The Nightmare of Evolution: H.G. Wells, Percival Lowell, and the Legacies of Frankenstein’s Science

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By taking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an exemplary marker of the nineteenth century’s concerns with the implications of science, several essays in this collection explore conceptions of monstrosity, theories of technoscientific progress and the looming problem of evolution and its effects on traditional systems of knowledge and belief. If evolution carried within it the threat of relativising the ‘ascent’ of the human species, the intersecting discourses of cosmology, evolutionary theory and ecology after 1850 reveal the ways in which humankind’s perception of its socionatural environments both incorporate and extend the questions engendered by Shelley’s novel. In this chapter, I examine a relatively neglected aspect of the legacies of science, the seemingly autonomous development of planetary science in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the 1890s, the concept of alternative forms of life and the challenges they pose to ideas of human identity and integrity migrate from ‘man’-made creatures that parody a divine creation (Frankenstein’s monster) or throwbacks to folk embodiments of primitive evil (werewolves, Dracula) to an inevitable and ahuman consequence of Darwinian evolution. As I have argued elsewhere, one of the crucial sites for imagining such consequences was the planet Mars: well into the twentieth century, the fourth planet served as the primary means for scientists and science-fiction writers to imagine the workings of evolution in an alien and hostile environment. In extending my arguments, I suggest that Wells’s depiction of monstrous Martians in The War of the Worlds speaks to larger problems of the relationship between humankind and its planetary environment. Although Frankenstein chases his monster to the most inhospitable environment on Earth, the narrator of Wells’s extraordinarily influential novel grasps what had become a frightening realisation in science fiction by the end of the nineteenth century: monsters are not necessarily freaks of a terrestrial nature – or, as in Wells’s own novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, the results of a monstrous regimen of 184experimentation – but perhaps the products of universal processes of evolution that might well encompass life on other worlds.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFrankenstein’s Science
Subtitle of host publicationExperimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture, 1780-1830
EditorsChrista Knellwolf, Jane Goodall
Place of PublicationAldershot
PublisherAshgate Publishing Ltd
ISBN (Electronic)9781315255033
ISBN (Print)9781138257993, 9780754654476
StatePublished - 2008


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