Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 2 The Shadow Over Innsmouth

 

charles-darwin-biography_amillionlives.net

Charles Darwin (from http://www.amillionlives.net)

In the pervious article we discussed how evolution was integrated into HPL’s early stories.  This article focuses on the use of evolution in his later tales.  Evolutionary-based themes can be detected in HPL’s earlier tales and two were particularly common.  First, since the Earth, and in fact the solar system, will not be in existence for all of eternity and will eventually be swept away, means the process and outcome of evolution is a relatively minor component of the “cosmic machine.”  Second, and more obvious, is the internal horror’s of one’s past or ancestry.  While HPL probably knew very little about the science of genetics and the role of DNA in the transfer of traits from parent to offspring, the fear of how such hidden genotypic traits may arise and manifest themselves in one’s phenotype was apparent in many of his early stories.

In contrast, HPL’s later stories moved from the horror’s of one’s past to larger themes of cosmic and evolutionary horror.  Examples of this are provided through brief discussions on three of HPL’s later stories:  “The Shadow Out of Innsmouth”, “The Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”  Since I have covered these stories to varying degrees in previous articles I will focus primarily on how HPL used evolution in these stories.  While “The Shadow Out of Time” was covered in detail over a series of past articles, the other two stories were not.  “The Shadow Out of Innsmouth” and “The Mountains of Madness” were only covered in past articles relative to the biology of the entities featured in those stories, so I will return to them sometime in the future.  Thus, for this article the specific focus is on the use of evolution on one of these later stories – “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”  However, before we do this, I would like to briefly review what was known about genetics and its role in evolution in HPL’s time.  A forthcoming  article will discuss  “The Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”

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“Shadow Over Innsmouth” by the great artist Allen Koszowski

While Darwin’s idea of natural selection was presented as the driving force of evolution, in his day very little was known of the mechanisms behind the transfer of the traits or characteristics from parent to offspring. It was casually thought that offspring were a “blending” of traits from each parent but there was little empirical data that supported this idea. In his heart Darwin knew this was not the case, particularly due to his work on artificial selection; that is, the breeding of domesticated plants and animals. However, around the same time Darwin was developing his notes and ideas to publish The Origins of Species, an Augustinian monk was performing hybridization experiments on the garden pea that would represent the birth of modern genetics and provide a plausible hypothesis in the transfer of an organism’s traits to its offspring.

Gregor Johann Mendel was born in 1822 in Czechoslovakia. He was a monk but was also a teacher and scientist with interests in both physics and botany. From 1854 to 1868 Mendel preformed a series of detailed and meticulous experiments that developed into the concept of units of inheritance. Offspring were not a blending of the parents. Instead, discreet units were transmitted to offspring, some dominant and some recessive, which dictated the traits the offspring received. These units are called genes (Concepts of Genetics by William S. Klug and Michael R. Cummings; 1983).

mendel_n_peas

Gregor Mendel with a display of one of this genetic experiments with garden peas (www.undsci.berkeley.edu)

In spite of his incredible findings, Mendel’s work was largely forgotten until the early 20th century.  However, an integration of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection was to come to fruition in HPL’s day thanks to a talented mathematian / biologist named Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890-1962).

Fisher was one of the first individuals to suggest that statistics can be used to reduce / analyze data and published a book in 1925, Statistical Methods for Research Workers, that outlined and discussed methods in the design and evaluation of experiments (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, edited by Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009).  In addition, he published a seminal paper in 1922 on the mathematical synthesis of Darwinian natural selection with the recently rediscovered laws of Mendelian heredity.  Subsequent to this, his book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930) was published.  This book along with the work of others in the field reconciled Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian heredity (Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009), which contributed toward the birth of quantitative genetics.  While much of this work was being developed and published in the 1920 – 1930’s there is no indication in HPL’s stories or in S.T. Joshi’s biography (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, 2013), that HPL was familiar with, or even exposed to, the emerging science of genetics.  With that said, it is impressive how HPL used concepts that mirrored many of the ideas that were being developed through quantitative generics.  This was particularly the case with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

fisher

Ronald Aylmer Fisher (www.blackwellpublishing.com)

By the time he was working on the “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” HPL had a fairly decent understanding that evolution works on the level of the population and not the individual.  In stories such as “The Beast in the Cave” and “Pickman’s Model” evolution appeared to be working on the level of the individual.  By “The Lurking Fear” HPL identified that the population was the level at which natural selection operates even though most of the changes were completely internal – an isolated community where inbreeding is high.  However, by “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” HPL expanded on this by integrating external forces and environmental factors in the operation of natural selection.

From a genetics and evolutionary standpoint “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is about the hybridization of two closely related species.  Given the fact that Deep Ones can breed with humans and produce viable offspring indicates that they are closely related species, which is why I suggested that Deep Ones and humans should be placed in the genus, Homo aquatium and Homo sapiens, respectively.  Of all of the hypotheses I have suggested on Lovecraftianscience.wordpress.com, the origin of the Deep Ones generated the highest level of debate.  In fact, I suggested four hypotheses:

1.  The Deep Ones are part of the “spawn of Cthulhu” and thus are truly alien.

2.  The Deep Ones were bioengineered by the Elder Things – like humans – but as a separate line of speciation.

3.  The Deep Ones and humans share a common ancestor the way humans and the Great Apes do.

4.  Humans are simply the part of the Deep Ones Life Cycle, the way tadpoles are the larval stage for frogs.

Deep One Hybrid Skull Evolution (by Vonmeer-d5vnle3 from deviantart.net)

Of these hypotheses, I suggest that most of the existing evidence points to hypothesis #3, we share a common ancestor.  While many people feel the Deep Ones are truly alien and are part of the spawn of Cthulhu, I disagree.  The fact that Deep Ones and humans can breed and produce “viable” offspring means that from a genetic and evolutionary perspective, they must be closely related.  To support that hypothesis it would need to be determined if indeed the hybridized Deep Ones (the ones that are born human and become Deep Ones) can reproduce.  Also, it is also not known if the Deep Ones that do breed with humans are “pure” Deep Ones or originating from being hybrids themselves.  If these breeding Deep Ones are “pure” then that would support hypothesis #3; however, if the breeding Deep Ones start out as hybrids themselves, then that would support hypothesis #4.

In any event, to lend support to any of the four hypotheses listed above, genetic studies(e.g. gene sequencing and phylogenetic comparisons) of some Deep Ones would be required.  Preferably such screening would include both fully developed Deep Ones as well as hybrids that have yet to go through Deep One metamorphosis.  Also, it needs to be confirmed if there is genetic difference between “pure” Deep Ones and the hybrids and, if so, can the hybrids breed?  Such studies would have been extremely intriguing to both Gregor Mendel and R.A. Fisher, although the actual implementation and “on the ground” research itself would have indeed horrified them.

Day of the Deep Ones (by Cryptcrawler on deviantart.com)

Next time we will discuss the role of evolution in “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”  Thank you – Fred.

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4 thoughts on “Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 2 The Shadow Over Innsmouth

  1. Great text but you made a small mistake about Mendel’s place of birth. Czechoslovakia didn’t existed in his times. Mendel was born in historical region of Czech Silesia in the Kingdom of Bohemia, which was a part of Austrian Empire. Now of course his home village is in Czech Republic.

    Greetings!
    Krzysztof

    1. Hey Krzysztof:

      Thank you for pointing that out to me – the reference that Mendel was born in Czechoslovakia was from a book I have on Evolution but I even got the reference to Czechoslovakia incorrect since it does not exist anymore! As you know and already cited Czechoslovakia was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. I even saw that referenced on news about a week before I wrote the article and I still got it wrong! Thank you for pointing it out to me and will make the correction.

      Thanks again!

      Fred

  2. Great article.
    On your suggestion: I really like C.A. Smith and I suspect he’s even more “deep” and complete, as an artist and myth creator, than HPL. I got the “Book of Eibon” (Chaosium) and of course there’s the site Eldritch dark.
    Unfortunately there’s not much of him in Italian translation, he’s another one of those who should be read in original to appreciate the music and daintiness of his language. I have to be slow.
    Roberto.

    1. Hey Roberto – you are right about Smith. Very different style than HPL but love his work! The man was quite the “word-smith”
      Fred

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