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, 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).
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.”
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.
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.