What makes humans human? Is it only our physical attributes, our bipedal stature, the sparsity of hair, and opposable thumbs? Is it more subtle than that, something in our mental capacity and our behavior? Or does humanity have any real essence at all? If slowly all his attributes were traded for a beast’s, would there ever actually be a single moment when the human became inhuman? And what if that experiment was reversed, if a beast were given the attributes of a man?
A Monstrous Vision
The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of H. G. Wells’ science fiction classics, and one that treads close to the realm of horror. It features a biologist by the name of Edward Prendick who finds himself adrift after surviving a shipwreck in the year 1887. He is picked up by a passing boat, bound for a small island somewhere in the southwestern Pacific. Reaching the island, the captain of the vessel abandons him there with the cargo its inhabitant had requested—a shipment of animals.
Once there, Prendick realizes that the inhabitant of the island, one Doctor Moreau, fled more civilized regions for this abandoned place due to the controversial nature of his experiments. Prendick is not quite sure what these are, but from the abundance of animals and their tortured screams which endure for hours, he assumes it must include vivisection. Vivisection—surgical experimentation on live animals—was a very controversial topic at the time, and would continue to be for decades to come.
But it was not the cruelty of these live dissections that were the true horror of the island. As Prendick explores what will likely be his home for the better part of the next year, he comes across a group of people who vaguely remind him of pigs. Not long after, he is pursued by something bestial that, when seen in the open, is in the shape of a human, and is capable of standing upright. The next day, convinced Moreau is experimenting on humans, he flees into the forest. There he encounters an entire tribe of Beast Folk, resembling apes, dogs, goats, and things far more indescribable. They are led by a strange creature known as the Sayer of the Law, who chants out a series of rules which remind the Beast Folk how human beings ought to act.
Suddenly, Moreau bursts into the camp, and Prendick goes running. He is determined to kill himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. The doctor manages to talk him down, and explains that the Beast Folk are all animals, not men. He has taken the surgical sciences and tried to push them to their limits, using every imaginable operation to transform animals into men. Nor is he only altering their outward form—he is educating them to the point where they seek to act human. This is the meaning of the Sayer of the Law.
While this is decidedly horrifying, it does ease Prendick’s fears for his own life. He settles back in with Moreau and his assistant, biding his time until a ship comes along that is willing to offer him passage back to the civilized world. Before this happens, however, a series of misfortunes rock the island.
First, one of the Beast Folk is found to be breaking the Law. Rather than allowing himself to be captured and further modified by Moreau, he forces the men and animals to hunt him in a wild chase across the island. Prendick kills him, but the men suspect he is not the only one breaking the Law. Soon another rebellious man-beast kills Moreau, and not long after his assistant is also murdered. The humans’ dwelling places also goes up in flames, leaving Prendick alone on the island with the Beast Folk.
As the months pass, he lives among them. Initially, many were very human in appearance and behavior. But slowly each one begins acting more and more bestial, and their bodies slowly lose their human appearance. Moreau’s experiments could alter them for a time, but could not change them for good.
At last Prendick finds a way back to the human world. He is thought mad by many, and he has no proof of the fantastic tale he tells. Accepting this, he tries to settle back into civilized society. Yet something seems wrong. His experience on the island has forever changed his perspective.
My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.
When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.
H. G. Wells’ monstrous vision has inspired no less than six film adaptations, some of them successful enough, and others as disastrous as Moreau’s experiments. Sequels and reimaginings have also been written, and more than one song features lyrics drawn from the Law and the events of the story more generally.
Despite its success in popular culture, Wells did not originally conceive of the idea as pure fiction. In 1895, he wrote an article titled “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” in which he speculated that it might be entirely possible to totally alter an animal’s physical form through surgical and chemical means, to such an extent that it could no longer be recognized as whatever species it might belong to in a genetic sense. He mulled over this idea for some time. A year later, he published The Island of Doctor Moreau, reworking the gist of the article into the titular doctor’s explanation to Prendick of his doings on that island.
This radical notion stands close to the very heart of scientific materialism. Classical metaphysics—first explicitly described by Plato and Aristotle, and maintained by both Christian and Islamic philosophers—holds that everything in creation has a nature essential to it. A human is not human by virtue only of his outward form, but there is some nonphysical aspect of his being which makes him human and not a hairless ape. Modern empirical science is skeptical of such claims, finding little or no evidence for some spiritual, or at least nonphysical, essence that defines a species.
If the materialist reading of metaphysics is right, then Moreau’s experiments should, theoretically be possible. If all that separates man from beast is chemical composition and the arrangement of tissues, then sufficiently advanced technology and methods should be able to transform one into another. Of course, it may require a great deal of work to achieve such a thing, and then you’re stuck looking a ManBearPig and asking what you got out of it. But, if you really wanted to, there’s no reason you couldn’t do so.
This is not just idle philosophical speculation, either. The question of essentialism is actually a pressing social issue. The same metaphysics which says that man is separate from the animals, and the animals from each other, also suggests that men and women are different. Gender essentialism is the belief that there are fixed spiritual and behavioral characteristics tied to whether one is biologically male or female. This is usually taken to imply that certain gender roles are natural and others are not, and that certain expressions of sexuality are natural while others are not.
Consider that wide gulf that separates materialist metaphysics from classical metaphysics. In the eyes of someone who holds to essentialism generally, and gender essentialism in particular, LGBT behavior is unnatural in a very similar way to what Moreau does. Boundaries are being crossed that ought not be crossed, the very nature of a person is being denied or altered. Whatever the motivations or the character of the person engaging in the behavior, the behavior itself is inherently transgressive.
Now flip that. In the eyes of a materialist, gender and sexuality are plastic. They are shaped and molded by social expectations, which evolve over time. With advances in science and technology, even a person’s anatomical sex can be altered. If those boundaries of gender and sexuality are so ephemeral, if they are subject only to the limits of the human imagination, then it is the person who holds to classical metaphysics that is monstrous. They seek to impose on others restrictions that are not themselves natural, not themselves a fixed element in the physical or social fabric of the universe. Such views appear prejudiced and oppressive, something that ought to be opposed.
Of course, not every materialist supports the LGBT movement, and not every person from a tradition that holds to classical metaphysics opposes it. It would, however, be surprising if we did not see some correlation between those belief systems and the cultural stances they suggest. Our beliefs about the nature of reality do, in fact, impact our politics and lifestyle.
It be a mistake not to mention the place of feminism in this discussion. The places of men and women in society are very much impacted by your views on essentialism. While essentialism can lead to a wide variety of relationships between the sexes, it does open the door to what is generally characterized as a more conservative view on gender roles. A materialist metaphysics, however, tends to open the door to much more radically feminist views. Cultures whose mythologies are inspired by these two different worldviews can be expected to look very different.
The Future of Humanity
While the question of plasticity is relevant to Millennials caught in the midst of the twenty-first century’s marriage wars, Wells would probably have found another implication far more interesting. If mankind is potentially subject to this degree of chemical and surgical modification, might scientists take the evolution of the human race into their own hands? Might they modify men to make them stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter? Might we accelerate our own progress and leap forward into utopia of supermen, impervious to the threats that once dogged our race?
In Wells’ own time, medical science was nowhere near advanced enough to bring this about. Human individuals could not be modified to such a great extent, and such modifications certainly could not be made to pass on to children. But the human race was conceived of essentially plastic, able to be molded. So scientists across the world, often backed by forward-thinking governments, sought to sterilize the unfit and, in some cases, promote the propagation of healthier bloodlines. Atrocities committed for the sake of human evolutionary progress have since earned eugenics a bad name, and rightfully so, but at the time it was considered a very progressive, humanistic enterprise.
While the molding of humanity through forced sterilization, restrictive marriage laws, and mass murder are largely a thing of the past, not everyone has given up hope of transforming humanity with the aid of advanced science. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to use our advancing understanding of human biology and genetics to transition the species from its current state into a “posthuman” future. This posthuman ideal is envisioned to have capabilities so far beyond that of modern homo sapiens, that it could not be mistaken for the same species. While gene therapy certainly forms an element of this movement’s ambitions, they also embrace technologies that will merely push individuals beyond merely human boundaries.
Both the eugenics of yesteryear and today’s transhumanism look on the plasticity of the materialist metaphysic as essentially good news. While these things may push us out of our comfort zone as a species, they also point the way to a more promising path for our evolutionary future.
For Wells, however, at the beginning evolutionary naturalism’s heyday, these ideas still were still new and unsettling, sweeping aside things mankind once held certain. Behind the plastic veil of human flesh, he did not see the dawning of a superhuman future, but the dumb and snarling face of a beast, dressed in the trappings and taught to mimic the behavior of civilized man. Perhaps all our high technology and sophisticated cultures are merely a façade. Perhaps, he suggests, they merely conceal the Beast Folk that lie within.
In the coming weeks, I hope to touch on the idea of evolutionary progress in another of Wells’ works, The Time Machine, and to take a brief glimpse at the Planet of the Apes franchise. However, this particular theme of humanity, civilization, and our relationship to the beasts is a powerful one, and I plan on returning to it in further posts on Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian age and the stories of Conan the Barbarian, as well as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned as the journey continues.