Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” – Part 1, the Horrors of Evolution

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Mismeasure of Lovecraft – the “scientific” origins of his racism


A portrait of H.P. Lovecraft (factsandotherstubbonthings.blogspot.com)

Given the numerous recent discussions concerning H.P. Lovecraft’s attitude toward race, I thought I would investigate this from a scientific point of view.  A lot has already be written about how his blatant racism has impacted his stories, how we as readers in the 21st century should intpret this and whether his stories should even receive / deserve our attention.  For this article I am not going to justify or condemn the stories of HPL or analyze how his racism may have filtered through.  For a large number of reasons, including based on science, racism is abhorrent and should not have a place in any civilized society.  However, for this article I am only examining scientific sources that HPL may have used to justify or support his racist views.  More importantly, I will be sharing some scientific information that clearly indicates there is no justification for racism from an inherently genetic perspective.

Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species explained how through natural selection organisms are constantly evolving to suit their environment.  Those individuals best adapted for a particular environment tend to produce more offspring than those less adapted.  Additionally, if a group of individuals is separated from its parent population, over time, the separated population will eventually become a different species, particularly if the respective environments are somewhat different.  Thus, over time more species evolve and those best adapted to their environments survive and reproduce.  Darwin saw this as a branching tree or shrub of life, with each extant species, including humans, being represented as an individual tip.


Darwin’s original sketch of branching lines of evolution.

I prefer the shrub analogy since evolution is simply change over time and does not necessarily mean that organisms get “better and better” over millions of years.  Populations are constantly adapting to a constantly changing environment.  However, some scientists, like Ernst Haeckel (a German scientist and artist) clearly saw evolution as a progression of complexity over time with “primitive” life in the lower branches of the tree and the most “advanced” forms of life (humans of course) at the top of the tree (see below).  However, if a squid or octopus was creating a tree of life, do you think they would put humans on top?

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As shown above, Haeckel’s tree of life puts humans on top.  Such a presentation can be misleading on two counts.  First, it falsely suggests that older forms of life stop evolving once they get into a desirable or stable species state.  Second, it also falsely suggests that everything is striving to evolve into humans.  Every organism alive today is an “advanced” form of life relative to past forms.  Thus, while a horseshoe crab living today may look like one in the fossil record dating back over 400 million years, the fossil form is a primitive version of that species, while the living individual is an advanced form.  While they may look alike, they may vary considerably from a genetic point of view.

Examining Haeckel’s tree of life, it is easy to infer that humans are the most “advanced” form of life on Earth.  That being the case, many scientists, including Haeckel, thought this could be extended into the races of humans and what better way to rank humanity than by “preferred” morphological traits and/or intelligence.  Haeckel actually divided humans into 12 species, placing the northern Europeans and Greeks on top of the tree of human “species” and Africans and Australians on the lower portion of the human tree.

While Haeckel produced two, large and technical volumes on evolution, called Generelle Morphologie, his discussions on human evolution came at the end (The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J. Richards, 2008).  But what was particularly shocking, even for the later part of the 19th centaury, were his 12 human “species” and their associated descents (see below).  Darwin, as practically every subject of the British Empire, did not question the superiority of Anglo-Saxons and those of northern Europe.   However, the idea that humans beings could be divided into a series of species was not creditable to many naturalists at the time.  However, such ideas may have appealed to HPL and certainly did appeal to others.  Indeed, many of Haeckel’s augments concerning human evolution were used in the early part of the 20th century by the Nazis to attempt to scientifically justify their philosophy, attitudes and horrendous treatment of other people.

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Ernst Haeckel’s controversial illustration showing select human “species” and some of their relatives (bevets.com)

Obviously, dividing humans into 12 species is just plain incorrect.  A species is a group of similar individuals that are capable of producing interbreeding and producing viable offspring.  Homo sapiens fit that definition.  The fact that a male and female from any continent or corner of the Earth can successfully reproduce and give birth to viable offspring means all of humanity is one species.

Even the term race, from a biological point of view, is used incorrectly when applied to humans in certain instances.  Biologically, races represent genetically based population variation within a species (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, edited by Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009).  However, dividing the human species into five groups – Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow), Malayan (brown), Negroid (black) and American (red) – which could the be divided into races has been used to justify slavery, genocide, and the oppression of one group over another (Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009).

In addition to Haeckel’s ideas, another concept that might have appealed to HPL concerning issues of race was biological determinism, which was originally suggested by Plato.  Specifically, it states that behavioral norms and social / ecnonomic differences among the races arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society is an accurate reflection of biology (The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, 1996).  Again, such ideas, which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries must have appealed to HPL.

However, through the 20th and into the 21st century, biological determinism has been largely rejected through our accumulated knowledge on human biology, evolution and genetics.  Traits such as intelligence, and even skin color, are not determined by a single gene as once originally thought.  Instead, such traits and phenotypes are determined through polygenic (many genes) mechanisms; a host of environmental factors also come into play such as climate, diet, etc. (Gould, 1996).  Also, although frequencies of specific genes may vary among the races, no “race genes” have ever been identified (Gould, 1996).  Thus, such factors result in the absence of identifying a specific trait to a specific human race.  This means there is no scientific validity in ranking races based on a factor such as intelligence.  As someone who valued and appreciated the scientific method, one wonders what HPL would have thought of such information on genetics and evolution.

I want to discuss Ernst Haeckel and the scientific origins of HPL’s racist views in more detail in future articles, however, I did want to at least initiate a discussion on these subjects.  Next time we go back to our analysis of The Music of Erich Zann.  Thank you – Fred.