On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 4 — Edgar Rice Burroughs and Theodosius Dobzhansky

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.

“I have ever been prone to seek adventure and to investigate and experiment where wiser men would have left well enough alone.” —John Carter, A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom is a dying world, where competition for diminishing resources has encouraged the devolution of the surviving species into a hardened and warlike state. John Carter, a cavalry officer who falls asleep in a cave in Arizona and is astral projected to Barsoom, must fight for what he thinks is is right, sometimes save the world, and always get the girl. From 1912 to 1941, readers of the pulp magazines followed John Carter, his descendants, and various other characters through alien landscapes filled with romance and danger, peppered with plant monsters, brain creatures, and 15-foot-tall telepathic four-armed martians with radium guns riding atop galloping lizard dogs—a world where men were strong, women were prone to fainting, and the bad guys’ mustaches itched for a good twirling.

Barsoom grew out of a different tradition than that of the Literary Modernists. The Gilded Age had attracted an influx of immigrants to the United States where wages were better, and as such, the economy was booming going into the 20th century and the Progressive Era, which was characterized by widespread political activism. Political reforms targeted corruption in business and government, while manufacturing was impacted by the widespread adoption of Taylorism, which aimed to bring a more scientific approach to industry. Progressives had a certain optimistic belief that humans could bring about an enlightened future society through liberal applications of science—an optimism which was not nearly as significantly dampened in the U.S. by the devastating effects of World War I as it was in Europe, by virtue of its geographic isolation. In the United States, where the population was growing, jobs were becoming more automated with better wages, and literacy had exploded thanks to compulsory schooling, the population was primed and ready for a cheap and abundant source of entertainment.

Traditionally, publishers had focused on printing expensive hardback books, leaving them financially out of reach of this growing population except on a library shelf. But the growing demand for affordable stories compelled publishers to start publishing cheap paperback dime novels, which were mostly adventure stories full of poorly explained inventions, lost worlds, and encounters with the inexplicable. The popularity of these kinds of stories would last until the onset of World War I, but the popularity of the cheap format inspired the proliferation of magazines carrying a variety of romance, mystery, western, crime and science fiction stories, as well as factual articles and poetry. It was in this incubator that science fiction would begin to mutate and evolve exponentially.

While Thomas Hunt Morgan and his students toiled in the Fly Lab at Columbia , a strange revolution was happening among physicists. Discovered in 1898 by Marie Curie, radium seemed to disobey everything physicists knew about matter—it was an element that transmuted itself and appeared to provide perpetual energy in the process. Due to its energetic nature, it gained an unfortunate association in the public with vitality, and riding that wave of optimism, businesses came out with flurry of futuristic products such as radium water, radium bread, and even radium condoms. The physicist Ernest Rutherford would go on to study radium and other radioactive elements to reveal for the first time the inner working of the atom, earning himself a Nobel Prize in 1908 and the nickname, “the father of nuclear physics.”

For better or worse, humanity had discovered radioactivity, and geneticists as early as 1904 had begun to use radium in experiments trying to untangle a competing theory to natural selection—that of mutationism. Advocates of this theory believed that if mutation is responsible for variety, then it should proceed in sudden jumps to create new forms and species, not gradually as Darwin had theorized. Hugo De Vries, a protégé of Darwin, had conducted experiments with primrose to show that new forms arose suddenly, not gradually over time. In fact, many of the early geneticists so inspired by Mendel, such as Bateson and Thomas Hunt Morgan and even Reginald Punnett (of Punnet Square fame), were all avid mutationists, discarding natural selection as the force driving evolutionary change. Radium offered them a new tool in their genetic toolbox.

The first biologist to use radium experimentally was the American, Daniel MacDougal, a mutationist who thought he could induce mutations that would lead to the differentiation of new species. Later, Hermann Muller, one of Morgan’s former students, would use radium (which killed the flies) and then x-rays to induce so many mutations that the first night he succeeded in not killing the flies, he shouted through the window whenever he found a fly with unexpected traits, “I got another!” That single night increased the number of known mutant fly types discovered in preceding 30 years by nearly 50%. Muller would later win a Nobel Prize for his work in 1946, having clearly demonstrated that spontaneous mutation is what drove variety. So where did natural selection fit in?

In 1896, as Marie Curie was discovering radium, Frank A. Munsey, a newspaper and magazine publisher, innovated the pulp magazine formula when he published the first all-fiction edition of The Argosy magazine. This formats gave writers the opportunity to explore stories that shared a similar aesthetic with evocative cover art and a diverse, but standardized, type of fiction that was easy to read and full of high feeling, novelty, and adventure. The stories’ popularity grew as printing on cheap wood pulp materials, the use of vibrant and cheap dyes, and the advent of mass publishing models allowed wide distribution, and pulps such as Munsey’s Argosy and All-Story Magazine sometimes reached a readership of over half a million people. Using this all-fiction model, the pulps had cornered the magazine market. Soon after, pulps with more targeted audiences began to flourish, such as Detective Story Monthly (1915), Western Story (1919), Love Stories (1921) and Weird Tales (1923), containing fiction by writers like Jack London and Abraham Merritt, as well as westerns, romantic adventures, and crime stories.

No one better represents the optimism and variety of the pulp magazines of this era than Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs was born in 1875 in Chicago to a family that had been in America since the colonial era. Though he identified most strongly with the romantic and warrior-like Virginia side of his family, his family tree was full of American Revolutionary fighters, signers of the Declaration of Independence, and even President John Adams. Burroughs himself attempted to follow in the family tradition of a career in the military by joining the cavalry, but he was discharged shortly thereafter due to a heart condition. Afterwards, he stumbled through various careers, including cowboy, factory worker, gold dredger, and railroad man. It wasn’t until 1911, after working for seven years as a pencil sharpener salesman, that he tried his hand at writing science fiction, thinking, “If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.” He was 36 when he wrote his first story, and a year later, Frank Munsey bought, “Under the Moons of Mars,” for All-Story Magazine.

While Burroughs pulled elements from his own personal and family history in developing the character of John Carter, he took much of his inspiration for the more science fictional elements from what was popular at the time—namely radium. Burroughs equipped his Barsoomian Martians with radium guns, which had shells that exploded when exposed to sunlight, and they used radium rays to detect obstacles in front of their anti-gravity aircraft. Additionally, Burroughs drew on what promised to be exciting scientific advances in aviation and astronomy, and based much of his version of Mars on speculation by the astronomer Percival Lowell. Lowell mistakenly believed Mars to be a formerly Earth-like world which had advanced through its evolution into a final state of decay, based on the appearance of canali formations on the surface, which he mistook to be intelligently-designed canals. Burroughs took this idea and ran with it, developing races of Barsoomians that had descended from previous forms of life into warrior races, with dried up seas and an atmosphere only kept functional through the use of psychically-controlled atmosphere processing stations. In fact, much of the scientific fact that Burroughs used as inspiration took a backseat to his distinctly escapist stories, aimed at evoking a sense of grand wonder. Burroughs’ ideas about the devolution of the world—the conceit that the creatures were declining from some prior form of perfection—was, in fact, also a perfect example of the kind of common misconception surrounding evolution that were going around at the time.

As Burroughs was writing dozens of stories of adventure and derring-do, Theodosius Dobzhansky, a budding scientist in what is now the Ukraine, was having his own epiphany about his life’s calling. As a child he had been drawn to biology, working variously on butterflies and beetles until 1924, when he moved to a lab in St. Petersburg that was working on fruit flies. In 1929, with 35 papers on genetics and entomology under his belt, Dobzhansky moved to America to work with Morgan at Columbia, where he became interested in the connection between Muller’s work on mutation and how it could be connected to natural selection (anathema to the mutationists). Instead of looking at the artificially-induced mutations in the lab stock of fruit flies, he instead gathered flies from all kinds of different climates and regions to better determine what kinds of natural variations existed in the world. Through his characterization and mapping of traits in these populations, he found genes influenced complex traits like life span, eye structure, bristle morphology, and wing size, more subtly than the mutationists had observed, and that there was a huge amount of genetic variety to be found in the world.

Furthermore, Dobzhansky discovered two varieties of flies found in the same location, but upon mapping traits he found one set of flies had a chromosomal inversion, where the order of genes for a three gene stretch had been reversed (e.g. ABC to CBA). Curious to see his the effect of controlled natural selection on these flies, he put a 50/50 mix of ABC and CBA flies into jars, sealed them, then placed some in a cold space, and some at a room temperature. After letting the flies to do their thing for a few months, he checked to see if the proportions of flies had changed, finding CBA flies outnumbered ABC flies 3:1 in the cold bottles, while the room temperature bottle showed the opposite result. In a single experiment, Dobzhansky demonstrated that where there is natural variation, when geographic isolation and selective pressure are applied, evolution occurs. His 1937 book Genetics and the Origin of Species bridged the experiments in the labs of Morgan and Muller and Mendel with what was observed in the field by Darwin and Wallace nearly a century before.

Tying mutation as a driver of variety in nature to natural selection as a selective force provided another piece of the puzzle that was slowly pulling biologists together under one life sciences umbrella. There was a tendency at the time for people to misunderstand the nature of evolution—to assume that there was some kind of end goal in mind, as though there were a guiding hand behind evolution that moved all forms towards a state of perfection, unfortunately making it into a question more suited for philosophers and the religious-minded than for a scientist. Burroughs himself was no exception, and he included a whole host of biological speculation with his future technology—from discussions of the evolution of sentient plant monsters, to the telepathy of all Barsoom natives—but even Burroughs admitted these sorts of ideas were only meant to serve the plot, saying, “No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, or its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.” And, thanks to Dobzhansky’s clear demonstration of the connection between mutation and natural selection, the scientific community could also begin to admit that the theory of mutationism had served its own organizational purpose and could be dismissed as easily as Burroughs waved away his own science fictional conceits.

Despite Burroughs’ own dismissal of his fiction as mere entertainment, his work had a profound impact not only on future writers, but also future scientists and astronauts who grew up reading John Carter stories in the pulps. Burroughs’ space adventure stories roused public support for the space program, and fans included Carl Sagan, who even had a map of Barsoom hanging outside his office at Cornell, as well as science fiction writers Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, and Ray Bradbury. Additionally, the Barsoom books experienced a revival in the ’60s and ’70s during the Vietnam War, as soldiers could identify with John Carter as a man stuck fighting in a war on a different planet. By the end of his life, Burroughs had written dozens and dozens of installments in seven different series, including nearly forty in just the Barsoom and Tarzan series alone; at the time of his death in 1950, he had written nearly eighty novels over the course of 38 years. Bradbury said of Burroughs, “By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go outside and decide to become special.”

In the 1930s, biology was gradually moving towards a big picture understanding of life itself by asking how natural selection, variation of traits in nature, variation in gene types, mutation, and Mendelian inheritance all fit together. In the meantime, science fiction had established two very different traditions between the pulp magazines and the capital-A Art of the literary modernists, seemingly starting down different paths that might never again meet. But art is never made in a vacuum, and just as biological truth will out, stay tuned for our next installment, where we’ll be recounting biology’s modern evolutionary synthesis and examining how these two disparate forms of science fiction began converging in their own synthesis.

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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