Lovecraftian Scientists: The Mad Genius of Crawford Tillinghast

Crawford Tillinghast one of the most notorious scientist in Lovecraft’s tales. In addition, Tillinghast is one of the most easily identified relative to science fiction or weird fiction in general. Tillinghast is the “mad genius” scientist. While Tillinghast may not be first of this character type to appear in weird fiction, he is certainly one of the first relative to application of “modern,” early 20th century science and the attitudes the general public had toward science.

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First, is it very easy to compare Tillinghast to Frankenstein, however, I would caution one to understand that this comparison is more appropriate for Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 Universal movie rather than Mary Shelly’s novel. In Shelly’s novel Frankenstein is more of a metaphysical scientist, whose creation of a man is a broader line mix of alchemy and science. In addition, Frankenstein in the novel is more of a narrative of someone who abandons their responsibilities associated with their creation. Like many of the literary metaphysical scientists, Frankenstein worked in isolation to produce his creation.  I read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein for the first time last February and I highly recommend it!

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In contrast to the novel, Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 film is a medical scientist who wanted to create life from dead tissue and body parts. Here the mad genius trope is exemplified, particular when his creation comes to life. Dr. Frankenstein shouts, “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” While initially extremely pleased with the success of his experiments, Dr. Frankenstein largely abandons his responsibilities for his creation, very similar to Frankenstein in the novel, when compilations arise. In contrast to the Frankensteins, Tillinghast takes full responsibility for his creation and discovery. For the sake of ease when I mention Dr. Frankenstein, this is in reference to the movie version of the character.

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Crawford Tillinghast displays three of the most common tropes we associate with this type of literary scientist.  First, he is a “mad genius” who is so intelligent that he thinks “outside the box.” He or she puts together concepts or ideas that look ridiculous or unfruitful to the rest of the scientific community. Second, they work mostly in isolation since their ideas are thought of as so unconventional. Both Tillinghast and the Frankensteins display this trope and this is commonly exhibited in many science fiction movies such as The Fly (both the original and the Cronenberg remake) and in Ex Machina. Third, there is the thought of “getting revenge” against those within the scientific community who disagreed with him or her. This revenge can be as simple and disproving the scientific community or it can be as extreme and killing those who disagreed with him or she by using their creation as the murder weapon. Tillinghast displays this to an extreme degree.

In “From Beyond” Tillinghast invites his friend to his home after the creation of his “electrical machine.” Ten weeks earlier the protagonist disagreed, even protested, Tillinghast’s scientific ideas, which sent Tillinghast into a fanatical rage. Tillinghast throws one of his few friends out of the house. Clearly, right at the beginning of the story we understand that while a genius, Tillinghast is mental unstable.

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From Beyond 01 – Crawford Tillinghast by Iposterbot (www.deviantart.com)

Early in the tale the protagonist states, “That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action; despair, if he fails in his quest, and terrors unutterable and unimaginable if he succeed.” While any scientist needs to be objective and impersonal in developing their hypotheses and in the design and execution of experiments, all scientists (at least the ones I know) have a passion for what they do. All scientists have a common interest and passion for wanting to understand and know more about our world and universe. Additionally, within the realm of pure science (the type of science that Lovecraft was more interested in) an experiment that disproves an established hypothesis is not considered a failure; it still provides useful information that can be used to better understand our reality and help further develop the existing hypothesis or generate new ones. Thus, while Tillinghast is clearly mentally unstable, I think the protagonist has a very melodramatic attitude about individuals who pursue scientist investigations.

Toward the end of the tale when Tillinghast turns on the electrical device, we realize his ultimate goal is to use the protagonist’s scientific curiosity against him to ensure is death. Essentially, the “thing” that is coming once the device is on will destroy a person if they see it. Tillinghast states that he “…almost saw them, but I knew how to stop.” He asks the protagonist if he curious to see the approaching thing and even taunts him as a professional. “You are curious? I always knew you were no scientist.” In this situation Tillinghast wants to kill one of his few friends because as he states, “You tried to stop me; you discouraged men when I needed every drop of encouragement I could get; you were afraid of the cosmic truth, you damned coward, but now I’ve got you!”

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Again, Tillinghast exhibit the three tropes we find so common in the mad scientist cliché. First, extremely intelligent but mentally unhinged to some degree, resulting in unconventional ideas and concepts. Second, working in seclusion, in an almost hermit-like existence; such pursuits tend to be more associated with metaphysical investigations instead of scientific. Science, particularly since the turn of the last century, is a very community-based endeavors. Papers and studies are critically reviewed by peers and experiments are repeated by other to confirm the resulting findings. Third, there is a need or desire for revenge against those who either did not encourage their research or wronged them in some capacity. This formula for the mad scientist would be repeated countless times in both literature and film. However, in Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” Crawford Tillinghast may be one of the earliest examples of this, as least within the development of modern science in the early 20th century.

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The Electrical Device in “From Beyond” by Steve Maschuck

Next time we will discuss Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot, the science writer who Lovecraft drew from for many of the concepts expressed in “From Beyond.”  Thank you – Fred.

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Lovecraftian Scientists – Astronomers from Beyond the Wall of Sleep

In Lovecraft’s tale “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” the entity that possesses Joe Slate leaves his body and in a semi-corporeal state travels through the cosmos to battle Algol, the Demon-Star.  In an intriguing move that will become a staple of Lovecraft’s fiction, he links an actual scientific discovery to a specific instance in this tale. The entity that leaves Earth to do battle with Algol is documented in a newspaper article Lovecraft read on the discovery of an actual astronomical phenomenon.

ed3632b4692360175d47f642cc33a6c7 Beyond the Wall of Sleep by Virgil Finlay

In 1901 the Scottish clergyman Thomas David Anderson discovered Nova Persei (GK Persei). At the end of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Lovecraft quotes an article written by Professor Garrett P. Serviss (more on him later) that documents the appearance of Nova Persei and its discovery by Anderson:

“On February 22, 1901, a marvelous new star was discovered by Doctor Anderson of Edinburgh, not very far from Algol. No star had been visible at that point before. Within twenty-four hours the stranger had become so bright that it outshone Capella. In a week or two it had visibly faded, and in the course of a few months, it was hardly discernible with the naked eye.”

Indeed, Nova Persei was documented to become one of the brightest objects in the night sky in 1901. Today we classify Nova Persei as a classical nova and is popularly called a Firework Nebula. It is about 1,500 light-years away from Earth and is thought to have been a binary system consisting of a compact white dwarf star and a swollen cool giant star in a tight orbit with one another. The buildup of mass transferred to the surface of the white dwarf from the giant star through an accretion disk eventually triggered a thermonuclear outburst, blasting stellar material into space without destroying the white dwarf star. This would explain the increased luminosity back in February of 1901. However, even to this day, smaller outbursts are detected.  Did the luminescent being who possessed Joe Slater become a physical manifestation in our space-time as the cooling giant star or was it the white dwarf? Did it attempt, and ultimate fail, in battling Algol?

gkper_block Remnants of Nova Persei (www.nasa.gov)

In the quotation provided above it states that the “new star” is not very far from Algol, which is 93 light years from Earth (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft by Leslie S. Klinger, 2014).  According to Klinger this means that the actual occurrence of the nova would have taken not in 1901 but approximately 93 years earlier – in 1808. However, it has been established that Nova Persei is about 1,500 light years away, which actually means that Anderson’s discovery of the bright nova in 1901 was actually documenting an event that occurred in the year 401.  Still we do not know if the luminescent being that possessed Joe Slate could travel through time as easily as space so its existence was not limited to strictly linear time as it is with us. Or, did the being miscalculate the distance between Algol and where it appeared as Nova Persei, which contributed to its ultimate failure in completing its mission.

As cited by Lovecraft, the article that concludes “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” was written by Professor Garrett P. Serviss. According to S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Lovecraft essentially took that quoted passage directly from Serviss’s book Astronomy with the Naked Eye written in 1908 (An H.P Lovecraft Encyclopedia, published in 2001). Lovecraft was well documented to be a fan of Serviss’s fiction and non-fiction.

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Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929) was an astronomer, a popularizer of astronomy and an early science fiction writer (Klinger, 2014). Based on what I have read about Serviss, in particular by Lovecraft, he seems to have been a “Carl Sagan” of the early 20th century. That is, he made science, primarily astronomy, readily available and accessible to a general audience, which was hungry for such information at this point in history. Indeed, Serviss had a unique talent in describing and presenting scientific ideas and concepts in a clear and direct manner to a layperson with little to no scientific training. Serviss definitely had a flare in writing about scientific topics in a very literary manner.

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from http://www.wickipedia.com

For example, in an article called “October Skies” for the Providence Evening News, 49, No 104, 2 October 1918, Lovecraft wrote that in referring to the absence of other bright stars in the vicinity of Fomalhaut, Serviss described that star as “a distant watch-fire gleaming in the midst of a lonely prairie.” Such passages obviously stirred Lovecraft’s imagination for all things cosmic. In the same article Lovecraft himself briefly described Fomalhaut as a strangely fascinating orb (Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2005). Even today this statement holds true. Fomalhaut is actually a triple star system and was one of the first stars where an exoplanet was actually visible to the eye in photographic images (Science, November, 2008). However, unlike our solar system, the planet Fomalhaut b is constantly plowing through a series of debris disks that surround this star system.

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Fomalhaut system with the identification of the first exoplanet to be visually confirmed (www.earthsky.org)

To conclude, Lovecraft did enjoy Serviss’s fictional and non-fictional writings. Lovecraft frequently referred to Serviss’s book Astronomy with the Naked Eye in his astronomical articles. Additionally, he stated that Serviss and another astronomer Richard A. Proctor were “…two popular astronomical writers, similar in many ways, have by means of their double gifts of scientific and literary skill accomplished marvels in dissipating superstition and propagating truth…” (Joshi, 2005). Again, to me Serviss sounds like the Carl Sagan of the early 20th century.

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Artist’s conception of Fomalhaut b moving through the debris disks of the Fomalhaut star system (www.earthsky.org)

Next time we will discuss a very different type of Lovecraftian scientist – Crawford Tillinghast in the tale “From Beyond.” Thank you – Fred.

 

Lovecraftian Scientists – Introduction and Beyond the Wall of Sleep

Science is important component of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly his later tales. In fact, Lovecraft was one of the pioneers of weird fiction, integrating cutting edge science (at least for the time) into his stories. This is one of the reasons why Fritz Lieber called him the “Literary Copernicus” of horror fiction. He was known to revise / modify stories to account for new scientific information that was made available to the public. Probably his more famous instance of doing this is associated with identifying Yuggoth has being the dwarf-planet Pluto discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

andrei-kedrin-clyde-tombaugh-800 Clyde Tombaugh by Andrei Kedrin

For someone who is known for creating mood and atmosphere and generally ignores character development, Lovecraft utilized a variety of tropes in representing scientists in his stories. Thus, for the next set of articles, we will review the variety of scientists that appear in Lovecraft’s stories. The idea for such a review came to me after moderating a panel at the NecronomiCon in August of this year; the panel was called Miskatonic U. and the Mythos and included Sean Branney, Will Murray, Anne Pillsworth, Robert Waugh, Douglas Wynne. I really enjoyed the conversation about Miskatonic University and its staff and thought a more detailed assessment of Lovecraft’s scientist was in order.

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For now, this review will focus solely on scientists. Lovecraft character investigators frequently included academics, such as Albert N. Wilmarth who was a professor of literature at Miskatonic University in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or others such as Thornton the psychic investigator in “The Rats in the Walls.” Again, for this review we will focus solely on scientists and medical doctors. Our first review is for “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

The protagonist in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is some type of medical intern at a state psychopathic institution. The unnamed protagonist is fascinated with dreams and considers are dream life to be just as important as our waking life. He causally refers to Freud’s work in the statement “-Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism- “. As noted by Leslie S. Klinger (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, 2014), the statement on Freud did not appear in the first publication of the story; Lovecraft added it later and it was skeptical reference to Freud’s sexual interpretations of dreams.

freudntitled                                                              Dr. Sigmund Freud

In “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Joe Slater is having strange spells where is acts like an entirely different person and during one of these spells he ends up killing someone. In turn, Joe is caught and taken to the nearest gaol (a place to hold people accused or convicted of a crime; I had to look that one up) where an alienist by the name of Dr. Barnard evaluates his condition. Again, as mentioned by Klinger, an alienist was a doctor who focused on treated mental diseases. Originally alienists were limited to treating those considered mad in asylums, essentially custodians of the insane. However, by 1919 alienists were focusing more on the healing of insanity and mental / nervous diseases (Klinger, 2014), which led to the science of psychology.

BTWOS_www.tobiastrautner.de The finding of Joe Slater after the murder in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” by Tobias Trautner (www.tobiastrautner.de)

Joe Slater was eventually moved to the institution where the protagonist is an intern. While the protagonist did express concern and empathy for Joe, he also consistently expresses varying degrees of snide classism when describing Joe as slow, dim-witted, a degenerate and white trash (Tour De Lovecraft by Kenneth Hite, 2011). Joe is described as having blue eyes and blonde hair so this is clearly a case of classism and not classism / racism. As Lovecraft frequently does, here he is utilizing the idea what science was to some in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is, scientific research should be done only by those who could afford the time, which included the wealthy, white men of society. To Lovecraft, women, minorities and the poor were not capable of conducting science. However, this idea is clearly due to the fact that women, minorities and the poor were not typically exposed to or trained in the scientific disciplines. It was not a genetic predisposition that limited the masses to understand or utilize science, it was not allowing everyone to receive an education in scientific matters. However, in Lovecraft’s mind, well ingrained in the attitudes and philosophy of western thought in the 18th century, such notions were not even considered. This really comes through in the protagonist’s description of Joe Slater’s limited mental capacity in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

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Toward the end of the story the protagonist uses some type of strange transmitting / receiving device that can transfer brain waves from one individual to another. Again, much of the scientific explanation of the device is largely based on scientific concepts developed or discovered in the 18th of 19th century. At one point the protagonist suggests that “…human thought consists basically of atomic or molecular motion, convertible into ether waves of radiant energy like heat, light and electricity.” The concept of “luminiferous ether” was largely dispelled by 1887 by experiments conducted by Michelson and Morley, which was further confirmed in 1905 by Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.

While the protagonist did express empathy for Joe Slater, he still behave in a cruel manner, forcing Joe to participate in an experiment while he is dying. However, the results of this experiment did unnerve the protagonist to the point where his supervisor at the institution, Dr. Fenton, prescribed nerve powder and gave him half a year’s vacation. Thus, the concluding thought on the unnamed protagonist in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is that while he expressed sympathy for Joe Slater, he certainly expressed a classist attitude in thinking of Joe as mentally limited white trash. The protagonist did experience what many investigators in Lovecraft’s tale experience; that is, having their view of the universe and reality substantially altered by uncovering some truth. Additionally, this resulted in the protagonist experiencing a near nervous breakdown, which to some degree seems justified since he was essentially using Joe Slater as a laboratory animal for his experiment on brain waves and dreams while he was dying.

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Next time we will discuss the astronomers who were involved in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” – Part 3, White Ape – Human Hybrids

976155                                  The White Ape

This article concludes our discussion of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Arthur Jermyn.” In this tale Arthur Jermyn discovers he is a decent from a prehistoric, Congolese population of white human-ape hybrids. In the tale there are legends of a gray city of white apes ruled by a white god and a white ape-princess. It turns out the mummified white ape-princess is discovered and is in fact a direct descendant of Arthur Jermyn. What could explain this strange idea of a population of white apes living in the jungle of the Congo?

First, in Lovecraft’s day the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is a country located in Central Africa, was known as the Belgian Congo. Second, during the economic boom of the 1920s the Belgian Congo was one of the leading producers of copper-ore on the planet. Thus, Lovecraft may have frequently seen this county mentioned in the newspapers of the day. The dominant ecosystems of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are swamp forest, lowland forest and secondary forest. In fact, there is a series of dense rain-forests in the central Congo River Basin called “the Green Abyss” (www.wwf-congobasin.org). In such a dense, highly vegetated ecosystem, native prey and predators would be adapted to their surroundings. Thus, adaptive strategies such as camouflage, mimicry of vegetation and excellent eyesight in low light environments, would be important to possess for both prey and predators.

congo_jungle_ctt The Congo jungle

A white ape would certainly stand out in a jungle ecosystem. However, most apes live on a mainly vegetarian diet supplemented with insects (particularly ants and termites). Thus, their feeding strategies do not warrant camouflage. While nothing really feeds on adult apes, young white apes would potentially be easy prey for carnivores such as the African leopard and the African golden cat. Thus, being white in a jungle environment would be a disadvantage relative to natural selection. Typically, animals pigmented white tend to be more common in tundra or arctic environments. For example, polar bears and arctic foxes are found in the arctic but not in more temperate environments. Thus, it is unlikely that a population of white apes would be established in the Congo jungles. However, is it possible that such a population could be established based on a genetic mutation such as albinism?

908baa00ae7f905f2cd148aa0187dbbe--red-and-white-arctic-fox                                            The red fox is found temperate regions while the arctic fox is found in arctic regions

One well-known albino ape was Snowflake, a Western lowland gorilla who was captured in 1966 and placed Barcelona Zoo in Spain. Like many organisms with albinism, Snowflake had several medical issues. He had poor vision and would eventually develop an unusual form of skin cancer, which was at least partially due to his lack of pigments. A genetic analysis revealed that Snowflake’s parents had 12% of their DNA in common, indicating that they were closely related – more than likely being uncle and niece. As is common with inbreeding with most plants and animals, Snowflake received the recessive genes for pigment from both parent, resulting in a mutation of a specific gene producing the albinism. While this concept recessive genes being realized in the phenotype of an organism due to inbreeding would not have been familiar to Lovecraft, he used what was known about the results of inbreeding in later tales such as “The Lurking Fear” and “The Shadow Out of Innsmouth.”

albino-gorilla-silverback-gorilla                                                                                                  The albino “white ape” Snowflake

Relative to “Arthur Jermyn,” is it possible that the white ape civilization was based on a sub-population of apes that were albinos? Very unlikely. As mentioned albinism tends to produce weaker offspring that are typically selected against from an evolutionary point of view. Snowflake the albino gorilla lived until 2003 when he had to be euthanized due to being in constant pain as a result of the skin cancer. Snowflake was estimated to be between 38 and 40 years old at the time of his death; however, in the wild more than likely Snowflake would not have survived to adulthood. The only ecosystem where some type of albinism is more of a positive trait is in caves where traits such as pigmentation and eyesight are “traded” for traits such as acute hearing. In a jungle ecosystem albinism would not be a favorable trait to have and so it is very difficult to propose that the white ape civilization was built on a population of albinos.

The one hypothesis that may explain a population of white apes is a population of reproducing hybrids of apes (albino or otherwise) and humans (Europeans?). If such a population was established, they may have possibly survived in an isolated community. This would mean that the white apes were already hybrids when Arthur’s great-great-great-grandfather Sir Wade Jermyn visited the Congo. This would explain why a light-colored population would exist in the jungles of Congo.

ape                                                                            The white ape-human hybrid by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)

Thus, it may be possible that a highly intelligent population of ape-human hybrids existing in the Congo, largely keeping to themselves in the grey city. However, according to Mwanu, an old chief of the Kaliris tribe, a war-like tribe called the N’bangus destroyed the hybrid creatures (Lovecraft’s words) and their grey city. Thus, it was already recognized that the white apes were hybrids to begin with. This means that Arthur’s great-great-great-grandmother was not a true ape but instead a hybrid. If Arthur understood this, maybe he would not have killed himself due to his genetic heritage. It is interesting how the white ape-human hybrids of the Congo parallel the fish / frog-human hybrids of Innsmouth.

Next time we will begin a discussion of the role of scientists in Lovecraft’s tales. Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” – Part 2, what of the Piltdown Man?

In the early 20th century Gregor Mendel’s 19th century work on pea plants and subsequent development of the Principles of Inheritance were being re-discovered and integrated with Darwin’s evolution through natural selection. With Mendel’s work, R. Fisher, Jr. B.S. Haldane and S. Wright were developing the foundation for population genetics between the 1910s and 1930s. Additionally, it was not until the 1960s when Crick and Watson discovered that RNA and DNA were the keys to the transference of inherited traits from one generation to the next that a gene-based view of evolution was developed.

Gregor_Mendel_with_cross                                                                Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics

The rediscovery of Mendel’s work, uncovering additional fossil evidence, and the revelation that RNA and DNA were the keys to translating coded inherited information into the operating physiology of an organism (e.g. the production of proteins and associated enzymes), collectively lead to the modern synthesis of evolution. Now evolution can be studies and analyzed from the molecular level to populations to extremely long periods of time with the use of the fossil record. I always say the strength of the theory of evolution is the fact that whole new disciplines of sciences have been developed (e.g. genetics, biochemistry) that complete support and do not contradict evolution through natural selection. However, in Lovecraft’s time the concept of Mendelian inheritances from parent to offspring were just being re-discovered by the scientific community.  I can find not reference to Mendel’s work in any of Lovecraft’s fiction, which is not surprising.  Additionally, the discovery of RNA and DNA would not occur for another 30 to 40 years. As with any fiction, Lovecraft’s tales were written the early 20th century and are therefore a product of its time. Thus, within a scientific context some of Lovecraft’s ideas and tales sound to us as naïve or downright ignorant.

In 1907 a jaw bone of a hominid (family of primates that includes humans and at least some of the great apes) was discovered in a sand mine in Germany; the species was named Homo heidelbergensis, was estimated to be 200,000 to 600,000 years old and is generally recognized as probably being a common ancestor to both modern humans and Neandertals (Michael Price, 9th August 2016, “Study reveals culprit behind Piltdown Man, one of science’s most famous hoaxes”; www.sciencemag.org). With tension between Germany and the United Kingdom high, which eventually led to World War I, U.K. naturalists were under pressure to find their “missing link.” To them it was obvious – the origins of humanity must have come from England not Germany! Thus, in 1912 a big-brained, ape-jawed fossil specimen was discovered in a gravel pit outside of a small U.K. village, placing England on the map as a special site for human evolution. Lovecraft obviously knew of the Piltdown man and its “importance” to the study of human evolution. Thus, as S.T. Joshi has stated, “Indeed, the mention of the Piltdown man – “discovered” as recently as 1912 – foreshadows what would become a hallmark of Lovecraft’s fiction: its scientific contemporaneous. We will find that he would on occasion revise a story at the last moment in order to be as up to date on the scientific veracity of his tale as he could be.” – from I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi (2013).

cc_Piltdown_gang_16x9 Examination of the Piltdown skull

It is interesting to note that Lovecraft does give a passing reference to the Piltdown man in “Dagon” (written in 1917) and “The Rats in the Walls (written in 1923), but not in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” (hereafter referred to as “Arthur Jermyn”) which was written in 1920. S.T. Joshi states in his essay “Topical References in Lovecraft” (Lovecraft and a World in Transition: Collected Essay on H.P. Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi; 2014) that Lovecraft mentions the Piltdown man in both “The Tomb” (written in 1917) and the “The Rats in the Wall.” However, I found no reference to the Piltdown man in “The Tomb” so this is probably just a slight error is Joshi’s article.

Ultimately, the Piltdown man turned out to be a hoax; probably one of the biggest scientific hoaxes of the 20th century. However, this hoax was not discovered and confirmed until the 1950s and in Lovecraft’s day, while controversial, the Piltdown man was generally accepted as fact and cutting-edge science. Thus, why did Lovecraft mention it in a number of his stories but not “Arthur Jermyn?” My guess is that since this tale focuses on Africa, Lovecraft wanted to keep the emphasis on that continent and not discuss proposed missing links from other parts of the world. Still, it is odd given Lovecraft’s love for everything English that the Piltdown man was not even referenced in passing in “Arthur Jermyn” as it is in “Dagon.”

cc_piltdown_crop                                 The gravel pit where the Piltdown man was “discovered”

While Lovecraft died before the Piltdown man was discredited as a fraud, he must have appreciated and supported the idea that an important missing link between humans and apes was found in the United Kingdom. As an atheist and mechanistic materialist, Lovecraft firmly embraced Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. As an anglophile, it must have pleased him that such an important component of the story of human evolution was found in England. The Piltdown man provided “scientific” support for Lovecraft’s misled justification for his racist views. As with several of Darwin’s contemporaries like Huxley and Haeckel, Lovecraft saw a “ranking” of human races, with white Anglo-Saxons at the pinnacle of this misleading tree of life. However, as molecular biology and genetics have revealed, the concept of race means very little relative to human evolution.

Today we know that genetics and fossil evidence confirm that Homo sapiens originated from Africa sometime between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. Yet in the early 20th century the Piltdown man led the scientific community down the wrong path, searching the English countryside for more evidence for the missing link. Thus, important fossil findings in South Africa were largely ignored for decades due to the Piltdown man. Indeed, a lot of time and effort was dedicated over the Piltdown man and its validity. It is estimated at more than 250 scientific papers have been written on the topic. However, scientific scrutiny and new technologies emerged that finally revealed the truth about the Piltdown man. Science is supposed to be a self-correcting process; however, the foundation of this process is the collection and use of valid, non-tampered data. In the case of the Piltdown man, it was ultimately discovered that skull was human but the jawbone was that of a female orangutan.

NGS Picture Id:2176229 An orangutan (National Geographic)

Next time we wrap up our review of “Arthur Jermyn” with a discussion of Lovecraft’s “white ape” civilization in Africa. Thank you – Fred.

The Reanimation of some past articles for Halloween!

HerbertWesthorror-horror-movies

Hey everyone – picked up a new, illustrated version of Herbert West Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft at the NecronomiCon in August 2017.  This version is published by Necronomicon Press and beautifully illustrated by Robert H. Knox.  We reviewed the science of reanimation back in October of 2015 – the first article can be found here if you are interested.

https://lovecraftianscience.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/the-science-of-reanimation-part-1/

Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” – Part 1, the Horrors of Evolution

Lovecraft_Evolution_Lubnow_Aug2017

One of my presentations at the NecronomiCon in August 2017 was on H.P. Lovecraft’s use and misunderstanding of evolution in his tales. One of the tales cited in the presentation was “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (for the rest of this and subsequent articles to be referred to as “Arthur Jermyn”). Written in 1920 and first published in 1921, the opening paragraph can be thought of as a precursor to one of Lovecraft’s most famous fiction-based quotes on science from “The Call of Cthulhu” written in 1926 and published in 1928.  The opening paragraph in “The Call of Cthulhu” states:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

The opening paragraph of “Arthur Jermyn” states:

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world. If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.”

The structure and themes of these opening paragraphs are very similar.  I am certainly not the first to notice this; S.T. Joshi notes the similarity between these two passages in his article “What Happens in Arthur Jermyn,” which can be found in Joshi’s Lovecraft and a World in Transition: Collected Essays on H.P. Lovecraft (2014).

51ikHdWNCFL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_                                                                                     Essentially both paragraphs cited above state that science will reveal things about the Universe or ourselves that will result in humanity going mad, falling into a new dark age or killing ourselves.  However, in the paragraph from “Arthur Jermyn” the phrase “-if separate species we be-“ is supposed to invoke a feeling of horror and dread since it is presenting the fear and anxiety associated with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Even though Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species was first published over 60 years prior to Lovecraft’s “Arthur Jermyn”, Lovecraft understood the fear and concern over Darwin’s Theory in his day and age. This was not based on scientific skepticism associated the theory. Instead, for the layperson questions over the validity of evolution were associated with two main issues. First, how can evolution be correct in the light of the biblical stories of creation? Second, species were thought to be distinctly separate populations, discrete categories of life. A wombat is very different than a scorpion or a pine tree, just like a hammer is very different than a screwdriver or wrench. Darwin’s theory revealed that such categorization of life is convenient for the taxonomist but it does not provide a complete and holistic view of how natural selection operates.

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Back in Lovecraft’s day, and still for many people today, Darwin’s idea muddied our position on the Earth and in the Cosmos. Humans were no longer the divine product of an omnipotent deity. Instead, we were relinquished to the role of just another by-product of the forces of natural selection. Yes, humans had culture, technology, society and sentient understanding; however, we were produced by the same biological forces and produced sand fleas and slime molds. To many people this upsets their religious and philosophical view of the Cosmos and our position in it. Lovecraft was tapping into this fear in “Arthur Jermyn” the way many body horror movies / books tap into our fear of cancer.

While Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection does not state that humans directly came from apes (as many people today think), it does state that humans and apes share a common ancestor. For example, recent studies indicate that the last common ancestor of all living apes and humans might have been a fruit-eating, slow-climbing primate that was similar in appearance to a baby gibbon. A 13-million-year-old infant skull of an extinct ape named Nyanzapithecus alesi (nicknamed Alesi) was found in Kenya in 2014 and is thought to be this common ancestor between apes and humans (www.livescience.com; contributor Charles Q. Choi; 10 August 2017). Indeed, the diversification or increased speciation of the hominoids (gibbons, great apes and humans) occurred during the Miocene Epoch approximately 23 to 5 million years ago and the last common ancestor that humans had with chimpanzees existed between 7 and 6 million years ago (www.livescience.com).

skull_livescience This skull belongs to a 16-month-old ape, now called Nyanzapithecus alesi, that died about 13 million years ago (photo credit: Fred Spoor; http://www.livescience.com)

Essentially, Lovecraft was tapping into this fear and resentment associated with the Theory of Evolution.  Such fear and skepticism was quite common in the early 20th century, particularly in the United States, which led it culminating in the initiation of the Scopes Trial on the 21st of July 1925. Indeed, ever they atheist, Lovecraft would frequently use Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as his augment for refuting that humans have souls.  “…if human beings have a soul and animals do not, exactly where along the course of our evolution from apes to human beings did we acquire this mysterious element?” from S.T. Joshi’s Lovecraft and a World in Transition: Collected Essays on H.P. Lovecraft (2014). Lovecraft saw how people reacted to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and used it as an effective means of tapping to the fear they have that we may simply be bags of meat, produced through the materialistic and mechanical laws of physics and chemistry, which in turn gave rise to the natural selection.

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Next time we will go into more detail on the exact definition of a species and how this relates to Lovecraft’s “white apes.” Thank you – Fred.