In a review of Piers J. Hale’s Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the politics of evolution in Victorian England , Gregory Radick writes,
Although attracted to Morris’s vision initially, Wells became disenchanted, and at exactly the moment when socialist London found itself under new pressure from Darwinian quarters. In 1888, Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, published a lecture entitled “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society”, which depicted nature as pitilessly gladiatorial, and humans as challenged to find and follow the path of morality even as human society remained – on pain of degeneration – subject to struggle’s stern discipline. The Left’s reply to Huxley came from Kropotkin, in a series of articles and, ultimately, a book arguing that co-operative “mutual aid” was overwhelmingly the means of natural as well as social progress. An exiled Russian prince, anarchist and naturalist, Kropotkin was a Darwinian in a Russian tradition that regarded the Malthusian element in Darwin’s theory as unfortunate and eliminable. (“The wretched pastor Malthus and the great naturalist Darwin! What an original and unexpected combination of names!” wrote a Russian critic in 1870.) Morris and Kropotkin were regular dining companions, with the latter serving as informal tutor on biological matters. Wells, by contrast, had been taught by Huxley. In 1895, Wells sent a copy of his new book, The Time Machine, to Huxley, indicating that its “central idea” was “degeneration following security”. And indeed, far from discovering that, liberated from the struggle for existence, humans of the future proceed to a higher plane of harmonious living with nature and each other, Wells’s Time Traveller learns that the species has degenerated into two, equally grotesque races, the effete Eloi and the monstrous, Eloi-munching Morlocks. Bad News from Nowhere, as the Wells editor John Lawton once put it.
When is that encounter with dismal evolutionary destiny supposed to take place? Between The Time Machine’s publication in serial instalments in 1894 and its taking book form, Wells revised the year upwards dramatically, from 12,203 to 802,701. It is a small point, but Hale suggests, plausibly enough, that the change signals a growing conviction on Wells’s part that, without Lamarckian inheritance to speed things along, evolution goes far more slowly than it otherwise would. Scepticism about Lamarckian inheritance, and the sense of a need to choose between Darwin and Lamarck, sharpened in the late 1880s and early 1890s in response to the German biologist August Weismann and his allies. Weismann’s work, on degeneration and ageing as well as against the inheritance of acquired characters, provoked wide debate in Britain, with reverberations in various forms across socialist and biological London. Kropotkin never tired of insisting that Darwin himself had been a Lamarckian. For Wells, however, the message socialists really needed to heed was Malthus’s. “Probably no more shattering book than the Essay on Population has ever been, or ever will be, written”, Wells declared in 1901.
Probably not. Countless unmarked graves and soiled utility closets (where babies born alive from abortions are left to die, in hospitals) testify to that.
The tally is still being reckoned. What’s different is that we are allowed to talk about it, for now.
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