The Time Machine

By H G Wells

Darwin begat Huxley begat Wells

H.G. Wells was born only seven years after the most important scientific publication of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species; and The Time Machine is very much one of its fictional offspring. It is, in effect, the story of man's evolution - except not the evolution that has bought him to where he is today, but the evolution yet to occur.

Darwin was by no means the first to suggest that life had changed over time, that life had evolved. Philosophers and scientists had long speculated that creatures might change form over time, and the French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744 - 1829) had outlined a system of evolution some fifty years before Darwin's. His theory was based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics: a form of 'just-so' approach to evolution in which animals pass on traits they acquire during their life. In 1832, Sir Charles Lyell had published Principle of Geology. This challenged Archbishop Usher's Biblically-based claim that the world was created on Sunday 23rd October 4004 BC (calculated through the Old Testament's series of 'begattings'). It set out evidence for a considerably older earth, and maintained that the natural processes seen operating in the present could be assumed to have operated in the past at the same gradual rate. In 1852, Herbert Spencer laid out a general Theory of Evolution, and in 1858 the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace wrote to Darwin with his own ideas about evolution through a process of natural selection. Darwin, who had first formulated the beginnings of his very similar theories almost thirty years previously during his voyage to the Galapagos, was spurred to publish, and excerpts from the manuscripts of both scientists were issued in a joint publication in July 1858. Darwin's hesitation to publish is testament to the magnitude of his discovery. As he was to write later, it was 'like confessing a murder.' Indeed, a year later the Origin of Species emerged to instant controversy. The first edition sold out a print run of 1250 on day one (it was the age of the gentleman-amateur naturalist: in the mid- nineteenth century works of Natural History outsold fiction), and debate raged between science, church and society.

Darwin's (and Wallace's) innovation over previous theories was a workable mechanism (still deemed largely to be correct) through which evolutionary change took place: that of Natural Selection. His theory was backed up by large amounts of observational data. Briefly, natural selection refers to the process by which environmental effects lead to varying degrees of reproductive success among individuals of a population of organisms with different hereditary characters, or traits. The characters that inhibit reproductive success decrease in frequency from generation to generation. The resulting increase in the proportion of reproductively successful individuals usually enhances the adaptation of the population to its environment.

This has often, rather erroneously, been referred to as 'the survival of the fittest'. The phrase was coined, not by Darwin, but by social philosopher Herbert Spencer, a fierce proponent of Social Darwinism and as such among the first to hijack Darwin's work for a political creed (see later). The phrase itself is flawed by its circularity: Who survives? The fittest. Who are the fittest? Those who survive. Or as Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn put it, "The unfit die, the fit both live and thrive. / Alas, who says so? They who do survive." A more correct way of looking at evolution through natural selection is the survival and - crucially - reproduction of the best fitted to a particular environment.

Though concerned that his theories should not be misinterpreted, Darwin was not predisposed to public debate, and his cause was most fiercely and publicly championed by the man who was to become known as 'Darwin's Bulldog', Thomas Henry Huxley. Wells was to attend Huxley's biology lectures in his first year at the Normal School of Science, and his influence on Wells should not be underestimated. Wells summed up Huxley's impact on him in an essay written for The Listener in 1935: "I was Huxley's disciple in 1885, and I am proud to call myself his disciple in 1935. I wish I had followed his example of cool- headed deliberate thinking, plain statement and perfect sincerity more completely. But few of us have the steadfastness of his mental quality. Clear thought is the quintessence of human life. In the end its acid power will disintegrate all the force and flummery of current passions and pretences, eat the life out of every false loyalty and out of every craven creed, and bite its way through to a world of light and truth. That faith was confirmed in me by Huxley, and I have held to it for half a century because he lived and I knew him." And in 1895, Wells sent a copy of The Time Machine to Huxley, only months before that eminent scientist died.

As previous stated, the central idea of The Time Machine is that of evolution. Crucially it is Wells' speculation of the evolution of mankind from the position of the time he was writing. It is an extrapolation of 1895, a late-Victorian future. On more than one occasion, the Time Traveller observes that the state of the Eloi and the Morlock can be traced to the conditions and behaviour of man in the nineteenth century. For example, when commenting on the similarity between the two Eloi sexes, the Time Traveller notes that when dangers and pressures towards children are reduces "there is... no necessity... for the efficient family, and the specialization of the sexes with reference to their children's needs disappears. We see some beginnings of this even in our own time, and in the future age it was complete."

But this turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg of the future evolution of mankind. When the Time Traveller first arrives in 802,701, his appraisal of the fate of mankind is at least partially positive, and informed only by his impressions of the Eloi. However, as more and more of the picture emerge, he develops a changing theory about the evolutionary fate of mankind. His first impression is that he had "happened upon humanity upon the wane... For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engage... Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life - the true civilizing process that makes life increasingly secure - had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward."

In other words, the Eloi have evolved to suit a world free of the selection pressures that make it necessary for mankind to be resourceful, intelligent and strong. The Time Traveller draws parallels with the artificial selection of breeding, an explanatory device used by Darwin's himself in Origin. Says the Time Traveller: "We improve them gradually, because our ideals are vague and tentative, and our knowledge is very limited; because Nature, too, is shy and slow in our clumsy hands." By 802,701 Nature has shaped humanity over evolutionary time because of the changes that humanity has made to its environment, its own niche: "What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision." The earth has witnessed "a perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet," notes the Time Traveller, imagery that is echoed in his giddying and violent arrival in the time machine, which in turn is in the middle of a hailstorm which clears to reveal the apparent Eden of the future. And elsewhere, he notes that, "intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers." Wells crucially sees that the strengths of humanity "all found their justification and support in the imminent dangers of the young. Now, where are these imminent dangers?" He is astute in pointing to the protection of the young as a crucial need of a species: a measure of fitness in animals is often seen in terms of not just the production of young, but the survival of offspring to a reproductive age - a case of grandchildren not children as a quantifier of adaptive fitness. Of course, evolution does not work on the level of the species, nor indeed the individual, but on the level of the gene, something that was not understood until well into the twentieth century (see Further Reading).

However, to be pedantic, there is a flaw in Wells' idea of an evolutionary decadence. Certainly biological adaptations that become superfluous 'evolve out' to vestigiality (in humans this applies to tails and appendixes for example) but they also tend to carry a selective disadvantage that can be acted upon. It is difficult to see what selective disadvantage intelligence might have. More crucially, if mankind really has eradicated all dangers as is apparent, he has also eradicated all selection pressures. If all children survive, then there is no differential reproduction. In the developed world today we already have a situation where selection pressures are minuscule compared to even a few thousand years ago. That is not to say all evolutionary change has come to a halt, merely that it operates on subtler and less far-reaching levels. (See Further Reading). For Wells' vision to occur a Lamarckian process of evolution would have to hold true: each generation becoming increasingly indolent and stupid and passing this onto its offspring in a biological fashion.

To be fair to Wells, in 1895, Evolution was a young discipline, and at least some of the Eloi's uselessness could be down to cultural transmission - though this idea is rather against the spirit of the book. A better application of the idea becomes apparent with the appearance of the Morlocks: "Thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother out of the ease and the sunshine. And now the brother was coming back - changed." The Morlocks have been undergoing very different selection pressures to the Eloi, and in a very different environment. They have certainly become the 'best fitted' to their niche. "Man had not remained one species," observes the Time Traveller, "but had differentiated into two distinct animals." And the Morlocks seem extremely specialised to their environments: "Plainly, this second species of Man was subterranean," with its largely nocturnal emergence; bleached skin; large, light- sensitive eyes and confusion in the sunshine. And how has this creature evolved? "Proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me 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... There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants... This tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky... It had gone deeper and deeper into larger and even larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein."

The Morlocks have thrown off the versatility of Homo sapiens that has made him successful across the globe, and become the ultimate specialists. As John Lawton writes, 'the Morlocks are single- diet single- environment creatures, as over-adapted as giant tortoises' (that Darwin encountered on the Galapagos). And again Wells is setting the mould for the evolutionary process to occur from the world of 1895: "Even now, does not at East- end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut of from the natural surface of the earth?" Moreover, images of this sunless world inhabited by the lower classes can be found in Wells' own life: as an infant he would have spent a great deal of time in the basement of his parents' shop in Bromley. Towards the top of the wall was a grating and a window, through which the young Wells could glimpse the outside world, almost entirely in terms of passing feet. The experience was reinforced by life at Uppark, the mansion near Chichester, to which his mother went as house- keeper, and in which the servants moved unseen by the masters through a labyrinth of underground tunnels.

This widening physical gulf between the classes "will make that exchange between class and class that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour." This idea of two populations being physically separated until sufficient biological differences emerge that prevent interbreeding is a classic pattern of speciation defined by geography.

And by 802,701 it seems that the Morlock are beginning to gain the upper hand: "Mother Necessity, who had been staved off for a few thousand years, came back again, and she began below. The Underworld being in contact with machinery, which... still needs some little thought outside habit, had probably retained perforce rather more initiative, if less of every other human character than the upper." As man has become lesser, smaller, machinery has got bigger - a not unreasonable assumption of the time, even if this is the opposite (with the regard to the machines at least) of what has happened in just the first hundred years since The Time Machine. And the Morlocks have turned to cannibalism - or rather to preying on the other species of man: "These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlock preserved and preyed upon - probably saw to the breeding of." The cannibalism is the final revelation of the degradation that the Morlocks have de-evolved to, but the Time Traveller does make the point that man's "prejudice against human flesh is no deep- seated instinct. ... I tried to look at the thing in a scientific spirit. After all, they were less human and more remote than our cannibal ancestors of three or four thousand years ago. And the intelligence that would have made this state of things a torment had gone."

As the Time Traveller makes clear, although he has stumbled upon a period in which evolution from the year 1895 has reached its logical conclusion, he is also aware that he may have arrived at a period of fresh change - the increasing dominance of the Morlocks. The novel is indeed concerned with processes of change not periods of stasis, and makes the point that as human observers we merely experience a cross- section of the continuum of these processes. At the same time, however, these processes make up a complete picture: as the Time Travellers demonstrates to his guests at their first meeting: "here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on. All these are evidently sections as it were, Three-Dimensional representations of his Four- Dimensional being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing."

Implicit in this statement is almost a sense of predestination, and as the Time Traveller journeys further forward "to futurity" Wells' vision becomes more bleak and pessimistic. The sense of evolution played backwards had already been apparent in the "ape-like" figures of the Morlocks. Elsewhere, the Time Traveller refers to one of them as a "Lemur" and notes that "there was flaxen hair on its head and down its back... I cannot say whether it ran on all-fours, or only with its forearms held very low." The Morlock seems as much monkey as it is man, just as post-Origin of Species, as W.S. Gilbert put it, "Man though well-behaved / At best is only a monkey shaved." Or as Darwin himself wrote as the closing words of The Descent of Man (1871): "Man, with all his noble qualities... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin." The writer V.S. Pritchett picked up on Wells' innovation of returning man to his ancestry: "It is exciting and emancipating to believe we are one of nature's latest experiments, but what if the experiment is unsuccessful? What if it is unsurmountably unpleasant? Suppose the monkey drives the machine, the gullible, mischievous, riotous and irresponsible monkey? It is an interesting fact that none of Wells' optimistic contemporaries considered such a possibility."

But the future Earth is much more than just a planet of the apes, as becomes clear as evolution further unravels. After travelling several million years into the future, the Time Traveller find himself underneath a red, dying sun, surrounded by "monstrous crab-like creatures[s]... as large as [a] table." And further forward from that he finds a world reduced to a primordial state: "I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct." Beyond the lifeless sounds of the wind, "the world was silent... All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cry of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives - all that was over." He sees a black "round thing, the size of a football... hopping fitfully about" on the shore. Life, it seems, is ready to crawl back into the ocean from whence it came. So much for the triumph of life.

This idea of a reversing evolution is contained in Evolution and Ethics, a lecture Huxley gave in 1892, in which he coined the term 'retrogressive metamorphosis' stating that 'all forms of life will die out,' and a scene cut from the final edition of The Time Machine (printed as an appendix in the Everyman edition of the novel) underlines the idea - perhaps too obviously, for which reason Wells is likely to have left it out. It features the Time Traveller stopping in a time when he encounters an unintelligent grazing creature covered in hair, with "five feeble digits to both its fore and hind feet... a roundish head and forward facing eyes." The metaphorical 'cattle' of the year 802,701 have by this point effectively become little more than free-range livestock.