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).
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.
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).
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.
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.