Degeneration In H. G. Wells's The Time Machine

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Ray Lankester’s Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880) puts forward the theory of evolutionary degeneration, a theory which H.G. Wells expanded on in his own novel, The Time Machine (1895). Wells’ presentation of mankind’s degeneration, the Eloi, reveals the cultural anxiety of how mankind, having prospered beyond the drive of necessity, could adapt into a more vulnerable state. Many critics have focused on Wells’ overt allegorical warning to humanity not to degenerate into the Eloi, however, I argue there is a much more immediate anxiety that runs throughout the text in the presentation of the Time Traveller himself. The Traveller is an experiment of Lankester’s theory, in that he finds himself ousted from a condition of security. The…show more content…
Lankester’s theory, whilst in support of Darwin, argued against the notion of evolution as a steadily improving progression. Lankester observed that certain species are degenerate forms of other species, for example, he concluded that the barnacle is in fact “a degenerate Crustacean” (Lankester 37). The reasoning given for this is that progressive evolution only occurs in a condition of struggle, with a necessity to adapt in order to survive. Meaning, without this struggle, a species may naturally regress. Lankester does suggest that as humans are “subject to the general laws of evolution” (Lankester 60), implying our species may also fall into this evolutionary regression. However, Wells takes this theory further in his fictionalization of the degeneration of mankind. In The Time Machine, the Traveller journeys to the year 802,701 and is met by the Eloi, the descendants of mankind. Expecting mankind to have evolved progressively, he is disappointed by the Eloi’s “physical slightness […] their lack of intelligence” (Wells 32). This issue of Victorian progressivism has been explored by Peter Kemp who argues that The Time Machine “is designed to discredit what he [Wells] called ‘Bio-Optimism’ […] the hopeful belief that life must steadily
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