Moreau as Evolutionary Force:
The Implications of a Blind, Amoral Genesis
In 1859, a scientific revolution began which forever shifted man’s perception of himself. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which he presented mounds of evidence in excruciating detail to support a plausible mechanism for the theory of evolution, removing the necessity of invoking divine design to explain the complexity of life. Evolution quickly came into vogue, and by 1871 Darwin had applied its explanatory power even to humanity, once thought the pinnacle of God’s creation, in The Descent of Man. Humanity, it seems, may have rose from mindless brutes, not derived from Heaven. As the implications of this new paradigm were beginning to sink in to the minds of the Western world around the turn of the century, a young scientist named H.G. Wells — a student of biology under “Darwin’s Bulldog” T.H. Huxley — published a small but important book that investigated the humanistic implications of Darwin’s revolution. In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), Wells poignantly explores the Nietzschean death of God and the rise of evolution through careful and deliberate allegory.
Of specific interest is the title character of the book, Moreau, a zealous vivisectionist attempting to turn animals into humans on a remote island. He partially succeeds, creating bestial humans or proto-humans which attain significant use of language (54), tools (63), and even a form of primitive pseudo-religious “Law” that resembles the Ten Commandments of Christianity (43). The beast people see him as a deity figure (43), so it is only natural that many readers of the book, witnessing Moreau “playing god,” so to speak, interpret him as actually representing God (the Christian creator and designer).
However, a closer reading of the book suggests a more parsimonious interpretation. For one thing, Moreau never claims to be a god, nor did he create the god-like image of himself among the beast people. He does not hand down the Commandment-style “Law” to them; rather that comes from the Kanakas, Moreau’s early human worker servants (57). Further, by no means does he create the island, nor bring life about from scratch; he is a force of change, not creation, and it is this element which suggests what Wells really intended Moreau to represent: evolution by natural selection.
Darwin’s mechanism for change in living creatures (explaining how one form comes about from another) relies not on the teleology of a benevolent designer, but on a blind, amoral force of nature. It is simple: those creatures which have traits that allow them to stay alive longer and procreate more in a particular environmental niche will obviously propagate those hereditary traits to their offspring, which in turn will be more likely to survive and propagate those hereditary traits than those born without them. Yet despite its simplicity, the process is ugly. It shows us a world in which organisms battle it out and those which are not adapted to their environment die off. Failed branches of the evolutionary tree disappear forever.
Likewise, Moreau is a blind, amoral force of change for the animals he transforms into beast people (and those forms which do not meet criteria are summarily ended). He admits he has never taken ethics into consideration in his work (56), much like natural selection takes no pity on the organisms it acts on. Morality never enters into Moreau’s decisions (he writes off sympathy for pain — as with Prendick’s emotional response to the Puma’s cries (26) — as useless, needless, moot), just as it never enters into the work of natural selection (55). Rather, as Moreau puts it, he has “gone on, not heeding anything but the question I was pursuing,” that is, the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape (56). This is isomorphic to the process of natural selection: it cares not for what it makes; it just goes on pushing and pushing populations to adapt to their environment.
One might argue that Moreau is more of a designer than a mindless force, since he seems to have a specific goal in mind (54). However, what it is that meets his criteria (rather than being casually killed as a failure) is, according to him, arbitrary. His experiments on animals are purposeless and his choice of form blind. “I might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas,” says Moreau (54). He simply changes one form (animals) into another (human-like beast-people) based on how it fits the arbitrary criteria at hand: in this case, how well it resembles humans, though at other times he made other forms (54). Those which do not make the cut, like the original failed sheep that came before the more successful gorilla (56), are summarily ended (made extinct). This mirrors the way evolution changes one form (animals) into another (other animals, including humans) through purposeless processes. In evolution, survival value is niche-dependent; there is no absolute goal form which the process strives to achieve. In Moreau’s ontology, there is likewise no absolute goal, just the arbitrary selection criteria which happened to be human-resemblance.
Indeed, it is the “unspeakable aimlessness of things on the island” (73) which strikes the narrator most profoundly. He sees “a blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism” cutting and shaping the fabric of existence (74); the same phrase could easily be applied to evolution. Like us, the beast people were all “torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels” (74). The cold, mechanistic language here is likely no accident. If the world is ruled by the blind, amoral forces of nature, then we are left to reevaluate our own place in it.
Island, then, uses Moreau allegorically to probe the implications of evolution for humanity. Science has revealed humans as having come from animals, tainted by bestial instincts and always threatening to revert to bestial behavior. The island can be seen as showing “the whole balance of human life in miniature” (73), and if Moreau represents evolution, then it seems obvious that the beast-people represent humans. Like us, they were brought about by this “master” — this force, really — for no real reason, and they search for meaning in a world seemingly devoid of it. In the same way that evolution fails to show us that it cares, Moreau does not set out to grant his creations meaning; rather, after transforming them, he casts them aside to fend for themselves, “dripped into the huts yonder” (56). “What’s it all for, Prendick?” asks Montgomery. “Are we bubbles blown by a baby?” (82).
The aimlessness of it all is not the only frightful implication which Wells explores. The phenomena of the beast-flesh returning (58,96), causing the beast people to revert to their original animal states, makes visceral the unconscious (or often directly voiced) worry that follows from accepting evolution (specifically, humanity’s descend from animals): that we still have certain instincts or bestial tendencies within us waiting to come out in the form of violence (from muggings to war). We always threaten to return to the bloody and brutish ways of animals, to give up the civilization and rationality that makes us human.
When the narrator of the book returns from the island of the beast people to normal human society, he cannot help but see in them traces of the beast. “I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not … Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls; and that they would not presently begin to revert” (102). Even language — the characteristic that always hinted, by its lack of perfection, at the beast peoples’ inhumanity even when they seemed most human (57, 104) — appeared precariously held by normal humans. Visiting a chapel, it seems to the narrator as if “the preacher gibbered Big Thinks even as the Ape Man had done” (103).
Thankfully, despite the disheartening picture of post-evolution-revolution humanity painted by the book, Wells ends on a guardedly optimistic note, stating that “in the vast and eternal laws of matter … whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope” (104). Science, Wells seems to be saying, may have robbed us of the easy “Big Thinks” explanation of our religious past, but in understanding the natural laws at work, it is also our hope for overcoming the beast-flesh. Whether this brief and ephemeral note of hope at the end of the book can really overcome the picture of reversion Wells painted in all the pages before is harder to say; but he gives both his contemporaries and us today much grist for the philosophical mill. Further advances in science that are now on the horizon (from gene therapy and bioengineering to nanotechnology and quantum computing) will no doubt continue to force us to reexamine human nature and our place in the universe, and science fiction may continue to lead the way in examining the implications of these paradigm shifts.
Wells, H.G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.