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Origin of Man

Entry updated 14 November 2022. Tagged: Theme.

An abundant literature dealing with the remote ancestry of the human species inevitably sprang up in the wake of the theory of Evolution, as propounded by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). T H Huxley (1825-1895), the principal champion of Darwinism, published the classic Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863), and Darwin himself wrote The Descent of Man (1871) soon after. The main point at issue was, as Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) put it, "the question of whether Man is an ape or an angel". Disraeli was on the side of the angels, but science and serious speculative fiction were not; their main interest was in how Man had ceased to be a brute beast and become human.

Huxley took a rather harsh view of the process of natural selection, and so did his one-time pupil, H G Wells, whose Prehistoric SF venture "A Story of the Stone Age" (May-November 1897 Idler) envisages the crucial moment in human evolution as the invention of a "new club" – a better means to cut and kill. This view recurs constantly, being memorably envisaged in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which the dawn of intelligence occurs as an ape realizes that the bone he uses to smash other bones can also be used as, among other things, a Weapon. Darwin presented a rather different account, stressing the positive value of cooperation and mutual protection in the struggle for existence. This stress on cooperative emotions as well as physical inventions is found in such works as Jack London's Before Adam (October 1906-February 1907 Everybody's Magazine; 1906), although previous, more religiously inclined authors had represented the origins of humanity in purely spiritual terms; Gouverneur Morris's The Pagan's Progress (1904) is an example. The domestication of fire was also widely seen as the crucial invention, notably in Stanley Waterloo's The Story of Ab (1897), in Charles Henry Robinson's Longhead: The Story of the First Fire (1913), and in the most famous novel by the most prolific author of prehistoric fantasies, J-H Rosny aîné's La guerre du feu (1909; cut trans as The Quest for Fire: A Novel of Prehistoric Times 1967; vt Quest for Fire 1982). Rosny's prehistoric stories – which include Vamireh (1892), Eyrimah (1893), Le felin géant (1918; trans 1924 as The Giant Cat 1924; vt Quest of the Dawn Man 1964) and Helgvor de Fleuve Bleu ["Helgvor of the Blue River"] (1930) – inspired numerous works by other French writers, including Marcel Schwob's "La Mort d'Odjigh" ["The Death of Odjigh"] (1892; trans by Iain White in The King in the Golden Mask, coll 1982), Claude Anet's La fin d'un monde (1925; trans as The End of a World 1927) and Max Bégouën's Les bisons d'argile (1925; trans as Bison of Clay 1926).

The Huxleyan account of human nature was comprehensively rejected by two UK writers in Scientific Romances that glorified the innocent state of Nature and blamed civilization for all human ills: S Fowler Wright in Dream, or The Simian Maid (1929) and its intended sequel The Vengeance of Gwa (1935) (as by Anthony Wingrave) and J Leslie Mitchell in the polemical Three Go Back (1932) and the lyrical "The Woman of Leadenhall Street" (in Masterpiece of Thrills (anth 1936) ed anon John Gawsworth) as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Similar nostalgia for a prehistoric Golden Age is displayed in William Golding's The Inheritors (1955), though Golding follows Wright rather than Mitchell in refusing to grant innocence to Man's direct ancestors, and presents a more brutal view of prehistoric life in "Clonk Clonk" (in The Scorpion God, coll 1971). All these works are, in part, admonitory fables, and by natural exaggeration prehistoric fantasies have also been employed for Satire, as in Andrew Lang's "The Romance of the First Radical" (September 1880 Fraser's Magazine), Henry Curwen's Zit and Xoe (April-May 1885 Blackwood's Magazine; 1887), W D Locke's "The Story of Oo-oo" (in Stories Near and Far, coll 1926) and Roy Lewis's What We Did to Father (1960; vt The Evolution Man 1963; vt Once upon an Ice Age 1979).

There have been several attempts to write novels on a vast scale which link prehistory and history to provide a "whole" account of the "spirit of Man". The most impressive is Den Lange Rejse (1908-1922 Denmark; trans as The Long Journey 1922-1924; omni 1933) by the Danish Nobel Prize winner Johannes V Jensen, the first two parts of which are prehistoric fantasies. A work on an even greater scale is the Testament of Man series by Vardis Fisher, a 12-novel series of which the first four volumes are prehistoric fantasies. Also in this tradition is Les enchainements (1925; trans as Chains 1925) by Henri Barbusse, while more trivial examples include The Invincible Adam (1932) by George S Viereck and Paul Eldridge and Tomorrow (coll of linked stories 1930) by F Britten Austin, who also wrote a volume of prehistoric short stories, When Mankind Was Young (coll 1927). The attempt to find in the evolutionary history of Man some sequence of events for which the Genesis myth might be considered a metaphor – a key theme of Fisher's novels – is such an attractive notion that it has infected anthropological theory as well as speculative fantasy. Austin Bierbower's From Monkey to Man (1894) offers a simpler account of a metaphorical expulsion from Eden. A fierce reaction against such superstitions can be found in The Sons of the Mammoth (trans 1929) by the Russian anthropologist V G Bogoraz.

In the US Pulp magazines there grew up a romantic school of prehistoric fiction glorifying the life of the savage. Its most prolific proponent was Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Pellucidar series, The Eternal Lover (stories 7 March 1914, 23 January-3 February 1915 All-Story Weekly; fixup 1925; vt The Eternal Savage) and The Cave Girl (July-September 1913 All-Story; exp as fixup 1925). Novels from outside the pulps, however, often show a similar if more muted romanticism. Examples include most of Jack London's stories in this vein, Sir Charles G D Roberts's In the Morning of Time (1919), H Rider Haggard's Allan and the Ice-Gods (1927) and Richard Tooker's The Day of the Brown Horde (1929). Prehistoric romances in the Cinema, which are notorious for their anachronisms, are perhaps the extreme examples of the romantic school, from D W Griffith's Man's Genesis (1911) onwards. Although Hugo Gernsback reprinted Wells's "A Story of the Stone Age", Genre SF did not really take prehistoric fantasy aboard, with a few notable exceptions including Lester del Rey's "The Day is Done" (May 1939 Astounding), Jack Williamson's "The Greatest Invention" (July 1951 Astounding), Chad Oliver's juvenile Mists of Dawn (1952) and Theodore L Thomas's "The Doctor" (in Orbit 2, anth 1967, ed Damon Knight). Progress in physical Anthropology has encouraged a sophistication of fictional images of prehistoric life, reflected in such works as Cook (1981) by Tom Case and No Enemy But Time (1982; rev 2022) by Michael Bishop. The most remarkable modern manifestation of prehistoric fantasy is, however, the series of bestselling novels by Jean Auel, collectively entitled Earth's Children, which begins with The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). Auel ingeniously combines a realism based in modern scientific understanding with robust literary romanticism. Also worthy of special note is a series of surreal prehistoric fantasies included in Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics (coll 1965; trans 1968) and t zero (coll 1967; trans 1969; vt Time and the Hunter). Significant scientific speculations on the topic are contained in two novels by the palaeontologist Björn Kurtén, Dance of the Tiger (1978; trans 1980) and Singletusk (1984; trans 1986).

There have, of course, been several unorthodox accounts of the origin of Man, including various hypothetical extraterrestrial origins. Some, like that propounded by Erich von Däniken, have been presented as fact. Such notions recur throughout the History of SF, usually developed as silly plot gimmicks (see Adam and Eve). Among the more interesting examples are Eric Frank Russell's Dreadful Sanctuary (June-August 1948 Astounding; 1951; rev 1963), which plays with the Fortean hypothesis (see Charles Fort) that Earth is an asylum for the lunatics of other worlds, and James Blish's "The Writing of the Rat" (July 1956 Galaxy), one of many stories which makes us the descendants of a "lost colony" within a galactic civilization. [BS]

see also: Mythology.


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