Category Archives: Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family

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.

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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.

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.

darwin-quotes-charles-darwin

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.

i-648de87b5f470a392c3df1aa6d1c0cdf-greatape

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.