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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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.

X-Men and the Master Race

We have spent some time with H. P. Lovecraft, his dark view of the cosmos, and his undermining of a man-centered view of the world. While this is one way of telling stories inspired by an evolutionary naturalist cosmology, it’s far from the only one. Bryan Singer’s X-Men has a much more positive take on such a world, and decidedly more human-friendly.

Before we get started, however, we should take a moment to note the vast difference between what Lovecraft was doing and what Singer, screenwriter David Hayter, and earlier X-Men creators were doing. For Lovecraft, the issues of naturalism and the eons-long march of evolution were central. His horror was cosmic in scope, and cosmic in emphasis. X-Men, on the other hand, is first and foremost a superhero story. Mutation and evolution serve more as an origin story and a clever device for exploring other themes than central ideas in themselves. Therefore, we should be careful not to make more of its presence in the story than the occasion warrants.

That said, let’s dive in.

 Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.

This quote, appearing before even the title sequence, brings us directly into deep waters. It is a generally acknowledged fact that the fossil record has less “transitional species” than many Darwinists might like, with supposedly distant evolutionary ancestors occurring in layers just below their descendants. While the situation is not so difficult as to make most scientists reconsider the theory of evolution itself, it has caused some to ask what might explain the apparent lack of evidence for the gradual transformation of species. Two of these proposed solutions are “punctuated equilibrium” and “saltationism.” It is the latter that concerns us.

Saltationism is the fairly straightforward belief that while species usually changes only subtly from one generation to the next, on occasion massive changes between a single parent and its child, creating an entirely new species in a single great leap. The details of this theory or its history in the scientific community are not important. What is important is the opportunity this provides for a storyteller.

Superheroes are a fun sort of character to play with. Their immense power when compared to the average human, and responsibility that comes with it, provide material for plenty of storylines and grand battles. Their strange powers, however, usually require an explanation. Here in salatationism, the writer of a superhero story has a ready-made explanation, complete with its own complex themes worth exploring. The X-Men are not merely freaks, they are the next stage in the history of the human race and life on the planet.

And “next stage” is right. Right off the bat, we are given a picture of humanity evolving “from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet.” Not only is this picture man-centered, it also a picture of human progress. Evolution is a ladder, climbing up from inferior slime to superior man. When the mutants of the X-Men world appear, they are not just different. Their appearance is a “leap forward.” We are going somewhere, a better somewhere, and evolution is taking us there.

This is wildly different than Lovecraft’s picture, or, as we will see later, that of H. G. Wells. Many who adopt a naturalist and evolutionary view of the cosmos hold nothing like this idea that evolution means progress, that it is somehow a forward movement or an upward climb. Evolution is merely the survival of those creatures which are best adapted to their environment, and that may have nothing to do with what any civilized man may recognize as “good.” But for the X-Men, that is not the case. In this world, evolution means progress.

The very next scene sets up another interesting backdrop. It is 1944, in a concentration camp in Poland. A crowd of prisoners is being herded into the camp, among them a young boy. He sees that the people working across the fence from him have already been branded like cattle, numbers tattooed into their arms. As they reach the gates, he is separated from his parents. Crying out, he tries to follow them. He is held back by soldiers, but he extends his hand, and the metal gates begin to bend. The soldiers can’t fight the power he is wielding, and begin sliding in the mud. As he begins to crush the gate, another soldier hits him hard in the head, knocking him out.

The fact that the first mutant we see appears in a concentration camp is no accident. Here is a place where people who are different are rounded up, registered, enslaved, and eventually killed. Here are the monsters of the twentieth century, those who experiment on fellow human beings, who exploit scientific methods to eradicate masses of people. This is important for mutants as type of the persecuted minority, but fascism at work here also represents what the Brotherhood of Mutants is reacting against—and what they become.

Not long after, we are standing before the Senate, hearing a debate over the Mutant Registration Act. Americans are afraid of mutants, afraid that their powers will allow them to exploit the relative weakness of their ordinary neighbors. They want every mutant registered, so the government can keep tabs on them. Later we learn that if it were up to Senator Kelly, the chief proponent of the act, then all mutants would be locked up in prison.

Looking on are the two leaders of the mutants, two friends with two very different responses. We have a choice between their perspectives, and it is clear which we are supposed to choose. On the one hand is Charles Xavier, who takes in outcast mutant children and raises them as if they were his own. He advocates tolerance for the foibles on the human race, patience as they come to grips with the existence of mutants. On the other hand, we have Erik Lehnsherr, also known as Magneto. This was the boy from the concentration camp, his arm still bearing the marks from the last time a fearful populace decided to “register” him. His reaction to this threat is far from tolerant.

Outside, Professor X confronts Magneto, telling him not to give up on mankind. They have evolved since the forties. That’s a bold statement, again equating evolutionary change with moral and civilizational progress. Magneto replies that it’s true, mankind has evolved. Into mutants.

“We are the future, Charles, not them! They no longer matter!”

In this statement, we see where life has taken Erik Lehnsherr. When he was young, he saw the Germans, afraid of the Jews, round them up and register them. Registration was only the prelude to something far worse. Seeing that possibility looming on the horizon again, he will not let it happen. He will stand and fight. Of course, despite the fact that the mutants are numerically fewer, they are much stronger. It is now Erik who is afraid, and it now Erik who reacts in violence, dismissing an entire race as a relic of the past.

That issue of race adds an additional layer of depth to the story. While The X-Men undoubtedly wants you to notice the responding-to-fear-with-violence theme as it plays out in the Nazis, Senator Kelly, and Magneto, it doesn’t dwell on the themes of racial superiority.

It is important to remember that the Nazis were racist in a distinctly evolutionary context. They believed that they were more highly evolved, a superior kind of human. The Jews, on the other hand, and many others, were inferior. They held back the human race, weakening it, and diluting pure Aryan blood. Nazism was involved in genocide and eugenics not merely out of fear, but out of a desire to progress along the evolutionary ladder. Germany was expanding and eliminating “inferior” races to make Lebensraum for itself—room for the master race to grow. Breeding programs were started in an attempt to produce more and better Aryans. Evolutionary progress was a very important idea to the Third Reich.

Taking that into account, the entire movie takes on an uneasy atmosphere. In the world of The X-Men, there is no doubt that the mutants are the next step in evolutionary progress, that they are, in some sense, superior. Ordinary humanity is genuinely backwards, and does pose a genuine threat to the progress of the human race. The mere facts of the situation line up exactly with Nazi ideology. They are not what is in dispute in this film, only what the proper course of action is, given such a world.

This weird fascist undercurrent expresses itself in other ways, and not just among the bad guys. Granted incalculable power over others, Professor X is perfectly willing to use it. He pries into Wolverine’s deepest secrets and readily speaks of them without the slightest hint of reluctance, without thinking to even ask permission. Of course, such violations of a man’s personal life are acceptable when they come from a more highly advanced creature, a person higher up both the evolutionary and moral ladder than those around him. With great power comes a lack of accountability.

This particular incident is startling next to the earlier discussion of the Mutant Registration Act. Senator Kelly asks what mutants have to hide, which entirely misses the point in the eyes of the X-Men. But not long after, Professor X seems to operate off the same principle. What does Wolverine have to hide? The professor is the protector of mutants; doesn’t he have the right to know what’s going on in this man’s head? It’s for the greater good.

Nevertheless, Charles Xavier is decidedly opposed to Magneto’s course of action. He sends his people to interfere in his enemy’s plans, hoping to forestall what both Erik and Wolverine assure will be a war between mankind and mutants. He still has hope.

Meanwhile, Magneto has captured Senator Kelly. Up until this point, everything we know about him has made us hate him more and more. When Mystique slaps him around with her feet, the scene is written to make us cheer. This guy really deserves what’s coming to him. And what is coming to him? He will be experimented on, transformed via radiation into a mutant. This scene is intercut with the horrified reactions of Xavier’s people as they learn that Wolverine was once experimented on. Both these events echo Nazi experimentation on Jews during the holocaust. With that in mind, it is more than little off-putting to see Senator Kelly’s transformation played out as an almost-justified comeuppance.

It turns out that Magneto’s plan is to use this same radiation on a gathering of UN delegates at Ellis Island. This is incredibly significant on multiple levels.

First, we are reminded again of minorities coming to America, of our country as a melting pot that welcomes the downtrodden. In a world where mutants struggle for equality against overwhelming racism, this theme points once more to the progressive narrative of the minds behind the project.

Second, the UN gathering plays into the same theme. It has loomed behind the whole movie, and along the way we were given the chance to see Senator Kelly snidely dismiss it, telling us that America will do whatever it pleases and the outside world can fend for itself. With this coming from the bad guy, and keeping in mind the whole tenor of the movie, and the fact that the action takes place on Ellis Island, it’s not a leap to infer that the UN is viewed here in a positive light. This is the voice of human progress and unity.

Finally, this plan is significant because it reveals something about Magneto. He wants to transform all of these powerful people into mutants, believing that if they saw with mutant eyes, they would sympathize and work to protect them instead of treating them like a threat. He just wants people to sympathize, and he’s willing to use force to get them to do so. Of course, we know that his plan will not work. The radiation that turns them into mutants will also kill them in a few days’ time. Instead of creating new allies, he’s committing a mass assassination that will backfire on him and his plans for mutant acceptance.

Of course, our heroes save the day, and Magneto is incarcerated in a plastic prison where Xavier can come to visit him and play chess. He hopes that Erik’s heart will change, that he will come to accept humanity, to be patient with them. But if not, he assures his old friend, the X-Men will be there to stop any future maniacal plans.

The movie is a fun watch. The close friends battling things out, the strange new world, the whole atmosphere grabs you and holds your attention. The friendship between Wolverine and Rogue in particular is fantastic, and worthy of attention in its own right. But underlying the whole thing is that strange fascist echo. The X-Men are the future. They are the next step in evolution, in human progress. Not only are they superior in their abilities, the majority of them appear to be presented as morally superior.

Both sides use their powers on other people without a second thought, and humanity is asked to accept this as normal, and not to seek to control them. And yet, this is decidedly a melting-pot world, one that asks humans of all backgrounds to unite. The powerful must tolerate the weak, and the weak the powerful. It’s a strangely contradictory world, one of values held in tension.

In Lovecraft, that tension did not exist. The universe was amoral, and man’s petty feelings about the behavior of other entities meant nothing. There might be the strong and the weak, but neither had any obligation to the other, and any desire to see the improvement of the species was mere self-interest writ large. But here, in a world of evolutionary progress, in an anthropocentric, humanistic world that accepts that view of the cosmos, there is that tension. In that world, the Nazis are not far wrong on the facts, but we must, of course, reject their methods.

Strangely—or perhaps not so strangely—I’m more at ease with Lovecraft’s take on the cosmos.

The Southern Dilemma, Part One

This is the first in a number of posts on Southern identity. The following exploration of the issue was inspired by a series of three linked articles whose content will largely structure the upcoming posts. They can be found here, here, and here.

Recently Dr. Peter Leithart posted a quote on his blog over at First Things. The originator of the quote compares Ireland’s relationship to England as a literary center with that of the South’s relationship to the remainder of the United States. He offers an interesting explanation for our significant literary output, grounding greater creativity in the experience of defeat.

“The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not.”

This is an interesting point, and strikes me as true. There is depth to having known defeat, a certain humility when confronted with life that I believe allows a deeper and more poignant experience of the world. But there are greater consequences to such an experience than increased creative potential.

The problem with American history is that it is very short. It has been said that a very old man today could have, as a child, sat in the lap of another old man who in turn had known people alive at the time of the War for Independence. Much has happened in the past two hundred and fifty years, but we are still very much settling into our place in history. We have not been conquered and re-conquered, we have not experienced centuries of changing regimes and lifestyles. The first war the whole United States really lost was Vietnam.

So when the South includes in its narrative a story of defeat, that means a great deal. We are still Americans, with a strong desire for progress and optimism. We cannot fathom the concept of a narrative with rises and falls, defeats and victories, different struggles in different contexts. Change is foreign. Our narrative has only gone so far, and our imagination cannot go much farther.

That defeat, then, defines us. It has the cold air of finality about it, and that terrifies the Southern psyche. No man can maintain a narrative of final defeat. If his worldview has no room for victory or potential happiness, then either he will die or he will find a new worldview.

In the South, that is largely what has happened. In our short-sightedness we think Appomattox meant not just the end of Confederate efforts in the Civil War, but the end of the South as a culture. This drives some to seek out a new culture, whether a Yankeefied liberalism or some broader form of Americanism. Others do not want to abandon their culture so quickly, and instead attempt to change the narrative. The South must rise again, or at the very least be vindicated and accepted in the larger American context. In some sense, our defeat must be undone.

This dilemma largely defines the South as it is now, and if not addressed, will lead to our death as a culture. And it is a problem not for those who are willing to forget the South, but for those who love it and want to see it prosper. We are the ones who have stop living in the past, and address our culture as it stands now. We have to adapt to a new context and become forward-thinking while still affirming our own heritage and way of life.

I do believe that the South has done this on occasion, but almost by accident. We are constantly going back to that same war, rehashing the same old issues, and clinging to that bitter defeat. If we are to maintain an upbeat and forward-thinking culture, we cannot continue to do that. We must deliberately and firmly make a lasting change to our understanding of our own narrative. But that is a topic for a later post.