Tag Archives: evolution

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.

Advertisements

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.

Ubbo-Sathla and the Devolution of Life on Earth

Ubbosathla_www.lovecraft.wikia.com                                                                       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.

Eohippus_diagram                                   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_(1).jpg                                  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.

unbegotten_source_by_cursedfreak-d61gphw 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?

200144_www.miniset.net           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?

ubbo_sathla_by_veniaminnavin-d7zdbjc 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.

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?

pic_of_mollusk_evolution

The major types of mollusks.  Are the Cone Shaped Beings a member of this phylum of life or something completely different?  (Sharon-taxonomy2010-p2.wikispaces.com).

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%20moth

Peppered moths (Biston betularia) on light and dark colored trees (www.truthinscience.org.uk)

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.

Mike-Bukowski-yithian

Yithian by the talented artist Mike Bukowski (www.lastchanceillustration.com)

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

 

 

Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 2 The Shadow Over Innsmouth

 

charles-darwin-biography_amillionlives.net

Charles Darwin (from http://www.amillionlives.net)

In the pervious article we discussed how evolution was integrated into HPL’s early stories.  This article focuses on the use of evolution in his later tales.  Evolutionary-based themes can be detected in HPL’s earlier tales and two were particularly common.  First, since the Earth, and in fact the solar system, will not be in existence for all of eternity and will eventually be swept away, means the process and outcome of evolution is a relatively minor component of the “cosmic machine.”  Second, and more obvious, is the internal horror’s of one’s past or ancestry.  While HPL probably knew very little about the science of genetics and the role of DNA in the transfer of traits from parent to offspring, the fear of how such hidden genotypic traits may arise and manifest themselves in one’s phenotype was apparent in many of his early stories.

In contrast, HPL’s later stories moved from the horror’s of one’s past to larger themes of cosmic and evolutionary horror.  Examples of this are provided through brief discussions on three of HPL’s later stories:  “The Shadow Out of Innsmouth”, “The Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”  Since I have covered these stories to varying degrees in previous articles I will focus primarily on how HPL used evolution in these stories.  While “The Shadow Out of Time” was covered in detail over a series of past articles, the other two stories were not.  “The Shadow Out of Innsmouth” and “The Mountains of Madness” were only covered in past articles relative to the biology of the entities featured in those stories, so I will return to them sometime in the future.  Thus, for this article the specific focus is on the use of evolution on one of these later stories – “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”  However, before we do this, I would like to briefly review what was known about genetics and its role in evolution in HPL’s time.  A forthcoming  article will discuss  “The Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”

IMG_2714

“Shadow Over Innsmouth” by the great artist Allen Koszowski

While Darwin’s idea of natural selection was presented as the driving force of evolution, in his day very little was known of the mechanisms behind the transfer of the traits or characteristics from parent to offspring. It was casually thought that offspring were a “blending” of traits from each parent but there was little empirical data that supported this idea. In his heart Darwin knew this was not the case, particularly due to his work on artificial selection; that is, the breeding of domesticated plants and animals. However, around the same time Darwin was developing his notes and ideas to publish The Origins of Species, an Augustinian monk was performing hybridization experiments on the garden pea that would represent the birth of modern genetics and provide a plausible hypothesis in the transfer of an organism’s traits to its offspring.

Gregor Johann Mendel was born in 1822 in Czechoslovakia. He was a monk but was also a teacher and scientist with interests in both physics and botany. From 1854 to 1868 Mendel preformed a series of detailed and meticulous experiments that developed into the concept of units of inheritance. Offspring were not a blending of the parents. Instead, discreet units were transmitted to offspring, some dominant and some recessive, which dictated the traits the offspring received. These units are called genes (Concepts of Genetics by William S. Klug and Michael R. Cummings; 1983).

mendel_n_peas

Gregor Mendel with a display of one of this genetic experiments with garden peas (www.undsci.berkeley.edu)

In spite of his incredible findings, Mendel’s work was largely forgotten until the early 20th century.  However, an integration of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection was to come to fruition in HPL’s day thanks to a talented mathematian / biologist named Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890-1962).

Fisher was one of the first individuals to suggest that statistics can be used to reduce / analyze data and published a book in 1925, Statistical Methods for Research Workers, that outlined and discussed methods in the design and evaluation of experiments (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, edited by Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009).  In addition, he published a seminal paper in 1922 on the mathematical synthesis of Darwinian natural selection with the recently rediscovered laws of Mendelian heredity.  Subsequent to this, his book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930) was published.  This book along with the work of others in the field reconciled Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian heredity (Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009), which contributed toward the birth of quantitative genetics.  While much of this work was being developed and published in the 1920 – 1930’s there is no indication in HPL’s stories or in S.T. Joshi’s biography (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, 2013), that HPL was familiar with, or even exposed to, the emerging science of genetics.  With that said, it is impressive how HPL used concepts that mirrored many of the ideas that were being developed through quantitative generics.  This was particularly the case with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

fisher

Ronald Aylmer Fisher (www.blackwellpublishing.com)

By the time he was working on the “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” HPL had a fairly decent understanding that evolution works on the level of the population and not the individual.  In stories such as “The Beast in the Cave” and “Pickman’s Model” evolution appeared to be working on the level of the individual.  By “The Lurking Fear” HPL identified that the population was the level at which natural selection operates even though most of the changes were completely internal – an isolated community where inbreeding is high.  However, by “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” HPL expanded on this by integrating external forces and environmental factors in the operation of natural selection.

From a genetics and evolutionary standpoint “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is about the hybridization of two closely related species.  Given the fact that Deep Ones can breed with humans and produce viable offspring indicates that they are closely related species, which is why I suggested that Deep Ones and humans should be placed in the genus, Homo aquatium and Homo sapiens, respectively.  Of all of the hypotheses I have suggested on Lovecraftianscience.wordpress.com, the origin of the Deep Ones generated the highest level of debate.  In fact, I suggested four hypotheses:

1.  The Deep Ones are part of the “spawn of Cthulhu” and thus are truly alien.

2.  The Deep Ones were bioengineered by the Elder Things – like humans – but as a separate line of speciation.

3.  The Deep Ones and humans share a common ancestor the way humans and the Great Apes do.

4.  Humans are simply the part of the Deep Ones Life Cycle, the way tadpoles are the larval stage for frogs.

Deep One Hybrid Skull Evolution (by Vonmeer-d5vnle3 from deviantart.net)

Of these hypotheses, I suggest that most of the existing evidence points to hypothesis #3, we share a common ancestor.  While many people feel the Deep Ones are truly alien and are part of the spawn of Cthulhu, I disagree.  The fact that Deep Ones and humans can breed and produce “viable” offspring means that from a genetic and evolutionary perspective, they must be closely related.  To support that hypothesis it would need to be determined if indeed the hybridized Deep Ones (the ones that are born human and become Deep Ones) can reproduce.  Also, it is also not known if the Deep Ones that do breed with humans are “pure” Deep Ones or originating from being hybrids themselves.  If these breeding Deep Ones are “pure” then that would support hypothesis #3; however, if the breeding Deep Ones start out as hybrids themselves, then that would support hypothesis #4.

In any event, to lend support to any of the four hypotheses listed above, genetic studies(e.g. gene sequencing and phylogenetic comparisons) of some Deep Ones would be required.  Preferably such screening would include both fully developed Deep Ones as well as hybrids that have yet to go through Deep One metamorphosis.  Also, it needs to be confirmed if there is genetic difference between “pure” Deep Ones and the hybrids and, if so, can the hybrids breed?  Such studies would have been extremely intriguing to both Gregor Mendel and R.A. Fisher, although the actual implementation and “on the ground” research itself would have indeed horrified them.

Day of the Deep Ones (by Cryptcrawler on deviantart.com)

Next time we will discuss the role of evolution in “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”  Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 1 the Early Tales

Combination of human evolution and the future food chain for the planet (from Lovecraft eZine; http://www.alanbao.tumblr.com)

Evolution is frequently an important factor in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.  At times he display’s astonishing insight into the mechanisms of evolution, at least how it was understood at the time.  In other instances his use of evolution is not close to being a reasonably accurate interpretation of this biological process.  However, the misuse of evolution in fiction is extremely common and even today the basic concept and operation of evolution through natural selection is misunderstood.

Some of these points I have discussed in a previous article (The Mismeasure of Lovecraft – the “scientific” origins of his racism) so I will not dwell on them too long.  First, simply put, evolution is change over time.  In addition, the terms “primitive” and “advanced” should only be used within the context of time and not for interrelationships among organisms.  While we may think we humans are more “advanced” than jellyfish, a jellyfish living today is just as “advanced” as a human living today.  However, a jellyfish of today is more advanced than a jellyfish living 100 million years ago.  While they may look exactly alike, genetically, the jellyfish living 100 million years ago is more primitive than a jellyfish living today.  What we can say is that humans are a more complex organism with more differentiated cells relative to jellyfish.


A fossilized jellyfish and a living jellyfish.  While morphologically they look very similar, genetically they were probably very different, making the fossilized one “primitive” and the living one “advanced.”  For more details on the genetics of both forms and how the Cambrian environment gave rise to more complex organisms please see the article by  John Timmer, Misperceptions meet state of the art in evolution research at http://www.arstechnica.com.

Another important point to make is that unlike Haeckel’s idea of the Tree of Life, moving ever upward with humans as the pinnacle of evolution, Darwin did not see the progression of evolution as one moving onward and upward to “better” organisms.  Thus, just because humans are on top now does not mean that they will be in the distinct future.  For example, dinosaurs were on Earth for approximately 160 million years (Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman, 2005), while Homo sapiens have been around for under a million years.  This is why Darwin drew his “tree of life” more like a shrub.  HPL had a fairly good understating of this, particularly in his later stories where he talked about humanity eventually being replaced as the dominant organism on Earth by a race of beetles.  In this case the future of Earth is not a super-intelligent form of humanity colonizing the stars.  Instead it is the extinction of one life form and replaced by another, just like the mammals expanded in dominance after the dinosaurs when extinct, most likely due to a meteor that hit the Earth approximately 65 million years ago.


A member of the beetle race by King Ovrats (www.deviantart.com)

In many of HPL’s earlier works the concern was one’s own genetics coming back to “haunt” ones’ self. In “The Rats in the Walls” once de la Poer realizes his ancestors were a strange tribe of cannibalistic creatures, he becomes one himself.  In “From Beyond” all of humanity has a dormant organ, the pineal gland; when exposed to a particular type of radiation this gland triggers a series of mutations, switching some genes on and some genes off, in a spectacular form of human metamorphosis.  In HPL’s juvenile story “The Beast in the Cave” a strange blind creature living in Mammoth Cave turns out to be a man. In each of these cases, among others not mentioned (e.g. “The Lurking Fear” – to be discussed at a later date) the genetic variation within in the individual is large enough to produce substantial alterations from what we perceive as human, triggered by a particular set of environmental or other external forces.

In “Pickman’s Model” or more appropriately cited in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” Richard Upton Pickman reverts or becomes a ghoul. Such instances may be thought of as evolution, however, natural selection does not occur within the individual. Evolution occurs over generations of breeding populations with an inherent amount of genetic variability that is occasionally impacted through mutations. Thus, does Pickman “evolve” into a ghoul? No, the potential of being a ghoul was already in his genetic “catalog” and it took a specific external stimulus or factor to bring it to the surface. In these early stories that is the horror conveyed by HPL. No matter whom you are, your status in life or where you live, you cannot run away from your genetic destiny.

Something called “Modeling for Mr. Pickman” found in an article “Our Ghouls Are Creepier” on tvtropes.org

The previous photograph of a fossilized and living jellyfish was obtained from an article, Misperceptions meet state of the art in evolution research, written by John Timmer (www.arstechnica.com, February 2008).  In that article it mentions studies that have identified genes responsible for the development of complex, bilateral animals in organisms that are not complex, bilateral animals such as Cnidarians (which includes jellyfish).  In other words the genes for a bilateral body plan predates the bilateral animals themselves!  Thus, it was only when specific environmental changes  occurred in the Cambrian that opportunities arose for these genes to be selectively advantageous and be manifested in the phenotype (appearance) of the organisms.

Are similar genetic changes triggered when the pineal gland is exposed to the resonator or when humans convort with ghouls?  Possibly, but such changes can not be thought of as Darwinian evolution – at least for now – since it is not known if such traits can be pasted from one generation to the next.  However, if a recessive “ghoul” gene exists, then maybe this is a portion of human evolution that has not be actively explored.

Next time we will discuss how the concepts of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial evolution play an important part in the later tales of HPL.  Thank you – Fred.

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?

36906862_stclairresearch.com

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.

HNS68c_bevets.com

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.