The Influence of Evolution on Science Fiction
The beginning of science fiction is generally attributed to the nineteenth century work of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. According to The Encyclopedia Britannica (1975, Vol. VIII, 984) science fiction encompasses literary works in which modern technology and scientific discovery are crucial to the story line:
Probably in no literary form has evolutionary theory had such a profound influence as on science fiction (Jaki 1988). This is largely because evolution theory has had a tremendous influence on the sciences, and most science fiction is a product of scientists, or at least individuals interested in science. A review of the history of various beliefs finds our belief structure highly influences our explanation and conclusions concerning ambiguous stimuli. When it was accepted by most Westerners that humans and all life were the direct creations of God, it was believed that if other worlds existed and had life, they were also created by God and were part of his plan. This world view worked against beliefs in intelligent beings from other planets that evolved separately or apart from God.
Acceptance of evolution indicated that if life evolved on Earth, it could likewise have evolved elsewhere. This life could currently be either at a "lower" or a "higher" level than humankind, or it may even be of an entirely different kind of life, such as one that is not carbon molecule based. If many kinds and types of life exist elsewhere in the universe, much science fiction becomes a real possibility, Exobiologists such as Carl Sagan and others now postulate that it is highly probable that life exists in many far off places in the universe (Sagan 1980).
H. G. Wells' (Herbert George) was modern England's most prolific author. His works were best sellers for years, and are still sold in many editions (the current Books in Print lists scores of his works still in print in the United States). His orientation toward evolution is indicated by the fact that he studied science under Thomas Henry Huxley, the scientist who is today called Darwin's bulldog, and was one of history's most staunch defenders and apologists for evolution. Wells' science degree prepared him for a life of teaching, research and writing, After graduation, he began not only teaching, but working on a biology textbook. He soon contracted tuberculosis which prevented him from being a teacher, but he could still write, and continued full time in this area.
In 1891, Wells published several essays in Fortnightly Review. His first full length science fiction book was The Time Machine, published in 1895. Wells openly stated that his work was written to influence people's views in various areas, one of which was evolution (Magill 1958, 1137). In many of his works, evolution and the implications of the theory for society are major themes,
Another excellent example of the influence of evolution on literature is Frankenstein. Written by Mary Godwin Shelley, and first published in 1817, her theme is the application of science to life and what can go wrong. Although often not regarded as science fiction, this work is the best extant candidate for the honor of the first true science fiction story. Even the word Frankenstein has become a noun in our vocabulary today, understood by virtually all.
It was not until the Renaissance in the fifteenth century that we began to seriously comprehend the concept of a solar system family of planets. One of the first researchers to scientifically defend a system with a sun at the center and the then known planets traveling around it in circular orbits was Nicholas Copernicus. With the publishing of his On the Revolution of Heavenly Bodies in 1543, the universe as we know it first began to be understood. Men such as Galileo, Kepler and others, though they did not agree with Copernicus in some areas, expanded the heliocentric view. This view was not totally new, and actually was postulated centuries previously by Eratosthenes, Aristarchus and others, but most people, even most learned men, did not accept the heliocentric view of the universe until in the early 1600s (Sagan and Leonard 1972).
The concept of a heliocentric solar system carried with it the realization that the Earth was a globe which was far larger than previously thought. Although, since at least Plato's time, a few thinkers had correctly addressed the shape and even the approximate size of the Earth (Eratosthenes' estimate was close), most of the ancients entertained a view of the universe vastly different from our modern day picture. After these discoveries, it was reasoned that the solar system must be considerably larger than the ancients had assumed. In only Copernicus' day was it generally realized that the planets were not just a few miles away from the Earth's ground surface as historically assumed. Its size was not fully comprehended until the early 1900s when Pluto was discovered. Researchers in the 1700s also discerned that the other planets were in some ways much like the Earth, another revolutionary idea. As Reichen (1963, 53) stated:
The increasing acceptance of the evolutionary theory in the middle of the 1800s spurred on by such workers as Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel and others, brought the belief that just as life on the Earth evolved on its own, life could also have developed on other planets, only in different ways, depending on the surrounding environmental conditions. Humans and animals were no longer seen as the product of an intelligent designer with a loving purpose, but as a result of natural law, chance and the brutal forces of competition which occurred in the impersonal natural world. As Buskirk (1979, 2) stated:
A review of prominent science fiction writers today, including especially Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, finds that in their writings, they make many very definite statements relative to their religious beliefs. They are unequivocally opposed to the creationist's viewpoint and have extensively expressed their opposition to this world view. They are extremely supportive of an atheistic, or at least the non-theistic world view, and essentially espouse the views of evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin and others. This viewpoint includes both an open hostility towards the Judeo-Christian world view and a strong support of the evolutionary worldview.
Buskirk, Michael Van. "Alien: UFOs are Here," CARIS Newsletter. Vol. 3, No. 2,1979 (1-2).
Cantril, Hadley. The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1966.
Jaki, Stanley. The Absolute Beneath the Relative and Other Essays. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.
Magill, Frank N. (ed.) Master Plot Encyclopedia of World Authors. New York, NY:
Salem Press 1958, Reichen, Charles-Albert. A History of Astronomy. Vol. 5, New York, NY: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1st ed., 1963.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York, NY: Random House, 1980.
Verne, Jules. Off On a Comet, A Journey Through Planetary Space. Philadelphia, PA: Claxton, Remen and Haffelfinger, 1878,
Wells, Herbert George. "The First Men in the Moon." in Seven Famous Novels. Garden City, NY: Garden City Pub, Co., 1895.
Wells, Herbert George. "The War of the Worlds," in Seven Famous Novels. Garden City, NY; Garden City Pub. Co., 1895.