The Structure of Creation

            I love the big picture. I love to see the way things fit together, the way they are linked together in cause and effect, in hierarchy, in reflection of one another. There’s something about understand all of a thing’s context and relationships that is beautiful, and reveals a little bit of its purpose.

            That’s what Genesis 1 is. It’s a portrait of the universe as God created it. The land sits on top of the sea, and the heavens are like a vault, a great dome over the earth. Sun and moon rule the day and night, spinning through the heavens alongside the stars, giving signs to those below of the passage of time, of the turning of seasons. Life fills every corner of the universe, inhabiting sea and land and sky. Last of all, the speaking beast, the creature who bears the image of God, who has dominion.

            It’s been remarked before, and I think it’s a point worth noting, that this is not a scientific explanation of how the universe came to be or how it functions. If you come at the world from an excessively materialist or rationalist point of view, you expect any explanation of something to be an account of the physical processes which bring a thing into being or keep it running. But that’s not the only way of explaining what a thing is.

            A thing is also how you encounter it. It is what you see, what you hear, what you smell. It’s how it changes over time, and the patterns you notice. These things aren’t “objective” in some ultimate sense. They’re anthropocentric—man-centered. How do people actually experience the world? Genesis operates on this level.

            We may know that the heavens are more or less endless, that some of the stars are far closer to us than they are to the rest of their starry brethren. But from the earth, it all looks like a single vault, a high ceiling on the world, with most of the stars at the same distance. We may know that the moon is actually one of the smaller objects in the sky, and so saying it “rules the night” is laughable, but so what? Viewed from the earth, it is the largest light in the darkness, the one that dominates that space.

            Expect Genesis 1 to be what we call a scientific account of how the universe is structured, and you will be disappointed. Its taxonomy, and Biblical taxonomy in general, would drive a biologist mad. But that’s not the point. The point is explaining the world as we experience it, the structure of life as we actually encounter it. Now, there is a way of over-relying on this fact in such a way that it distorts the text. Just because something is poetic doesn’t mean the thing it describes is unreal. The fact that something is phenomenological implies that it’s describing real phenomena. But I’ll save that qualification for a later post.

            One interesting aspect of Genesis 1 is the way it’s built on forming and filling. When the world is first described as “formless and void,” unless I badly misunderstand my Hebrew, the words there seem to refer to having no structure and being empty of all contents. But the first three days of creation are all the establishment of structure. God divides light from darkness, creating two spaces called “day” and “night.” Then God establishes a “firmament” or “vault” in the midst of the water, and this becomes the space we call “heaven” or “sky.” Finally, he gathers the waters below together into a single place, and up comes dry ground. He has created the spaces we call “earth” and “seas.”

            These spaces are like different houses, or different rooms in a house. Alternatively, they are separate stages. And stages are nothing without sets, props, and players. And fittingly enough, God obliges. The next three days fill these very spaces. Day four fills the spaces created in day one—day and night—with lights of various kinds. For day, there is the mighty sun. For night, the gentler moon and all the stars are hung up in the top of the vault. Day five fills the two spaces of day four—sky and sea—with flying creatures and swimming creatures respectively. Day six looks to the final space created, the green earth, and fills it with various kinds terrestrial beasts and creeping things.

            These are the two fundamental acts of creation: forming and filling. A number of my favorite Genesis commentators make a connection here that some find a bit wild and esoteric, but I find immensely interesting and fruitful. Be warned, I’m imaginative sort of person, who likes fantasy and poetry and miracles and ancient epics and rituals and mystic sayings and all the rest, certainly more than plain facts and dry numbers. If something packs a whole lot of meaning into a small space, that holds a lot of weight with me in whether I think it could be true.

            The commentators connect forming and filling to male and female. It’s kind of a weird thought, but it kind of makes sense, both in terms of how the world works, and in terms of the text. The days of forming and the days of filling are one of the few big binaries we get this early in the Bible. In the midst of it, we get male and female, and the fact that man is made male and female is very central to who we are. It’s not accident, but something that is there from day one. In fact, the only thing that is not good in all of creation prior to the fall is the idea of a man without a woman.

            So on that alone, connecting one big pair of complementaries to another just makes literary sense. But it also fits with the world. Men are built stronger, on average, physically tougher. They are more capable of projecting their will directly outwards into the world, of taking up and creating spaces. The idea that men tend to be better at abstract thinking also fits with this picture—that’s what creating spaces is all about. It’s drawing limits, defining structures, creating processes and areas in which things can take place. It’s setting the stage.

            On the other hand, women are built to bring new life into the world. It takes two to tango, but only one of them can nurture a small seed of humanity, barely in existence, to the point where it can survive in the world. I say it can survive in the world, but this isn’t quite right. Infants need protection, need nurturing, need to be feed. And again, the same half of humanity that brings them into the world can also feed them, once again, from their very body, their very self. Women are the part of humanity that is capable of filling humanity with other humans.

            Now, I am not an expert in human psychology, much less in women’s psychology. Knowing the current internet environment, I already feel like I’m treading in dangerous waters. Because I’m a guy, I feel comfortable throwing out the connection between abstract thinking and forming. I’m not going to do the same with women, although I do think similar things can be done. There are certain ways women behave that just strike me as creating and sustaining community, of filling a community with life, that I just don’t see men doing as often or with the same skill.

            I should also point out that although this gendered reading of forming and filling obviously fits well with a complementarian reading of Scripture, and so maps onto conservative vs. liberal cultural battles, with all the attendant drama, this type of thing is not unique to American evangelicalism. Besides those in western civilization who might see human gender reflected in the cosmos, the Taoist yin and yang obviously takes the same idea of a universal binary principles and uses it to structure both the universe and mankind. Alternatively, a thoroughly modern, western, fairly progressive, and utterly pagan worldview does the same thing—Wicca. British Traditional Wicca specifically sees the world as defined by male and female principles. All this to say, I don’t think I’m being a fundamentalist Neanderthal when I point this out, any more than I’m being a Taoist mystic or a witch. I think these are just legitimate insights.

            Now someone who has being paying attention will notice that so far I’ve only referred to six days. Indeed, people often refer to “six-day creationism.” We all know, of course, that the creation week actually lasted seven days. The last day, though, was a day of rest. Having established order, and then filled it with life, God set aside an entire day simply to enjoy what he had done. That, I think, is how that sabbath day ought to be read. It’s not just resting from labor, but enjoying the fruits of that labor. And this is fundamental to the way the universe is built—space is created, space is filled, and then the whole thing is enjoyed.

            While Hebrew storytelling, and really a lot of western storytelling, doesn’t necessarily place the most important part of the story at the end, I do think that’s a legitimate way to understand this passage. The sabbath is the crown, the pinnacle of the creative act. This was built not simply because the action of building is good, but because it is good that the thing be a complete work, and that it be enjoyed as a complete work. That day, the day of enjoying the completed creation, that is the one that was made holy—not the one on which man was created, and not any of the other days. The day of rest.

            It is noteworthy that the creation of humanity isn’t the part that’s most holy. The creation of mankind is neither the center, nor quite the climax of the story. This is striking, since it is clearly written with a human perspective in mind. When we first hear God deliberating over the creation of mankind, we are defined in terms of two things: God himself, and the rest of creation. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and we are made to have dominion over the other living things.

            Some might read this in a kind of predatory way, as if creation existed for us. I read it in something like the opposite way. I think, giving the weight which is placed on every aspect of creation, and the way in which so little of it is explicitly noted as being designed for us, that we should be understood as built for it. This is not to say we should be earth-worshipers, but that we should be gardeners. We plough, we plant, we weed, we water. There’s a reason Eden is a garden, and not just a vegetable garden. It is filled with plants which are beautiful to look at.

            My feeling that this is true only increases when it becomes apparent that we are not supposed to be eating flesh, or making clothes from animal skin. Much of what we think of as the resources nature provides for us, simply weren’t resources at the time. Add this to Genesis 2’s revelation that certain natural processes like rain and the growing of certain grasses hadn’t occurred because we weren’t there to tend things, and it just reinforces the idea.

            Now to be sure, there is a glory to humanity. We are rulers, those who have dominion. But our glory is derived—derived from the God in whose image we are made, and from the garden we are to tend. That is, from our Father and from our work. This picture of the world is not anthropocentric, even if the place we have in the order is prominent. We are not the creators of the order, nor our we the center of it. We are those who maintain it, and who represent the creator. I think that is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a humbling thing.

            To be truly human, to be what we are and to flourish in this space, means to be under authority, and to seek the good of something outside ourselves.

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Sex and Gender, Extremes and Perversions

My brother is currently writing his senior thesis on biblical masculinity. This has proven a great excuse to think about a biblical understanding of gender generally, as if I really needed one. Homosexuality and transgenderism are the hot topics of the day, and even before that, American society has always had more than one model of masculinity and femininity in the running. And no wonder–our God-given sexual identity cuts to the heart of who we are individually, touching on every other aspect of our lives, often in the most surprising of ways. It’s a very important, very personal issue, one that bears a lot of thinking about and a lot of discussion.

One of the interesting distinctions that has come about in the wake of the LGBT movement is that between sex and gender. At one point, these two words were considered interchangeable, and for many people they still are. But each has acquired a more specialized definition: sex refers to one’s biology, and gender refers to one’s behavior. Some people maintain that the two are independent of one another, that one’s gender is either a choice, or determined by something other than the raw physical facts. “I’m really a woman,” says man with functioning man parts. One’s anatomy, say some, should not determine what bathroom one uses any more than one’s skin color should.

Objections to this come from a variety of places, and the alternatives offered do not always agree with one another. If males must be masculine, and females must be feminine, how does this work? What does masculinity and femininity look like? Where does it come from?

These are difficult questions to answer, and they’re not made any easier by the postmodernist’s favorite problem: diversity of cultural norms. Masculinity in Hong Kong, or in Tokyo, does not look exactly like masculinity among the San people, or in Beverly Hills, or rural Appalachia. A backwoods Pentecostal from Deep East Texas and a respectable Nigerian woman from Lagos may both think they are feminine, but may not recognize it in each other, or in that girl from Portland.

Those who assert that gendered behavior is more than a cultural reality, that it is tied to one’s biological sex, and that there is a moral component to this—a group among which I count myself—have various solutions to this conundrum. Some ignore or undersell the cultural diversity. Some just shrug it off as the effects of sin on societies the world over, content in the assumption that their understanding of how men and women should behave is the transcendent norm. Others assert that there are certain general trends in behavior, and certain unhealthy deviations, but that it really is difficult to determine precisely what these are. How is one to disentangle healthy human nature from its cultural expressions? Is such a thing even possible?

That project is difficult one, involving a lot of study. It’s easy for Christians to point to the Bible as a shortcut, the divine revelation which lays out right and wrong for us. In one sense, this is very true, but that doesn’t make it simple. Whether it’s a blue-jeans wearing redneck who just got back from work, or a respectable office worker in his suit who just came back to his 2.5 kids and wife in the burbs, we carry a lot of cultural baggage to our reading of the Bible. Half the population is male, and the other half is female, and we’ve spent our entire lives around them. We already have ideas about masculinity and femininity, and which Biblical passages stand out to us as relevant, and which interpretations of them make sense, will be heavily colored by that experience.

There is an added layer of complication when we begin citing accounts of facts as divine commands. Some evangelicals have a bad habit of interpreting bible stories as God’s examples for how we ought to live our lives, without stopping to ask whether they are intended to be interpreted that way. This can get very hairy, and very entertaining, as people try to hash out the truly biblical baptismal practice where no explicit command is given. There are also some downright ridiculous arguments for every conceivable mode of church governance based on vaguely worded statements of what New Testament churches did. None of these have the clarity and power of the Ten Commandments, a straightforward delivery of divine law, or of some of the commands of Jesus in the Gospels. We should keep this in mind when we address any topic, gender and sexuality included.

Some of my favorite discussions of masculinity and femininity come from people who take a look at the psychological and social impact of biology. How does the ability to get pregnant, having a body crafted to nurture new life, and having regular biological reminders of the fact, effect how women understand themselves? How does the disconnect between male experience of sexuality and male experience of reproduction effect how men view themselves? And how do each of these sets of facts impact how one sex/gender looks at the other?

I think this line of questioning is extraordinarily helpful. Chasing down that rabbit trail quickly reveals explanations for general trends in how men and women conduct themselves across cultures, and also sheds some light on the places where those cultures differ, and why. It also offers helpful suggestions as to why we are seeing this sudden trend of acceptance of LGBT culture in America. Some of the things that have long accompanied being a man or woman in America are being eroded by modern medical technology, among other things.

But as I was considering this the other day, another important distinction struck me. If one attaches moral implications to biological realities—a kind of natural law thinking—then a whole new set of questions come up. The fact is, technology does loosen the hold of biology on men and women. Some of this may be negative, but some is assuredly positive. The same hormone replacement therapy used by transgender individuals to more resemble the sex they identify as, is also used by people whose natural bodily functions, through disease, accident, or birth defect, have ceased. And this number is not as small as might be convenient for those of us with Luddite tendencies. Modern medical science has a real impact on gender and sexuality, and not all of it is what a Christian could, at face value, call bad.

Those grey areas, the twilight zone of these discussions, are not the only place that natural law arguments for gender norms encounter rough sailing. Say a young man growing up in the rural South went to an evangelical church every Sunday, attended a Christian school, listened incessantly to Focus on the Family, and filled his head with country music lyrics. Take another young man and raise him on Canon Press books, let him soak up courtship culture, expose him to John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and let him attend an ACCS school in the Northwest. In the grand scheme of world cultures, the two are not far apart, but ask them to point out feminism, or what headship means, and you’ll get answers that look nothing alike.

Obviously, this is an experiment I have conducted the entertaining way. Both of these individuals might agree that God has expectations regarding gender, might tie these expectations back to biological realities, and might generally agree that American culture is currently nuts on the issue. But that northwestern individual makes me very uncomfortable with his views on a woman’s place. I expect, based on experience and (I think) biblical precedent that a woman is fully capable of doing, and doing well, lots of things which that guy would say she should not do based on the fact that she is a woman. God has made men one way, and women another, and therefore women should not infringe upon masculine territory. His view of gender roles is far more ironclad than my own, in a very significant way, despite all the similarities we might have in common.

Should women initiate a relationship? Should she give a potential mate who is taking too long to pop the question a subtle hint, or leave such things to her father? Does her father have authority over her once she is old enough to provide for herself? Should a woman ever go out and provide for herself? Once married, should she take a job outside the home? Does the type of job matter? Should women be in the military at all, even in supporting roles? Is it acceptable or even desirable for a woman to be more intellectual, or even wiser than her husband? Should wives be willing to tell their husband they are wrong? How far is obedience commanded? Should marriage look more like a partnership, or like the relationship between a parent and a particularly competent child?

If you are not a woman reading this, imagine you are a woman reading this. See? This is where feminism comes from—two college guys sitting around debating the place of women. Maybe women should have a say in all this. But wait, isn’t this an issue of biblical interpretation? Are women allowed to talk about this stuff? I Timothy 2? See, it gets hairy quickly. Strong feelings are had.

At any rate, in my contemplation of the issue, and my consideration of past discussions, I realized the need for a crucial distinction. There is a big difference between saying someone is doing something which nature does not ordinarily allow them to do, and saying they are doing something which contradicts, twists, or denies their nature. Most men don’t run all that fast, yet Usain Bolt exists. Ordinary people can’t solve a Rubik’s cube in under sixty second, blindfolded. Yet these people exist, and I would hesitate to castigate them for it.

This distinction between acting contrary to one’s nature and being on the extreme end of it is an important one. One might argue from biology or from general observation of humans at work that some activities are far more normal for men and others for women. Yet I hesitate to say that this means women should not participate in activities ordinarily dominated by men, if they have the capability and the inclination.

That semi-imaginary northwesterner and I might both be on the conservative end of these issues, but, to cite a biblical example, he finds the prophetess Deborah a real inconvenience. Women are not supposed to be prophets. How can he explain this away? Maybe no men were doing their job at the time, so a woman had to? He likewise frowns disapprovingly at the apocryphal tale of Judith. I, on the other hand, think it’s pretty cool. Is it because I’m a sellout to radical egalitarianism? No, I just maintain a distinction he does not. Deborah and Judith may have been unusual, but they were not a perversion of femininity.

This places me in a position I am very comfortable with. I do not necessarily have as many pat answers as the self-proclaimed patriarchal crowd to the one side or the people who make gender entirely a social construct on the other. Their systems are much tighter than mine. But I can, on the one hand, embrace masculinity and femininity as beautiful things, as positive virtues, and, on the other hand, be perfectly content with the fact that a woman might be a much better scholar than me, a better leader, or play a much meaner game of volleyball. Especially the volleyball thing. I hate volleyball. You go girl, just leave me out of it.

This is certainly a perspective that includes serious expectations and even hard and fast rules, but it’s also a far more relaxed. Maintain this distinction, and you can take the people as they come, giving a little consideration to the fact that they are God’s servant, not yours, and there may be more than one way to be masculine or feminine, and there may be more going on than what you see at first blush. It allows you to—dare I say it—accept the fact of your own ignorance. And it’s charitable. I like that. It’s nice.

Also, what madman would want to get rid of Judith? Judith is freaking awesome.

Doctor Moreau Meets Queer Theory

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.

Plasticity

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.

 

 

 

 Post Script

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.