

Wells is often compared to his contemporary, George Bernard Shaw, a comparison which Wells wonders about in his autobiography. ‘Shaw makes Evolution something brighter and softer,’ he says, ‘by endowing it with an ultimately benevolent life force, quite uncritically I feel’.

‘Soft’ is a curious word for Shaw’s understanding of evolution. He famously argued that by selective breeding the state can ‘replace man by the superman’. Like Wells, he believes progress is an illusion, except that by progress he means Liberalism, for which the poor man ‘votes in vain’. In effect, he confuses the long history of our evolution with the incomparably short history of human society. Not much in his writing seems so ridiculous to our ears than his recommendation that the government establish a State Department for Evolution. A State Department to Renew the Life-Cycle of the Sun would hardly be worse.

Granted, Shaw’s ideas about evolution are certainly ‘softer’ than the kind of racialist selective breeding a mature Wells would come to recommend. But by comparing Shaw’s Evolution with that of Moreau and War of the Worlds, we see how Wells possesses a much clearer understanding – indeed, a harder and darker understanding – of Darwinian evolution. As function of the natural realm, it is not something we can accelerate or perfect; it is not something a government body can wield. Like no other writer of fiction, Wells evokes the brutality of the ‘cosmic process’ which, beyond all our endeavours, is our beginning and our end.

***

Wells is more comparable to authors in our own time, who write about scientific ideas in a literary language. I am not only thinking of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, but also Yuval Noah Harari, and indeed John Gray, whose works are marked by their attempts to write about homo sapiens as if it is only another species, its tale already told. In Straw Dogs, Gray claims that epidemiology and microbiology are better ‘guides’ to our future than any utopian ideology or program. He is brilliant both as a philosopher and as a writer, and some passages of Straw Dogs really do read as if they have been written by an otherworldly hand. ‘Later or sooner,’ he writes,

‘[Homo rapiens] will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover. Long after the traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.’

I have little doubt that H.G. Wells would nod along in agreement. What Gray writes here is, surely, a fact. But to regard this as a suitable punishment for our species, as lesser writers than Gray – certainly to be found in academic circles and animal rights groups – would argue, is to imply that there is a moral order to the universe. If so, like all gods, this one would be a kind of evil. Why? Once again, Wells’s fables provide us with an answer.

Towards the end of Worlds, after the Martians are laid to waste by a plague of bacteria ‘(our microscopic allies’), the narrator reflects on our strange victory:

‘These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things – taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting-power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle… By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth… For neither do men live nor die in vain.’

The tale of our ancestors: the toll of a billion deaths. Turn this idea over in your head only for a moment, and it begins to seem like one of the most sublime facts of our age. Here is a reminder that the cosmic process, even as it measures our insignificance, is also the measure of our worth; and that of every other living thing.

Thus Wells’s response to the conclusions of biology and history are more measured and more palatable to those who are yet unable to relinquish the idea that there is a thing called humanity, with its own special destiny. Probably members of our tribe will never be able to relinquish this idea, so long as we continue to tell stories, and so long as there is suffering, and death.

Such is the reason we find ourselves in these strange circumstances: as an animal that sits on chairs, follows timetables, and looks out of windows, and one that alters the the face of the Earth like a fallen asteroid. We are Nature’s own undoing, although we may never come to truly understand the forces that propelled us to these circumstances, nor the ones which will, eventually, put an end to our loneliness. For all our days, as the Pslamist sings, are passed away in thy wrathwe spend our years as a tale that is told.

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