Evolution’s influence in pulp fiction!

This February 12th will be the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution which forms the cornerstone of modern biology.  Being that this birthday coincides nicely with the February 15th deadline of The Giant’s Shoulders, I wanted to write something about the influence of Darwin’s theory.

The problem, however, is that I’m not a biologist, and have no training to meaningfully expound upon the significance of Darwin’s work in biology (and would likely be biologically lynched if I tried).  My other blogging interest, however, is in pulp horror and science fiction, and the theory of evolution made a huge impression of the authors of such weird tales, in both positive and negative ways.

As my tribute to the memory of Darwin, I thought I’d take a look at some of the references to evolution in science fiction and horror in the years following its discovery!  We’ll look at stories from almost the time of the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) to the 1930s.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but represents some of the tales I’ve come across recently.

The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1871).  The Coming Race represents one of the very earliest science fiction stories, and I’ve written a detailed post about it previously.  Bulwer-Lytton’s story tells the tale of a man who discovers a highly advanced utopian civilization, Vril-ya, nestled in caverns deep below the earth.   The story contains many elements which would eventually become science fiction staples: ray guns, personal flying devices, and robots (automatons).  In spite of this forward-thinking, Bulwer-Lytton’s story is still centered on a more or less Biblical view of the world, and he takes some satirical shots at the theory of evolution.

Note the following discussion of Vril-ya history between the narrator and his host:

“Pardon me,” answered Aph-Lin: “in what we call the Wrangling or Philosophical Period of History, which was at its height about seven thousand years ago, there was a very distinguished naturalist, who proved to the satisfaction of numerous disciples such analogical and anatomical agreements in structure between an An and a Frog, as to show that out of the one must have developed the other.  They had some diseases in common; they were both subject to the same parasitical worms in the intestines; and, strange to say, the An has, in his structure, a swimming-bladder, no longer of any use to him, but which is a rudiment that clearly proves his descent from a Frog.

Unhappily, these disputes became involved with the religious notions of that age; and as society was then administered under the government of the Koom-Posh, who, being the most ignorant, were of course the most inflammable class — the multitude took the whole question out of the hands of the philosophers; political chiefs saw that the Frog dispute, so taken up by the populace, could become a most valuable instrument of their ambition; and for not less than one thousand years war and massacre prevailed, during which period the philosophers on both sides were butchered, and the government of Koom-Posh itself was happily brought to an end by the ascendancy of a family that clearly established its descent from the aboriginal tadpole, and furnished despotic rulers to the various nations of the Ana.”

Bulwer-Lytton is clearly mocking the heated debates of the time between naturalists and biblical literalists, and he apparently takes the view that the entire debate is destructive and unproductive. Bulwer-Lytton’s view seems to be a snapshot of the early resistance of “ordinary people” to the implications of Darwin’s theory.

The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912).  We couldn’t have a discussion of evolutionary theory in fiction without at least one story about dinosaurs!  The Lost World is an undeniable classic which spawned numerous imitators.  For those who haven’t read it, the plot will still be familiar: a crazy scientist (Professor Challenger) and a group of explorers travel to an isolated plateau in the jungles of South America in search of supposedly extinct species.  They get trapped on the plateau, and must face numerous obstacles, including dinosaurs, primitive ape-men (“missing links”), and native South American Indians.  Doyle seems to have at least a passing awareness of the chronology of life on Earth, as a scene late in the novel suggests.  Professor Challenger is asked about the curious presence of ape-men and Indians together with prehistoric dinosaurs:

The Professor, unabashed, seized the nearest Indian by the shoulder and proceeded to lecture upon
him as if he were a potted specimen in a class-room.

“The type of these people,” said he in his sonorous fashion, “whether judged by cranial capacity, facial angle, or any other test, cannot be regarded as a low one; on the contrary, we must place it as considerably higher in the scale than many South American tribes which I can mention. On no possible supposition can we explain the evolution of such a race in this place. For that matter, so great a gap separates these ape-men from the primitive animals which have survived upon this plateau, that it is inadmissible to think that they could have developed where we find them.”

“Then where the dooce did they drop from?” asked Lord John.

“A question which will, no doubt, be eagerly discussed in every scientific society in Europe and America,” the Professor answered. “My own reading of the situation for what it is worth–” he inflated his chest enormously and looked insolently around him at the words–“is that evolution has advanced under the peculiar conditions of this country up to the vertebrate stage, the old types surviving and living on in company with the newer ones. Thus we find such modern creatures as the tapir–an animal with quite a respectable length of pedigree–the great deer, and the ant-eater in the companionship of reptilian forms of jurassic type. So much is clear. And now come the ape-men and the Indian. What is the scientific mind to think of their presence? I can only account for it by an invasion from outside. It is probable that there existed an anthropoid ape in South America, who in past ages found his way to this place, and that he developed into the creatures we have seen, some of which”–here he looked hard at me–“were of an appearance and shape which, if it had been accompanied by corresponding intelligence, would, I do not hesitate to say, have reflected credit upon any living race. As to the Indians I cannot doubt that they are more recent immigrants from below. Under the stress of famine or of conquest they have made their way up here. Faced by ferocious creatures which they had never before seen, they took refuge in the caves which our young friend has described, but they have no doubt had a bitter fight to hold their own against wild beasts, and especially against the ape-men who would regard them as intruders, and wage a merciless war upon them with a cunning which the larger beasts would lack. Hence the fact that their numbers appear to be limited. Well, gentlemen, have I read you the riddle aright, or is there any point which you would query?”

Doyle also employs a very psychologically appealing conceit which foreshadows the strategies of modern day (and olden day) creationists and ‘intelligent designers’: the notion of the ‘genius outsider’ whose revolutionary ideas are shunned by a stale and intolerant scientific elite.  (“I know the truth but BIG SCIENCE won’t let you hear the truth!”)  Professor Challenger is introduced at the outset of the novel as an outcast from the scientific establishment.  A scene from a meeting of the Zoological Institute:

The Professor, with his face flushed, his nostrils dilated, and his beard bristling, was now in a proper Berserk mood.) “Every great discoverer has been met with the same incredulity–the sure brand of a generation of fools. When great facts are laid before you, you have not the intuition, the imagination which would help you to understand them. You can only throw mud at the men who have risked their lives to open new fields to science. You persecute the prophets! Galileo! Darwin, and I—-” (Prolonged cheering and complete interruption.)

The scene is accurate, insomuch as it shows how compelling the tale of the genius outcast is!  But what was Professor Challenger’s controversial idea?  Merely that some species of ancient life may have survived into the present day.  Doyle would not have been able to use this argument after 1938, when a ‘living fossil’, the coelacanth, was found off the coast of South Africa!

At the Earth’s Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914).  Once it began to dawn upon people that the development of life on Earth possessed some element of randomness associated with it, it was natural to imagine what might have happened had conditions been different on Earth!  Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known for his Tarzan series of novels, was always ready to take advantage of such musings.  His series of novels loosely referred to as the Pellucidar series concern a pair of explorers who journey via a burrowing machine to an unexplored realm hiding within a hollow Earth!  The two heroes quickly become enslaved by an intelligent race of saurials, but concoct a plan to escape:

Hastening back to Perry where he pored over a musty pile of, to me, meaningless hieroglyphics, I explained my plan to him. To my surprise he was horrified.

“It would be murder, David,” he cried.

“Murder to kill a reptilian monster?” I asked in astonishment.

“Here they are not monsters, David,” he replied. “Here they are the dominant race–we are the ‘monsters’–the lower orders. In Pellucidar evolution has progressed along different lines than upon the outer earth. These terrible convulsions of nature time and time again wiped out the existing species–but for this fact some monster of the Saurozoic epoch might rule today upon our own world. We see here what might well have occurred in our own history had conditions been what they have been here.

“Life within Pellucidar is far younger than upon the outer crust. Here man has but reached a stage analogous to the Stone Age of our own world’s history, but for countless millions of years these reptiles have been progressing. Possibly it is the sixth sense which I am sure they possess that has given them an advantage over the other and more frightfully armed of their fellows; but this we may never know. They look upon us as we look upon the beasts of our fields, and I learn from their written records that other races of Mahars feed upon men–they keep them in great droves, as we keep cattle. They breed them most carefully, and when they are quite fat, they kill and eat them.”

I shuddered.

“What is there horrible about it, David?” the old man asked. “They understand us no better than we understand the lower animals of our own world. Why, I have come across here very learned discussions of the question as to whether gilaks, that is men, have any means of communication. One writer claims that we do not even reason–that our every act is mechanical, or instinctive. The dominant race of Pellucidar, David, have not yet learned that men converse among themselves, or reason. Because we do not converse as they do it is beyond them to imagine that we converse at all. It is thus that we reason in relation to the brutes of our own world. They know that the Sagoths have a spoken language, but they cannot comprehend it, or how it manifests itself, since they have no auditory apparatus. They believe that the motions of the lips alone convey the meaning. That the Sagoths can communicate with us is incomprehensible to them.

In spite of this rather enlightened argument by Perry, the two intrepid heroes have no problem carrying out their plan and in the end wiping out much of the saurial race!

The Metal Monster, by A. Merritt (1920).  This book was originally published in serial form in the magazine Argosy All-Story, and I consider it to be one of the greatest masterworks of weird fiction ever!  The story tells the tale of explorers wandering the Trans-Himalayan region near Tibet, who encounter a monstrously powerful and utterly alien race of geometrically-shaped metal beings, and their beautiful, almost-human servant, Norhala.  It slowly dawns on the explorers that this race of metal monsters will inevitably supplant humanity as the dominant species on the planet.

The idea of  “survival of the fittest” is clearly on Merritt’s mind here.  At one point, one of the characters is placed in an almost dream-like state by the creatures, from which he prophesizes doom for humanity:

“Dominion over the earth?  Yes — as long as man is fit to rule; no longer.  Science had warned us.  Where was the mammal when the giant reptiles reigned?  Slinking hidden and afraid in the dark and secret places.  Yet man sprang from these skulking mammals.

“For how long a time in the history of the earth has man been master of it?  For a breath — for a cloud’s passing!  And will remain master only until something grown stronger than he wrests mastery from him — even as he wrested it from his ravening kind — as they took it from the reptiles — as did the reptiles from the giant saurians — which snatched it from the nightmare rulers of the Triassic — and so down to whatever held sway in the murk of earth dawn!

“Life! Life! Life!  Life everywhere struggling for completion!  Life crowding other life aside, battling for its moment of supremacy, gaining it, holding it for one rise and fall of the wings of time beating through eternity — and then — hurled down, trampled under the feet of another straining life whose hour has struck!

Life crowding outside every barred threshold in a million circling worlds, yes, in a million rushing universes; pressing against the doors, bursting them down, overwhelming, forcing out those dwellers who had thought themselves so secure.”

Merritt seems to have a relatively good grasp of evolutionary theory and treats it with what I would consider the proper tone.  Evolution is neither ‘good’ nor ‘evil’, but simply a fact of life that one must accept.

The Horror-Horn, by E.F. Benson (1922).  Different aspects of evolutionary theory captured authors in very different ways.  Many authors were intrigued by the notion of our supposedly violently savage and primitive ancestors.  One of the earliest authors I’ve found who tackled this in a horror story was E.F. Benson, a prolific writer of both comedic and horror fiction.  His short story The Horror-Horn describes encounters between unlucky travelers and a race of sub-human creatures living hidden upon a desolate European (presumably Alpine) mountain.

One of the characters later describes his feelings after a chance encounter with the beasts:

“There was a horror of the spirit,” he said, “which I experienced then, from which, I verily believe, I have never entirely recovered. I saw then how terrible a living thing could be, and how terrible, in consequence, was life itself. In us all I suppose lurks some inherited germ of that ineffable bestiality, and who knows whether, sterile as it has apparently become in the course of centuries, it might not fructify again. When I saw that creature sun itself, I looked into the abyss out of which we have crawled. And these creatures are trying to crawl out of it now, if they exist any longer. Certainly for the last twenty years there has been no record of their being seen, until we come to this story of the footprint seen by the climbers on Everest. If that is authentic, if the party did not mistake the footprint of some bear, or what not, for a human tread, it seems as if still this bestranded remnant of mankind is in existence.”

This sort of tale almost seems almost cathartic, allowing the reader to turn their fears and misunderstandings about evolution into a humanoid ‘boogeyman’ that can be escaped from!

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937).  No author of weird fiction was more knowledge of science and employed its ideas more in his fiction than H.P. Lovecraft!  Lovecraft was an avid amateur astronomer, and even had a regular column in a local paper!  He also regularly and enthusiastically attended popular scientific lectures.  Though biology was not one of the subjects he was passionate about, he was clearly aware of evolution and its implications, as this letter to Emil Petaja from April 24, 1935 shows:

Now as to the distribution of organic life in the cosmos — there are many factors to be considered.  First — what is it?  Is it an unique principle transmitted through space in the form of spores, as Arrhenius believed, or is it a form of electrical energy separately produced whenever a plastic mass containing carbon, hydrogen, & nitrogen cools into solidity?  Can it exist under conditions widely different from thsoe of the earth?  What seem to be its requirements?  Well — the dominant belief is that life is separately produced when a plastic mass cools on a large scale under certain specific conditions like the presence of oxygen & water.  Primitive organic energy, as first generated from inorganic matter & energy, must necessarily operate in unicellular matter-units.  One of the basic properties of these units is to build up into more & more complex forms when stimulated by changes in their environment — but what especial forms will be produced, depends wholly on what these changes may happen to be.  Relatively slight environmental changes are found to give rise to tremendous differentiations of organic form even on this planet — hence it is conceivable that any of the higher organic species we know can be duplicated or even closely resembled on any other planet.  The chances of the existence of some other planet just like the earth, revolving under just the same conditions around some sun just like ours, are so slight as to be virtually negligible.  It is not, then, to be expected that anything even remotely resembling human life or human thoughts & feeling can exist anywhere in the cosmos save on the earth.  It is the constant mistake of cheap science-fiction writers to depict the denizens of other worlds (whatever their physical shape) as having mental & emotional processes (modes of reasoning & communicating; values, desires, motivations, objectives) either like ours or at least comprehensible to us.  The absurdity of this is self-evident — since of all human attributes, the psychological ones are the most unstable, local & accidental.  Even within the human species the accidents of differing environment give rise to wholly alien modes of thought & feeling & valuation.  What, then, can be expected of the organic life of differing worlds?  Of the degree of complexity of evolution on different worlds we can set no arbitrary limits.  Many planets have doubtless failed to produce life-forms to a substantial degree.  The extent of possible development would seem to be determined both by chance & by the life-span of the given planet.  No planet lasts for ever.  Its sun expires sooner or later, & eventually the very material substance of its system — & galaxy — & universe — disintegrates into its constituent electrons & leaves only an “empty” field of force (out of which another universe is later born).  We have no means of predicting what the future of organic life on the earth will be — whether the human race can find a way to resume the evolution which slowed up about 100,000 years ago, whether it will remain dominant at its present level, or whether it will be superseded in its dominance by another form of life — probably of the insect order, which shows signs of being better adapted than the mammalia to the varying conditions of this planet.

Though Lovecraft still only has a layman’s view of science in general and evolutionary theory in particular, the above passage shows his passionate belief in science and rational thought.  His views of the superiority of the insect world is expressed in one of his later stories, The Shadow Out of Time (1934).  The story (which is under copyright and not available on the internet) concerns a race known as the Great Race of Yith, which in aeons past mastered the secret of traveling through time.  They are the ultimate scientist/scholars, and exchange their minds with the sentient races of various eras to accumulate knowledge about them.  After such an exchange, the narrator recollects various parts of his experiences in the body of one of the Great Race:

I shivered at the mysteries the past may conceal, and trembled at the menaces the future may bring forth.  What was hinted in the speech of post-human entities of the fate of mankind produced such an effect on me that I will not set it down here.

After man there would be the mighty beetle civilization, the bodies of whose members the cream of the Great Race would seize when the monstrous doom overtook the elder world.  Later, as the earth’s span closed, the transferred minds would again migrate through time and space — to another stopping place in the bodies of the bulbous vegetable entities of Mercury.  But there would be races after them, clinging pathetically to the cold planet and burrowing to its horror-filled core, before the utter end.

Of the race as he experienced it, the narrator recollects:

The period of my dreams, apparently, was one somewhat less than 150,000,000 years ago, when the Paleozoic Age was giving place to the Mesozoic.  The bodies occupied by the Great Race represented no surviving — or even scientifically known — line of terrestrial evolution, but were of a peculiar, closely homogeneous, and highly specialized organic type inclining as much to the vegetable as to the animal state.

The ancientness of the earth and the youth — and impermanence — of humanity were recurring themes in Lovecraft’s work.


One thing is clear from the works of this sampling of fiction writers: Darwin’s ideas stimulated the imaginations of people outside the scientific community.  Weird fiction was one venue where authors — and readers — could explore the implications of evolutionary theory (often inaccurately) by treating it as a subject which could provide thrills and chills.

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1 Response to Evolution’s influence in pulp fiction!

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