On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 3 — Aldous Huxley and Thomas Hunt Morgan

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.

“It isn’t only art that is incompatible with happiness, it’s also science. Science is dangerous, we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled.” —Mustapha Mond, Brave New World

Brave New World (1932) is set in a world that is built with, dependent upon, and terrified of science. Humans are manufactured on assembly lines. The shape of their lives and their intelligence are determined through the addition of mutagens during in vitro fetal development. During childhood, their personalities, likes and dislikes are conditioned during sleep with subliminal messaging to produce a perfect and completely replaceable cog that knows only work and pleasure in a utopia of the unquestioning. It is a science fictional dystopia, written by the grandson of Darwin’s bulldog, with a title drawn from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, partly inspired by the British scientist J.B.S. Haldane’s 1926 lecture, Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, and a response to industrial and political totalitarianism. As a piece of literature, it is a mash-up of legacies—of Wells and science fiction, of Darwin and Mendel and biology, of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud, of the Victorian era itself—which perfectly captures the the complex feelings of hope and anxiety that marked the time between the turn of the 20th century and the start of the second World War.

This period saw the birth of the modern era. Between 1903 and 1939, Henry Ford begins production of the Model-T, the Wright Brothers fly the first aircraft, cinema is born, Einstein publishes his theory of relativity, women win the right to vote in Britain and America, penicillin is discovered, railroads (powered by steam and later electricity) continued to stretch across the face of the earth, and Ernest Rutherford splits the atom. At the same time, 25 million were killed in the First World War, 50-100 million were killed by the Spanish Flu, the Russian Revolution gave birth to Communism as a political force in the world followed by the subsequent rise of Communism in China, fascism emerged in Italy and Germany and Spain, and the world plunged into the depths of the Great Depression. It was a period of large leaps forward in the history of humanity, set against a backdrop of a world struggling to reconcile with the impact of these advances—and whether all that progress was for better or for worse would depend largely on who you asked, and when you asked them.

Firmly in the “for better” camp were the biologists. Even though the age of exploration had ended, a new spirit of adventure was brewing in labs around the world that promised to marry Darwin’s theory of the very large to Mendel’s theory of the very small into a single theory of life itself. The rediscovery of Mendel’s paper in 1900 (as discussed in our previous installment) had finally given biologists something tangible to hang their experimental hats on. The importance of Mendel’s theory struck the English biologist William Bateson so thoroughly that he took it upon himself to ensure Mendel would never be forgotten again. Just as H.G. Wells’ mentor, Thomas Henry Huxley, became known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his fervent arguments in favor of the theory of natural selection, so Bateson became “Mendel’s bulldog,” and he tirelessly toured the world over, preaching the gospel of Mendel.

However, Bateson’s enthusiasm for his newly named field of genetics (an homage to Darwin’s theory of pangenesis) was tempered by his cognizance of the potential social and political ramifications of humanity’s new understanding of the nature of life itself. He said, “The science of heredity will soon provide power on a stupendous scale; and in some country, at some time not, perhaps far distant, that power will be applied to control the composition of a nation. Whether the institutions of such control will ultimately be good or bad for that nation, or for humanity at large, is a separate question.”

While Bateson’s understandable worries did nothing to deter him from his own enthusiastic campaigning, a very similar sort of anxiety suffuses much of the literature of the time. The legacy of Darwin and Nietzsche and the influence of Einstein and Freud gave people entirely new ways in which to see the world—perspectives which now included knowledge of how the world changes slowly over aeons, investigations into humanity’s animal nature, and questions about the rationality of the human mind, the subjective nature of time, and whether the subconscious and will to power could be considered tangible phenomena. The rapid change in the understanding of the world inspired the literary modernist movement that emerged during this time to, as Ezra Pound exhorted, “Make it new.” They experimented with style and genre over plot and character, with a focus on allusion, satire, and social commentary, while turning up their noses at what they saw as mass culture, which was exploding in the pulps and movie houses. While this movement was inspired by Victorian optimism, the very real fears of the loss of autonomy and individuality in the face of widespread industrialization, the horrors of poison gas, trench warfare, and unprecedented destruction and loss of life of World War I inspired these writers to expose the irrational worm at the heart of a rational world.

Aldous Huxley came of age in this era, split between the two camps. Born in 1894, the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, he became a writer raised in a family of scientists. As a boy, he intended to study medicine, but when he contracted an eye disease that left him nearly blind for two years, he switched his focus to English literature. After being rejected from enlisting during WWI due to his poor eyesight, Huxley taught French for a year (George Orwell was one of his students), but his lack of discipline over his class led him to abandon that career. He worked a smattering of other jobs, including a brief stint at a chemical plant which he described as “an ordered universe in a world of planless incoherence,” but during this time he had begun to develop a reputation as a social satirist, and published a number of novels including Point Counter Point (1928), in which a very Modernist stance is taken equating a love of technology with the death of humanity. His brother, the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, later wrote, “I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put an end to his idea of taking up medicine as a career… His uniqueness lay in his universalism. He was able to take all knowledge for his province.”

Writers, including Wells (the original science fiction Modernist), wondered what was to prevent humanity from becoming automatons, particularly if one could breed the troublesome humanity right out of the equation. Many notable science fictional works from this era reflect this very real anxiety over the rise of factories and unskilled manual labor and the loss of individuality. Examples include Carel Kapek’s R.U.R. (1921), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920). These works are ripe with satire, fears of totalitarianism, loss of individual identity and freedom, and the elevation of technology at the expense of humanity. Despite this growing wariness towards the unchecked advancement of technology, to the scientists of the era, the world was just beginning to reveal itself to them, and no amount of misgivings would stop the inevitable march of progress that had begun.

In 1907, while Huxley was still entertaining ideas of a career in medicine, Bateson traveled to New York to proselytize to a professor of zoology at Columbia University, Thomas Hunt Morgan. Morgan was from a prominent Kentucky family and the grandson of the composer Francis Scott Key, and had pursued his studies in zoology and embryology, earning top honors and accolades throughout his career. Bateson tried to persuade Morgan of the relevance of Mendel’s laws to his own work in embryology and development, but Morgan brushed him off, believing development to be too complex to be accounted for by such simplistic laws, and that the laws weren’t general principles and likely only applied to the few plants Mendel had worked on. But upon further thought, Morgan eventually came around to the idea. Furthermore, research from labs Morgan respected began to form theories that genes might reside on chromatin, a particular filamentous material that resided in the nucleus of cells that showed an affinity for a particular color stain. Morgan had a place to start his investigations.

In 1905, Morgan gathered a collection of wild fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) that had been milling around the trash bins behind his lab and bred them, searching for different traits he could track through generations, like Mendel did. He and his students, Alfred Sturtevant, Calvin Bridges and Hermann Muller, tried to induce mutations in the flies, using methods from radiation to x-rays (which killed the flies), gentle heat, and even centrifugation, to no avail, until Bridges saw a fly with white instead of red eyes while washing glassware. In time they identified thousands of different mutations, and tracked their patterns of inheritance. In many cases, the genes obeyed Mendel’s law of independent assortment, but some traits seemed to be linked together and didn’t sort in a completely independent fashion. For example, the gene for white eyes was always transmitted with the X chromosome (never the Y), or a sable-colored body was strongly associated with wing shape. With the discovery of genetic linkage, Morgan demonstrated that a gene was a tangible thing: something that lived inside a cell and was associated with chromosomes. Furthermore, they demonstrated that this linkage was not always permanent, that sometimes genes could spontaneously unlink themselves and swap places in a phenomenon called “crossing over.” Finally, they saw that while some genes were loosely linked, a few were almost always inherited together. In 1913, Sturtevant sat down one night, measured how often certain genes were passed along together and, using that information, constructed the very first genetic map of a chromosome.

While Morgan and his students were discovering the first cogs of the machine of life, Huxley had begun to accumulate the experiences that would eventually culminate in Brave New World. Huxley traveled and read widely, showing a particular fondness for books on science, politics, and society, and in particular enjoyed reading the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (Bertrand Russell joked you could tell which volume he’d been reading based on the topics Huxley would bring up in conversation—they tended to all start with the same letter). During a tour of the world in 1926, a stop in San Francisco exposed him to the feminism, sexual liberation, and secularism of the roaring ’20s, and on a boat between Singapore and the Philippines he found and read a copy Henry Ford’s My Life and Work (1922). Coupled with his own experience working in a chemical plant, he could see the legacy of Ford’s methods all around him. His brother Julian  introduced him to J.B.S Haldane’s work, Daedalus, which offered a vision of the future that involved engineering humans, cloning, in vitro fertilization and artificial wombs, and even gave him the idea for the drug soma, which gave the perfect high with no comedown. Huxley began Brave New World in 1931 after the Great Depression had reached England’s shores, resulting in mass unemployment. He began to envision a utopia that set stability above all, and at first intended it to be a satire of Wells works, A Modern Utopia and Food of the Gods. But he later confessed that the idea took on a life of its own, becoming a blending of totalitarianism and scientific rationalism gone amok where humanity became so many fruit flies in a lab.

Morgan and his students published their seminal work, The Mechanism of Mendelian Hereditary, in 1915. In time Morgan and his students (and his students’ students, and their students) would go on to win a slew of Nobel Prizes for their work with fruit flies. (The fruit flies themselves went on to become the model organism of geneticists everywhere). Their discoveries of genetic linkage, crossing over, and sex-linked traits began the great work of unifying the previously disparate work of geneticists breeding organisms with the work of the cell biologists peering through microscopes at cellular structures. Genes now had a home on chromosomes, and Morgan won the Nobel Prize in 1933, one year after the publication of Brave New World.

Huxley would continue to write along satirical and strongly pacifist lines for the remainder of his life. He moved to Hollywood just before the breakout of World War II, where he became a prolific screenwriter, writing adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (1940), Madame Curie (1943), Jane Eyre (1944), and the original screenplay for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, which was unfortunately rejected. During his years in America, he became interested in meditation and Vedanta, and would become an outspoken advocate for LSD, penning The Doors of Perception in 1954. Hallucinogens, his memory of his travels around the world, and his contemplation of pacifism and utopias would feature prominently in his final work, Island, published one year before his death in 1963. Over the course of his life, Huxley’s keen ability to synthesize disparate fields of inquiry into a cohesive vision of reality and the future earned him seven nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature, all the while maintaining the same concerns about the dangers of overpopulation, hierarchical social organization, and the need to continuously evaluate the use of technology, which he had written about so incisively in Brave New World. In that way, Huxley was a Modernist to the end.

Morgan and Huxley’s contributions to their respective fields of science and science fiction give us just one piece of the picture as we trace the explosive evolution of both fields during this time. As we’ll see, the forward momentum would continue unabated: at the same time the Modernists were turning away from mass culture, the United States and Europe were experiencing a dramatic rise in literacy, while in biology the race was on to discover just where the different varieties of genes came from in the first place. We’ll be teasing out both of these parallel threads in our next installment, which will cover the pulps and genetic mutations!

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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