The Time Machine and the Myth of Progress

The Myth of Progress

“Progress” is a word filled to bursting with meaning. It conjures up the idea of forward motion in time, but not just idle motion. Progress means improvement; it means striving towards a goal. While this may mean inching along towards the completion of a task, or towards victory in a video game, it can also refer to entire societies. Cultures progress from an undesirable past towards a desirable future, from barbarism to civilization. Attached to that shade of meaning are ideas of movement from authoritarianism to freedom, from inequality to egalitarianism, from injustice to justice, and from want to plenty. Progress is good, in a way that has moral connotations.

In an odd historical quirk, this progressive social and political outlook was coming into vogue at about the same time as Darwin’s theory of evolution was becoming well entrenched in the scientific establishment, and taking the popular imagination by storm. Just as technology, democracy, and scientific exploration seemed to urge us forward into a brighter future, we were greeted with a mental picture of life evolving from slime, to primitive creatures, to reptiles, to rodent-like mammals, then to primates, and finally into man. Not only did society seem to progress, so did biological life itself. And, holding these two parallel narratives at the same time, progress took on an aura of inevitability.

While it is not the purpose of this project to investigate how these things came to be, it is worth pointing out just how startlingly new this perspective was. Classical philosophy as well as most Christian theology up to that point were based on the assumption of an unchanging natural order. The Creator had designed all things in particular ways, for particular purposes. For things to alter their innate natures was not progress in any sense, but a twisting, a perversion—unnatural. Certainly a great deal of freedom existed for things acting in accordance with their nature, but to actually deviate from one’s nature was not freedom, but self-destruction.

It seems odd to call this classical view “conservative.” It may often demand that things change when the unnatural has become the norm. However, in contrast to the progressive narrative of continuous change, of constant movement, it certainly merits that label. In a very real sense, it is the philosophy which believes there are things worth conserving—that sitting still does not always mean stagnation. Of course, this only makes sense in contrast to progressivism. In other contexts, such philosophical views might call for another name entirely.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these twin notions of social progress and biological evolution were very much on the public’s midn. As this new philosophy arose, H. G. Wells was quick to take threads from it and weave them into a haunting little myth called The Time Machine. As it frequently does, the plot devices of science fiction allowed an able author to explore deep philosophical issues. In particular, Wells illuminated the gulf between the world that biological evolution implied, and the world progressivism hoped for.

The Time Machine

As in The Island of Doctor Moreau, our protagonist is a scientist. When the story begins, we observe him at a dinner party, explaining to fellow-scientists and other interested parties that time is merely another dimension, and sufficiently advanced technology should enable us to move through that dimension as easily as we control our movements through the other three. He declares that he has built a machine capable of doing this, and in a week’s time appears at a second dinner party, where he recounts his journey.

The Time Traveler’s first journey takes him some eight hundred thousand years into the future, to a world that would be perfectly at home in an episode of Star Trek’s original series. The paradisiacal landscape, drastically changed by the passage of time and changing climate from the land the Traveler called home, is inhabited by a race of small people. The two sexes of this miniature race are hardly distinguishable, and neither is imbued with a great deal of strength or cunning. Though clearly adults, they possess a childlike quality, and enjoy a carefree existence. Over the course of the book, the Time Traveler forms a series of theories about how mankind has evolved into these gentle creatures, who call themselves “Eloi.”

At first, he is quite surprised by them. They seem rather foolish, and though they live in magnificent, advanced buildings, they seem incapable of maintaining them, and entirely devoid of general curiosity. These are hardly the advanced, highly evolved humans he expected to meet.

‘It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!’

The Time Traveler had expected humanity to progress into a communist utopia wherein complete mastery over creation would enable mankind to live a life of ease and comfort. But a life of ease and comfort does not call for strength or wit. All those great survival instincts of man, unused in a world of total security, had atrophied. In its old age, the human race had become feeble.

Already this reasonable and seemingly obvious deduction has disabused our protagonist of traditional notions of progress. Successful progress is not necessarily permanent, and evolution need not always follow a forward path. This theory is itself put to the test not long after, however, when the Time Machine goes missing. The Traveler is now stranded in that distant era, with no clear way of escape. He had hoped to find a society of people more advanced than himself, and now he is trapped in a world of particularly uninspired, unintelligent children.

It soon becomes clear that the thieves are a second race descended from what was once humanity. These creatures are monstrous and apelike, dwelling deep in the underground darkness. Pursing them into their labyrinthine tunnels, he discovers all the machinery which must have once enabled them to build the advanced structures on the planet’s surface. Confronted with these facts, he forms a new theory.

Rather than class distinctions passing away with the dawn of a new communist utopia, what if they only deepened? The upper classes led a progressively easier existence on the surface, while the working classes labored deep underground. This radical difference in lifestyles, which he notes already exists to some extent in his own industrial age, split the species in two over the passing eons, the master race becoming weak and pampered as the slave race become bestial.

Again, the idea of perpetual forward progress is undermined. Though technology may have advanced for some unknown length of time, it eventually failed as neither the manual labor nor the pampered beneficiaries of their work remembered quite how to maintain or operate the machinery. Furthermore, society itself had never really improved, clinging always to the same old injustices that had plagued humanity throughout its existence.

Finally, not long after, the Time Traveler discovers the true relationship of the subterranean Morlocks to the terrestrial Eloi. At some point in the distant past, these apelike children of the underclasses had run out of food, and had begun to feast on the flesh of the Eloi. The surface-dwelling species does not exist independently of the troglodytes below. Having used fellow man as a resource, they have themselves become a resource.

Instinctively horrified by this revelation, he tries to rationalize it away. After all, there is more distance between the two species, and between himself and either of them, than there is between as civilized Briton of the nineteenth century and the cannibals of the same era. It is not true man-eating, merely one species raising another as livestock.

His attempt at rationalization fails. He cannot help but see this far end of humanity’s history as a descent back into barbarism. This is primarily because of his close friendship with one of the still humanlike Eloi—a female named Weena. She has been his constant companion for some time, and he has begun to think of the place in which he lives with her as home. As he contemplates the dark secrets lying beneath the earth, she dances innocently nearby. His sympathies are decidedly with the Eloi.

But this is no fairy tale, either for humanity or for Weena. On a journey back from his explorations of the Morlock’s dwellings, they are surrounded in the woods by the cave-men. The Time Traveler starts a fire to ward them off, which quickly grows out of control. In that conflagration, many of the Morlocks are lost, but so is Weena. He rushes back “home” alone.

Once there, he sees one of the strange buildings which were formerly locked lying open. Inside is his time machine. Clearly the Morlocks are using it as bait for him, but he doesn’t care. He rushes in, activates the machine, and leaps forward through time, barely escaping the grasp of the predatory Morlocks, and the horror and disappointment of the era in which he had so long been trapped.

As he moves forward, thirty million years into the future and beyond, no great race arises to replace fallen man. All the varied vegetation of that age degenerates into simple lichens, and enormous crabs chase giant butterflies across the earth—some of the last living species. Slowly the planet achieves tidal lock with the sun, one side eternally facing it, and one side facing the darkness of space. Life grows stranger, more primitive, and begins to die out. Not only has sentience faded away, not only is life passing from the earth, but in the swelling of the sun he foresees the death of the planet itself. Forward motion does not mean progress. It often means death.

Distressed, he rushes back, past the giant crustaceans, past the Eloi and Morlocks, back to his own era. There he stumbles into the dinner party, tells his story, and presents as evidence a few flowers Weena put in his pocket. Those two flowers, the narrator suggests, represent a single simple fact. This narrator contemplates that fact later, after the restless Time Traveler disappears once more, his destination unknown, never to return.

“And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of men.”

Debunking the Myth of Progress

Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the best, whether the strongest and smartest, or the kindest. As convenient as that narrative might be for progressives, it simply does not arise from the theory of evolution.

Survival of the fittest means the survival of those best equipped to pass on their genes in a given environment. This may certainly mean the strongest and the smartest, the most able to master their environment. A rabbit, however, passes on his genes just as effectively as any predator or intelligent omnivore in the same ecosystem. Simply breeding quickly is favored as much by evolution as anything we might call progress.

In fact, if a situation changes rapidly, the attributes which gave one species strength in the previous era might mean nothing in the era that follows it. A polar bear might be the apex predator of the Arctic, but would be hard-pressed to survive in the heat of the tropics. A frog is better equipped to survive in that environment. A giant squid survives well enough in the salty depths of the ocean, but in a freshwater inland lake, a minnow has a better chance of surviving. Or, to draw from another pop culture trope, it’s the cockroaches that would survive a nuclear war, not us.

If evolutionary theory is right, then the only thing that keeps us intelligent as a race is the fact that we have to be to survive. The same could be said of most any other attribute: our tendency to stick together, our drive to explore, our ability to train and push ourselves to the breaking point. The human species is tough, but take away the need to be tough, and we don’t need any of those attributes to live long enough to pass on our genes. The weak, the unintelligent, the lazy, all have just as much of a chance to pass on their genes as anyone else. Most progressives today would not, of course, have it any other way. But the long-term consequences of this are more or less what Wells predicts—the Eloi. Threats keep us sharp, whether the threat of predators, starvation, rivals, or bad weather. Remove those, and we turn into children.

Confronted with this fact, there is more than one way to react. Robert E. Howard sees this, and praises barbarism. If it takes living on the edge, under constant threat to be the best that we can be, then hang civilization. Let’s go back to the woods. There are times when Star Trek’s Captain Kirk seems to follow this same line. Better adventure, exploration, and risk with the virtues those things keep alive in us, than an easy life and slow decay.

Many progressives hope there is an alternative. Perhaps it is true that an easy life leads to the withering of the species, but what if we push beyond the limits of every other species? What if we grow advanced enough to control the course of our own evolution? Or what if we transcend organic life itself? These are the dreams of transhumanist, looking to a future when natural law no longer applies to us. If we choose that course, we must hope that such things are possible, that they are more than the pipe dream of a race unable to come to terms with its own mortality.

Then again, one could just ignore the facts, or at least regard our eventual demise as something unavoidable and so not worth avoiding. The values of progressivism become more important than the survival of the human species. Better we achieve a just, secure, and prosperous society and die of it, than ensure the survival of the species at the price of suffering for its weaker members. That certainly seems a noble path, but it can’t be said to derive its values from evolutionary theory. Then again, why should it? Progressives are under no obligation to buy evolutionary theory wholesale, much less derive their values from a biological theory.

And that is the point. The progressive narrative and evolutionary theory have little or nothing to do with one another. It is an accident of history that they arose at the same time, and an accident of history that they became allies against creationism and conservatism. One is concerned with the good of society and political theory, and the other is concerned with the structure and workings of the natural world. They originate from different sources, are concerned with different realms and different issues, and their implications for those who believe in them are quite separate. If one were to examine the mythologies that support and explain those two worldviews, the works included in such canons would differ widely, despite the occasional overlap.

Conservative, creationist Christians have a bad habit of lumping all our opponents in the public square into one category: you are either Christian or non-Christian. In practice, this categorization simply makes no sense. A Muslim and a militant atheist who subscribes to evolutionary theory may be much closer in spirit than either of them and the liberal progressive. Darwinism can be used to justify capitalism and racism as easily as it can socialism and multiculturalism. The world is far more complex than us vs. them.

It is true that on a deeper level, the blood of Christ makes us more separate from the world than any two groups in the world are from each other. But that does not mean that the differences between non-Christians are not real, and do not have consequences. If we want to be a light in a dark world, if we want to take an evangelical attitude towards the lost, we will not be successful by paying no attention to who they are, what they believe, and what they value. The distinctions there are important, and worth noting.

This is just one reason why it’s important to get outside the distinctly Christian ghettoes in pop culture. There are important things to learn about our neighbors, about the world we claim to want to bring the Gospel to. That’s the point of this project, and that’s why reading guys like H. G. Wells is valuable.

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Explorations in Modern Mythology

Reality inspires fantasy. Love poetry exists because lovers exist. Adventures are recounted because people encounter and overcome peril. Real horror exists in the world, twisted men and monsters. So we tell stories about them.

But when we delve into deeper beliefs, into ideas more profound and more fundamental to how we see the world, our stories take on themes more powerful and more resonant than those of the average daydream. When we speak of life and death, of the purpose of existence, of the laws of nature and of human nature, the stories we tell become something else. They become mythology.

Belief inspires this kind of story, whether that belief is true or false, rational or irrational. Every community wants to pass on its deepest wisdom, wants to contemplate the grandest mysteries of its creed. Christians have the canon of Scripture, but we also reach out and spin other stories. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the best of medieval romance, Shakespeare, Spenser, even the ribaldry of Chaucer, and countless others all tell stories inspired by their authors’ convictions as members of a Christian society.

Since the invention of the printing press, and of the silver screen, man’s love of telling stories has been given free rein. We have become a culture that is telling stories constantly, film after film, book after book. Never have we seen such a vast number of stories being told and retold at such a fast pace.

The technological advances that led to this boom in storytelling came of age at the same time as another cultural phenomenon. Charles Darwin gave voice to a movement of skepticism that had been growing since the Enlightenment. He provided an explanation for the diversity of life and the astounding suitedness of most species to their environment which involved no divine intervention. Early evolutionary theory swept away the need for what many considered primitive superstitions and replaced them with rational science.

This view of the world which rejected miracles and the divine—a position referred to as philosophical naturalism—and which embraced the principles of natural selection and common descent soon took hold of the scientific community. As it spread among the learned, it emerged into the popular consciousness as a striking picture of the universe, a world of vast distances in time and space, of unimaginable transformations across eons, and a bloody struggle for survival and progress up out of the slime. It struck artists, it inspired storytellers, and a mythology began to grow.

The story of evolutionary naturalism’s place in the popular consciousness is a fascinating one. The ideas of that worldview have captured the minds of such men as H. G. Wells, Joss Whedon, H. P. Lovecraft, Bryan Singer, and Robert E. Howard. It permeates the worlds of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The X-Files, much of the comic universes of Marvel and DC, and the first season of True Detective. 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing if not a meditation on such a universe. Everywhere we look in popular culture, we see philosophical naturalism, accompanied by the fundamental insights of Darwin’s theory (the details have long since evolved in other directions).

Over the past year or so, I have studied these works and others. This has often yielded profound insights into our cultural consciousness, and into human nature in general. It has also revealed many great artists worth revisiting, and stories worth telling. The knee-jerk reaction of many Christians might be to avoid such investigations, but God is the creator of all mankind, and of the world we live in, not just of the church. There is much to be learned in every corner of creation.

At some point after beginning this journey, I decided to post my thoughts publicly, offering something of a guide to evolutionary naturalism in pop culture. It is my goal to draw attention to the ways in which that worldview has inspired stories, the ways in which people have responded to their own beliefs. Human nature has certain laws, certain desires and antipathies, that carry across time and space, that transcend both cultural and national boundaries, and lend their character in striking ways to the most insignificant of objects. In pursuing this line of inquiry, we can learn much, not only about evolutionary naturalism, but about mankind in general.

The first glimmer of this project can already be seen in my posts on Conan and the Marvel Universe in general. In the coming weeks and months, I want to delve into Wells, Lovecraft, The Planet of the Apes, and the works of Joss Whedon. I also hope to revisit Conan in more detail, and other narrative universes as opportunities arise. I hope your interest is peaked enough to join me on this voyage of discovery. It’s been an exciting one so far, and I expect it will lead to many more strange and wonderful places.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.

The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”

This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.

The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?

This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.

While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?

Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.

Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.

The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.

Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.

This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.

That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.

This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.

Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”

 

Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”