Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

Socialists, eugenics and time travel

Leave a comment

A bit of a longer post this time. A recentish piece by Jonathan Freedland on socialism’s past enthusiasm for eugenics got me thinking about (sorry that should read ‘has given me an excuse to write about’) one of those literary Fabians, H.G. Wells, and how he provides an interesting case study on this topic.

A neon sign, Venice

At the turn of the 20th Century, Wells was an enthusiastic eugenicist. In 1904 he wrote:

“The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”

Eugenics was by no means only a socialist preoccupation, but Freedland rightly recognises that neither was it at odds with the Victorian-Edwardian Fabianism that it prospered under, with their love of Science and Progress and Planning and Engineering, and other grand ideas starting with capital letters. Of all Wells’ fictional work, The Time Machine (1895) is a useful little prism through which to examine the reasons that eugenics held such allure for ‘progressive’ thinkers in the late nineteenth century. The book post-dates the first coining of the word by Francis Galton in 1883 but predates its heyday in Britain and America. The Time Machine is sometimes précised as an early allegorical manifesto for corrective breeding: i.e. we have to do something about these pesky lower classes and do some positive eugenics among the upper classes in case the latter become fatted calves enslaved to the former. Indeed, in 1912 Irving Fisher told the Eugenics Research Association that: “The Nordic race will… vanish or lose its dominance if, in fact, the whole human race does not sink so low as to become the prey, as H. G. Wells images, of some less degenerate animal!” But we should not judge a book by its readers, and in fact it is a little more complicated than that.

Darwin begat Huxley begat Wells

A statue of Darwin in the Natural History Museum, OxfordH.G. Wells was born only seven years after the publication of The Origin of Species, a work that gave rise to that difficult and inaccurate phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’. This was coined, not by Darwin, but by social philosopher Herbert Spencer, and Darwin then included it in later editions of his magnum opus. As for Spencer, he was a fierce proponent of Social Darwinism, more of which later. The phrase itself is flawed by its circularity: Who survives? The fittest. Who are the fittest? Those who survive. Or as Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn put it,

“The unfit die, the fit both live and thrive.
Alas, who says so? They who do survive.”

A more correct way of looking at evolution through natural selection is the survival and, crucially, reproduction of the best fitted to a particular environment. But the phrase stuck, and this idea of a sort of abstract, non-contextual superiority easily implanted itself in the late Victorian psyche.

In the 1880s Wells attended TH Huxley’s biology lectures, and the influence of ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ on the writer was striking. Wells summed it up in 1935 essay written for The Listener:

“I was Huxley’s disciple in 1885, and I am proud to call myself his disciple in 1935. I wish I had followed his example of cool-headed deliberate thinking, plain statement and perfect sincerity more completely. But few of us have the steadfastness of his mental quality. Clear thought is the quintessence of human life.”

In 1895 Wells sent a copy of The Time Machine to Huxley, months before the eminent scientist died.

The central idea of The Time Machine is evolution: Wells’ speculation of the evolutionary fate of mankind in the year 802,701. It is an extrapolation of 1895: a late-Victorian future. The pale surface-living Eloi are a degenerated aristocracy, their name drawn from Christ’s words from the cross – ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ (‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’). The subterranean ape-like Morlocks are the malevolent future for the downtrodden Victorian working classes. They are named perhaps after Moloch, an Old Testament pagan god and one of Milton’s fallen Angels in Paradise Lost, associated with human sacrifice.

The Eloi have evolved to suit a world free of the selection pressures that make it necessary for mankind to be resourceful, intelligent and strong. Without these selection pressures, the Eloi have become weak and stupid. (Although in the 1960s film adaptation they for some reason still speak perfect English.) Wells’ idea of an evolutionary decadence is flawed. Certainly biological adaptations that become superfluous ‘evolve out’ to vestigiality – tails, appendices, and so on – but they also tend to carry a selective disadvantage that is acted upon. It is difficult to see what selective disadvantage intelligence might have (except perhaps in a Republican Party primary).

More crucially, if mankind really has eradicated all dangers, he has also eradicated all selection pressures. If all children survive, then there is no differential reproduction and survival for natural selection to act upon. For Wells’ vision to occur, a Lamarckian process of evolution would have to hold true: each generation becoming more and more indolent and stupid and passing onto its offspring these acquired characteristics. Of course in 1895 evolution was a young discipline, and even in later editions of Origin, Darwin ends up falling back on a Lamarckian explanation for certain evolutionary changes, along with a vague form of blending inheritance that gives natural selection little to grasp. It was not really until the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1920s and 30s that the relationship between inheritance and selection became better understood.

Genetics has also done much to kick out that nasty little bedfellow of eugenics, ‘scientific racism’: the idea that biology could be used to prove racial superiority and inferiority. Wells’ own views on race shifted. He is often quoted from 1901’s Anticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought, and it doesn’t do him any favours. We find him asking, towards the end of the book: “And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races?” His answer, after a cringeworthy diversion about “The Jew” is, in part:

“And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go… So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear”

Stung by the criticism that these views generated (so we cannot excuse his views as merely being those of his time), Wells had a rethink. In 1905’s A Modern Utopia we find him struggling with his prejudices (the language is often painful), but nonetheless rejecting notions of racial superiority and inferiority, and the widely held view at the time of the dangers of “racial admixture.” In fact he discards the idea of race as a biological category, and grasps the understanding (which genetics later confirmed) that the differences between individuals within a population is greater than that between populations. He even finds time to be rude about racists: “I talk upon racial qualities to all men who have had opportunities of close observation, and I find that their insistence upon these differences is usually in inverse proportion to their intelligence.” Unfortunately he then sullies his position by saying that if a hypothetical “inferior” race were to be identified they would have to be peacefully “eliminated” in the creation of the World State.

Perhaps he is trying to accommodate his shifting views, to avoid cognitive dissonance. Another two years later and he is firmer:

“I am convinced myself that there is no more evil thing in this present world than race prejudice; none at all. I write deliberately – it is the worst single thing in life now. It justifies and holds together more baseness, cruelty and abomination than any other sort of error in the world. Through its body runs the black blood of coarse lust, suspicion, jealousy and persecution and all the darkest poison of the human soul…It is a monster begotten of natural instincts and intellectual confusion, to be fought against by all men of good intent, each in our dispersed modern manner doing his fragmentary, inestimable share.” (‘Race Prejudice’, The Independent, 14 February 1907)

Just as he grew to reject racism, Wells was man who lived long enough to see where the practical application of eugenics could lead. As an older man he became critical of many of his own youthful views. For instance, in light of the Nazi genocide, he wrote an apology to Chaim Weizmann (later to become the first President of Israel) for his earlier statements.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

Some things aren’t laissez-faire

To return to The Time Machine, it is the nocturnal Morlocks with their bleached skin; and large, light-sensitive eyes that present a better allegory of the power of selection. Says the Time Traveller:

“Proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position… There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants… This tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky… It had gone deeper and deeper into larger and even larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein…  Even now, does not at East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?”

They have certainly become the ‘best fitted’ to their environment, with real selection pressure inherited from the harsh conditions and high infant mortality of their Victorian forebears.

Images of this sunless world can be found in Wells’ own lower middle class childhood. As an infant he would have spent a great deal of time in the basement of his parents’ shop in Bromley. Towards the top of the wall was a grating and a window, through which the young Wells could glimpse the outside world, almost entirely in terms of passing feet. The experience was reinforced by life at the mansion where his mother went as house-keeper, and in which the servants moved unseen by the masters through a labyrinth of underground tunnels.

The Time Traveller argues that the widening physical gulf between the classes

“will make that exchange between class and class that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.”

This idea of two populations being physically separated until sufficient biological differences emerge that prevent interbreeding is a classic pattern of speciation defined by geography. If anything this presents an argument not for a eugenic restriction or promotion of one class above another, but instead for a reduction of class divisions, for marriage across the social spectrum – for more social mobility.

And this is where Wells’ biological and social concerns mesh. Although his faith in the ideology vacillated though his life, Wells defined himself as a socialist. In his Experiments in Autobiography (1934), he recalled how “we denounced individualism; we denounced laissez-faire.” The ownership of the land and industrial capital was to be “vested in the community… what we saw as in a vision was a world without a scramble for possession and without the motive of proprietary advantage crippling and vitiating every creative and intellectual effort.” To all the problems of society under capitalism, “socialism was proclaimed as a completed panacea.”

Laissez-faire, the policy of non-intervention by government in individual or industrial monetary affairs, was willing to see the weakest go to the wall in the interest of social and economic progress. In The Man Versus the State (1873), Herbert Spencer (he of ‘survival of the fittest’) defended this position, and attacked all forms of state interference as impinging upon individual freedom. It was this economic and social bear pit, not a Wellsian socialism, that often had the upper hand in political discourse at the turn of the century. There may seem a contradiction between individualism and conformity that characterised Victorian Britain, but it’s a circle that the establishment has squared many times: be an individual, but be a decent chap and be the right kind of individual. As for Imperialism, well the survival of the fittest was easily stretched to apply to whole nations. And today, it is ironic that those, in the USA at least, who deny Darwinian theory the loudest seem keenest to impose a weakest-to-the-wall Darwinian approach to public policy.

In this sense, Freedland is wrong to elide eugenics, socialism and Social Darwinism so neatly, and it cannot easily be said that eugenics (the desire for selective birth) inevitably led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and policies of mass extermination. What led there was a cocktail of all the machinations of history, eugenics, Social Darwinism, imperialism, anti-Semitism, occultist nonsense… I could go on.

As for the year 802,701, Wells gives us the consequences of a world where laissez-faire has been given free rein, but with a twist that the Social Darwinists would not have predicted. Those like Spencer argued that people were in socially deprived conditions because they were biologically weaker, but if anything it’s the Morlocks who have the evolutionary upper hand. Wells is both rejecting the social conditions being generated by laissez faire and warning of its potential evolutionary consequences. It is true that concern at the conditions of the poor seems more one based in fear than altruism: the allegorical message is that unless the working classes are freed from their shackles (or at least have their shackles more comfortably fitted), they will eventually turn on their oppressors. This was an important motivator in Fabianism: the introduction of reforms was as important to head off revolutionary sentiment as it was to improve the welfare of the working class. “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism,” begins the Communist Manifesto (1848), and what are the Morlocks if not pallid and spectre-like?

When the Time Traveller initially thinks he has encountered communism – in fact among the Eloi – he reacts quite favourably to it, but it seems a polite sort of communism for the privileged – the sort of communism practiced by Eton-educated student Marxists, full of radical ideas, expensive wine and a future career in the city. Rather than revolution, the Time traveller hopes that one day, “the whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating”. Establishment socialism has long carried with it a sense that the goal is that everyone should be nice, polite middle class people. I’m reminded of Hermione in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying:

“Of course I know you’re a Socialist. So am I. I mean we’re all Socialists nowadays. But I don’t see why you have to give all your money away and make friends with the lower classes. You can be a Socialist and have a good time, that’s what I say.”

Eugenics and Utopianism

In his 1941 essay, Wells, Hitler and the World State, Orwell somewhat begrudgingly admits Wells’ influence, but then cuts him down to size:

Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Valencia“The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed. Only, just the singleness of mind, the one-sided imagination that made him seem like an inspired prophet in the Edwardian age, make him a shallow, inadequate thinker now.”

Wells’ naïve faith in scientific progress alone to deliver humanity from its baser urges is rather well summed up by this passage:

“If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past… On one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man.” But, Orwell goes on a little later: “unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good… Modern German is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous.”

(I’d argue that science, technology and learning are not always the same. Nazi Germany was more technological than Britain in the 1940s, but it was not necessarily more scientific. Nazism had as many if not more characteristics of a romantic and religious phenomenon than it did of a sceptical, scientific one, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Wells became too much of the Utopian in his life, and Utopias are dangerous places, where the liberty of the individual more often than not ends up subsumed to the will of society. But it was this same Utopianism that made eugenics so attractive to socialists a century ago: the collective benefit would be worth the individual pain.

The interesting thing about 29-year-old Wells of The Time Machine, however, is his anti-utopianism, his pessimism. Before the truth dawns on him, the Time Traveller refers to the year 802,701 as a “Golden Age”, but this wrong-headed optimism is mercilessly undermined as the true picture of the future is revealed.

Fin de siècle Britain was chock full of Utopianism. A central text was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) in which a young man falls into a hypnotic sleep and wakes in the year 2000 to a highly mechanised society where poverty and injustice have disappeared, private capitalism has been replaced by public ownership, and everything is operated in the interests of the harmony of the State. And in 1890 William Morris published News from Nowhere – in part a critical response to Looking Backward – which features a man who wakes after a long sleep to find himself in the twenty-first century, in a rural, rational, communistic Britain of skilled craftsman and youthful, beautiful people. Wells is taking the ideas of both an ordered mechanised world and a rural idyll, and overturning them. He is turning the Victorian dreams of a Utopia into a nightmare; twisting the promise of progress and harmony into a warning of regression and conflict.

And as shocking to the Victorians as the Eloi and Morlocks is the future that the Time Traveller finds even further forward in time. There were those who looked forward to a worldly Utopia, but there were also those who looked forward to the Utopia of the Second Coming, salvation and paradise. What the Traveller finds at the end of time, however, is a bitterly cold earth with a dying sun, where the only signs of life are lichens and mosses, and a black “round thing, the size of a football… hopping fitfully about” on the shore. The criticism that Wells received for this grey, godless universe was at least in part to account for his inclusion in The War of the Worlds the message that the Martians were “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth”. Wells may allow his narrator to thank God for the Earth’s salvation, but the author makes sure that we know that it is the “virtue of this natural selection” that has allowed humans to have developed resistance to the germs that kill the Martians. Wells claims to have been “born blaspheming,” and fully embraced his atheism at age fifteen as “the last rack of a peevish son-crucifying Deity dissolved away into blue sky” (Experiments in Autobiography, 1934). But he retained a sort of pantheist spirituality – a theist if not a deist.

At the end of his life Wells returned to his youthful pessimism. In his last book Mind at the End of its Tether (1945), he doesn’t see much for the future of man. But there are echoes still of those early eugenic ideas:

“Man must go steeply up or down and the odds seem to be all in favour of his going down and out. If he goes up, then so great is the adaptation demanded of him that he must cease to be a man. Ordinary man is at the end of his tether. Only a small, highly adaptable minority of the species can possibly survive… Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”

In his preface to the 1941 edition of The War in the Air, Wells had stated that his epitaph should be: “I told you so. You damned fools.” If Wells’ life and writing tell us anything it is probably that before we get too smug about the foolish ideas of our ancestors, we should think about which of the views that are now commonly held will be regarded 100 years hence as abominable, misguided or as having led us once again to disaster. Hmm, that time machine might come in handy.

H.G. Wells looking glum (c.1890)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s