‘Are We Not Men?’: Degeneration, Future Sex and The Time Machine

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Editor: Catherine C. DiMercurio
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 264. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,442 words

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[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Shillock discusses the role that scientific theories of evolution and degeneration play in Wells’s conception of The Time Machine.]

Three possibilities of life await … [for] each living being: either it remains primitive and unchanged, or it progresses toward a higher type, or it backslides and retrogresses. The factors underlying the stable state force the animal to remain as it is; those underlying the progressive tendency make it more elaborate; while the factors of degeneration, on the other hand, tend to simplify its structure.Eugene S. Talbot, Degeneracy 13

It has long been a commonplace of science fiction scholarship that Charles Darwin’s work had a generative role in the writings of H. G. Wells. “Without Darwin,” Frank McConnell remarks, “there may literally not have been an ‘H. G. Wells,’” since “evolutionary theory profoundly informed almost every aspect of his thought” (53). When Wells wrote his most accomplished scientific romances during the 1890s, J. P. Vernier explains, evolution was “the ruling force in the universe his fancy was creating” (83). Biographer David C. Smith goes so far as to reject an array of source texts for “The Time Machine” (1895), Wells’s first and most successful short novel, before concluding that “what Wells was doing in this book was putting evolutionary theory into fictional practice. That was all” (48). While central to “The Time Machine”, evolutionary progression is but one of two temporal models that Wells borrows from nineteenth-century science to constitute his narrative authority. The other model is degeneration, a point that Wells makes as part of sending his newly published work to Thomas H. Huxley, a scientist whose ardent defenses of modern biology caused him to be labeled Darwin’s bulldog. In a letter to Huxley, Wells explains that “[t]he central idea [in the book]—of degeneration following security—was the outcome of a certain amount of biological study” (qtd. in Geduld 5). The respectful letter to his teacher concludes in mid-thought, but not before it implies that the novel’s conception owes a debt to the more pessimistic ideas in Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (1894) as well. A disciplinary lineage thus extends from Darwin to Huxley to Wells and, we might anticipate, from evolution, broadly construed, to evolution, broadly defended, to evolution and degeneration, broadly represented. Degeneration—the last of these lineages—is of special interest to readers of “The Time Machine” because the characters encountered in it have somehow declined, over almost countless generations, in ways that make the Time Traveller evolutionarily superior to them. Thus an eminent scientist from the distant past meets figures in the far-distant future that have become less complex than he, a conjoining of past and future that treats the idea of humankind’s progressive improvement—an idea significant to late Victorians—dismissively. Bringing a model of psycho-sexual degeneration to the scientific romance enables Wells to displace anxieties associated with fin-de-siècle British masculinity onto the Eloi and Morlocks. In the process, the Time Traveller demonstrates his own attenuated capacity for desire by rejecting the possibility of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420125670