Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Literature in Mind: H. G. Wells and the Evolution of the Mad Scientist

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Literature in Mind: H. G. Wells and the Evolution of the Mad Scientist

Article excerpt

In 1893, H. G. Wells's article "Man of the Year Million" dramatically predicted the distant evolutionary future of mankind:1

The descendents of man will nourish themselves by immersion in nutritive fluid. They will have enormous brains, liquid, soulful eyes, and large hands, on which they will hop. No craggy nose will they have, no vestigial ears; their mouths will be a small, perfectly round aperture, unanimal, like the evening star. Their whole muscular system will be shriveled to nothing, a dangling pendant to their minds.2

The editors at Punch evidently found this prediction hilarious, publishing a poem and accompanying sketch ridiculing Wells's lopsided future humans (Figure 1, p. 318). But not everyone was laughing.

As ridiculous as Wells's bodiless, large-headed "human tadpoles" may seem, they were based on the most rigorous evolutionary science of their day. Wells, a lower-middle-class academic prodigy, received a prestigious government scholarship to attend the Normal School of Science in South Kensington (later absorbed into the University of London). Though Wells left South Kensington in 1887 without earning his degree, he was greatly inspired by his biology teacher, famed physiologist Thomas Huxley. Wells absorbed Huxley's pessimistic take on late-Victorian evolutionary theory, particularly his emphasis on the inherent brutality of natural selection.

Huxley's pessimism surfaces in Wells's dystopian scientific romances, which imaginatively probe the consequences of evolutionary theory run amok.3 Beginning with the eponymous mad-scientist villain of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and continuing with alien invasion narratives like The War of the Worlds (1897-98) and The First Men in the Moon (1901), Wells depicts brains becoming steadily larger and more powerful as bodies grow smaller and more useless, emotions increasingly muted, and conscience all but silenced. Wells's nightmarish vision of the massively overevolved brain unites these three works, as the ruthlessly intellectual biologist Moreau morphs into the amoral, top-heavy Martians and lunar inhabitants.

Wells's malevolent mad scientists and extraterrestrials owe an intellectual debt not only to Huxley, but also to discussions of genius and insanity in late-Victorian issues of Mind (1876-present).4 The now-familiar trope of the mad scientist in fact traces its roots to the clinical association between genius and insanity that developed in the mid-nineteenth century. Authors like Scottish journalist and materialist philosopher John Ferguson Nisbet, English eugenicist Francis Galton, and Austrian Jewish physician Max Nordau - all of whose works were reviewed in Mind - argued that mankind had evolved larger brains at the expense of muscular strength, reproductive capacity, and moral sensibility.5 Wells drew upon these arguments in his fiction and even contributed his own article to Mind, a philosophical reflection on science entitled "Scepticism of the Instrument" (1904).

In its unique role as "the first English journal devoted to Psychology and Philosophy." Mind was an ideal venue for an inherently interdisciplinary subject like the clinical study of genius.6 The journal's first editor, George Croom Robertson, was particularly concerned that articles in Mind rise "above the narrowing influences of modern specialism."7 This disciplinary breadth attracted contributors from all fields, including fiction writers and literary critics like George Henry Lewes, Grant Allen, Andrew Lang, and, of course, H.G. Wells. During the same period, literary works probed ideas discussed in Mind, such as the nature of the soul, the possibility of free will, and the ramifications of biological determinism. In the four decades following its auspicious start, Mind provided a venue where scientists, philosophers and literary authors could find intellectual common ground.

In this essay, the early fiction of H.G. Wells will serve as a case study of cross-fertilization between literature and scientific ideas discussed in Mind. …

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