Ubbo-Sathla (from http://www.lovecraft.wikia.com)
After re-reading Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear,” I realized there two matter to discuss relative to science. The first is Lovecraft’s use and misuse of the Theory of Evolution and the second is the pseudo-science of race and racism. I have discussed evolution a number of times on this site but in order to clearly identify the general misunderstandings associated with evolution (not just from Lovecraft but in general), I would like to discuss Clark Ashton Smith’s story “Ubbo-Sathla.” It is in this short story that Smith’s help to demonstrate the only way “devolution” can actually occur.
In its simplest terms, evolution is “change over time.” Time is an extremely important component in the concept of evolution and is frequently ignored. Evolution does not occur within an individual but within populations; populations breeding over successive generations producing offspring where favorable genes (and thus the traits associated with those genes) remain in the populations while unfavorable genes are weeded out over time. However, environmental conditions (climate, temperature, light, habitat types, competitors for food, predators, parasites, etc.) are dynamic and always changing; thus, the favorability or unfavorability of traits change over time, which means traits are always trying to adjust to changing environmental conditions. In a nutshell that is evolution.
Frequently terms like “primitive” or “advanced” are used to compare various species. Since the definition of these terms (at least within the concept of evolution) are directly linked to temporal scales, they can be used to compare say a horse of today (of the genus Equus) to the smaller odd-toed ungulate, horse-like mammal Hyracotherium (now called Eohippus) that appeared in the fossil record approximately 52 million years ago. Thus, the large horses of today are advanced compared to the primitive, smaller Eohippus creature. However, you can’t say that a horse of today is more advanced than a horseshoe crab of today. They are different, one is a vertebrate one is an invertebrate. You can also say one has been on the Earth longer than the other; horseshoe crabs have been around for approximately 450 million years, while horses have been around for approximately 55 million years. Thus, we can say that horseshoe crabs have been on Earth longer and have a more ancient, ancestral lineage than horses but it does not mean they are more primitive than horses. Anything living in the present is more advanced than anything that has lived in the past.
An ancestor of the modern horse, Eohippus (previously known as the genus Hyracotherium) was a smaller, odd-toed ungulate.
Lovecraft liked to cite a degeneration in evolution in his stories (more on that when we actually talk about “The Lurking Fear”); however, any adaption that results in a species thriving and producing more offspring cannot be thought of as a degeneration (from a biological point of view). For example, blind cave-dwelling fishes or shrimp are not degenerative or primitive organisms relative to non-cave-dwelling species just because they cannot see or do not see very well. Those organisms are specifically adapted to a life in darkness and instead of relying on sight, their other sense are enhanced. This is not degeneration; this is an adaption to specific conditions over successive generations through natural selection. So is degeneration or “devolution” possible? Only if you can reverse time and that is where Clark Ashton Smith’s “Ubbo-Sathla” comes into play.
Ubbo-Sathla by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)
In a review of a variety of scientific texts and periodicals, the terms degeneration and evolution are largely absent. Not surprising is the fact that the term “degeneration” does come up in historical (17th through 20th century) discussions on “race” as documented in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (revised and expanded edition; 1996). Again more on that when we discuss Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear.” The reason why terms such as degeneration and evolution are not discussed to any degree by credible evolutionary scientists is that such processes to not exist in our conventional reality. As explained above, evolution is change over time, populations adapting to changing environmental conditions. With evolution there is only forward, no reverse; older genes or traits may re-surface but this still represents a type of succession over time. But what if one could “go in reverse,” go back in time relative to evolutionary development? That would be the true definition of devolution; that is, change going back in time. This is the process discussed in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Ubbo-Sathla.”
In the tale, Paul Tregardis purchases a strange milky crystal that has the ability to transfer his mind back in time. Is it possible that this palaeogean, orb-like crystal flattened at the poles is some residual technology of the Great Race, which allows them to transfer their minds through time and space? In any event, by studying the orb Paul’s mind is initially transferred into that of the sorcerer Zon Mezzamalech in primeval Mhu Thulan, located in the northern regions of ancient Hyperborea (today thought of to be part of Greenland). There, while in the sorcerer’s mind, Paul read from The Book of Eibon about Ubbo-Sathla.
The Unbegotten Source, Ubbo-Sathla by Cursed Freak (www.deviantart.com)
In that tome Paul / Zon read of how the orb-like crystal could be used to behold many visions of our universe, including Earth’s ancient past “…when Ubbo-Sathla, the unbegotten source, lay vast and swollen and yeasty amid the vaporing slime…” Ubbo-Sathla appears to be a proto-form of life on Earth.
Apparently, wisdom of the gods who died before the Earth was born (is this a reference to beings from a previous universe?), “passed to the lightless void,” left their wisdom and lore upon tablets of ultra-stellar stone. These stone tables are guarded by Ubbo-Sathla. It is suggested that these tables provide information on the creation of life and possibly the creation of matter or even new realities. The being Paul Tregardis / Zon Mezzamalech wanted this ancient knowledge. Is this where the Elder Things obtained the information to create life? Is Ubbo-Sathla a precursor to the proto-shoggoth?
Ubbo-Sathla from http://www.miniset.net
Through a series of attempts Paul Tregardis / Zon Mezzamalech go back in time, through the millennia to obtain knowledge off the Ubbo-Sathla’s tablets. They move back through time, from the fall to the rise to the beginnings of the Mhu Thulan empire; they also move further back, occupying the minds of a barbarian of some troglodytic tribe, various dinosaurs and then the lost serpent-men of the ophidian era. The key to this traveling backward through time on Earth is the following passage. “And the thing that had been Paul Tregardis, that had been Zon Mezzamalech, was a part of all of the monstrous devolution.” This is the proper usage of the term devolution – evolution backward in time.
Unfortunately, this backward traveling through time ended in a “vast, chaotic marsh, a sea of slime, without limit or horizon, without shore or elevation, that seethed with a blind writhing of amorphous vapors.” This grey oozy sea of slime, with no organs or organelles, appeared to be a large pre-prokaryotic archetype of proto-life on Earth. This may have been the organic matrix, the discarded experiments of beings from the previous universe, that the Elder Things used to create life on Earth. Unfortunately, the thing that was Paul Tregardis / Zon Mezzamalech forgot about the ancient knowledge and obliviously crawled across the “tablets of the gods, and fought and revened blindly with the other spawn of Ubbo-Sathla.” It appears that if you are part of the “chain of life on Earth” that the knowledge on the tablets is unobtainable due to the process of devolution. But what if you are not part of Earth-bound evolution like the Elder Things or the Great Race?
Was this the fate of Paul Tregardis / Zon Mezzamalech? Ubbo-Sathla by Veniaminnavin (www.deviantart.com)
Next time we will talk about the time travel aspects of Ubbo-Sathla and after that we will get into Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear.” Thank you – Fred.