`Administrative Nihilism': evolution, ethics and Victorian Utopian Satire *.
[W]e little know what we are doing when we cast adrift from system.... Even superstition is a bracing girdle, which the frame that is trained to it can ill afford to lose. (Froude, 178-79)
WE CAN TRACE A GROWING RECOGNITION of the social and political implications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in the ways in which it is coopted in late Victorian utopian satires. Satire, fiercer than comedy in its moral intentions, measures human conduct not against a norm but against an ideal. By seeking either to undermine the social fabric or accommodate the prevailing social order, the intention of satire is reformative. The satirist holds a distorted image up for the reader to see, and the reader is to be shocked into a realization that the image is his or her own. Significantly, satire thrives on moral extremes: and in the nineteenth century, with Darwin at hand to provide a view of humanity which was at once alarmingly possible and entirely opposite to the prevailing one, satire was very much at home. In this essay, after briefly locating some of the ethical issues raised by Darwinian evolutionary epistemologies, I look at Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), and particularly at Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), to examine how notions of civility, social order and progress are affected by Darwin's theories; and how the accompanying fear of devolution (along with a growing mistrust of science itself) informs a growing sense of alienation. In particular, I analyze these works in order to understand how what Thomas Henry Huxley called "administrative nihilism"--"the belief in the efficacy of doing nothing" ("Administrative Nihilism," 69)--was combated and what literary attempts were made to restore an ethical frame to social and scientific discourse.
While eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century utopian thinking still corresponded with Newtonian physical science, Darwin's theory of evolution transformed the nature of the genre. Prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species, it was possible to speculate that humankind might undergo fundamental biological change through the transmission of acquired characteristics or the atrophy of organs or limbs from disuse; Auguste Comte, for example, forecast female self-fertilization--an idea borrowed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Herland (1915)--but these changes only assured the greater perfection of humanity and buttressed the prevailing assumption that the greater purpose of humanity was moral. Vulgarized Darwinism made real the prospect of human evolution and degeneration in a universe that was basically amoral. For Marx, Darwinism strengthened his conviction that revolutionary struggle, not gradual reform, was inherent in nature. For Bagehot, Spencer, Froude, and Kingsley it was proof that nature enjoined the powerful (white, Christian, British, male) to dominate and only the fittest of them to survive. For Arnold, Tennyson, Clough, and Hardy it produced an abiding sense of pessimism which was variously overcome by reaffirmation of Faith, Culture, Nature, and Art. For scientists and philosophers it offered the possibility of a new human type with different physical and psychical facilities, ever progressing--but to what end, especially as phrases such as the "struggle for existence" came to imply that conflict was embedded in human nature, while the will and intellect were devalued and debased?
In an attempt to allay fears about the consequences of evolutionary struggle, Darwin assured his readers that natural selection "works solely by and for the good of each being, [as] all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection" (my italics, Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 459). Though optimistic in tone and utopian in impulse, this statement (among other similar statements) is ambiguous. (1) Why "tend"? Does not natural selection challenge the idea of design and intentionality so that any notion of order, inclination, or disposition runs directly counter to the theory? Does "progress" in this instance mean "proceed" or "improve"? What is "perfection"--who defines it and against what standard? Whether Darwin is being rhetorically fanciful, sloppy, ironic, self-deceiving, or disingenuous, the larger argument of his work (whether he chose to admit it or not) is that nature defines perfection or rather the suitability of any species for its environment, which in some cases means extinction; moreover, nature is under no obligation to define its terms consistently; nature keeps reevaluating a population's suitability for its environment based on seemingly arbitrary criteria: there is no way to avoid the fact that evolution is alinear and ateleological. Evolution causes change and adaptation, but not necessarily progress, and never perfection.
Once the humanist belief in essential goodness and perfectibility was refuted in favour of an arbitrary, non-directional evolutionary process in which humankind is no longer central, any attempt to ground utopian thinking in a notion of sanctified human nature was seriously undermined. On the Origin of Species supplants Genesis as the authoritative model, metaphor, or myth of creation. "What can I know" and "how should I live" are questions that are variable, subjective, and purely relative in a post-Darwinian universe. Dostoevsky, for example, grapples with the articulation of a satisfactory response to the nature of evil. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan worries that "without God, all things are permitted" (Dostoevsky, 679). Ivan's angst is increasingly typical in the period; for if all things are permitted and are equally valuable, then the very concept of value begins to lose significance. Adam Sedgwick, Darwin's contemporary, declared that "If the book [On the Origin of Species] be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madness; and man and woman are only better beasts" (qtd. by Burrow in Darwin, 29).
In his collection of essays, The Queen of the Air subtitled A Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm (1869), John Ruskin regards the appeal of evolution as symptomatic of a larger problem. Ruskin critiques most of the major scientific theories of his day in this work: wave theories of sound and consciousness, kinetic theories of matter and heat, Huxley's protoplasm and Darwin's natural selection. His critique emphasizes two pitfalls of modern science: "the baseness of mere materialism on the one hand, and ... the fallacies of controversial speculation on the other" (Ruskin, 19: 351). Writing in the year prior to Tyndall's British Association address on the scientific imagination, Ruskin attacks materialism on the grounds that such explanations are incomplete or inadequate precisely where our interest is greatest: in the interaction with the human. Sound waves may cause the eardrum to vibrate but, he writes, "my hearing is still to me as blessed a mystery as ever." Thoughts may be conveyed by brain waves, but "consciousness itself is not a wave. It may be accompanied here or there by any quantity of quivers and shakes, up or down, of anything in the universe that is shakeable--what is that to me? My friend is dead, and my--according to modern views--vibratory sorrow is not one whit less, or less mysterious to me, than my old quiet one" (353). Ruskin's point is clear: by uncovering the mechanisms by which individuals hear and feel or by which species evolve we do not absolve humanity of the obligation to behave with a certain reverence for life and its mysteries; there is a particular beauty to human emotion which cannot be fully accounted for when we understand the process--Ruskin even resents the implication that we should want to peek behind the curtain and deconstruct the mystery. (2) While Darwin eliminated religious teleological explanations by arguing that species arose by purely causal processes and in so doing left humankind without a plausible external ideological framework in which to operate, Ruskin argues that (a) an external context for human behaviour is imperative, and (b) the context must prize the ephemeral, the emotional--that which is not merely marked on the body but, more importantly, in the mind. For Ruskin, Art (as a projection of the human soul) provides an alternative frame of reference by which we ought to judge right action.
Ruskin gestures at the problematic question which most interests me; that is, having putatively secularized the origin of species, what of the morality of species? Darwin argued that evolutionary theory shed "some light on the moral sense"; however, his vagueness led to contradictory interpretations of his conclusions. From the opening pages of On the Origin of Species, it is clear that Darwin was unwilling to admit his discomfort with conventional religious explanations of the origin of humankind. Opposite the title page of the first edition, Darwin includes two quotations from works of natural theology. The first is from Reverend Whewell's Bridgewater Treatise, a series of eight books which included contributions by prominent British scientists; it was the standard reference on natural theology and had been commissioned to show "the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation." The second comes from Bacon's Advancement of Learning. In the second edition, Darwin added a third citation from Analogy of Revealed Religion by Bishop Joseph Butler, the leading critic of skepticism, no doubt to encourage readers to interpret his ideas in the context of conventional natural theology. However, Darwin was unsuccessful at deflecting his critics' attention away from the iconoclastic potential of his theory.
When Darwin published his naturalistic theory of morality in The Descent of Man, for instance, he was immediately attacked by St. George Jackson Mivart ("Darwin's Descent of Man"). Mivart, like Ruskin, insisted on a Kantian separation of nature and morality. Although the human body could be explained as a natural product of biological evolution, Mivart contended that the human soul was a supernatural product of divine creation and, as an expression of the soul's transcendence of nature, human morality manifested a uniquely human freedom from natural causality. Darwin's primary advocate, T.H. Huxley, argued that nature was violent, competitive, in the Tennysonian phrase "red in tooth and claw," the antithesis of morality, so that morality in fact arose in opposition to the evolutionary tendencies of nature. Herbert Spencer argued that biological, social and moral evolution were all part of a single process tending toward the better. Thus, these three men staked out the parameters of the debate: are people essentially or instinctively good? is nature and, by extension, society inimical to moral action? is morality an artificial imposition arbitrarily determined by cultural expectations? do the laws of natural selection apply with equal validity to individuals, species and societies? does society reflect, refract, discount, or ameliorate the inherent moral character of individuals? Certainly, patience, passivity, the promise that "the weak shall inherit the earth" did not find currency in Darwin's theory. In fact, Darwin's theory presented its adherents with a very significant challenge, as they attempted to understand and justify human behaviour in terms that coincided with evolution and the immutable laws of nature.
Huxley spent his career trying to adduce a serious ethical complement to Darwin. (3) For Huxley, Nature was no guide for ethics. Nature was not "evil but morally indifferent.... [E]volution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil" (Evolution and Ethics, 80). Huxley defended Darwin's ethical naturalism against Mivart's dualist critique in "Mr. Darwin's Critics," but moved later in his life, particularly in his famous Romanes lecture Evolution and Ethics, toward a dualistic theory of ethics that Mivart recognized as his own ("Evolution in Mr. Huxley"). Huxley adopted the Hobbesian-Kantian view that since human beings in their natural state were selfish and asocial, the moral improvement of humanity required self-abnegating denial of human nature. Because of the "moral indifference of nature," one could never derive moral values from natural facts: "The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist" (Evolution and Ethics, 79-80), Huxley wrote. The question remains, from whence, then, does morality or, more appropriately, value spring?
Huxley illustrates the opposition between evolution and ethics in his Romanes lecture of 1893 by invoking the topos of a cultivated garden that stands in stark contrast to the wild and untamed jungle from which it has been carved. (4) The garden represents human attempts to tame nature through artifice and the development of civilization. Huxley argues that no matter how well-cultivated the garden is, the threat of nature to overwhelm it remains. The struggle for existence is driven by Malthusian considerations, by conditions of scarcity that engender competition and violence, which cannot be overcome and are inimical to moral ends. Thus, according to Huxley, what we need to inscribe is an ethical and social process to counterbalance evolutionary forces that aims toward survival of the best (Arnold) not the fittest (Spencer, Galton). Without an ethical process to complement evolution, society loses a context for its actions and aspirations.
Huxley had worked through some of the arguments he used in Evolution and Ethics in an address entitled "Administrative Nihilism," delivered to the members of the Midland Institute, 9 October 1871, ostensibly on the subject of State-sponsored education, but more specifically on the limits and responsibilities of the State. In this speech, delivered during the period of the initial debate between Darwin and Mivart, Huxley demonstrates the consequences of an insufficiently-developed ethical process: namely institutional paralysis and ignorance. It is clear that Huxley conceives of ethics as a social concern rather than an individual one and his critique is an attempt to combat what he perceived to be the greatest political danger of the time: "the belief in the efficacy of doing nothing" ("Administrative Nihilism," 69).
Administrative nihilism, he writes, "has acquired considerable popularity for several reasons. In the first place, men's speculative convictions have become less and less real; their tolerance is large because their belief is small; they know that the State had better leave things alone unless it has a clear knowledge about them; and, with reason, they suspect that the knowledge of the governing power may stand no higher than the very low watermark of their own" (69). As Huxley's definition suggests, ineffectuality and the incumbent fear of social change and reform are a consequence of an increasing loss of faith not only in conventional religion but also in the adequacy and permanence of secular knowledge. What at first might seem paradoxical is, in fact, fundamentally dialectical: new research and theories promote knowledge but, at the same time, they engender disorientation and foster a growing insecurity in the value of current knowledge to explain the world and define human nature. Moreover, confusion in the face of the growing complexity of the world is especially unsettling if human advancement can be upset or undermined by errors in judgment or some mysterious atavistic tendency toward reversion to a primitive state as Darwin implies.
Huxley's 1871 speech and his other writings on ethics are an attempt to counter this uncertainty and alter an evolutionary paradigm that minimized or deferred discussion of the moral sense. (5) Effectively, Huxley was pessimistic about humankind's ability to affect evolution, but he was not pessimistic about its ability to fashion an ethical polity. In other words, though individuals could not alter the course of evolution, they could, in Huxley's view, change the moral tone and character of an age. Individuals could live ethical lives, without fearing or regarding the indefatigable process of human evolution. In fact, according to Huxley, the failure to recognize the distinction between the ethical process and evolution has led to society's inability to counter the force of nature. As Arnold argues in "Literature and Science" (1882), the study of humane letters becomes more crucial precisely in proportion as science seems to undermine our faith in the value of humanity: "under the shock of hearing from modern science that `the world is not subordinated to man's use, and that man is not the cynosure of things territorial' [Arnold is quoting Huxley], I could, for my own part, desire no better comfort than Homer's line ..., `for an enduring heart have the destinies appointed to the children of men'" (Arnold 10: 6). But what does it mean to live an ethical life after Darwin posited an ateleological universe?
Huxley's writings consistently mark the vanguard of debate in the discussion of the relation between evolution and ethics. In the 1870s, the focus of critical and philosophical attention was on ethics as a distinguishing mark between human and nonhuman, between civilized and savage, between upper and lower classes. (6) We can see this in the work of ethnographers like John McLennan and comparativists like Henry Maine. In Huxley's own work in the decade, he concentrates on the Malthusian dangers of overpopulation and scarcity exacerbated by what he understands to be necessary inequality and struggle. In the 1890s, buffeted by the relentless pressure of socialism with its assumption about natural rights on the one hand and the increasing influence of eugenists like Karl Pearson and Francis Galton on the other, Huxley, agreeing with neither camp, focuses on evolutionary versus ethical forces (on biology versus morality); or, as Adrian Desmond writes, on "how far moral rights should infringe on a natural `unmitigated selfishness'" (Desmond, 578).
While Huxley was actively engaged in, and extending the boundaries of, a debate about the social and ethical implications of evolution with biologists and philosophers, a comparable debate was taking place in the utopian satires of the period. The danger of doing nothing and, conversely, of acting inappropriately, can be seen as the driving force behind each of these works (with the judgment of nature, extinction, more foreboding and more likely than anything that had previously been imagined).
Darwinian evolutionary theory, as variously interpreted, was eagerly coopted in textual mediations of high and mass culture: it fits nicely into Victorian bourgeois fixations on progress, origins, scientific authority, religion, empire, gender, race, and the new sciences like anthropology, ethnography and sociology; it also corroborates a Victorian preoccupation with panoptic vigilance, degeneration and subjectivity that had spurred Poor Law and prison reform early in the century, together with the Contagious Diseases Act, public health debates, and acts of imperial aggression late in the century. (7) Literary works, economic theories, philosophies of art, history, law, medicine, and public discourse generally readily adopted or synthesized Darwinian evolutionary rhetoric, reflecting the power of the complex metaphorics of evolutionary theory and a growing preoccupation with its implications and mechanics.
I have chosen four texts which appropriate Darwinian theories in vastly different ways to examine a variety of responses to an amoral evolutionary epistemology. Early works like The Coming Race, Erewhon and even The Time Machine are critiques of technology, politics and culture--common subjects of utopian satire--which engage Darwin's theories wholeheartedly or reject them out of hand as a way of establishing the ideological parameters of the critique. The Island of Doctor Moreau, ultimately a modern text, is quite different; while mindful of its predecessors, The Tempest, The Magic Flute, Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein, and "Rappaccini's Daughter" to name a few, it marks a transition in the nature of the genre and, more importantly, in the conceptualization of morality and human responsibility in light of the vacuum created by Darwin's ambiguity about the relationship of ethics and evolution. To briefly address each text's engagement with evolution:
Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race is a satire on democracy, equality, and feminism, ideologies which Lord Lytton found anathema. In it, the narrator (an American, a detail which explains the cultural references and frontier mentality) falls down a mine and discovers a female-dominated subterranean country that has evolved independently of the world above. The narrator studies the society and learns from Zee, a large beautiful winged maiden, that over the course of their history, the inhabitants, the Vril-ya, in response to conflict and inequality have acquired the capacity to siphon and manipulate energy (vril), which they use to illuminate the darkness of the underworld, drive their engines, maintain civil order, alter and expand the limits of their lives and minds, and (when the occasion demands) destroy or replenish others at will. In spite of this capacity for annihilation, this society first appears ideal to the narrator. He takes the opportunity presented in a bucolic moment to contemplate the value of a placid social community in which everyone's needs are met and where there is no obvious antagonism, social strife, inequality, hierarchical order or sense of disadvantage. Contrasting the banal life among the Vril-ya to the discordant life at home, the narrator, surprisingly, finds the Vril-ya wanting. As he explains,
the principles which regulate the social system of the Vril-ya forbid them to produce those individual examples of human greatness.... Where there are no wars there can be no Hannibal, no Washington, no Jackson, no Sheridan; where States are so happy that they fear no danger and desire no change, they cannot give birth to a Demosthenes, a Webster, a Sumner, a Wendall Holmes, or a Butler; and where a society attains to a moral standard, in which there are no crimes and no sorrows from which tragedy can extract its aliment of pity and sorrow, no salient vices or follies on which comedy can lavish its mirthful satire, it has lost the chance of producing a Shakespeare, or a Moliere, or a Mrs. Beecher Stowe. (Bulwer-Lytton, 381)
The narrator concludes that without social stratification and conflict, there are no opportunities for individuals to distinguish themselves. In fact, there is no "virtue" in such a society, as their triumph is not a triumph over impulse and temptation, but a total immunity to these things--and an immunity which is also, by its very nature, an absence of life and vitality. If the Vril-ya are incapable of beastliness, resentment and petty jealousy, they are even less capable of human glory or sublimity. To highlight his point, the narrator draws examples of the kind of individual achievement he applauds from three classes reminiscent of those in the Republic, all of whom have become redundant in a society that does not require a bureaucracy, a military, or a chorus of poets to mediate or critique competing interests. Significantly, whereas Plato minimized the contribution of the poet to civil society, Bulwer-Lytton, always the self-promoter, stresses it here, suggesting that it is the great writer alone who can distill the tempest of an age for the benefit of society; art has the capacity to diagnose, reform and ameliorate the human condition. Without great writers like Shakespeare and Stowe to capture and reflect individual weakness and attainment, the Vril-ya are doomed to stagnate. Believing that the Vril-ya are an impotent force, content with their own geographic location and social order, the narrator settles into a comfortable domestic routine. However, when he learns that the Vril-ya plan to invade the surface, they become genocidally threatening--and arousing in its dual sense, which the title of the novel self-consciously invokes. (8)
As the title of the novel also suggests, Bulwer-Lytton envisions the Vril-ya as an ever-looming force against whom his readers should be vigilant; however, unlike earlier paranoid fantasies about approaching aliens taking over the world, the Vril-ya are a force uniquely plausible given Darwinian theories of evolution (they are us; we share a common ancestry and geography--the Vril-ya are just meters below the surface of the earth--they simply adapted to different environmental pressures). The only difference is vril, an artificial energy source not unlike nuclear power, the mastery of which has led to the elimination of conventional gender roles and the toppling of patriarchal privilege. It seems that since women are essentially more intuitive, they have naturally acquired greater skill at manipulating vril and have taken a lead in this society. Bulwer-Lytton's target appears: if civilization is the result of masculine vigor and intelligence, allowing women access to that font of power (literalized as vril) will topple the "natural order" and flatten the hierarchy. Using Darwin as his authority (suggesting that the status quo is biologically imprinted), he attacks the declining prestige of traditional patriarchal privilege and power and portrays it as under siege. Consistent with Renaissance analogies between the body and the body politic, Bulwer-Lytton wryly confuses socially constructed heredity (primogeniture, political entitlement, family, prestige, land, and title) with biological inheritance to support his paternal vision of the future under threat. In other words, what we are in danger of becoming in contemporary Victorian society as a consequence of greater social equality is weak, feminine and worse, egalitarian, which for Bulwer-Lytton is tantamount to extinction. Bulwer-Lytton uses Darwin's new theory of evolution to buttress his very conservative notions about the natural order of society and to call for a retreat from social changes, like those enacted in the three Great Reform Bills of the period, which would see the diminution of class and gender distinctions.
The eerie similarities between the introductory chapters of The Coming Race and Samuel Butler's Erewhon have been noted since their publication; but that is where the similarities end. Erewhon, some of which was first published as "Darwin among the Machines," is a much subtler work. It is an absurdist satire on Darwinian evolutionary theory itself. The plot is perfunctory: the narrator sets out on an expedition not for science or glory, but for financial gain as he expresses the rather ironic desire (given the context) to become "a made man" (Butler, 20). (9) He discovers an antipodal utopia in the mountains of Erewhon ("nowhere" with creative license spelled backwards), serves a prison term for possessing a watch, and is spared from execution because he has "light hair, blue eyes, and ... fresh complexion" (Butler, 43). He is taught the language, then goes to the city where he falls in love with a merchant's daughter having gotten the jailer's daughter pregnant. He is presented at court, visits a number of institutions, but when he senses that his welcome is waning, he persuades the Queen to grant him permission to construct a balloon, and escapes with his lover.
The importance of the book lies less in the plot than in its comments on law and custom. Continuing in a satiric tradition established by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Erewhon is variously presented as a development of Western civilization, a reversal of it, and an aberration. Peter Raby writes: "it is as though one is viewing Victorian England through a series of distorting mirrors, and mirrors that distort in different ways" (Raby, 127). Under the influence of a single critic, the Erewhonians have destroyed all their mechanical instruments, fearing that technology will overrun them as "man's body ... never advanced with anything like the rapidity with which ... machines [are] advancing" (Butler, 191). Central to understanding this fear (and Butler's use of irony) is Butler's subversion of Paley's classic argument for the existence of God which is given full expression when we witness an Erewhonian's reaction to the narrator's watch: "a look of horror and dismay [appeared], ... a look which conveyed ... the impression that he regarded my watch not as having been designed, but rather as the designer of himself and of the universe" (Butler, 48). Whereas Paley used a watch to suggest the mathematical perfection of the universe and as proof of the existence of God, Butler's Erewhonians are strict empiricists: they see a watch and conclude that it must be the creator. (10) Butler's extended application of the theory of evolution to the development of machines (which goes on for three chapters) weighs critically on the theory of evolution itself. By demonstrating its only marginally absurd logic as metaphor, Butler introduces the suspicion that the theory of evolution may be more metaphorical than scientific. As he writes,
If it be urged that the action of the potato is chemical and mechanical only, and that it is due to the ... effects of light and heat, the answer would seem to lie in an inquiry whether every sensation is not chemical and mechanical in its operation? ... Either ... a great deal of action that has been called purely mechanical and unconscious must be admitted to contain more elements of consciousness than has been allowed hitherto (and in this case germs of consciousness will be found in many actions of the higher machines)--or (assuming the theory of evolution but at the same time denying the consciousness of vegetable and crystalline action) the race of man has descended from things which had no consciousness at all. In this case there is no a priori improbability in the descent of conscious (and more than conscious) machines from those which now exist, except that which is suggested by the apparent absence of anything like a reproductive system in the mechanical kingdom. (Butler, 178-79)
Butler's attack on Darwin is not limited to his treatment of technology, since Erewhonians believe "it will [n]ever be safe to repose much trust in the moral sense of any machine" anyway (Butler, 181). Erewhon is an attack on applied Darwinism.
To contextualize Butler's concern: within a decade of the publication of On the Origin of Species, human evolution was popularly equated with social progress. Darwin's thesis was applied to human society, mainly to emphasize varying aspects of competition and struggle, to justify political control by a minority and the capitalistic economic system, and to assert a hegemonic dominance, really a hegemonic cultural ideology that essentialized, isolated, and demarcated differences between nations, classes, sexualities, races, and genders to privilege the superiority of Europeans. With the ubiquitous dissemination of Darwin's theory, questions like what are the implications of evolution for the individual, the polity, social discourse, and behaviour? what are the regulatory functions of the state? and what are necessary social constraints on personal liberty? were answered by social Darwinists, a divergent group of scientists and philosophers (divergent because each writer argued that his particular extrapolation of Darwinism was the legitimate one) who espoused the view that Darwin's theory could and ought to be applied to limit and modify human behaviour for the long-term benefit of the species.
The most influential social Darwinists, Herbert Spencer in England and William Graham Sumner in the United States, asserted the value of the struggle for life that resulted in improvement, since it meant the survival of the fittest. Spencer, for instance, equated the poor and the "unfit." All efforts to help them, through legislation, public charity, and social reconstruction, were undesirable, since this might allow them to mature and pass on their weaknesses.(11) His conclusion was logical and ruthless. The whole effort of nature was to get rid of the inefficient or ineffectual and to make room for better. If they were not sufficiently complete to live, they died, and it was best that they should die.
As part of Butler's critique of social Darwinism, the Erewhonians have incorporated the lessons of evolution into their social policy and draw ethical consequences from it.
The assurance that the future is no arbitrary and changeable thing, but that like futures will invariably follow like presents, ... [that] is the foundation on which morality and science are built.... If this were not so we should be without a guide; we should have no confidence in acting, and hence we should never act, for there would be no knowing that the results which will follow now still be the same as those which followed before.... Who would throw water on a blazing house if the action of water upon fire were uncertain? Men will only do their utmost when they feel certain that the future will discover itself against them if their utmost has not been done. The feeling of such a certainty is a constituent part of the sum of the forces at work upon them, and will act most powerfully on the best and most moral men. (Butler, 195)
Taking Darwin seriously in ethics means confusing observable facts of nature with conclusions about the good. Virtue has no value whatsoever; beauty (blond hair and blue eyes), physical strength, and good health are lauded. This makes sense only if ethics is rooted in human nature and human nature is rooted in our biology; then it would seem that ethics and biology are inextricably linked. It should be noted that the gravest crimes in Erewhon are ill luck and ill health, since both demonstrate a susceptibility which endangers future generations; the world today is not unlike the world in Erewhon where embezzlement is tolerated, tuberculosis is not. The treatment of disease as crime (and crime as disease) is a double-edged and ambiguous inversion of Christian morality which condemns social Darwinism as illogical and cruel, and Victorian society as hypocritical. Butler's rejection of Darwinian theories is driven by a genuine humanity, a sincere religious belief, a distrust of science, and by a conviction that people ought not act in this way, and need not act so. His tone of savage indignation is justified by the content, and relates directly to normal ideals of justice, honesty and kindness which find no correlative in evolutionary theory. Butler's battle against the social Darwinists was later taken up by George Bernard Shaw, whose preface to Man and Superman (1903) was a manifesto of Lamarckism and eugenic socialism.
H.G. Wells (Huxley's student) was a disciple of both Bulwer-Lytton and Butler, and The Time Machine, Wells's first scientific romance, a dystopia, with its driving urgency to alert the world to its moral and physical danger, reflects their influence. Wells's depiction of the future, informed by the reader's understanding of natural selection, calls into question the notion of inevitable progress by exposing the remarkably familiar and disillusioning world of the Eloi and the Morlocks. In this ever-popular novel, a Time Traveller ventures from his laboratory in Victorian London along the fourth dimension, only to make a crash landing in the year 802701. What the Time Traveller expects to discover in the future is the culmination of human possibility, "[t]he great triumph of Humanity ... over Nature" (The Time Machine, 63). Instead, what he finds is a world where the seasons have been nullified, industry takes place only in subterranean factories, and the workforce is comprised of feral brutes. Moreover, the future is defined by fear, lethargy, and debility: in the future, apartheid predominates.
Given the disappointing state of the future, the Time Traveller spends a great deal of time trying to figure out how society has faltered so profoundly from the attainments and wisdom he himself has been able to achieve. Eventually, he is forced to conclude that the problems of the future find their antecedent in the present. As the Time Traveller explains, what he uncovers is a world in which the endemic problems of contemporary Victorian society have not been solved, as class antagonism and educational elitism form the basis of the future:
it seemed clear ... to me [he writes] 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. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you--and wildly incredible!--and yet now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, ... there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply ... till, in the end--I Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth? (The Time Machine, 62)
The failure to recognize the essential equality of human beings and, on a practical level, to promote marriage between classes and provide quality education to all (tending to the elimination of class consciousness itself) not only confirms the level of social stratification prevalent in nineteenth-century Britain but also eventually and inevitably leads to species differentiation manifest in the upperworld of the Eloi, a decadent race of languid, frail, effeminate vegetarians, and the lowerworld of the Morlock, an increasingly restless, brutish, ape-like band of nocturnal, subterranean barbarians. The tenuous, tense, intractable, and inevitably dialectical distribution of power between these two species provides Wells, the socialist, with the opportunity to question the notion of bourgeois and proletariat (the castes from which these races may be descended) and to engage in a very superficial discussion about mutual dependency as neither species can exist without the other and yet each is crippled by suspicion and fear of the other.
The warning in the text is clear: go on as we are now and we are doomed either to devolve to the level of brutes and from brutes back to the mud from which we came; or, in the case of the Eloi, fade as idle dilettantes incapable of mustering enough energy to stave off extinction by recognizing the benefits of gainful labour and community. But The Time Machine is a naive, early work in Wells's oeuvre. It is significant for my purposes insofar as Wells chooses a first-person narrator who provides the reader with a way of reading the text, its events, science, politics, and ethics. If Wells's motives were Dante's, to show us Hell so that we might avoid it, the narrator's natural optimism and Wells's own hope for his reader are implicit in the final, rather mechanical, lines of the story. Presented with a degenerate view of the future, the narrator tells us, "it remains for us to live as though it were not so." How, the intelligent reader might ask? Specifically, as the Time Traveller does, with "gratitude and a mutual tenderness" of heart (The Time Machine, 90). This sounds remarkably like Butler's brand of Christian socialism and is tinged with a great deal of Victorian sentimentality. It fails as a panacea to contemporary nihilism and social degeneration because it is tragically too simplistic, it does not engage the ethical questions at the center of Darwinian evolutionary theory, about the nature of dependency, class and power, those questions upon which the society of the future is based and upon which the narrator's injunction depends.
The Island of Doctor Moreau, written only one year later, breaks with the earlier tradition of utopian satire; it rejects the sentimentality of The Time Machine and marks the transition to a modern sensibility; it is a much more ambiguous and horrific work as a result. Though Wells would use evolution in most of his utopias and dystopias, it is in The Island of Doctor Moreau that he first establishes a skeptical pose. In the text, Prendick is shipwrecked on an island where he soon discovers Dr. Moreau performing animal experiments with the aim of creating men from beasts. The air is filled with screams of pain and the smell of blood. What do we take away from this nightmarish dystopia? From my point of view, Hillegas misreads The Island of Doctor Moreau when he writes: "[It] takes ... Huxley's cosmic pessimism to its ultimate, saying not only that the evolutionary ... process is savage ... cruel ... senseless and can never lead to ethical or social progress but that civilization is only a thin disguise hiding the fact that man is essentially bestial in nature.... The Island of Doctor Moreau is a parable of the cruelty, savagery, and arbitrariness of the cosmic process as it has created man and determined his nature" (Hillegas, 36). Human nature is what is at issue. Huxley highlighted the tension between evolution and ethics and argued that we needed to devise an ethical process that could limit the impact of evolution (later in his career Wells adopts a similar position, calling for "artificial evolution" which will impact the "cultural" environment). (12) In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Wells is laying a foundation for that later argument by bemoaning the absence of an ethical process capable of effectively responding to Moreau's actions, not the arbitrariness of evolution itself. It is important to remember that in the novel Nature resists Moreau's attempts to alter the course of natural selection (the animals return to a semblance of their original form; I do not think the same can be said for the reader).
Besides being one of the few scientific utopias without a cliched or cloying love interest, which in itself suggests a shift away from romantic ideation; the novel has no ethical center. Dr. Moreau, as Bergonzi points out, is a symbol of "science unhindered by ethical consideration" (Bergonzi, 25), but Moreau is not alone in his nihilism; it seems that everyone and everything on the island is unhindered by ethical considerations: Moreau's medical marvels or monstrosities chant the law reminiscent of classic Victorian satires on cant by Carlyle, Trollope, or Dickens and on the performance rather than the practise of religion. The animals are not enlightened by the experience of transmogrification. In fact, they are debased by it, as their sole consideration (even though they appear to be climbing an evolutionary or natural hierarchy) becomes survival. Even Prendick--a cross between Darwin (the botanist/gentleman explorer) and the Ancient Mariner, sentenced to recount his experience--has an ethical position that is ambiguous. He is an observer, a position which ought not undermine his responsibility to intervene; however, he is horrified but impotent (like us).
Implicitly, the reader is asked to engage the question: what is Moreau doing and is it wrong? Moreau, a Victorian scientist in many ways like Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, is upsetting taboos about hybridity, miscegeny, and degeneration; his physiological alchemy is predicated on the idea of the individual as a collection of animal parts, soldered together by a guiding hand, with human nature a function of anatomy and education. Science has provided Moreau with the skill and imagination to perform his surgeries, but what will provide him with a reason not to perform these rites? Certainly, the ostensible justification of Moreau's quest is ameliorative if not strictly utopian: science, by reducing both the individual and the social organism to general principles, holds out the promise of infinite progress, the elimination of physical suffering, disease, discomfort, work (in its most derogatory sense), poverty and even moral evil, social discord, and criminality. After all, it follows logically that if evolution is an organic process, the discovery of its dynamic law(s), through the study of nature, history, and human nature, would, by the knowledge of causes, enable scientists and philosophers to determine "what artificial means may be used, and to what extent, to accelerate the natural progress in so far as it is beneficial; to compensate for whatever may be its inherent inconveniences or disadvantages" (Mill, 643). However, whatever Moreau's pretext, it is clear that he assumes for himself the power and aura of godhead without displaying an appropriate sense of concern or obligation to the creatures around him. In the process, as Darko Suvin writes: "Nature has become not only malleable ... but ... a practically value-free category.... At the end, the bourgeois framework is shaken, but neither destroyed nor replaced by a livable alternative" (Suvin, 27). But, Suvin's remark begs the question, why should it be? Wells has synthesized a critique of Darwin and Huxley and of Science and Religion. Evolution does not provide an answer to Moreau's animal experiments, nor does it provide the reader with a reasonable deterrence to answer Moreau's actions. Suddenly, living with "gratitude and a mutual tenderness" (The Time Machine, 90) of heart does not seem enough.
Whereas Bulwer-Lytton used Darwin's theory of evolution to defend traditional paternalism and Butler found comfort in a version of Christian morality freed from Victorian hypocrisy, in The Island of Doctor Moreau, Wells rejects both--but, importantly, Wells does not provide the reader with an alternative comprehensive ideology capable of reducing human action to a few prescriptives, as an alternative would have the same effect as having the reader recite the laws. To borrow a phrase from James Joyce, Wells makes the "distinction between discovering and creating a conscience" (Joyce, 146). He dramatizes the ethical vacuum that results from evolution and gives the reader agency to articulate a response or, at least, engage in the debate.
The satires mentioned here are of greatly varying aesthetic achievement and influence; however, collectively I hope they demonstrate how pliable Darwinism seemed and how important it was to engage his theory when proselytizing about society. Bulwer-Lytton was content to use Darwin as an authority for the patriarchal status quo, Butler satirizes the implications of the literal application of Darwin to social policy in order to endorse his quixotic brand of Christian socialism; significantly, Wells's relationship with Darwin is much more complicated. Wells, writing at the end of the century, cannot rely on the same rather threadbare ideologies of patriarchy, tradition, and religion to which his predecessors subscribed. At the same time, it is unclear what lessons, if any, can be extracted from an ateleological theory like evolution to shape the course of human social development. Does Darwinism with its alleged antiessentialist consequences seriously undermine the validity of the concept of human nature and the attempt to ground morality in an understanding of the kind of creatures we are? If we resign control over our lives to some scientific principle or law like natural selection, from where then do we find responsibility or agency? Alternatively, if human beings are autonomous agents, then how do we go about defining limits to the incumbent freedom? Certainly, if we are to counter Dr. Moreau's vivisectionist program, we must prove that the human species is something more than an amalgam of biological processes and parts susceptible to environmental pressures and base instincts. (13) However, to do that would mean rethinking the relationship between metaphysics and science, something which iconoclasts like Ruskin, Butler, and Wells would endorse, but which would involve retreating from or rebutting the contemporary fascination and dependence on science for resolving questions of particular urgency, questions about the sources of authority (religious, moral, political, aesthetic, and epistemological), about the relations of the individual and the social to the natural, and about origins, hybridity, progress, race, and sexuality, which Darwinian evolutionary theory and social Darwinism, an historically locatable and ideologically resonant pseudo-scientific discourse, put in relief.
It is possible to isolate from The Island of Doctor Moreau consequences for the writing of utopia, as we can see how Darwinian evolutionary theory informs Wells's interpolation of the genre. The consequences are, at least, threefold and involve not only the nature of the genre but also the nature of philosophical speculation in the twentieth century: firstly, The Island of Doctor Moreau reflects an active engagement with newly pressing questions about the nature of humankind, about autonomy, agency, the role of the divine, and the tension between instinct and intellect, questions which had been raised by Thomas Aquinas and the Enlightenment philosophes, but which Darwin's theory problematized again in a speculative age dependent on materialist science for definitive answers. Secondly, The Island of Doctor Moreau critiques the popular conception of scientific practise, authority and legitimacy and attempts to dispel the notion of an ivory tower of pure research, by consistently insisting on a (n amorphous) relationship between thought, action and social consequence. Lastly, beyond its preoccupation with the annihilation of humankind or the sense that danger lurks not in some imminent future but in the present and within the human mind, The Island of Doctor Moreau structurally reflects the mood of the age and a shift in the generic form by grappling with the intrinsic and speculative value of irresolution and uncertainty. By refusing to provide a simple prescriptive for the future, "a livable alternative," Wells gives his reader credit for recognizing the obsolescence of comprehensive ideologies and invites him/her to participate in a new ethical quest: satire is not reformative in The Island of Doctor Moreau, but transformative (marking a shift to a new sensibility).
Darwin's theory of evolution contributed to the blurring of the gap between science and fantasy, fiction and reality, fancy and social planning. Ethics prior to Darwin had tacit premises in common: that the human condition, determined by the nature of man and the nature of things, was given once and for all, that the human good on that basis was readily determinable; and that the range of human action and therefore responsibility was narrowly circumscribed. After the publication of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man it became clearer that these premises could no longer hold. Predicated on proof that could not be established until Mendelian genetics was rediscovered early in this century, Darwin's theory of evolution inscribed chance, competition, amorality, and violence as the normative principle and character of evolution and, concomitantly, human behaviour. It challenged the assumption that humankind was distinguished in its origins and development from non-human animals, that human beings were the result of a Providentially supervised special creation, that there was a purpose for humanity beyond the production of fertile offspring and, perhaps most importantly, that Progress was the inevitable consequence of history. It problematized the prevailing Victorian idea about the inevitability of progress by arguing that evolution causes change and adaptation, but not necessarily progress and never perfection. Evolution spawned a sense of impotence and a frenzy of activity in the face of fears about degeneration and decline. In this regard, Michel Serres has characterized Darwinian theory as a "myth of death, [which expresses a] greater likelihood of extinction than progress" (qtd in Beer, 9). It is to this that both Huxley and Wells speak.
Darwin's theory, or rather its timing, was paradoxical. On the one hand, humankind's evolutionary origins seemed to reduce it to the status of animal, "neither paradigm nor sovereign" (Beer, 19); on the other hand, enormous advances in scientific technology seemed to give humankind so much power over physical phenomena that individuals could count themselves superior to the universe from which they had evolved. The nature of human action had changed particularly with respect to technology. This curious dichotomy contributed to a growing sense of moral alienation. Ruskin's remark in Modern Painters that "progress and decline" are "strangely mixed in the modern mind" speaks to a growing confusion about what Huxley would term "man's place in nature." An anonymous critic writing in the London Quarterly Review (1880) felt "the sense of death and the bitterness of despair because astronomy, geology, biology, like so many angry shapes, have driven us in fury from the earthly Paradise, and barred its gates against return." Meanwhile, T.H. Huxley articulated a clear desire to isolate evolutionary theories from ethics: "Let us understand, ... that the ethical process of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it" (Evolution and Ethics, 83). Huxley's utopian impulse to impose a certain degree of control and order on society and to define goals and aspirations was influential. The process is still evolving, after all, "To realize that nothing makes any final difference is overwhelming; but if one goes no farther and becomes a saint, a cynic, or a suicide on principle, one hasn't reasoned completely" (Barth, 246).
* I am grateful to Dr. Adrian Bond, Prof. Mary Nyquist, and the Utopian Studies reviewers and editor for their comments on earlier versions of this article.
(1.) As Peter Morton details in his Introduction to The Vital Science, Darwin's rhetorical style has been a question of critical debate for some time. He writes, Gertrude Himmelfarb in Darwin and the Darwinism Revolution (1959) attacked Darwin for his stylistic ineptitude; Michael Ghiselin in The Triumph of the Darwinian Method (1969) praised Darwin for penning nothing less than a "metaphysical satire" or "biological Candide" in its philosophical handling of the "semantics of design" (Morton, 15).
(2.) The relationship between evolution and metaphysics is again a popular topic of debate; for example, read Daniel Clement Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1996).
(3.) Eventually, Huxley advocated "combating ... the cosmic process of evolution" (Evolution and Ethics, 83). The essence of his position on ethics and evolution can be summarized in four propositions:
1. He defends the Hobbesian vision of the state of nature as a war of each against all.
2. He rejects attempts to find a sanction for ethics in nature.
3. He distinguishes what he calls the ethical process, which involves the struggle between good and evil, from the cosmic process, which involves the struggle for existence.
4. He rejects attempts to read progressivism into the history of biological evolution and by extension into the evolution of morality (64-65).
(4.) This metaphor is an important inversion of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (1733): "Whatever is, is right."
(5.) Bagehot describes a similar condition in his introduction to Physics and Politics: "People are so deafened with the loud reiteration of half-truths that they have neither curiosity nor energy for elaborate investigation. The very word `elaborate' is become a reproach" (Bagehot, xxv).
(6.) Johannes Fabian, in his brilliant Time and the Other, shows how a temporal gap is constructed in the rhetoric of the period between citizens and their "contemporary ancestors," "how anthropology [for one, but like other discourses] ... managed to maintain distance, mostly by manipulating temporal coexistence through the denial of coevalness" (Fabian, 121).
(7.) Charles Kingsley wrote to John Stuart Mill in 1869: "In five-and-twenty years my ruling idea has been that which my friend Huxley has lately set forth as common to him and Comte; that `the reconstruction of society on a scientific basis is not only possible, but the only political object much worth striving for'" (Kingsley, 2: 294). But how to reconstruct society was more vexing than the enthusiasm for and rhetoric seemed to suggest; while "evil and wrongdoing and darkness [were] acknowledged to be effects of causes, sums of conditions, terms in a series, ... to be brought to their end, or weakened and narrowed, by right action and endeavour," few agreed on what accounted for "right action" (Morley, 1: 239). Winwood Reade's The Martyrdom of Man (1872), described by Peter Morton in The Vital Science (1984) as a "fully fledged and widely read Darwinian `biohistory'" (119), represents the apotheosis of the positivist ideal, with its prophecy of human perfectibility:
The God of Light, the Spirit of Knowledge, the Divine Intellect, is gradually spreading over the planet and upward to the skies.... Satan will be overcome; Virtue will descend from heaven, surrounded by her angels, and reign over the hearts of men. Earth, which is now a purgatory, will be made a paradise ... Hunger and starvation will then be unknown, and the best part of the human life will no longer be wasted in the tedious process of cultivating the fields (Reade, 512-14).
(8.) According to both the OED and Eric Partridge's A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, "coming" meaning wanton and sexually excited (slang) found its way into English between 1800 and 1810.
(9.) The narrator's desire to "make" himself over is tinged with Darwinian resonances. The narrator believes that wealth and success (variously defined) are not the result of or reward for character or moral worth, rather the narrator believes that as a reasonably intelligent person who recognizes the social value of wealth and prestige he ought to be able to acquire these traits by selecting them, i.e., making choices that give him a greater likelihood of acquiring them especially since the rest of the world seems to be progressing dimwittedly and without pursuing opportunities for such advancement.
(10.) The Lilliputians in Gulliver's first book have a similar reaction to his pocket watch, which they take as "the god that he worships ... for he seldom did anything without consulting it" (Swift, 18)--this can be read as Swift's jibe against the man of affairs who is a slave to work hours.
(11.) Darwin was generally skeptical of state intervention and was unwilling to forgo charity, even in the interests of advancing the race. Immediately after noting that "hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst [domestic] animals to breed," Darwin retreats from the implication that humans should cull their own stock. We would do harm to "the noblest part of our nature" were we to check our sympathetic instincts. Neglecting the weak and helpless would involve us in "a certain and great present evil" for only a probable benefit. "Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind" (Darwin, Descent, 168-69).
(12.) H.G. Wells, "Morals and Civilization," Fortnightly Review, n.s. 61 (February 1897): 268.
(13.) It would also help to show that there is a sanctity to life that extends beyond the boundaries of species.
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Ann-Barbara Graff is an assistant professor in the Departments of English and Women's/Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. Her research interests are in the history of ideas and in Victorian literary and cultural studies, especially the construction of gender, race and national identity. She has written articles on Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dilke, Walter Bagehot, and George Eliot.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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