Darwin begat Huxley begat Wells

H.G. Wells was born only seven years after the most important scientific publication of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species; and The Time Machine is very much one of its fictional offspring. It is, in effect, the story of man's evolution - except not the evolution that has bought him to where he is today, but the evolution yet to occur.

Darwin was by no means the first to suggest that life had changed over time, that life had evolved. Philosophers and scientists had long speculated that creatures might change form over time, and the French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744 - 1829) had outlined a system of evolution some fifty years before Darwin's. His theory was based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics: a form of 'just-so' approach to evolution in which animals pass on traits they acquire during their life. In 1832, Sir Charles Lyell had published Principle of Geology. This challenged Archbishop Usher's Biblically-based claim that the world was created on Sunday 23rd October 4004 BC (calculated through the Old Testament's series of 'begattings'). It set out evidence for a considerably older earth, and maintained that the natural processes seen operating in the present could be assumed to have operated in the past at the same gradual rate. In 1852, Herbert Spencer laid out a general Theory of Evolution, and in 1858 the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace wrote to Darwin with his own ideas about evolution through a process of natural selection. Darwin, who had first formulated the beginnings of his very similar theories almost thirty years previously during his voyage to the Galapagos, was spurred to publish, and excerpts from the manuscripts of both scientists were issued in a joint publication in July 1858. Darwin's hesitation to publish is testament to the magnitude of his discovery. As he was to write later, it was 'like confessing a murder.' Indeed, a year later the Origin of Species emerged to instant controversy. The first edition sold out a print run of 1250 on day one (it was the age of the gentleman-amateur naturalist: in the mid- nineteenth century works of Natural History outsold fiction), and debate raged between science, church and society.

Darwin's (and Wallace's) innovation over previous theories was a workable mechanism (still deemed largely to be correct) through which evolutionary change took place: that of Natural Selection. His theory was backed up by large amounts of observational data. Briefly, natural selection refers to the process by which environmental effects lead to varying degrees of reproductive success among individuals of a population of organisms with different hereditary characters, or traits. The characters that inhibit reproductive success decrease in frequency from generation to generation. The resulting increase in the proportion of reproductively successful individuals usually enhances the adaptation of the population to its environment.

This has often, rather erroneously, been referred to as 'the survival of the fittest'. The phrase was coined, not by Darwin, but by social philosopher Herbert Spencer, a fierce proponent of Social Darwinism and as such among the first to hijack Darwin's work for a political creed (see later). The phrase itself is flawed by its circularity: Who survives? The fittest. Who are the fittest? Those who survive. Or as Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn put it, "The unfit die, the fit both live and thrive. / Alas, who says so? They who do survive." A more correct way of looking at evolution through natural selection is the survival and - crucially - reproduction of the best fitted to a particular environment.

Though concerned that his theories should not be misinterpreted, Darwin was not predisposed to public debate, and his cause was most fiercely and publicly championed by the man who was to become known as 'Darwin's Bulldog', Thomas Henry Huxley. Wells was to attend Huxley's biology lectures in his first year at the Normal School of Science, and his influence on Wells should not be underestimated. Wells summed up Huxley's impact on him in an essay written for The Listener in 1935: "I was Huxley's disciple in 1885, and I am proud to call myself his disciple in 1935. I wish I had followed his example of cool- headed deliberate thinking, plain statement and perfect sincerity more completely. But few of us have the steadfastness of his mental quality. Clear thought is the quintessence of human life. In the end its acid power will disintegrate all the force and flummery of current passions and pretences, eat the life out of every false loyalty and out of every craven creed, and bite its way through to a world of light and truth. That faith was confirmed in me by Huxley, and I have held to it for half a century because he lived and I knew him." And in 1895, Wells sent a copy of The Time Machine to Huxley, only months before that eminent scientist died.

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