Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 4 The Shadow Out of Time

A member of “The Great Race” by Steve Maschuck

Since “The Shadow Out of Time” has been extensively discussed in pervious articles on this site, this current article will be relatively short.  While “At the Mountains of Madness” is HPL’s origin story and interpretation of Darwinian evolution, “The Shadow Out of Time” is HPL’s example of a dramatic and radical example of natural selection.  As has been previously discussed the Great Race is a fusion of two entities or species – the Cone-Shaped Beings (CSBs) who are natives of Earth and the Yithians whose minds travel time and space, “jumping” from one corporeal species into another.

Based on HPL’s writings the CSBs are Terran in origin and not alien.  In fact the CSBs may actually be another “by-product” (similar to humans) of the Elder Things tinkering with the creation of multi-cellular, eukaryotic life on Earth.  Pervious discussions focused on whether the CSBs are some type of complex mollusk, possibly a member of the Gastropod (snails, slugs) or Cephalopod (octopus, squid) class, an unknown class of mollusk, an unknown phylum of animal life or possibly even an elaborate form of fungi.  Whatever the classification of the CSBs, it is hypothesized that like all multicellular life on Earth, Darwinian evolution gave rise to these creatures.  However, did the merging of the CSBs with the Yithian minds, thus creating the Great Race, alter their course of evolution?


The major types of mollusks.  Are the Cone Shaped Beings a member of this phylum of life or something completely different?  (

Very little is known about the CSBs before their merging with the Yithian minds.  Were they simple, mindless, passive fungi, exuding exoenzymes into the environment to break down and accelerate the rate of decomposition of organic matter as a source of food and energy?  Or were they fairly intelligent mollusks with the curiosity and cognitive abilities of an octopus?  We may never know.  However, once the Yithians started to occupy the CSBs – thus creating the Great Race – this “new” symbiotic species was sentient and immediately developed technology and a civilization.  Such a punctuated form of evolution has never before been documented in the history of live on Earth.

From a Darwinian point of view this creation of a new symbiotic species was like either inserting a set of beneficial genes into the species or drastically changing the environment, either one driving natural selection into another direction.  An example of this later idea can be found in the peppered moth (Biston betularia).

The peppered moth is a nocturnal moth found in England.  Prior to the industrial revolution, the majority of the peppered moths in England had light-colored wing patterns so they resembled the trees and lichens.  This form of camouflage was effective to avoid being eaten by birds.  However, after the industrial revolution was in full swing, many of the lichens died and the trees were covered with black soot.  This resulted in a shift in the gene frequency from light color pigmentation to darker colors.  Thus, over time the moth population was dominated by darker individuals since they were better adapted to be camouflaged against predators on the soot-lined trees (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, edited by Michael Ruse & Joseph Travis, 2009).  A similar dramatic shift in the course of evolution may have occurred when the Yithian minds merged with the CSB bodies.


Peppered moths (Biston betularia) on light and dark colored trees (

While the merging with the Yithian minds was an “internal” change in the CSBs, it does not appear to include a direct change or modification in the CSB genome.  Thus, this change operates more as a change in the environment than a change in the species genome.  However, if the merging of the Yithian minds only occurred with a sub-set of the CSB population, it may be possible that this symbiosis does end up being selective on a genetic level.  To answer this question, it needs to be known if all CSBs merged with Yithian minds or if there was some degree of selection with this symbiotic merger.

Once the CSBs had the advantage of immediately acquired intelligence, it “freed” them in a sense from many of the previous selective pressures such as competition for resources and possibly predation / parasitism.  At a minimum the creation of the Great Race substantially reduced these selective pressures.  However, new, selective pressures came into place such as the creation of communities and a civilization that interacted, and at times clashed, with others species on Earth.  Indeed, such a relatively quick change in the course of their evolution and the development of their civilization / technology must have perplexed the Elder Things.


Yithian by the talented artist Mike Bukowski (

Next time we will be moving into a series of formal discussions on HPL’s “The Call of Cthulhu.”  Thank you – Fred.



13 thoughts on “Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 4 The Shadow Out of Time

  1. Something I’ve always wondered about the “Great Race” is how they managed to transpose their intelligence into other species without radically changing their genes. That is, how is it that the Yithian intellect is seemingly unaffected by its transportation into a human mind? Surely, the human brain is structurally quite different from that of the Cone-shaped Beings, and might possess and/or lack some facilities that would make such a transferral a rather jarring and difficult process. However, the Yithian that possesses the story’s narrator seems to take it in stride, displaying the vastly superior alien intellect through its human carriage.

    If I were to do a “mind swap” with a dog (my personality and memories being put into a canine mind and body), I doubt that I, as a dog, would retain all my intelligence or all my memories. A dog brain lacks the parts responsible for verbal communication, complex problem solving and the like. The brains of humans and the CSB’s are probably even more different, and one can only imagine how different the original Yithians must have been from the CSB’s.

    One explanation I came up with is that the Yithian intelligence just happens to be compatible with the human mind. We don’t know what the brain of the CSB’s is like, but perhaps it is comparable in its overall structure and/or function to a human brain. However, given how unlikely their brains would be so similar to ours, I’d argue that the human brain is only partly compatible with the Yithian mind; the human brain can hold a Yithian intellect, but not in its entirety. To return to my earlier example, if my intellect were placed into the mind of a dog, I imagine that I’d retain at least a semblance of humanity, perhaps having an edge over other dogs in some regards due to my human memories and knowledge, just as the Yithian in the narrator’s body displays greater knowledge than his contemporaries despite perhaps being limited by the human brain.

    I imagine the Yithians using their ability to travel time and space, hijacking certain individuals to collect knowledge on other species, whilst searching for such species whose brains can allow the full expression of the Yithian intelligence, such as the CSB’s, which would be selected for an en masse transfer to escape extinction. Note there is no such en masse transfer into the human race; the human narrator is only used to collect information on humanity. Perhaps the human race is not an ideal candidate to be a “Great Race”.

    I’m not trying to nitpick Lovecraft’s story, but I figure this is a reasonable question given the nature of this blog. The somewhat arbitrary nature of the Yithian’s ability to transport their minds always bothered me somewhat, as it seems to not take into account the physical differences between the brains of different species.

    By the way, I’m a relatively new reader of this blog, and I find this all absolutely fascinating. I look forward to going through every article, from its inception.


  2. Hi. I re-read the story because I forgot some passages.
    I’m a little surprised. I wouldn’t have thought about “evolution” in a Darwinian sense regarding the Yithians. To me, they just have the power to occupy CSB’s bodies and banish their minds in their own (doomed) bodies.
    They seem just “psychic vampires”, like the diabolical Mr Elvesham in the H G Wells story, only on a mass scale. I see no “symbiosis” here as the Yithians take all they can, giving nothing in return (they’re not like Dax in Deep Space 9, for example).
    I’d say it’s the Yithians who “evolve” (in a way), as they find a way to survive and to acquire new physical possibilities wearing their new CSB “suits”. They’re little ol’ greedy bastards, are they?. Poor CSBs, they do not “evolve”, they just die as sentient beings and as a race. But if they were NOT intelligent before the coming of the Ythians, your theory works fine.
    Just my opinion, but I like your POV. Looking at new points of view is a great way to expand my Yithian mind.

    1. Hey Robeto great comments! While the Yithians themselves would not evolve I believe they can direct evolution of the CSBs. For example, they can make decisions for the species would direction them to make choices (say colonize an island or expand to colder areas thanks to their newly developed technology) would expose the CSB genes to new and unexpected selective pressures. Thus, in a sense this newly found intelligence impacts the selective pressure on the genes and not the organism. Remember, the signs of evolution are exhibited through the level of the populations and not the individual, while natural selection operates on the level of the gene. Thus, the instantaneous acquirement of increased intelligence would be another selective pressure on the level of the gene.

      Also, even a species doomed to extinction evolves like the dinosaurs.

      Again, some great comments. Thank you.


  3. Hi. Thank you very much Fred for your kind reply.
    You see, my vision of evolution is pretty distant from the “physical” (and maybe “scientific”) point of view.
    To you, the Ythian’s intelligence offer new possibilities to CSB evolution (they may decide to colonize new areas, physical adaptation etc.), but it’s an evolution of the FORM. To me, CSBs have no “newly acquired intelligence”, they are dead because their collective/racial conscience/mind/soul is just plain dead, erased and replaced by the Ythians after the mind swapping (“Ythian’s swapping”, great fun at parties, don’t try it at home!).
    The friend above, whose post is great by the way, offers a nice example. If, for some reason, I decide to perform the “ythian’s swapping” on a dog, the result will be a dog with a human conscience/mind/soul, and vice-versa. So probably the Ythians (a race of inquisitive experimenters) will choose victim races already physically fit for their purposes (the intelligent insects whose time will come after man’s extinction).
    What makes a man of me (well, sort of) is my conscience/mind/soul, the physical appearence is uninportant (well, sort of), so the Ythians keep on going, the CSBs are history.
    After all this babbling, and waiting for “the call of Ctulhu” discussion, let me humbly suggest to all HPL fans this excellent american blog and board:
    where I learned HPL was a fave of some great acid-driven underground mags of the seventies…

    1. Hey Roberto:

      Some good points and raises some very interesting questions. For example, I hypothesize that the CSBs were fairly intelligent even before the Yithian minds “invaded” their bodies. I think their intelligence was somewhere between an octopus and a dolphin. These species are intelligent but do not use technology. The xenomorphs in the Alien movies are the same type of organism; very intelligent but uses no technology. The immediate use of increased intelligence impacts the evolutionary direction of the CSBs. If we are talking about evolution then we can not talk about the “soul.” Such discussions are for a metaphysical discussion and beyond the scope of such scientific investigations.

      Again from an evolutionary standpoint the species is actually preserved in spite of the Yithian minds taking it over. Evolution is exhibited on the level of the population but natural selection operates on the level of the gene. Memories are not the functioning level for natural selection – that is the gene. As long as these genes are in tact, the species is preserved whoever is in “charge” of mind.

      In Michio Kaku’s book The Future of the Mind, he discusses how future technology may be able to download our consciousness to established way stations as a means of traveling the extremely large distances through space. The data of one’s consciousness could travel on a lazar to the way station and into an artificial body. At this point Darwinian evolution no longer exists since gene no longer the unit of “change over time.”

      To conclude – talking about if our mind was put into the body of a dog – does that dog then have a soul? Again, questions that can not be answered or even addressed here but still very intriguing to say the least! Great discussions! Fred

      1. Hi, Fred.

        Your response to my comment referred to “Roberto” but I think you meant Jack 🙂

        As for my question, I didn’t meant to refer to the concept of “soul”. I personally hold that “mind states” are the result of “brain states” i.e. our personalities, moods, thoughts, perhaps even memories result from neurochemical activity; an assumption I based my question on. Thus, the “mind” of a CSB would derive from a (likely) vastly different brain than ours, making the transition of the Yithian intellect from one to the other not as simple as one might think.

        As for your response, I wonder if you think that the arrival of the Yithian mind into a “host” immediately increases their “intelligence”? After all, intelligence is largely a function of genes, with certain genes being responsible for the phenotypic expression of intelligence. I’d argue that the Yithian mind transfer would involve an influx of knowledge (i.e. Yithian memories) that would be helpful in terms of survival (and thus evolution), but not an immediate increase in intelligence.

        It would seem the occurrences in “The Shadow Out of Time” suggest that (in the context of the Lovecraft universe) there exists something like a soul in the travelling Yithian consciousness. In fact, in my earlier post, I was going to briefly touch upon my idea that the Yithian’s ability is a form of magic that has been seen elsewhere in the works of Lovecraft; (SPOILERS) namely, “The Thing on the Doorstep”, where consciousness transferal is the main plot point. Obviously, the deviates the discussion even further from the realm of scientific thought, but the “superimposing” of an intellect on a brain that results from this fictional/metaphysical practice can still be discussed.

      2. Hey Jack – my apologies! Sorry about that.

        My hypotheses are based on information I gleaned from HPL’s text. I believe HPL mentioned that there are only certain entities that are compatible with Yithian minds, which includes humans, CSBs and the future beetle race. I’m sure there are others we are not familiar with (we meet some in the story from within our own solar system) but I don’t think they are merge with the mind of all species. I do hypothesize that the CSBs were intelligent but did not have technology. It was not until Yithian minds were “downloaded” into the CSBs that they initiated the use of technology (airships, submarines, etc.), which would expose the CSB genes to other and new selective pressures (including war with other species).

        Again, using some of the ideas proposed by M. Kaku in his 2014 book, the “soul” may be the memories / the “mind” of the Yithians being downloaded into the CSB body, while the original CSB minds were sent back to the previous Yithian body (which we have no information on).

        As HPL’s fiction matured he moved away from the concept of magic and focused more on science and this was obviously largely driven by his materialism philosophy. Thus, I think he would agree with Arthur C. Clarke’s quote “magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.” With that said, I certainly understand the limitations of science to address more metaphysical issues.

        Thank you so much for the discussion and your excellent opinions!

  4. Hello, gentlemen!

    Let me first say, what a wonderful place you got here.

    I hope you don’t mind if I make myself cozy and provide a thought I had while reading your comments.

    One point to consider is that the Great Race time travels through psychic means. They have the ability to move their conscience through time and space, inhabiting different bodies.

    They have already, as flubnow pointed out, overcome Darwinian evolution, after a fasion. They are, so to speak, “transhuman” (transyith?), with the main difference that, instead of creating bodies for their minds, they use other species as hosts.

    With those two points made, it is necessary to point out that using psychic means complicates many scientific discussions regarding the flexibility of the host brains, and their capacity to support Yithian intellects, as there is no, to the best of our knowledge, categorized, studied or, well, real, psychic powers.

    Therefore, assuming the existence of such powers, I can see two possibilities to explain their ability to maintain their faculties while in radically different bodies:

    The first one is that, considering their psychic abilities, they only transfer a part of their conscience to their host bodies, keeping part of their minds in a psychic field and using the host bodies more like meat puppets. I believe this hypothesis is more in keeping with the themes usually portrayed by HPL and in keeping with the myth.

    However, another possibility, which solves one puzzle of their story, is that, due to the fact that they keep their full conscience inside their hosts, they are only able to transfer their minds to species suitable to receiving their minds.

    That would be why they had to jump from the CSP to the few humans who could take their minds and later to the beetles, why they couldn’t save their whole species and why we didn’t see Yithian velociraptors. That last part makes me a little sad, I must admit.

    I would think, in fact, that it’s a bit of both.

    Yithians, to my mind, are wholly psychic beings who need flesh hosts to interact with the universe and survive, and are only able to use some species for this purpose.

    What are your thoughts?


    1. Hey Roberto – excellent points. Once again I can’t properly respond to some of the metaphysical issues since they are beyond science. However, like I mentioned in an earlier response, I think HPL would agree with Arthur C. Clarke’s quote “magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.” Again, thank you for your input!

      1. Darn it! You are the second person I did this to – my apologies Richardo! I have to stop responding to the comments so late at night! Thank you for point that out to me.

    2. Hi Ricardo, I’m Roberto 🙂
      I think your second hypothesis fits my point of view. I’m the one who first used the word “soul” in this discussion… bad choice of a word, I meant “conscience” or “identity” or something… to summarize:
      Yithian’s minds occupy CSB’s bodies and vice-versa.
      Ythians escape their fate – CSBs are doomed (and this makes me sad, too).
      From now on, It’s the Yithians who “evolve” – CSB’s are history.
      Anyway, as Jack pointed out, CSBs must have been “suitable” hosts for Yithians so they actually might have been even more intelligent (or phisically suitable) than humans. How on earth (how on Yith) can this be possible? I think Arthur C. Clarke’s quote explains it all.

      1. I think HPL did mention that the Yithians could only merge with species that had “appropriate” and compatible brains and physiology. Also, I do get the impression that while the CSBs were intelligent they did not use technology until the Yithian took their bodies over. This may indicate a modification on a genetic level (see below).

        As to whether the CSBs are truly lost as a species once the Yithian minds take over their bodies depends on how this impacts them on a genetic level; while evolution works on the level of the population, natural selection works on the level of the gene. Thus, if the merging of Yithian mind and CSB body results in a re-writing of the CSB genetic code then I would say the CSBs are lost as a species. However, if the transfer does not change or alter the CSBs on a genetic level then the species remains in tact.

        Consider the earlier example of a human’s mind put into the body of a dog – if that being reproduces but does not transfer that intelligence to it’s offspring then the dog (on the level of the gene) remains. However, if the offspring has had its gametes altered due to the merging and these new “human-dog” genes are transferred to offspring then a new species is created. This is a little more difficult to interpret with the CSBs since they reproduce primarily asexually through spores but the concept of if you modify the genes, you modify the species remains.

        Great conversations! Thank you – Fred.

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