Caution Over Evolution: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as a Response to Social Darwinism

H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895, a time well before time travel as we know it was even conceived of. In fact, I suspect that many would happily contend that The Time Machine is the original impetus for the concept that would spawn such popular media as Dr Who and the wider aspect of time travel seen in other science fiction. That being said, time travel isn’t the point of Wells’ novella. Instead, time travel is the frame through which he explores the particular anxieties of his time. Dystopia is a unique genre in that it at once explores the future while reflecting the present. The Time Machine is special in the long list of dystopias because it is one of the first. With that said, regardless of how early it is in the making of dystopia The Time Machines influence reverberates throughout future installments of the genre.

In brief, The Time Machine focuses on the temporal voyages of a wealthy man who travels to the year 802,701 A.D. in a contraption of his own design (Wells 28). In the future, the Time Traveller observes two types of creatures, the Eloi and the Morlocks, who reside in an otherwise empty land in which the structures of long-past humanity litter the ground like so many artifacts. To his horror, he deduces that the Morlocks prey on the Eloi, the latter of which are little more than “fatted cattle” to the nocturnal and largely subterranean Morlocks (Wells 62). The Time Traveller befriends Weena, one of the Eloi, and defends her from the Morlocks. He also travels beyond the time of the Morlocks and Eloi to a time when the earth is nearly devoid of life and eclipses of the sun are so absolute that they block out all light. Eventually, the Time Traveller briefly returns to the present and then once more takes to his time machine to explore the future, this time carrying gear for a long stay and tools to gather concrete proof of his visit to the future. Throughout the novella there is a theme of the descent of man into baser species because of natural selection acting through social pressures. This theme is what is especially reflective of the time in which The Time Machine was written.

1895 was not a terribly interesting year. While various events were taking place in Asia and America, the UK was comparably quiet. A quick goggle search of “1895 in the UK” results in a not-too lengthy list of events; notable among them include the trials and conviction of Oscar Wilde for being indecent (“1895”). While the year was not extraordinarily interesting, the times certainly were; this was a period of growing industrialism, of natural sciences, of evolution, and social inequality. These sorts of things can be glimpsed in the media of their time. Obviously, the inclusion of socially relevant information is especially true of The Time Machine, being both didactic and socially commenting as a dystopia.

In The Time Machine, the most prominent reflections of the time in which it was written are the aspects of social Darwinism present in its speculative future. Wells takes the concept of social Darwinism to the extreme, imagining a future where the different classes of society have become distinct species descendent from modern man. The Time Traveller speculates, “the two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding down towards, or had already arrived at, an altogether new relationship” (Wells 57). By this Wells’ narrator means that social disparity, through the relatively new concept of evolution, has magnified the differences between the socioeconomically separate progenitors of the Morlocks and Eloi and created two separate species with an entirely new relationship.

At the time Wells is writing there is great disparity between the aristocracy and the working class. The middle class, still a relatively new thing in society, is beginning to emerge but only slowly. In the mean time there are factory owners, nobility, and like individuals who are reasonably well off. This upper class was able to languish to varying degrees whilst the majority population toiled in mines, factories, and farms. Put simply, the relationship that humans are moving from is the upper class exploitation of the lower classes for work, food, and resources. Meanwhile, The Time Machine contends that social Darwinism eventually leads this relationship to turn on its head, so that in the future it is the descendants of the lower class that exploit the descendants of the upper class for the one remaining resource: food.

Social Darwinism is the concept that Darwinian evolution, i.e. natural selection, can act on social pressures. Wells takes this to the extreme in that the descendants of the lower classes of society, the Morlocks, become nocturnal and live underground because they evolved to the environment they were socially relegated to. The Time Traveller supposes that this comes from their utilisation of underground space for travel as well as working in factories, arriving at work before the sun and then leaving after it had already set once more (Wells 48). Likewise, the higher classes—or Capitalists, as Wells puts it—became weak and feeble as the Eloi, evolution leading them toward such a state due to their pursuit of “pleasure and comfort and beauty” (Wells 48). Whilst the Eloi devolved, “dwindling in size, strength, and intelligence,” the Morlocks, out of necessity kept their cleverness and strength through the regular maintenance of machinery presumably used to ventilate their subterranean abodes (Wells 49; 79). In Wells’ future, the strong and clever Morlocks, descendent from the poor uneducated working class, eventually came to prey on the Eloi, the descendants of those that once preyed on their progenitors. Only now, instead of social and economic exploitation, the relationship between the two classes—now distinct species—is a middle ground between the relationship between predator and prey and farmer and sheep.

This view of evolution is as extreme as the idea that if a community of humans lived underground they would eventually become more and more suited to being underground as natural selection acted on the population. This is, of course, the general idea behind natural selection and, given enough time and the absence of cultural factors, entirely possible. Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species in 1859. Mere decades later, while Wells was writing The Time Machine, Darwin’s theory of evolution was contested but generally accepted in the learned community. Social Darwinism is the extension of these ideas into the sphere of social pressures. Naturally, these ideas that would eventually spawn controversies such as eugenics would cause a certain amount of anxiety, and it is in The Time Machine that Wells explores such distress.


Works Cited

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. London, England: Penguin, 2005. Print.

“1895 in the United Kingdom.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 November 2015.

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