Science and Magic as Twins: Bacon, Bailey, Lewis, and Malcolm

The Centrality of the Occult

For some, the history of science begins with Sir Francis Bacon. Born in 1561, and dying in 1626, he lived at the height of the witch trials in Early Modern Europe. He was not a Neoplatonist, or a Kabbalist, or any other sort of Renaissance magician. He was more or less a skeptic, advocating that we learn from nature through rigorous experimentation and close observation and recording of details. While perhaps not the father of the scientific method, his beliefs, and his rejection of more mystical explanation for natural phenomena, certainly helped lay the groundwork for modern science.

But Michael Bailey suggests that even this confirmed empiricist was not entirely free of the influence of more occult disciplines, claiming that “such works as his famous Novum Organum (The New Instrument) in 1620 had certain roots in older occult forms.”[1]

“In the Middle Ages, “books of secrets” had professed to disclose the hidden properties of natural substances, as well as providing instructions on how to unlock and employ these powers. Far from being complex theoretical treatises, these were mostly practical handbooks aimed at offering basic medical treatments for illness and injury as well as other homey recipes for practical purposes. To justify their knowledge, the authors of these works claimed simple experience—they had observed that the various concoctions, potions, and mixtures they recommended were actually effective, or they had at least heard so from reliable witnesses or had knowledge based on long tradition. Already a fairly popular genre by medieval standards, after the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century books of secrets, or, as was often the case slimmer pamphlets of secrets, flourished. The most popular such book in the early modern period, Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti, was issued in over one hundred different editions from the mid-sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century.”[2]


Related to these books of secrets were “cabinets of wonders.” These collections of strange and mysterious objects did not claim to lay out some systematic explanation of the forces behind the universe, but merely to point towards certain odd things which did exist. “But for natural philosophers of the period they were important tools of observation and classification; modern natural history museums have their roots in such collections.”[3] During this time period, both the curiosities found in the cabinets of wonders and the strange effects of actions outlines in books of secrets ceased to be understood as supernatural signs, miracles, or freaks of nature, and instead as “unfamiliar but usefully illustrative examples of normal natural processes.”[4]

But Bacon’s tendency to reject Neoplatonic or Hermetic systems and instead rigorously examine nature, especially through experimentation, was not merely a by-product of pseudo-occult Renaissance literary trends, or curiously secular spins on the old practice of relic-keeping. Bailey suggests that, at its base, the entire empirical project was occult:

“Baconian-style empiricism in general can actually be seen not so much as rejecting occult aspects of nature as, in a way, making them central to its conception of the natural world. Aristotelian natural philosophy had also been based on the observation of the world, but it worked essentially by categorizing animals, materials, and natural effects according to their immediately observable properties. The new philosophy held that nature did not so easily reveal her true aspect, and therefore carefully crafted observations and deliberate experimentation were required to uncover her actual workings. Like changing understandings of “wonders,” this new method can also be seen as resting on an important shift away from the idea that occult properties in nature were essentially mysterious, differing from normal natural properties, to the notion that such secrets, properly uncovered would reveal understandable elements of the natural universe. Such shifts in mentality and purpose were important, to be sure, but they represent a progression, not an absolute rupture between older magical and newer scientific systems of thought.”[5] (emphasis added)

Thus the revelation of hidden, “occult” properties in the cosmos became the work, not of Hermetic or Kabbalistic mages, but of early scientists. No longer was “occult” action something that occurred only in miracles and freaks of nature, but instead the very fabric of the universe—as central as gravity.

The Magician’s Bargain

But the heart of the matter, the thing that links science and magic, is not simply a preoccupation with hidden properties. There is a deeper motive at work, one which shapes the kind of knowledge each is seeking, and the purpose for which they seek it. To find that, let us turn to one of the great Medievalist scholars of the past century, and popular Christian author, C. S. Lewis. After making accusations similar to my own for a significant portion of The Abolition of Man, and acknowledging that they could be misconstrued as a wholesale condemnation of science, he writes the following:

“I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientists has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.”[6]

A cursory study of the history of magic, and a reading of Bailey in particular, vindicate Lewis’s historical claim that the Early Modern period was the high noon of serious magical study in the West, as well as the birthplace of science. The deeper impulse that unites, that places them within the “temper of the age,” however, is not something a historian like Bailey is likely dwell on. Instead, it takes a moralist like Lewis, who also has deep scholarly knowledge of the period, to point it out.

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise man of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”[7]

This is the essential question at the heart both of sorcery and of sorcerous magic: how can I make reality conform to my own wishes? How can I bend the natural order to serve my desires? Lewis is right to point out that this runs counter to quite a lot of ancient wisdom. Plato believed in a highly ordered universe spreading forth from a central reality, a One, and that the task of humanity was to grasp this higher reality, and to arrange his soul in such a way that it conformed with the order of the universe. The Stoics likewise believed in a fundamental order to the universe, and the importance of man recognizing that and conforming himself to it. The same can be said for eastern philosophies, like Taoism, whose uniting, ordering principle, the Tao, lends its name to Lewis’s work.

Taken this way, the tendency of ancient Greek or Mesopotamian city-states, or of the Roman empire, to designate private or alien religious practices “magic” is not mere chauvinism. At the heart of their religious systems is a believe that certain gods have the authority to arrange the universe in a certain way. Magical practice is the claim either that one can circumvent this order imposed by the gods, or that one is capable of coercing the gods themselves to reinvent it. This is far different in character than the sacrifices, rituals, and forms of divination which the gods themselves require, even if the external acts or the intended results may bear a passing resemblance.

But Lewis does not leave this connection floating in the ether. He takes one of the fathers of modern science for an illustration and drives the point home:

“If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) to Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth that he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.”[8]

This is the rotting heart of sorcerous science: we reject wisdom and reject finding our place in the order of the cosmos, and instead choose to remake the cosmos in our image. What does it matter if we appeal to demons and false gods or to specialized technical knowledge divined by experimentation? If the result of either is the overthrow of the God-ordained order of the universe, then practically the actions are the same. Both are idolatry, both are blatant disregard for God’s authority and the appeal to some other force that promises us some power or some reward in exchange for yielding up our soul, or at least our temporary worship.

Modern Magery

It would, of course, be excessive to claim that any form of technology is idolatrous or sorcerous simply because it does something that formerly could not be done without it. As Thomas Brainerd pointed out to me, it’s hardly fair to say one is engaging in idolatry by trusting the controlled explosions in our engines to get us to work rather than ripping us apart. This is a cunning use of nature, not a contradiction of it. This is a point both I and Lewis concede:

“No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements and not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.”[9]

As Lewis says, modern science certainly is driven by a certain degree of love of truth. Modern technology often unlocks the potential hidden in nature to help us do good and noble things—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, spreading and preserving wisdom. But it can and has been used for far wickeder things.

Lewis himself wrote an excellent novel called That Hideous Strength, wherein the fiercely modern antagonists use sociology and inhumane treatment to reeducate initiates, and plan to use the same supposedly scientific methods to “cure” criminals. They also engage in vivisection, the live dissection of animals for gaining scientific knowledge, a practice which Lewis himself vocally opposed.

Our own time is not lacking in examples of bad science. One of the most striking and disturbing are the experiments that involve creating human-animal hybrids.  Thusfar, such creatures are not allowed to develop and be carried to term, if such a thing were even possible, but the very existence of such a thing as mixture between animal and man overturns the natural order in a significant way. Not just Christianity, but virtually every human civilization is founded on a basic assumption that animals and humans, whatever they may have in common, are essentially different. To blend the two is a monstrosity.

Species is not the only boundary that is beginning to be crossed with regularity, however. Anyone without their head in the sand is quite aware that surgical procedures exist which are more or less capable of turning a formerly anatomically male person into a person who is anatomically female, and vice versa. Here is yet another distinction within the natural order, ratified for Christians by divine revelation, overturned by modern technical knowledge.

But both of these products of modern science are big and flashy. Other things we take for granted are also deviations from nature, whose consequences we may not fully appreciate. The existence of widespread, safe, and affordable birth control, for example, has divorced the sexual act from procreation. In the early days this was a more or less self-conscious move, an attempt to liberate women from biological constraints and place them on even footing with men in both the freedom with which they can engage in sexual activity, and in their ability to pursue a career unhindered by the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth.

Perhaps this is something to be welcomed—perhaps—but it is certainly a momentous shift in the meaning of activities and processes central to our humanity. With the advent of functioning 3D-printed ovaries and artificial wombs, the very concepts of “mother” and “father” may, at some point, conceivably be a thing of the past. This is without even directly addressing the social effects of sexual liberation.

In the field of artificial intelligence, the question of what constitutes a “person” and what our moral duties towards such artificially created “people” might be is quite an old one. More interesting to today’s transhumanist technocrats is the question of how humans might become machines, and so gain transcendence that way.  Philosophers and theologians have long debated exactly what it means to be human, and this certainly pushes the boundaries.

Our hubris, however, is not exclusive the realm of the weird. We are the civilization that das rivers, that alters their course. We invented strip mining and vast, mechanized farms employing chemicals with not fully explored properties to kill pests and preserve crops. Through deliberate action, we have, either nearly or entirely, wiped out species once as numerous as the passenger pigeon, or the buffalo. We have deforested vast stretches of continents, introduced invasive species by the dozen, blasted through mountains and hills, and in general altered the ecology of most of our world beyond recognition.

The problem here is not agriculture, nor is the building of roads or cities, but the unconscious assumption that the world is here to be exploited. That is, we believe creation was meant for us, and can be changed to conform to our will with few or no consequences. There is no order we have to respect, no natural balance to be maintained, only a series of resources we can harvest and bend to our own ends.

This is not the picture the Bible paints. Man was placed in the garden “to tend it and keep it.” The world was not made to serve him, instead he was made to be God’s image and likeness in the world, its protector, its nurturer, its sustainer and healer.  Man was not placed on this earth to exploit and dispose of it, but to beautify it and cause it to flourish, to cause order and not desolation.

Nor is this an issue that concerns the natural world alone. The buffalo were massacred in the million by the same advances in weaponry that led to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War. World War I saw the advent of the machine guns that necessitated trench warfare, of the bombs and gas that could not distinguish civilian from soldier. World War II ended with the detonation of a single weapon capable of wiping out cities, whose radioactive traces rendered environments unlivable for generations. At least as frightening is the concept of biological warfare, of bacteria and viruses crafted to kill human beings, regardless of age or sex, regardless of guilt or innocence, in vast numbers. Science has taught us to seek power not only over our own bodies or the environment, but also over the lives of others.

Something Like Repentance

Not every piece of tech is a Faustian bargain, and the march of science is not necessarily the forward march of sorcerous inhumanity. This is not a blanket condemnation of seeking knowledge of the natural world, nor of every tool which can improve human life. But it is a suggestion that perhaps we no longer care for wisdom as an end in itself, that we no longer see ourselves as part of an order created by Someone Else’s authority. To one degree or another, we are drunk with the power offered us by scientific knowledge, and to some extend our consciences have been seared by long years of self-interested exploitation of these secrets. To quote the inimitable Dr. Ian Malcolm:

It is possible, and indeed good, to subject advances in technology or scientific practice to ethical questioning. We can ask whether or a new tool or a new method—or a new experiment—comes at too high a cost, or exhibits too great a hubris in our relationship to the natural world. The Amish, of course, are very conscious of this principle. While perhaps we should not imitate them in everything, it may be wise to pay some attention to their way of thinking, which is far more complex and open to innovation than they are often given credit for. This may not be our solution, but we should at least be thinking in this direction.

I do not know what the future will look like. I’m not ready to say we’re standing on the brink of some massive, man-made ecological disaster, or that we are on the threshold of the dystopian cyberpunk future Ridley Scott and the Wachowskis tried to warn us about. But I do believe that there is an element of arrogance and idolatry in the way we approach the world which the old sorcerers would recognize. And the old stories are all consistent about one thing: if make a bargain with the devil, you have to give the devil his due. It might be good to engage in self-examination before that due date comes.

[1] Bailey, 204

[2] Bailey, 204

[3] Bailey, 204-205

[4] Bailey, 205

[5] Bailey, 205.

[6] The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 489.

[7] Lewis, 489.

[8] Lewis, 489.

[9] Lewis, 489.

Magic and Authority

As Michael Bailey introduces the reader to the religious world of ancient polytheism, the modern reader is confronted with what may be a disorienting fact: they did not have a concept of magic in the same way we do. Worse, their explicitly religious and socially accepted rituals often looked very much like rituals they tended to condemn. Both involved sacrifices, set words or phrases that must be said, laws of purity that must be observed, calls on spiritual forces, and the expectation that these forces would grant the petitioner the desired outcome. But while we might be tempted to erase the distinction between ancient magic and ancient religion, Bailey insists that this would be too hasty:

“This is not to say that ancient peoples drew no distinctions between what in modern terms might be described as ‘the religious’ and ‘the magical.’ To claim that a Babylonian priest regarded the cultic rituals he performed as being akin to the charms employed by a rustic healer or the spells of some maleficent sorcerer would surely be false.” (pg. 13)

There was a very real distinction between licit and illicit rituals. But in order to understand that distinction, we have to enter into the mind of an ancient polytheist—and polytheism is exactly the significant term in this discussion.

“Most ancient peoples did not conceive of a single divine force animating the entire universe. Rather, they believed in numerous deities, both their own gods and also those of other peoples, which were usually held to be real and powerful, albeit foreign, entities. In addition to deities, most ancient cultures also believed in a wide range of lesser spiritual beings inhabiting the world.” (pg. 12)

Thus the world was alive with spiritual power, with conscious beings who wielded influence over men and nature. Some of these were powerful gods who presided over certain spheres of creation—sea gods and storm gods, love gods and death gods. Others were minor nymphs of a particular spring, or dryads connected to a specific tree. There were also, of course, tribal and civic gods—gods who were intimately connected to a city or a people, whose successes and failures were directly related to the successes and failures, or the anger and satisfaction, of the god in question.

“The Mesopotamian city-states were not simply physical territories united under a ruler; they were not purely human political units. Rather, they were essentially divine or supernatural (again, the modern terms fail to catch the full and real meaning). Amid the numerous deities recognized and worshiped by the ancient Mesopotamians, each city was typically linked to a particular patron god and his or her cult. Each was centered physically around a great temple complex in which resided the scribe-priests who represented a political and social as well as a spiritual elite. Each was ruled by a priest-king who derived his authority from the god he represented. Marduk, for example, was supereme in Babylon; Assyria was the land of the god Assur.” (pgs. 13-14)

What was true of Mesopotamian city-states was also true, with variations unique to the culture, of Greek city-states. The prosperity and even survival of the city was dependent on a right relationship with its patron gods or goddesses. There was therefore something nefarious about living in Athens, for example, while worshiping a Persian deity. It indicated a certain disloyalty to one’s community, and an attachment to another. Beyond its mere symbolic importance, however, it was also the ritual infidelity to the god, who might therefore be angered and take vengeance upon the city.

The distinction between conventional religion and condemned magic, then, is not so much the actions themselves as the forces the actions appealed to. Religion was what was done to approved deities in public places on behalf of the city, and magic was what was done to alternative gods in private on behalf of an individual.

“More central to the negative reputation that accrued around most practitioners of magical arts—whether actual magoi or homegrown agyrtai, manteis, or those called by other appellations—was the notion that their actions were private and secretive, as opposed to open and public. The civic cults of the Greek city-states operated to preserve the public welfare by maintaining proper relationships with the gods. The actions of private agents, even when they benefited those who contracted them, might serve to upset the overall harmony of the cosmos and the proper ordering of society. Ultimately, there seems to have been a clear sense in the ancient world that such power was dangerous in the hands of individuals who were unregulated and unsupervised by any official structures or institutions.” (pg. 18)

This was certainly true in Greece in Mesopotamia, and if anything, it was more true in Rome. Rome had a very strong notion of its divine destiny, a sort of pre-Christian notion of being a City on a Hill, shedding the light of justice throughout the world.

“Few ancient cultures had as clear a sense of possessing a divinely appointed destiny as did the Romans, and discerning that destiny in advance was very important to them. Superstitious divination, however, typically referred to non-Roman rites or personalized prophecy rather than the public rituals designed to determine and ensure the overall destiny of Rome.” (pg. 19)

If the gods had a plan for the Romans, it behooved the Romans to know that plan. Public divination was central to Roman religion, and central to the conduct of the Roman state. If we imagine someone reading entrails, gazing at patterns in smoke or shapes in mirrors, or casting lots, or any other divinatory activity, we are likely to imagine some sort of witch or sorcerer. For the Romans, that was likely a well-respected, high-class priest.

But if the future can be told, it’s not only the state that will want to know about it. Businessmen will want to know if their venture will be a successful one, and politicians will want to know what rivals to look out for. There will be parents hopefully divining the fates of their children, and paranoids or hypochondriacs worriedly seeking to avoid the next disaster. All these and more will doubtless make their way to skilled fortune tellers of one kind or another. What would the Romans think of them?

“Likewise, personalized prophecy was regarded as presenting a significant public danger for the Roman people. Since so much of Rome’s identity was caught up in a sense of its own trajectory to future greatness, private revelations (assumedly false or at least misleading ones) that might contradict or call into question Rome’s public destiny could corrupt the will of the citizenry.” (pg. 19-20)

Private divination was an essentially anti-social practice. A good Roman was supposed to worry about the future only insofar as it coincided with the future of the Roman people. He was not to go off seeking his own independent fortune, acting in order to further interests which might diverge significantly from the Republic as a whole. Similar things could be said for other magical or “superstitious” practices, “superstitio” being the Latin word for this unauthorized divination.

“Yet the meaning of superstition was becoming broader. Perhaps because divinatory practices were so central to the Roman public cults, superstitio gradually came to imply all forms of false or non-Roman rites. It could be applied to foreign cults, which Roman authorities typically tolerated, although they also feared that these cults would somehow sap the virtue of Roman citizens… In addition, superstitio could be applied to the improper observance of Roman cultic practices. In particular, it implied excessive observance, such as the obsessive devotions that some parents apparently paid in order to ensure that their children would not suffer untimely deaths.” (pg. 20)

Throughout the ancient cultures that stood at the roots of Western Civilization, the distinction between magic or superstition and legitimate religious practice boiled down to one central concern—are you appealing to the right gods, and are you doing so in the right way? This is, at its base, a question of authority. That is, what god or spirit has legitimate authority over the one seeking help, and over the area of life in which he seeks help? If you ignore the god who has a claim over you and turn instead to a foreign god, or a spirit within your pantheon other than your people’s patron, you are likely committing some form of magic or sorcery.

Take this rubric and apply it to a distinctly Christian context. Both Aaron and Pharaoh’s priests were able to transform staffs into snakes. Witches like the one at Endor were condemned for speaking to the dead, but Christ himself spoke to Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. Indeed, several of Christ’s miraculous healings might be mistaken for magical practice, if anyone else had done them. Consider his use of phrases like “Talitha cumi,” or the incorporation of mud and spit to heal when the Gospels are clear that he did not even need to touch someone to heal them. What separates illicit magic from legitimate use of divinely granted power?

The answer lies in the question itself: whether or not the power is indeed divinely granted. For most of Christian history, magic has been understood as functioning through the help, whether with the practitioner’s knowledge or otherwise, of demons. In the early days of the Christian Church in particular, this had to do with the way Christian authorities declared pagan gods to be lying, unclean spirits. Rites that the Romans or Greeks or Egyptians would have considered legitimate, honest worship, sacrifice, or prayer were now considered witchcraft.

This is not essentially different than the distinction the ancients made. It would be easy, then, to fall into the mistake of declaring the use of the labels “magic” or “superstition” to be merely examples of ancient chauvinism. This would be a mistake.

As Bailey points out, neither the Mesopotamian, nor the Greeks, nor the Romans necessarily objected to foreigners worshiping foreign gods. After all, in a polytheistic universe one people’s gods need not necessarily have any authority over another’s. Thus Romans allowed the cult of Isis to continue in Egypt, though they looked askance at it when it crossed the Mediterranean. Likewise, they let the Jews continued to worship Yahweh, though the same worship imported to Rome itself, whether by Jews themselves or the growing sect of Christians, was a cause for concern.

Judaism and Christianity, however, are monotheistic religions. In a polytheistic context, it might be right to let each tribe have its god, or each rock or tree or river its spirit. In a monotheistic context, however, the one God has authority over all Creation. Therefore any sort of rite designed to praise or to invoke any spirit but the one God is illegitimate in more or less the same way a Roman appealing to a Babylonian god would have been seen as illegitimate or antisocial in Rome. Sorcery is, at its base, idolatry.

This is an interesting insight in itself, but it gets more interesting when you apply the principle to realms other than the hocus-pocus of the stereotypically supernatural. It is wrong to appeal to pagan gods or spirits or occult forces for help because God alone is Lord over life and death, over one’s fortune or safety, over the fertility of your crop or the success of your business dealings, over the lives one’s children or one’s ability to attract a mate. But pagan gods are not the only things we appeal to rather than God to solve these problems.

For quite some time, Western culture has been enamored with the possibilities new technology opens up. It has brought widespread health, better diets, more efficient transportation, and whole worlds of new entertainment. We enjoy a lifestyle our ancestors could only dream of. It is perhaps not unthinkable, then, that some should look for technology to advance our power even further.

Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to change what human beings are, to fundamentally alter our natures. It promises to grant us far greater intelligence and athletic ability, to cure genetic diseases and birth defects. It wishes to help humanity escape the human condition, perhaps including death. What if aging could be cured? What if consciousness could be downloaded and stored, transcending this prisons of flesh? Alchemy could not give us the elixir of life, but perhaps only because science was not yet sufficiently advanced.

For some, technology can become like a god, promising solutions to our most difficult problems, if only we are willing to go where it takes us, however strange and unnatural that place is. Technology has worked for long years to separate sexual intercourse from reproduction, and has become more or less able to separate sex from one’s chromosomes and anatomy at birth. Such things fundamentally change what it means to exist as a human being. And with advances in our ability to manipulate genetic code, or to perform great surgical feats, things like this may be only the beginning.

If sorcery is fundamentally a question of who we turn to for help, who we believe has the power to make our lives better, then far more of us have sorcerous hearts than actively engage in pagan rituals.

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.

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.


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.