On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 2 – Wells and Mendel

Science and science fiction are indelibly intertwined, each inspiring the other since their modern birth in the Victorian Era. Good science fiction, like a sound scientific theory, involves thorough worldbuilding avoids logical inconsistencies, and progressively deeper interrogations reveal further harmonies. This series explores the connection between the evolution of biology and science fiction into the modern era.

“For I, in my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man’s culminating time.” –H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

At the end of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), the nameless time traveler stands alone on a beach at the end of the world, watching the sun go out. re escaped thirty million years into the future from the effete Eloi and cannibalistic Morlocks of the year 802,701 only to find their descendants—pale butterflies and giant crab-monsters – still locked in their hopeless predator-prey struggle on this terminal beach. Wells conjured this broken utopia through the evolutionary extrapolation of the class struggle he experienced firsthand growing up in order to tell an extraordinary story about time, consequence, and inevitability.

Born in 1866 to not-quite-middle class parents, Wells’ family struggled financially throughout his childhood, but his mother’s job as a lady’s maid in a country estate with a large library allowed Wells access to books he might not have encountered otherwise, such as Thomas More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic. As a young man, Wells secured a pupil-teaching position, which allowed him to focus on his studies, and based on his aptitude, he was awarded a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London where he studied under the noted biologist and vocal advocate of Darwinism, Thomas Henry Huxley. Wells would later say that his time with Huxley was the most instructional year of his life because of how it turned his thinking towards how political and social institutions might be improved through the application of science and technology.

In this, Wells was no exception. At the end of the 19th Century, Darwin’s theory meshed so well with established ideas about the nature of society, describing his explanation of small changes accumulating over long periods of time as “survival of the fittest” was practically license for misinterpretation, and the Victorians were no strangers to the idea of struggle. Thomas Malthus’ hugely influential An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) described struggle as inevitable wherever population growth outstripped resources, particularly among the poor. Furthermore, he argued that population control through morality and self-control were necessary to create a perfect society, and that the poor should not be helped, but should help themselves. His argument strongly influenced the conservative Whigs, who in 1834 passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, removing a 200 year-old system of welfare and replacing it with workhouses, as famously depicted in many a Dickens novel. Unfortunately for Darwin’s legacy (and for the poor), the idea that struggle was seen as inevitable among the lower classes made it easy for the wealthier classes to conclude that the poor must therefore be evolutionarily unfit, while the rich were seen as the most fit for survival. In the context of this oppressive cultural environment, Wells’ enmity towards class divisions is certainly understandable.

Once Wells finished at university in 1890, he worked as a scientific journalist and wrote speculative articles, including early efforts at science fiction stories. Wells used his fiction as a platform to explore his political and scientific ideas, as well as develop his own vision of utopia. Along with class disparities in The Time Machine, Wells explored issues like the false dichotomy between man and beast in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and Britain’s xenophobia in War of the Worlds (1898). Wells was a pioneer of the suspension of disbelief. He believed about fiction, “The more impossible the story I had to tell, the more ordinary must be the setting.” This adherence to realism and the logical ramifications of a fantastic technology on a mundane setting is one of the things that makes Wells’ fiction so compelling, particularly to a fin-de-siècle audience swept up in the big scientific questions of the day. And one of the biggest questions at this time had to do with a mystery Darwin had left dangling: just how does heredity work, anyway?

A major criticism of Darwin’s theory was that it was not experimentally validated, and without a proposed mechanism of action, it would remain unvalidated. Therefore, it was necessary to come up with a theory of heredity, one that could describe not only how new traits arise in an otherwise stable population of traits, but also how those new traits became stably inherited over time. Darwin did his best, but he was more collector and cataloguer than experimentalist, and his theory of “Pangenesis”—in which particles of hereditary information circulate in the body and are transmitted during conception, where they blend together in the offspring—was quickly refuted, since blended traits would dilute over time and were therefore not stably inherited. So when Darwin died in 1882, this question of “How?” remained unanswered. But given enough time, scientific truths always out: little did anyone know, at the time of Darwin’s death, the answer had already been gathering dust in an obscure botany journal for nearly twenty years.

In 1851, eight years prior to Darwin’s presentation to the Linnean society, Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar from Brno (in the modern-day Czech Republic), arrived in Vienna to round out his formal education under the physicist Christian Doppler. While there, Doppler’s view that everything in existence behaved according to highly organized natural laws rubbed off on the friar, and Mendel (who always had trouble memorizing taxonomical categories) began to wonder why things were organized the way they were. He began to wonder about the how of heredity…

Upon his return to Brno, Mendel collected different cultivars of peas from neighboring farms and bred them together until he had true-breeding strains of each. Over the next seven years, Mendel crossed tens of thousands of pea plants, and his documentation was so meticulous, one could practically see the genes (or, as Mendel called them, alleles, which means “other forms”) in the numbers. From these data, Mendel formulated three laws of inheritance:

  1. The law of segregation: alleles responsible for a particular trait segregate during gamete (sperm or egg) formation, so each gamete carries only one copy of a given allele.
  2. The law of independent assortment: alleles for different traits sort independently of one another and don’t have an influence on the inheritance of other traits.
  3. Some alleles are “dominant” over other alleles for the same trait, and one dominant copy can mask the presence of the weaker “recessive” allele so the organism displays only the dominant trait.

This was the mechanism everyone had been clamoring for. Not only that, but Mendel’s laws, like Darwin’s theory, saw into the future of biology, evoking concepts no one yet had words for, like meiosis, the concept of a gene, and dominant and recessive mutations. Doppler, indeed, would have been proud.

In 1866, seven years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Mendel quietly published his paper in that obscure Brno botany journal, then spent years attempting to get scientists to notice before giving up when his duties at the Abbey demanded the rest of his time and attention. Mendel died in 1884, two years after Darwin, with neither man having ever read the other’s work. It wasn’t until 1900 that Mendel’s paper was rediscovered. In fact, it was rediscovered by three different men preparing to publish their own similar findings. Despite the thirty-year delay, the truth was finally out, and scientists could turn their attention to working out the details, asking what is an allele? What is it made of? How does it produce a given trait? How did this fit together with natural selection?

While these first geneticists were wondering how to approach these questions, Wells, too, was wondering about his own question of “how?”—how to create a utopia with no class barriers? Wells believed free competition should be possible between all members of society, regardless of social background or gender, with equal access to opportunity. The Time Machine was his first attempt at grappling with this subject, a cautionary tale of the degradation of humanity as an inevitable consequence of the inequality he saw all around him. It is, perhaps, no wonder that with utopias on the brain, Wells bought in to another inevitable sort of uniquely Victorian idea, fiercely advocated for by Darwin’s own cousin, Francis Galton: eugenics.

Galton was a man plagued by constant feelings of inadequacy. Inspired by On the Origin of Species, he set out to achieve his own fame by doing what Darwin couldn’t—discovering the mechanism of heredity. But Galton was an even worse experimentalist than his cousin and he soon abandoned the scientific approach for a sociological one, with which he also repeatedly failed to distinguish himself. The killing blow to his aspirations came in 1900 with the re-discovery of Mendel’s paper, and Galton shifted his focus towards a more practical approach of applying the tenets of natural selection to human societies. He called it eugenics, and proposed an active program of selective breeding among people from the best families with the best traits. In this way, man could eliminate weakness faster than nature would, bringing humanity one step closer to utopia.

Wells was present at Galton’s inaugural speech on eugenics at the London School of Economics in 1904. Wells disagreed with Galton’s program of proactive breeding—in fact, Wells had already written about the detrimental effects of selective breeding nine years prior in The Time Machine. But Wells did support the elimination of weakness, and advocated for it in the decades to follow. To be clear, Wells was not advocating for murder, but he did support limiting the procreation of those that would hold humanity back with their struggling, thereby creating more suffering. In fact, Wells had already written about this subject before Galton’s speech as well, in his first non-fiction bestseller, Anticipations (1901), where he called for a check on the procreation of “base and servile types… of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men.” Furthermore, for much of his life, Wells believed evolution should be guided by the educated elite, applying what they knew of science and technology to better humanity as a whole in order to achieve his own vision of utopia. It seems Galton had been beaten to the punch with eugenics, just has he had with the mechanism of heredity, but his tireless advocacy proved effective and his name remains entwined with the concept.

Eugenics gained steam as an academic discipline after the turn of the 20th century with the formations of British and American eugenics societies, and while Europeans were more concerned with theory, Americans enthusiastically put it into practice with programs of forced sterilizations of lower classes, non-white races, and those with mental illnesses. Only when Germany used eugenics as a justification for mass murder during World War II did it begin to completely fall out of favor. Even Wells, in his 1940 book The Rights of Man: Or What Are We Fighting For? did a complete about-face on the subject and called for a “prohibition on mutilation, sterilization, torture or any bodily punishment.” Despite Wells’ unfortunate embrace of eugenics, over the course of his lifetime he wrote extensively on equality and human rights. The Rights of Man even laid the groundwork for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.

Wells was hugely popular in his time and had a wide platform for his writings, unlike poor Mendel who died without ever understanding just how vital his discovery had been, and how influential it would become. Despite this contrast, both men stand as instructive examples of how the times they lived in influenced their work, and how eventually the truth within their ideas would out, for better or worse. Mendel’s devotion to scientific rigor allowed him to glimpse the deepest inner workings of nature, and Wells’ fictional explorations were monumental contributions to the nascent field of science fiction, realistically exploring the consequences of how seemingly small changes—such as the invention of a piece of technology or a scientific discovery—can irrevocably change humanity, the world, and our understanding of both over time.

We have seen now how Verne and Wells set the stage for the evolution of science fiction, and how Darwin and Mendel did the same for the evolution of modern biology. Even with the rediscovery of Mendel’s work as the missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle, there was still much work to be done before the two ideas could be married together in a great synthesis. Similarly, Verne and Wells provided essential seeds for the future of science fiction, with Verne’s devotion to scientific accuracy and the extrapolation of future technologies, and Wells concern with the future of humanity and the role technology can play in that evolution. In our next installment, we’ll examine how biology began to work towards its own great synthesis, while science fiction began to expand and diversify along these hard and soft lines.

Kelly Lagor is a scientist by day and a science fiction writer by night. Her work has appeared at Tor.com and other places, and you can find her tweeting about all kinds of nonsense @klagor

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