C.S. Lewis, H.G. Wells, and the Evolutionary Myth

Mike Perry
© Copyright 1998 Mike W. Perry, All Rights Reserved
July 1, 1998
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For a long time literary snobs have sneered at science fiction, considering it something other than serious literature. C. S. Lewis knew better. Coming of age early in this century, his generation was as captivated by H. G. Wells's stories of space and time travel as today's generation is by movies and television programs on those same themes. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis said that those stories had a "peculiar, heady attraction" for him, coarse and strong, even "ravenous, like a lust." But for all their power over his imagination, he did not praise them. He went on to compare his escape from them to the "exorcism" of demons.

Lewis's attraction to Wells was instinctive. Both writers were interested in the creation of powerful myths, defining "myth" not in the everyday sense of "a story that isn't true" but in the literary sense of "the story that lies behind all stories." True or false, a well-done myth gives our world meaning and purpose.

To understand Lewis's attitude, we must to go back to one of the first things Wells published, a little story called "A Talk with Gryllotalpa" written in 1887 while he was a student at the Normal School of Science near London. As the story begins, Wells is looking at an illustration from the Christian classic, Pilgrim's Progress. Dominating the illustration is what Wells terms "the most terrible sky" he has ever seen. Beneath that sky are two tiny figures overpowered by the forces of nature. Thinking as a humanist, Wells is deeply disturbed by the picture and surprised that a friend who is deep into science's "new learning" is not. Wells asks him, "Do you really fell akin to the Christian in that vastness?"

This is extremely surprising. Was the picture's message about humanity one which both believing Christians and secular scientists could agree? The friend's reply makes it clear that was not so. The illustration, he says, presents a "far grander picture of the state of man than any I have seen for a some time." He goes on to say, "Man is less than an iota in the infinite universe. He is a Link in an Infinite Chain of Causation and a Factor in a Limitless Sum."

The young Wells was on to something. It is true that in both the scientific "new learning" and Christian theology, man can be pictured as a tiny object in a vast universe. But the interpretation each offers could not be more different. For science, our insignificance is the reality and the importance we attach to ourselves the illusion. We really are "less than an iota in the infinite universe." Christianity believes the exact opposite. The truth is our eternal destiny as thinking, feeling individuals. The illusion is our seeming smallness.

Wells was blunt about what he did. In his 1934 Experiment in Autobiography, he compared his life's work to an arch. The base of the arch, he said, began as a student when he explored evolution, time travel and the future of humanity in stories such as "The Man of the Year Million." During this period, Wells's writing was almost exclusively destructive. He was attacking not so much Christianity as the attempt many were making to retain the optimism, goodness and a high regard for humanity that Christianity had given Western society. No less a scientist than Charles Darwin was guilty of such illusions. The next to last paragraph of his The Origin of Species closes with the claim, "Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection."

Wells's 1895 The Time Machine stamped a giant "No!" across this optimism. In the very book that propelled Wells to fame, the author warned that evolution offers no promises. At the center of that novel is the world of the year 802,701. As the time traveler slowly came to realize, at that point in its evolution the human race had divided into two species, one preying upon the other and neither appealing to present-day tastes.

Even more disturbing was what the traveler discovered when he went on to "the remote and awful twilight" of a dying earth. In that far-distant day he almost collapsed when he saw the last product of evolutionary progress-a crude and soon-to-be extinct tentacled object the size of a soccer ball. Wells was obsessed by the fear that this inevitable fate meant that all human aspirations were futile. His response was a desire to do everything possible to salvage some value from our fleeting existence.

This comes through most clearly if you compare his book about Mars, The War of the Worlds with Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet. In both, an intelligent Martian species is faced with extinction as their planet cools and its atmosphere leaks into space. In his first chapter of his book, Wells makes it quite clear that, like many humans, his Martians are convinced evolutionists, believing in "an incessant struggle for existence" with an accompanying "war of extermination" between different races and species. We have no room to complain, he says. The Martian invaders merely intend to do with us what Europeans did to the Tasmanians. Struggle and killing are part of the nature of the universe. That is the idea that lies at the heart of the evolutionary myth.

Lewis's opposing view was best expressed by a Martian sorn named Augray in Out of the Silent Planet. After learning that the shrinking atmosphere of Mars had led to the extinction of soul-bearing creatures named the harandra, Ransom asks, "And he [meaning God] could not prevent it?" The sorn's reply was: "I do not know. But a world is not made to last for ever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil's [God's] way."2 The tragedy in Lewis's extinction was prevented by the critical difference between his beliefs and those of Wells. For Lewis, the otherwise-extinct harandra live on in an afterlife as individuals just like you and I. As a result, they were not tempted to engage in the sorts of interplanetary imperialism that Ransom finds so disgusting in Weston.

Wells got even grimmer in a book published the year after Time Machine. Recently made into a movie, The Island of Dr. Moreau was set in the present. While many take it as simply another mad scientist story, enough understood the real message to threaten Wells's new career. In the twelfth chapter, Dr. Moreau explains what he is doing. Using torture, pain and death, he is trying to make animals into men. "To this day," he tells his visitor, "I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature." While there are some less-than-subtle attacks on Christianity, the book's basic purpose is to expose evolution for what it is, a cruel and enormously destructive way to achieve progress. Dr. Moreau's crime was not his methods; it was wanting evolution in a hurry.

In Planet we hear Lewis's response to such thinking when he has Ransom tell Weston: "I suppose that all that stuff about infinity and eternity means that you think you are justified in doing anything-absolutely anything-here and now, on the off chance that some creature or other descended from man as we know him may crawl about a few centuries longer in some part of the universe."3

Wells could have spent the rest of his life attacking the public's illusions about evolution, but he chose another path. Throughout most of 1899 and 1900, he wrote little and thought much. In 1901 he startled the world by coming out with a totally different kind of book, one that offered solutions rather than problems. Though neglected by most scholars, in his autobiography Wells described Anticipations, as the keystone of the arch that was his life's work. Understand it and you understand what he was doing. Even more important, understand who was attracted to Wells's book and you acquire a critical insight into how the evolutionary myth impacts politics. For what Wells advocated in that book was virtually identical to what Hitler would later bring to Germany. There Wells not only advocated a socialist World State, he described it being achieved in a particularly disturbing way.

Speaking prophetically of the year 2000, Wells claimed his World State would begin, as he put it, with a "great federation of white English-speaking peoples." The British empire would join with the other English-speaking countries such as the United States. Together, they would possess "at least a hundred million sound-bodied and educated and capable men."4 That military power would dictate a world union dominated by English-speaking whites.

Substitute German-speaking Aryans for English-speaking whites and you have Nazism's ultimate dream. But the similarities do not end there. Wells's noted that his World State would pay particular attention to how Jews adapted to the new order. According to Wells: "If the Jew has a certain incurable tendency to social parasitism, and we make social parasitism impossible, we shall abolish the Jew; and if he has not, there is no need to abolish the Jew."5 There is a difference between Wells's 'change or die' and Nazism's blunter 'die,' but the difference is not that great.

On the matter of population control, similarities abound. Nazi Germany targeted the Slavs of Eastern Europe for abortion, birth control and other means of population limitation. Wells's scheme offered the same idea on a far vaster scale. In the "Southern States" of the United States, he warned, "the nigger squats and multiplies." Together with the whites of urban slums, such people constitute "stagnant ponds of population" that must be drained.6 He went still further. In words that cannot be misunderstood, he made it clear that the World State would adopt a brutal population policy.

To the multiplying rejected of the white and yellow civilisations there will have been added a vast proportion of the black and brown races, and collectively those masses will propound the general question, "What will you do with us, we hundreds of millions who cannot keep pace with you?"

Wells's plans for the great bulk of the black and brown races were like those he had for Southern blacks and the white underclass. He intended to get rid of them by preventing them from having children by various schemes. Imagine hundreds of millions of people waiting passively for their fate to be decided by a select few and you get a hint of the totalitarian terror behind his World State.

Even more revealing was the enthusiastic support Wells's now embarrassing book received from British socialists. In the early decades of this century, the Webb couple, Sidney and Beatrice, virtually defined Britain's non-Marxist left. When the Webbs read Anticipations they were elated, contacted Wells and invited him to join the Fabian Society they led. While the goals of Fabians were similar to those of Marxists, their tactics were far different. Lewis captured their attitude quite well with the organization he called N. I. C. E. in That Hideous Strength. A small scientifically trained and bureaucratically inclined elite, they intended to take power gradually and quietly, one municipal water board at a time.

In the character of Horace Jules, the "distinguished novelist and scientific popularizer" Lewis portrays Wells's relationship with the Fabians fairly well. After they got to know him, the Fabians decided Wells was useful for propaganda but lacked the patience to work slowly and quietly. In the end, Wells broke with the Fabians because they rejected his demand that they become openly political. Like Lewis's N. I. C. E., the Fabians preferred to appear unpolitical.

The Fabians of Wells's day were also just as deceptive as Lewis's N. I. C. E. In his autobiography, Wells uses the term "Fabian understatement"7 to describe their policy of lying and brags of using the technique himself. They also practiced the very same media manipulation that Lewis described in Hideous Strength. During a 1937 debate on school reform in London, the editors of the Daily Mail asked the highly partisan Fabian, Sidney Webb, to secretly edit their coverage of the issue, a task he all too gladly took on. His wife Beatrice later quoted him saying, "I never revealed to anyone that one of my experiences had been to edit the Daily Mail for a week."8

In his later books, Wells realized that for his World State to become popular outside Europe, it had to appear less racist and more multi-cultural. So token members of other races were conspicuously inserted into his ruling elite, displaying trivial differences in dress and lifestyle but never challenging its basic ideas. The elite's real goals were hidden from all but an inner circle. Lewis captured this quite well in That Hideous Strength when Lord Feverstone enlightened Mark Studdock about the real purpose of N. I. C E.

"Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest-which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite."

"What sort of thing have you in mind?'

"Quite simple and obvious things, at first-sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don't want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. By real education I mean one that has no 'take-it-or-leave-it' nonsense. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly; whatever he or his parents try to do about it."9

In his preface to Hideous Strength, Lewis noted that The Abolition of Man provides the "serious point" for which Hideous was the "tall tale." Read it to understand what Feverstone's "real education" might mean.

Anticipations marked a turning point in Wells's writing. From that point on he abandoned myth-making for agenda-promoting. After 1901, his life was driven by an obsession for establishing a World State based on evolution. One reason was theological. Once he rejected his mother's evangelical Christianity, Wells had no God to keep his thinking within the bounds of traditional morality. His faith rested in an alarmist version of what Lewis aptly termed the "myth of evolution." The myth said that world was a place of struggle, violence and death. Man must take charge of Man or Nature would do something quite terrible to us.

The second reason was literary. In "The Funeral of a Great Myth" Lewis describes why evolution as a myth is so appealing. There is the struggle of organic life to break forth, its long battle to improve itself, the rise of man from obscurity, and finally his fight to survive over countless ages. All provide marvelous themes for powerful stories. The biggest problem is that those stories focus, not on flesh-and-blood people, but on abstractions such as "Humanity" or "Life." Lewis realized this. In his first science fiction novel, Weston is so obsessed with humanity in the abstract that the Oyarsa of Mars tells him:

"Strange! You do not love any one of your race-you would have let me kill Ransom. You do not love the mind of your race, nor the body. Any kind of creature will please you if only it is begotten by your kind as they now are. It seems to me, Thick One, that what you really love is no completed creature but the very seed itself: for that is all that is left.10

That was why Wells could write of ridding the world of the unfit and inefficient. A scientifically selected portion of humanity provided better seed for the future than our present freely breeding masses.

In Perelandra Weston has changed but not for the better. He has undergone a conversion from a Wells-like obsession with humanity's biological seed to the worship of a mystical "Life-Force" best seen in the science fiction of Olaf Stapledon, a Marxist, and the plays of George Bernard Shaw, another Fabian. As different as the two Westons are, when it comes to their treatment of people the differences matter little. In Planet Weston tells Ransom, "You cannot be so small-minded as to think that the rights of the life of an individual or of a million individuals are of the slightest importance in comparison with this."11 In Perelandra Weston replies "Yes," when Ransom asks, "Would you still obey the Life-Force if you found it prompting you to murder me?"12

Wells's friendship with another talented writer of the day demonstrates that Lewis was not the only one to understand what Wells was doing. Though most biographers agree that Joseph Conrad was not a Christian, they stress that the Polish Catholicism of his youth had an enormous impact on how he viewed the human condition. In the fall of 1903, after having read what Wells had written in a serialized Mankind in the Making, Conrad wrote Wells a letter in which he tried to convince himself that, "Our differences are fundamental but the divergence is not that great." He illustrated this by drawing two sets of lines. The W (for Wells) line wiggles up and down, sometimes crossing the C (for Conrad) line, but never diverging far from it. That, Conrad says, is what their "convictions are like." In the other sketch, which he says does not illustrate their convictions, the two lines diverge rapidly apart never to return together.13

A few days later, Conrad writes again. Trying to be helpful, he warns Wells that he has begun to address a "select circle . . . leaving the rest of the world outside the pale." He also warns that he will be accused of wanting to create an elite "who look at the world as a breeding place."14 That was, of course, exactly what Wells intended and by the end of 1903, Conrad seems to have realized that, at one point telling Wells, "There is a cold jocular ferocity" about how he handled mankind "that gives me the shudders sometimes."15

By 1906, Conrad could no longer reconcile his beliefs with those of Wells. Like so many others, Wells linked his desire to set up an elite who would determine who could have children with a desire to abolish all codes of sexual behavior. In a novel entitled In the Days of the Comet, Wells used the passing of the earth through the tale of a comet to sexually 'liberate' society. After reading it, Conrad wrote Wells: "The day of liberation may come or may never come. Very likely I shall be dead first. But if it does come that'll be the day on which I shall marshal my futile objections as to the matters treated in this book."16

Perhaps in a last bid to sustain their friendship, Conrad would dedicated his 1907 The Secret Agent to Wells but no correspondence between them after that has survived. In early 1918, Conrad would explain to Hugh Walpole that his final quarrel with Wells had centered on their differing views about humanity: "The difference between us, Wells, is fundamental. You don't care for humanity but think they are to be improved. I love humanity but know they are not!"17

Conrad's description could not have been more accurate. Three decades earlier in "At Talk with Gryllotalpa" Wells had criticized his friend's "new learning" in almost the same terms, telling the young evolutionist: "Your duty to aid in the developing of humanity is a vast thing, doubtless, but nearer, and every day before you, is your duty to serve your neighbor." That was an idea Wells soon rejected, if indeed he ever believed it.

The problem Wells faced and resolved in such an evil fashion was simple. The evolutionary myth has no way to attach value to the imperfect and ordinary people who are our neighbors. The only value it knows is wrapped up in an immense and abstract process of change and hoped-for improvement achieved through struggle, reproduction and death. Man the individual really is "less than an iota in the infinite universe." He only has value as a microscopic link in an infinite chain of cosmic events or as some small addition to the infinite sum of biological progress.

Contrast that with what Lewis wrote in "The Weight of Glory."

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations-these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit-immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.18

Two myths and two ways of looking at the world. When it comes to our vision for our social future, that difference makes a world of difference.

 


 

NOTES

1 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London, 1955), 34.

2 C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 100.

3 C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 27.

4 The quotations from: H. G. Wells, Anticipations and Other Papers (New York, 1924), 226.

5 H. G. Wells, Anticipations and Other Papers (New York, 1924), 272-73.

6 H. G. Wells, Anticipations and Other Papers (New York, 1924), 83.

7 H. G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (New York, 1934), 404.

8 Beatrice Webb, Our Partnership (New York, 1948), 257-58.

9 C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 42.

10 C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 138.

11 C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 27.

12 C. S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Macmillan, 1944), 95.

13 Conrad to Wells, September 19, 1903. In Frederick Karl and Laurence Davis, ed., The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Volume 3 (Cambridge, 1988), 62.

14 Conrad to Wells, September 3-25, 1903. In Frederick Karl and Laurence Davis, ed., The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Volume 3 (Cambridge, 1988), 63-64.

15 Conrad to Wells, November/December, 1903. In Frederick Karl and Laurence Davis, ed., The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Volume 3 (Cambridge, 1988), 79.

16 Conrad to Wells, September 15, 1906. In Frederick Karl and Laurence Davis, ed., The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Volume 3 (Cambridge, 1988), 356.

17 Rupert Hart-Davis, Hugh Walpole (New York, 1952), 168.

18 C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory." In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962, 1965), 39-40.