Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 3 At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of Madness by Ivany86 (from http://www.deviantart.net)

In the last article I mentioned how HPL’s understanding on the process of evolution appeared to increase in his later tales relative to the earlier ones.  However, this understanding may just be a side effect of his philosophy of horror moving away from the horror of the individual (e.g. ancestry) to larger cosmic horrors.  Previously we discussed “The Shadow Over Innsmouth;” this article will cover “At the Mountains of Madness.”

Of all of HPL’s stories “At the Mountains of Madness” best conveys the “horrors” of evolution and the origins of complex life on Earth.  HPLs spends a considerable amount of time providing information on the history of life on Earth, at least how it was understood in the 1920s and 1930s.  S.T. Joshi cites in The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories  (Penguin Classics, edited with an introduction and notes by S.T. Joshi, 2001), many of the geologic time references and dates have been revised and updated since HPL’s day.

Marie Curie photo taken in 1931 (www.science-television.com)

Marie Curie’s reaserach discovered that certain elements give rise to rays or energy and coined the term radioactivity in 1898 (The Great Scientists: From Euclid to Stephen Hawking by John Farndon with Alex Woolf, Anne Rooney and Liz Gogerly, 2007).  Early on, a young geologist named Arthur Holmes suggested using exponential radioactive decay, the half life of radioactive material, to estimate the age of rocks (The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Michael J. Benton, 2008).   Based on Holmes earliest estimates in 1911, which were somewhat crude, the age of the Earth was estimated to be between 0.34 and 1.64 billion years old.  By the late 1920’s with more refined methodology the estimate was 1.6 to 3.0 billion years old (Michael J. Benton, 2008).  HPL wrote “At the Mountains of Madness” in early 1931 with some revisions made some before 1935 (Joshi, 2001).  Thus, HPL was employing some relatively up-to-date science in the development of his timeline of the Earth for  “At the Mountains of Madness.”

Arthur Holmes (from http://www.wikimedia.org)

In addition to utilizing the most recent estimates of the Earth’s age and geology, HPL also documented in detail the fossil findings of the Miskatonic Antarctic Expedition.  Fossils of both living and extinct lines of life were identified (some examples are provided below).   Also, there is a great passage is Chapter II where HPL describes the fossils and bones being discovered, moving through the evolutionary timeline in his description starting with cephalopods and sea urchins, moving through primitive fishes, into amphibians,  the reptiles (including various dinosaurs) and eventually into a series of extinct mammalian mega-fauna such as an extinct rhinoceros-like ungulate.  Ironically, and possibly in typical HPL fashion, the passage does not end with fossils of primitive humans or some of our more distant cousins.  Instead it ends with ventriculites, which are a type of sponge from the Upper Cretaceous (S.T. Joshi, 2001).

Fossil of a Trilobite, an extinct group of organisms (www.nationalgeographic.com)

Living crinoids; these organisms are also common in the fossil record (www.nova.edu)

In addition to providing a considerable amount of information on the evolution of life on Earth, HPL’s interpretation of alien life with regard to the Elder Ones is strongly dependent on evolution.  The Elder Ones are not simply bug-eyed, little green men, they are complex organisms whose origin is based on an echinoderm-like (starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, stone lilies) creature with radial symmetry.  This makes the Elder Ones a species that is both familiar and alien to vertebrates such as us with a bilateral symmetry.  As I have identified in a previous article, the earliest ancestor of all vertebrates (including humans) was a chordate, which is essentially a “swimming tube within a tube.”  This ancient ancestor of ours looks nothing like a human, dinosaur or ostrich, yet the body design is essentially the same for all – bilateral symmetry of a tube within a tube.  Thus, it would not be surprising to find out that the ancient ancestor of the Elder Ones is some type of echinoderm-like star-shaped creature, living in the tidal pools of some alien world.

Some drawings by Haeckel of various echinoderms; is it possible that the ancestors of the Elder Ones looked similar to these organisms? (dynamic-earth.blogspot.com)

The last thing I want to touch upon relative to evolution in  “At the Mountains of Madness” is the creation of complex life itself by the Elder Ones.  Based on the text and piecing together the geologic timeline, it appears that life was already present on Earth before the Elders Ones arrived.  However, Terran life was entirely prokaryotic – realtively simple bacterial cells with no nucleus or other complex organelles like mitochondrion or chloroplasts.  It appears that the Elder Ones were the ones who engineered the “construction” of eukaryotic cells (the cells of plants, protists, fungi and animals) through the combination of various prokaryotic cells.  This idea – that eukaryotic cells originated from the merging of different prokaryotic cells – is call the theory of endosymbiosis.

The Elder Ones were building more complex, multi-cellular forms of life initially as a food source and later to serve as slave labor.  The ancestors of humans were not considered useful or a threat to the Elder Ones so they were discarded, allowed to develop and evolve over millions of years on their own.  In fact, from an Elder One point of view the “pinnacle” of Terran evolution was the development of the Shoggoth – an extremely adaptable, complex assemblage of prokaryotic cells whose reproduction could be directly controlled by the Elder Ones.  Unfortunately for the Elder Ones, while they could control the population growth of Shoggoths, they could not control their acquirement of intelligence through the millennia, which resulted in a number of rebellions.  Previous articles on this blog site have examined the relationship between the Elder Ones and Shoggoths in great detail and I refer you to those articles if you are interested in knowing more.  However, for the purposes of this article, it is important to note that conventional Darwinian evolution appears to be the side-effect of the multicellular organisms the Elder Ones discarded and allowed to breed in the stemming fens of the ancient Earth.

Sculpture of an Elder One, Shoggoth and Albino Penguin by Mindslave24_7 (from http://www.deviantart.net)

Next time we will review “The Shadow Out of Time” within the context of evolution.  Thank you.  Fred.

Elder Thing by Imgkid (Imgkid.com)

 

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12 thoughts on “Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 3 At the Mountains of Madness

    1. While they may look the same, there may have been changes genetically over those millions / billions of years. Many organisms such as jellyfish or horseshoe crabs essentially look the same over millions of years (fossil vs. living forms) but recent evidence has indicated that there were changes genetically. Indeed the Elder Things lost the ability to travel through space; maybe over millions of years those genes were selectively lost in the global population by living on Earth.

      Thank you for the comments!

      Fred

  1. Ciao Fred. HPL really kept himself up to date in science… though, he was eager to really believe in scientific “illusions” like the theory of an ancient race of “dwarves” swept away by the all-mighty Arians and forced to live in underground caves and galleries, experiencing a horrible “de-evolution” ( a great narrative concept he shared with R. E. Howard). He was a brilliant materialist, a skeptical and an atheist, but desperately wanted to believe in the “superiority” of certain “decent races” (being afraid of the “others”).
    Guess this proves no matters how brilliant you are, you just need some kind of illusion. Your own illusion.
    Sorry for my bad english, I’m in a hurry.
    Roberto

    1. Hey Roberto – you are correct. A lot of his misinterpretation of evolution (in particular with race) was due to him focusing more on material written by Haeckel rather than Darwin…and don’t worry about your English…I enjoy your comments and input. Thank you!
      Fred

  2. Its funny to think that the Elder Things believed that shoggoths were the pinnacle of life on Earth!

    Here’s a theory – and, just so you know, I take this from Jason B. Thompson (www.mockman.com) – if the Elder Things lived for thousands of years on Earth…why did they not evolve at ALL? I mean, yes, the secrets of interstellar travel were no longer theirs, but not much evolution occurred to them during that period of deep time. I don’t think that they were fully evolved…

    BRIAN

    1. However, remember just because the phenotype does not exhibit morphological changes over millions of years does not necessarily mean evolution does not occur. Examples of evolution with little to no obvious morphological changes include the horseshoe crabs and jellyfish. Thus, this may be the case with the Elder Things. Also, the lost of the “secrets” of interstellar travel may have been the eventual loss of a physiological function that allowed space travel; over thousands and thousands of years maybe their ability was lost due to Terran selective pressures (like humans loosing much of their body hair).

      On the other hand, HPL did describe the Elder Ones as being asexual and having a “fern-like spore” form of reproduction. Such asexual reproduction does not increase genetic variation they way sexual reproduction does – that is the evolutionary value of sexual reproduction, increased genetic variation, can stimulate unforeseen evolutionary changes due to natural selection.

      Thanks again for the input!

      Fred

      1. Yes, its the Frankenstein syndrome – becoming a god by creating life only to have the life destroy you!

  3. Hi, Just a FYI, the black and white drawing of the elder thing at the bottom of your page is mine. Imgkid has apparently stole it from me and is not giving credit. Glad you liked it enough to us it, btw. – Ian

    1. Hey Ian – thank you very much for letting me know. I had no idea. Just to confirm your full name is Ina Baggley, correct?
      Fred

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