On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 5 — Olaf Stapledon and the Modern Synthesis

“It displayed the delicacy and brilliance, the intricacy and harmony of a live thing. Strange that in my remoteness I seemed to feel, as never before, the vital presence of Earth as of a creature alive but tranced and obscurely yearning to wake.” —Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (1937)

William Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is a novel about perspective. It opens with a nameless narrator standing upon a hill, gazing up at the stars, when he is astral projected to another world where he encounters a new race of beings. In learning about their history, he merges with one of their consciousnesses, then flits to another world, then another, becoming a veritable Katamari Damacy of perspectives, growing ever larger, until the universe becomes a single awareness turning its perspective towards its maker. The book blends pulp space opera sensibilities and telepathy with a Modernist slant, written by a social worker, an educator, an activist and a philosopher, who turned to science fiction to bring his visionary ideas to a larger audience—albeit one who didn’t quite yet know what they held in their hands.

Before the onset of World War II, science fiction had developed two different traditions, split roughly between the plot-centric pulps in America and the idea-centric Modernist works in Europe. However, something new was brewing in the midst of the excitement the explosion of scientific discoveries and technological advances promised, and those with a sense of vision could see where not only science fiction, but the world itself, might be headed.

Meanwhile, discoveries in biology had brought the field tantalizingly close to a unification. Darwin and Wallace had married Malthusian competition to the variation of traits among species and come up with the theory of natural selection. Mendel had discovered traits were encoded by two individual hereditary factors, one inherited from each parent. Following the rediscovery of Mendel’s paper at the turn of the 20th century, work by early geneticists (like Bateson, Morgan, and Muller) showed that small changes in genes can be caused by mutations. Finally, the work of Dobzhansky demonstrated that when you apply selective pressures to organisms with natural variations, you see shifts in population levels. A synthesis of all these ideas seemed like the logical next step, with all the pieces more or less in place…

However, other perspectives, like those of the theoretical biologist Joseph Henry Woodger in his 1929 book Biological Principles, challenged the naturalist narratives at the very foundation of the field, demanding more scientific rigor. A logical positivist, Woodger believed biology should, like physics and chemistry, put forth hypotheses that can be experimentally verified. Some mathematical approaches had been taken in biology at this point, notably with the Hardy-Weinberg principle in 1902 (the theory that the frequency of genetic alleles will remain at constant ratios in the absence of selection, mutation, migration, and genetic drift), and in 1914 when Ronald Fisher, a nearly blind math prodigy, demonstrated that the smooth bell curves of traits observed by the likes of Galton would occur if multiple genes were responsible for said traits. But these were theories lacking experimental verification. In fact, so effective was this criticism, the teaching of evolution in universities declined to next to nothing by the 1930s; as the Harvard physiologist William John Crozier explained, “You can’t experiment with two million years.”

But, as Stapledon demonstrated in Star Maker—like Darwin before him—thought experiments involving two million years can change the course of history. Born in Cheshire, England in 1886, he spent the first six years of his life in Egypt, where his father worked in shipping and instilled him with a deep love of stargazing and cosmology. His mother, craving British society, eventually returned with Stapledon to England, where he became a middling student, and struggled constantly with the question of what he should do with his life. His time at the socially conscious Abbotsholme school, coupled with his parents’ progressive Victorian morals, gave him a decidedly socialist bent, and upon graduation from Oxford in 1909 with a second in Modern History, Stapledon turned from the family business to focus on poetry. At the same time, he committed to social work, believing Victorians should put their morals where their mouths were, and instructed workers in poetry and history, at the Workers Educational Association (WEA).

A similar attitude took root in biology, where positivist pressure inspired the birth of the field of population genetics by men like John Burdon Sanderson Haldane. Haldane was the son of notable physiologist John Scott Haldane. As a boy, he had worked alongside his father on his experiments in physiology, gleefully testing gases and gas masks together to see how long it took the other to pass out (both father and son were later parodied by family friend Aldous Huxley in two different works). Later he attended Oxford (at the same time as Stapledon, though they never met), where he studied classics and mathematics. It was there that he became interested in genetics, and in 1915 Haldane published his first paper with his sister Naomi, which first described genetic linkage in mammals. In typically impressive Haldane fashion, the paper was written while Haldane served as a captain in the British Army in the First World War, what the population geneticist James F. Crow would later call, “the most important science article ever written in a front-line trench.”

Stapledon, too, could not avoid the call of service. In 1915, as his students began to disappear to support the war effort, he faced an ethical dilemma—fight or abstain? In the face of so many –isms, as he referred to them, he could not in good conscience ignore the war, but he also could not bring himself to kill anyone. He instead enrolled in the Friends Ambulance Unit, a pacifist Quaker organization that worked alongside enlisted men to evacuate the injured from the front lines. His years during the war were a time of rich correspondence with his future wife, marked by a sense of deeply moving camaraderie where he saw people from Senegal and Indochina fighting alongside French and British soldiers in a truly socialist and communal fashion. Stapledon was profoundly affected by the experience and was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery by the French government. In true Stapledon fashion, he put the medal in a drawer and promptly forgot about it. Upon returning to England in 1919, he resumed his duties at the WEA, but found he had something new to say and poetry wasn’t cutting it.

For Haldane, on the other hand, the war gave him an opportunity to exorcise his own frustrations with nationalism and imperialism. Dubbed the “bravest and dirtiest officer in my Army” by his commander, Haldane’s time in the army inspired the socialist feelings that would color his own various speculative writings, such as Daedalus (1924) which inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and The Last Judgment: A scientist’s vision of the future of man (1927). After the war, Haldane conducted research on physiology, notably carrying on the family tradition of self-experimentation including numerous experiments with a decompression chamber (resulting in collapsed lungs and burst eardrums for himself and his volunteers), while also pursuing the mathematical side of genetics. During his time at Cambridge from 1922-1932, he would publish a series of highly influential papers called A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection, where he demonstrated that natural selection was the central mechanism of evolution governed by Mendelian inheritance. He applied mathematics to real world examples of natural selection, famously with the shift of peppered moths’ coloration prevalence in response to industrial pollution, in order to provide experimental verification to demonstrate gene frequencies have direction and rates of change, and that natural selection was not just a narrative, but was a predictable, measurable, and testable phenomenon.

In 1920, Stapledon, now 35, decided to pursue a PhD in philosophy. His admittance essay to the University of Liverpool, “The Sleeping Beauty” was raw, but already showed a sweeping sense of vision, full of myth and symbolism. In 1925 he was awarded a doctorate for his thesis simply titled Meaning, a critical analysis of both how and whether we find meaning in the world. While unable to secure an academic position, Stapledon continued to write philosophy, focusing on the intersection of philosophy and the physical and behavioral sciences, which he had been exposed to during his time at the university, comprehending that one cannot fully understand the world without these sciences. His first attempt at such a synthesis was his philosophical book, A Modern Theory of Ethics (1929), which linked ethics to cosmology. Though critically lauded, it unfortunately failed to find an audience, being not philosophical enough for the philosophers and too intellectual for common readers.

Haldane, however, was a natural communicator, and during the 1920s and 1930s he was one of a handful of writers, along with Aldous Huxley’s brother, the noted evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley (who was also one of Haldane’s close friends), to deftly marry scientific and humanistic thought for the general public. Though Haldane’s papers provided a much needed grounding for biology in mathematics, it would take the efforts of Julian Huxley to bring about the final synthesis of ideas. Huxley had a talent from early on in his career of making scientific information memorable and entertaining to readers, as with his writing on bird mating behavior published in 1914. Huxley studied Zoology (also at Oxford at the same time as Stapledon), and he soon after attained an academic position, but Huxley’s bipolar disorder led to frequent breakdowns and required changes of scenery. At the outset of the First World War, he felt compelled to leave his American academic posting to work in Intelligence for England, mainly censoring letters, while also corresponding extensively with his future wife throughout this time. After the war, he took a position at King’s College London, which he soon resigned instead to work full time with H.G. Wells, understanding the need for wider education and illumination in the world. Wells wanted to write the equivalent of his historical omnibus, The Outline of History, for biology. The results of their efforts, The Science of Life, was published in 1929 and represents Huxley’s first attempt at constructing a popular account of major biological findings.

Meanwhile, while on a hike up a rugged coastline, Stapledon had a fantastic vision of humanity’s future that would combine the speculation in Haldane’s influential The Last Judgment: A scientist’s vision of the future of man work with the epic scope of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The first of its kind as a future history, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930) blended contemporary ideas about cosmology, evolution, and genetic engineering with history, politics, and social theory. A flabbergastingly prescient book, it foresaw atomic destruction, the end of fossil fuels, and the Americanization of the world while tracing humanity’s future history up to the death of the solar system in a universe indifferent to the strivings of mankind. It elicited a stunned and appreciative response, drawing admiration from Haldane, who called Stapledon’s science “unimpeachable,” and Julian Huxley, fresh off his collaboration with Wells, who said, “The blend of imagination and scientific plausibility is more than Wellsian!” Stapledon would even strike up a life-long correspondence with Wells as a result, as well as exchanging letters with Haldane’s equally impressive sister, Naomi Mitchison, who was herself a scientist, noted feminist, and prolific novelist and poet. Stapledon had finally found his calling.

After The Science of Life, Huxley embarked on a brief tour of Africa with the Colonial office to advise on education, then was appointed secretary to the Zoological Society of London. In 1936, Huxley was invited to give a lecture to the Zoology Section of the British Association. Called “Natural Selection and Evolutionary Progress,” Huxley presented all relevant research supporting a grand synthesis, which he then expanded into the wildly popular Evolution: A Modern Synthesis (1942). Due to his restlessness, Huxley had managed to gain a worldwide perspective on all of the biological research that had been going on in the United States and Europe, including work that had not yet filtered into the world’s collective scientific consciousness. Combining the aforementioned discoveries with the population genetics advanced by scientists like his lifelong friend, Haldane, Evolution put to bed lingering Lamarckian ideas, brought evolution back into the classroom, and would become one of the most successful books in the history of biology, as well as creating the conceptual structure that would underlie all of evolutionary biology for most of the 20th century.

Never able to sit idly by with a clear conscience, Stapledon used his fame as a platform for political activism in the tense lead-up to World War II, calling for disarmament and pacifism. He was so tirelessly devoted to this cause that he even spent his 50th birthday at an antifascist rally in Liverpool. As such, the influence of the burgeoning war is apparent in Star Maker. The novel includes send-ups of fascism, classism, and nationalism, as told through the histories of the different worlds on a truly epic scale. As an epic, Star Maker pays homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy—except instead of portraying a universe conceived by an organized mind, Stapledon’s universe is one more inadequate work crafted by a perpetually disappointed artist. Critically adored, the book was a commercial failure due to the onset of the war, drawing a sadly poetic parallel between Stapledon and his eponymous Star Maker.

Though Stapledon would never again see a success like Last and First Men, he wrote numerous other books of fiction and philosophy while working as an activist right up until his death in 1950. But Stapledon’s legacy to science fiction remains a rich one. Arthur C. Clarke’s reading of Last and First Men as a boy changed his life, and in 1948, he invited his hero Stapledon to give a speech about, “anything you might care to say on the general subject of interplanetary travel.” Furthermore, on Stapledon’s first and only trip to the United States in 1949 for the Conference for World Peace, he met with a gathering of New York science fiction writers, including Frederick Pohl and Theodore Sturgeon, who understood the future impact of Stapledon’s visionary fiction. In another decade, the influence of Stapledon’s long perspective could be clearly seen in Clarke, Pohl, and Sturgeon’s works, among many others. Even Freeman Dyson, the physicist of Dyson Sphere fame, said that the sphere should really be called the Stapledon Sphere since it was taken directly from Star Maker’s pages.

Haldane and Huxley remained Stapledon’s steadfast friends throughout his life, and both would go on to leave legacies to make Stapledon proud. Huxley founded the transhumanist movement, which seeks to transform the human condition through technology, in addition to serving as the first director-general of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which encourages international peace. Haldane would continue to write extensively on social and scientific issues, and Clarke called him “perhaps the most brilliant science populariser of his generation.” Later in life he would move to India, where he would live out his days speaking out (and occasionally putting his foot in his mouth) against tyranny. 

Stapledon, Haldane, and Huxley all provided visionary perspectives on science, the nature of life, and the universe, and everyone that has come after them in their various fields owes each one of them a deep debt of gratitude. In the next installment, we will see how these philosophical, scientific, and literary foundations provided a natural structure, both for the proliferation of science fictional voices and the discovery of the structure of the molecule that makes life possible: DNA.

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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