Entry updated 27 April 2018. Tagged: Theme.
Sf is usually an optimistic genre, and stories of Evolution on the whole envisage humanity as slowly progressing to higher states. However, a persistent pessimistic note in Genre SF generally, and to a degree in mainstream sf too, has been to imagine the opposite, the devolution or degeneration of mankind. The note was sounded most famously in H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895), in which humankind evolves into two races, one physically degenerate, the other with few mental resources. At the end of the book humankind is gone, the Sun is cooling, and a solitary football-shaped creature is seen flopping in the last shallow sea. In George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn (1914) a couple wake after Suspended Animation to find a desolate Earth peopled by subhuman descendants of the survivors of a natural Disaster. The rhetoric is lurid.
To this day, stories of the Post-Holocaust era are often peopled by tribal savages and monstrous Mutants, though here the devolution tends to be social rather than biological in emphasis, as in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), which is unusual in its foregrounding of a devolved (but vivid) language (see Linguistics). The possibility of biological devolution was mooted in pseudoscientific circles a good deal in the early part of the century – it was a favourite notion of the Nazis – and H P Lovecraft often saw the adherents of his various disgusting cults as devolved into froglike or apelike creatures. The idea that humanity could revert to apedom was almost a Cliché of pulp sf; it is central to, for example, The Iron Star (1930) by John Taine, in which Rays from a meteor are the mutagenic agent. La planète des singes (1963; trans as Planet of the Apes 1963; vt Monkey Planet 1964) by Pierre Boulle, filmed as Planet of the Apes (1968), put a later slant on the theme for satirical purposes by having the evolution of apes paralleled by the devolution of humans. The hero of Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (April 1931 Wonder Stories) regresses finally to a blob (see also Grey Goo). Hamilton enjoyed the cosmic pointlessness suggested by ideas of devolution, and often used the theme. On a more serious level, the idea comes up several times in Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon, in which the upwards progression of the evolutionary thrust is several times interrupted by devolutionary sequences, rather like someone climbing a slippery hill and occasionally backsliding.
A Mad Scientist's devolution serum reverts cats to sabre-toothed tigers and the scientist himself to Neanderthal form in The Neanderthal Man (1953). Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States (1978) gives a new twist to the idea in its interesting if absurd notion that altered states of consciousness (as in a Sensory-Deprivation tank) may lead to instant alteration of the way our genetic heritage is manifest, our oldest DNA finding bodily expression to produce, in this case, first an apeman and later a blob. This was filmed as Altered States (1980). Chayefsky admits that his inspiration was Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), a novel whose protagonist, after experimenting with chemicals, alternates between two states: the highly evolved doctor and the amoral, bestial Hyde. In Stevenson's book, what is a subtext in most earlier devolution stories is almost overt: that devolution is a metaphorical equivalent of the Fall of Man. Theodore Sturgeon had already embraced it as a Fortunate Fall, a necessary prelude to rising again, in "The Golden Helix" (Summer 1954 Thrilling Wonder), where the dwindled descendants of humans and other sapients are used to seed new worlds. More risibly, in Philip E High's Butterfly Planet (1971), the human Villains (who have unwisely settled on planets laden with inimical radiation) devolve in real time into apelike and reptilian forms.
Social devolution was always a popular theme in genre sf, partly because it gave writers a chance to exploit colourful primitive societies and partly in deference to the cyclic view of History popularized by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975). The theme is also common in stories of Galactic Empires, where commonly a social breakdown at the centre leads to cultural devolution on the fringes, much as in the Roman Empire. This is the theme of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.
The theme of Entropy became popular in the 1960s, and with it came a new lease of life for devolution stories. Evolution ever upwards is an example of negentropy, or reverse entropy, and is counter to the general running-down of the cosmos, which in obedience to the laws of thermodynamics moves towards ever decreasing order, ever increasing randomness. (The pessimism of the 1950s and 1960s probably had more to do with the Vietnam War and problems of Overpopulation and starvation than with any revelation from physics, but entropy provided a convenient metaphor for all this.) 1960s writers often envisaged increasing disorder in terms of biological devolution. The theme was touched on by Samuel R Delany in The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965), but an earlier and more substantial work was The Long Afternoon of Earth (February-December 1961 F&SF; fixup 1962; exp vt Hothouse 1962) by Brian W Aldiss, in which a devolved and jungle-like Earth, whose shrunken humans have taken to the trees again, is given a kind of weird charm; life continues fecund even while Intelligence is lost and the Galaxy subsides towards its heat-death.
Devolution occurs in the work of other writers of Fabulations and New-Wave sf, and nowhere were its attractions for the overintellectualized twentieth century more clearly shown than in the works of J G Ballard, whose most central and recurring theme this is. Its first clear expression was in his story "The Voices of Time" (October 1960 New Worlds), in which the countdown to the end of the Universe is accompanied by a series of baroque degenerate mutations and the hero's need for more and more sleep. The tone is as much celebratory as tragic. Ballard's The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962) has a hero ever more ready to slough off such human qualities as ambition or even self-preservation as he listens to the insistent call of his bloodstream, whose saltiness recalls a time before life had left the oceans. These inner changes are mirrored in the Earth itself, which has catastrophically reverted to the luxuriance of a new Carboniferous era.
Tales of devolution from the 1970s onward are often curiously close in feeling to their apparent opposite: the stories of evolutionary Transcendence that we associate with, for example, Greg Bear and Ian Watson. Where we envisage an upwards there must necessarily be a downwards, too; this is an idea that has haunted many sf writers, notably Michael Bishop, sometimes metaphorically and sometimes literally. It is close to the latter in his No Enemy But Time (1982), in which a modern man travels back in time to find marriage and a home with hominids. The last we see of humanity in the Far Future of Stephen Baxter's Evolution (2002) is an oddly comforting reunion with a kind of vegetable Gaia, with independent existence calmly relinquished just as high Intelligence already has been. Which evolutionary direction is upwards, which downwards, and which better, seems to several contemporary writers to be all a matter of perspective, as can be seen in the main late-twentieth-century variant on the theme: a devolution that is deliberately biologically (or psychologically) engineered. Several of the Cyberpunk writers have envisaged such an operation as a means of simplifying the self to a creature who is less prone, perhaps, to the angst induced by information overload. A similar idea is found in David Zindell's Neverness (1988), a large part of which deals with the fierce, brave, ice-age Alaloi, a race which "because they wanted to live what they thought of as a natural life ... back mutated some of their chromosomes, the better to grow strong, primitive children to live on the pristine worlds they hoped to discover". The various Alien races sharing a planet in David Brin's Brightness Reef (1995) are attempting willed devolution as a kind of Ecological expiation. An interesting and even more ferocious devolution, more psychic than physical, is that envisaged in Robert P Holdstock's Mythago Wood (September 1981 F&SF; exp 1984) and its sequels, in which the human hind-brain conspires with the power of an ancient woodland to strip the minds of those who walk there down to the blood and bone of their Neolithic forebears and further, back into the days of ice. Most writers of the recent decades who have like Holdstock dealt with this theme have exhibited a strong if ambiguous attraction to the idea, though to an earlier generation devolution appeared straightforwardly repugnant.
In the context of Colonization of Other Worlds, a kind of devolution may result from inbreeding based on an overly small initial gene pool. Avram Davidson's "The House the Blakeneys Built" (January 1965 F&SF) is a chilling example; Chris Beckett's Dark Eden (2012) treats the subtheme with more optimism.
The class of stories in which primitive primates confront evolved primates in the present day is discussed under Apes as Human; these stories, too, have a bearing on the devolution theme. [PN/DRL]
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