Entry updated 6 February 2023. Tagged: Theme.
There is, inevitably, an intimate connection between the development of evolutionary philosophy and the history of sf. In a culture without an evolutionary philosophy most of the kinds of fiction we categorize as sf could not develop. Like the idea of progress, evolutionary philosophy flourished in late eighteenth-century France, and it was first significantly represented in literature by Restif de la Bretonne's evolutionary fantasy La découverte Australe par un homme volant ["The Southern-Hemisphere Discovery by a Flying Man"] (1781), an allegorical treatment of ideas partly derived from the Comte du Buffon (1707-1788). In the early nineteenth century Philosophie zoologique (1809), the Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829) developed a more elaborate evolutionary philosophy, introducing the key notion of adaptation, and paved the way for Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his theory of natural selection, promulgated in The Origin of Species (1859). Because we have fallen into the habit of labelling various theoretical heresies "Lamarckian", it is easy to forget that for most of the nineteenth century Lamarck was the more influential writer, especially in France. In the UK, Darwin was ardently championed by T H Huxley (1825-1895) and the sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), and his ideas took much firmer hold in the UK than elsewhere. Thus there was a sharp divergence of emphasis between French and UK evolutionary sf, and this lasted well into the twentieth century. The writers who pioneered the tradition of French evolutionary fantasy were Camille Flammarion, most notably in Lumen (1887; trans anon 1892) [for further publication details see Flammarion] and Omega (trans 1894), and J-H Rosny aîné in his many prehistoric fantasies, in Les Xipéhuz (in L'Immolation ["The Sacrifice"] coll 1887; 1888; trans as "The Shapes" in One Hundred Years of Science Fiction, anth 1968, ed Damon Knight) and in "La mort de la terre" (1910; trans as "The Death of the Earth" 1978). Jules Verne's only evolutionary fantasy, La grande forêt, le village aérien (1901; trans I O Evans as The Village in the Treetops 1964), is also Lamarckian.
Lamarck's successor, Henri Bergson (1859-1941), whose theory of "creative evolution" made much of the notion of the élan vital – which Lamarck had rejected – seems to have provided the seed of one of the most important UK evolutionary fantasies, J D Beresford's The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917), but for the most part UK writing was dominated by the implications of Darwinian theory and the catch-phrases by which it was vulgarized: "the survival of the fittest" and "the struggle for existence". H G Wells was taught by T H Huxley in the early 1890s, and remained ever-anxious that the qualities which had shaped human nature for survival in the struggle for existence might prevent our ever achieving a just society – a fear powerfully reflected, in different ways, in The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) and The Croquet Player (1936 chap). (An interesting antidote to Wellsian pessimism is administered in one of the several sequels to The Time Machine: David Lake's The Man Who Loved Morlocks .) Wells also launched an sf Cliché with his vision of evolved future man with bulging brain and part-atrophied body in his essay "The Man of the Year Million" (6 November 1893 Pall Mall Budget).
The ominous spectres arising from the harsher versions of Darwinian philosophy also feature strongly in Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler (who also wrote several anti-Darwinian tracts) and intrude upon most of the speculative fiction of Grant Allen (who wrote several pro-Darwinian tracts). The political implications of the careless transplantation of Darwinian ideas into theories of social evolution (see Social Darwinism) were such that Wells's one-time fellow-Fabian George Bernard Shaw renounced Darwinism in favour of neo-Lamarckism on political grounds, and his play Back to Methuselah (1921; revs 1921-1945) was published with a long introductory essay explaining this renunciation. Similar steps were taken by T D Lysenko (1898-1976), in the name of Soviet communism, and Luther Burbank (1849-1926), in the name of US fundamentalism. It was not widely realized that the implications of Darwinism were not necessarily as harsh as vulgar Darwinians tended to assume. An interesting allegorical popularization of a more humane Darwinism is Gerald Heard's Gabriel and the Creatures (1952; vt Wishing Well 1953). The influence of Darwinian ideas can be seen in such US works as Edgar Fawcett's The Ghost of Guy Thyrle (1895) and Austin Bierbower's From Monkey to Man (1894); the latter is an early attempt to present Genesis as an allegory of evolution.
Human evolution was explored by writers in terms of its probable past (see Anthropology; Origin of Man) and possible future. Wells's classic essay, "The Man of the Year Million" (6 November 1893 Pall Mall Budget), imagined mankind as evolution might remake us, with an enormous head and reduced body, eyes enlarged but ears and nose vestigial – an image which became a stereotype adopted by many other writers. It became a cliché in early Pulp-magazine sf, although most writers took a dim view of the "fitness" of such individuals, and usually represented them as effete entities doomed to extinction; "Alas, All Thinking!" (June 1935 Astounding) by Harry Bates is a graphic example. Few pulp writers, though, had much idea of the actual implications of Darwinism, and they produced very few extrapolations which could stand up to rigorous examination – a state of affairs which still persists. Most sf writers contemplating the evolutionary future of mankind have been inordinately taken with the idea of sudden, large-scale mutations of a kind in which modern Darwinians do not believe (see Mutants). Many stories appeared in which mutagenic radiation accelerated evolution to a perceptible pace, including John Taine's The Iron Star (1930) and Seeds of Life (Fall 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1951) and Edmond Hamilton's "Evolution Island" (March 1927 Weird Tales). Hamilton's fiction also showed a persistent interest in the Pseudoscientific notion of retrograde evolution (see Devolution), which had earlier been luridly featured in George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn (1914) and which crops up also in Olaf Stapledon's curiously un-Darwinian Last and First Men (1930). In Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (April 1931 Wonder Stories) a man who bathes himself in mutagenic radiation first turns into the man-of-the-year-million stereotype and then regresses, ending up as a blob of undifferentiated protoplasm. Equally pseudoscientific, though more interesting, is Edgar Rice Burroughs's "extrapolation" of Haeckel's law ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny") in The Land that Time Forgot (stories September-November 1918 Blue Book; fixup 1924); in this romance the recapitulation takes place during active life rather than embryonically. Similar schemes are credited to alien life-systems in Theodore Sturgeon's "The Golden Helix" (Summer 1954 Thrilling Wonder) and James Blish's A Case of Conscience (September 1953 If; exp 1958).
Sf of the 1920s and 1930s was frequently pessimistic about the long-term evolutionary prospects of mankind, but bold success stories are featured in J B S Haldane's "The Last Judgment" (in Possible Worlds, coll 1927) and Laurence Manning's The Man Who Awoke (five stories March-August 1933 Wonder Stories; fixup 1975). The former influenced and the latter was influenced by the most detailed and most extravagant of all evolutionary fantasies, Stapledon's Last and First Men. This extraordinary study of mankind's many descendant species, extending over a timespan of billions of years, exhibits an odd combination of optimism and pessimism further extrapolated on the grander stage of Star Maker (1937), whose experimentally inclined God-figure is working His way through an evolving series of Creations. Those sf stories in which the human evolutionary story does not end with eventual extinction or with the acquisition of a stabilizing Immortality usually propose, like Shaw in Back to Methuselah, that there will eventually be a Transcendence that frees human intelligence from its association with frail flesh, and that our ultimate descendants will be more-or-less godlike entities of "pure thought" – an idea which echoes continually through E E "Doc" Smith's work and crops up briefly but rather disturbingly in Robert A Heinlein's Methuselah's Children (July-September 1941 Astounding; rev 1958). A particularly memorable pulp sf evocation of this sort of motif is Eric Frank Russell's "Metamorphosite" (December 1946 Astounding). Even when mankind fails to stay the distance – as in John W Campbell Jr's "The Last Evolution" (August 1932 Amazing), where it is our machines, not their creators, which ultimately achieve the state of "pure consciousness" – this is conventionally seen as the logical end-point of evolution, as it still is in such novels as The Singers of Time (1990) by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson and Eternal Light (1991) by Paul J McAuley. Given that images of the next stage in human evolution (see Superman) usually invoke pseudoscientific notions about mental powers (see ESP) based on Cartesian illusions about mental ghosts in bodily machines, the idea that evolution tends towards disembodiment is a natural and psychologically plausible extrapolation, though arguably rather silly.
The post-World War Two boom in stories of human mental evolution produced a number of stories which invoked the notion of a universal evolutionary schema. The most notable were Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990), which shows a whole generation of Earthly children undergoing a kind of metamorphic apotheosis to fuse with the "cosmic mind", and two stories by Theodore Sturgeon: More than Human (fixup 1953) and The Cosmic Rape (1958), which deploy similar imagery on a smaller scale, using the idea of collective mental gestalts. Another interesting example of such a schema is to be found in the material linking the short stories in Galaxies like Grains of Sand (1959; full text restored 1979) by Brian W Aldiss, which proposes that the next step in human evolution might be complete somatic awareness and control. A more modest schema of human evolution, past and future, underlies Gordon R Dickson's Childe Cycle novels, and is elaborated in some detail in his The Final Encyclopedia (1984). A remarkable philosophical allegory surreally re-examining many ideas about mankind's possible future evolution is Robert Silverberg's Son of Man (1971). The most widely seen (but by no means most widely understood) symbolic representation of evolutionary apotheosis is that contained in the final frames of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Last and First Men also includes in its multi-faceted discussion of future human evolution the possibility – first raised in Haldane's essay Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1923) that humans might take charge of their own physical evolution by means of what is nowadays termed Genetic Engineering, but this line of inquiry was not widely explored until much later. Damon Knight's Masters of Evolution (January 1954 Galaxy as "Natural State"; exp 1959) features the anti-technological "muckfeet", who have allegedly progressed beyond the need for machines and cities in acquiring biological control of their environment, but stories of this kind, inspired by a growing interest in Ecology and a corollary antipathy towards Cities (see also Dystopias; Machines), have been heavily outnumbered by those which – following Aldous Huxley's example in Brave New World (1932) – consider the idea of tampering with human nature implicitly horrific. Examples include Frank Herbert's The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966) and T J Bass's Half Past Human (December 1969 Galaxy and November 1970 If; fixup 1971), the latter featuring a "human hive" – an image invoked in many stories as a highly unfortunate but nevertheless probable destiny for evolving human society (see Hive Minds), most notably in J D Beresford's and Esme Wynne-Tyson's The Riddle of the Tower (1944). The idea that our future evolution might involve turning ourselves into Cyborgs – memorably pioneered by E V Odle's remarkable The Clockwork Man (1923) – has usually been treated with similar unenthusiasm. The idea of any future metamorphosis of the human species, however modest, is repugnant to many whose aesthetic standards are not unnaturally defined by our present ideals: even to those who abhor anything that might smack of Nazism, the desirable notion of "men like gods" inevitably conjures up an image of serried ranks of Aryan matinée idols. One sf writer who has tried particularly hard to escape this imaginative straitjacket is Ian Watson, whose exuberant adventures in evolutionary possibility extend to bizarre extremes in The Gardens of Delight (1980) and Converts (1984).
A surprising number of sf stories look forward – often with a curious inverted nostalgia – to the time when mankind's day is done and we must pass on our legacy to the inheritors of Earth (or of the Universe). Usually the inheritors are machines, as in Lester del Rey's "Though Dreamers Die" (February 1944 Astounding) and Edmond Hamilton's "After a Judgement Day" (December 1963 Fantastic), but sometimes they are animals, as in Del Rey's "The Faithful" (April 1938 Astounding), Clifford D Simak's City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1952; exp 1981) and Terry Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire" (August 1990 Asimov's). Olof Johannesson, in The Tale of the Big Computer (1966; trans 1968; vt The Great Computer), plots an evolutionary schema in which the function of mankind is simply to be the means of facilitating machine evolution; while L Sprague de Camp's and P Schuyler Miller's ironic Genus Homo (March 1941 Super Science Stories; 1950), Neal Barrett Jr's puzzle-story Aldair in Albion (1976), Dougal Dixon's fascinating picture-book After Man: A Zoology of the Future (1981) and Kurt Vonnegut Jr's jeremiad Galápagos (1985) all describe new species which take up the torch of evolutionary progress after mankind's demise. Such stories have strong ideative links with extravagant Alternate-History stories which contemplate alternative patterns of earthly evolution, notably Guy Dent's Emperor of the If (1926), Harry Harrison's West of Eden (1984) and its sequels – in which primitive men must compete with intelligent descendants of the Dinosaurs – and Stephen R Boyett's The Architect of Sleep (1986), in which it is raccoons rather than apes that have given rise to sentient descendants.
Accounts of Alien evolution are separately considered in the section on Life on Other Worlds, but mention must be made here of the frequent recruitment of the ideas of convergent evolution and parallel evolution to excuse the dramatically convenient deployment of humanoid aliens. Writers conscientious enough to construct a jargon of apology for such a situation often argue that the logic of natural selection permits intelligence to arise only in upright bipeds with binocular vision and clever hands, and that, had such bipeds not evolved from lemurs, they might instead have evolved from Cat-like or even lizardlike ancestors. There are, however, relatively few stories which actually turn on hypotheses of this kind; examples include Philip Latham's "Simpson" (March 1954 Cosmos), one of several stories about humanlike aliens who are not as similar to us as they seem, and Lloyd Biggle Jr's The Light that Never Was (1972), which addresses the question of whether "animaloid" species are necessarily inferior to "humanoid" ones.
Alternative life-systems capable of Lamarckian evolution are featured in a few stories, including Barrington J Bayley's "Mutation Planet" (in Frontiers 1: Tomorrow's Alternatives, anth 1973, ed Roger Elwood) and Brian M Stableford's "The Engineer and the Executioner" (May 1975 Amazing; rev 1991). Greg Bear explores a world of competing Lamarckian ecosystems ("ecoi") in Legacy (1995).
The Butlerian idea that machines may eventually begin to evolve independently of their makers has become increasingly popular as real-world Computers have become more sophisticated; images of such evolutionary sequences have become more complex, as in James P Hogan's Code of the Lifemaker (1983). Several recent images of universal evolutionary schemas – notably the one featured in Gregory Benford's Across the Sea of Suns (1984) and the trilogy begun with Great Sky River (1988) – imagine a fundamental ongoing struggle for existence between organic and inorganic life-systems. The beginnings of such a division are evident in Bruce Sterling's series of stories featuring the Shapers and the Mechanists, which culminates in Schismatrix (1985). A related but somewhat different Universe-wide struggle for existence is revealed in the concluding volume of Brian Stableford's Asgard trilogy, The Centre Cannot Hold (1990), and an even stranger one is first glimpsed in The Angel of Pain (1991), the second volume of another Stableford trilogy.
Mutational miracles still abound in modern sf, in such apocalyptic stories of future evolution as Greg Bear's Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985) and his less drastic Darwin's Radio (1999), and there is a strong tendency to mystify evolution-related concepts such as "Ecology" and "symbiosis" (see Parasitism and Symbiosis) in a fashion which is at best interestingly metaphorical and at worst hazily metaphysical. Patterns of evolution on alien worlds (see Life on Other Worlds) are often placed in the service of some kind of Edenic mythology, and this is true even in the work of writers well versed in the biological sciences. Perhaps this is not unduly surprising in an era when religious fundamentalists are still fighting the teaching of Darwinism in US schools, demanding equal time for "Creation Science" or its barely disguised successor "Intelligent Design" and frequently succeeding in censorship of science textbooks. Some evolutionary philosophers have not yet given up hope of producing a crucial modification of the Darwinian account of evolution which is more aesthetically appealing; among those to attempt it have been Rupert Sheldrake in The Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (1981), an idea adapted to sf use by Paul Cook in Duende Meadow (1985). Given the continued success of Darwinism as a source of explanations, however, it is lamentably unfortunate that so few sf stories have deployed the theory in any reasonably rigorous fashion. An exception, perhaps, is Stephen Baxter's part-documentary novel Evolution (2002), which unsparingly traces the human species from its lemur-like ancestors in the Dinosaur era, through the present and on into far-future Devolution. [BS/DRL]
- Adam Lively. Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination (London: Chatto and Windus, 1998) [nonfiction: hb/David Hiscock]
- James A Secord. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2000) [nonfiction: hb/from R B Martineau, "The Last Chapter"]
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