Unique No More: Wells, Pearson, and the Critique of Humanism in ‘The War of the Worlds’
When Darwin first published his novel, The Origin of Species, in 1859, it was met with great controversy and backlash, sparking in the process a heated debate between scientists, religious scholars, and the general public over its implications and applications to our human society. His ideas of Natural Selection and “survival of the fittest” went against what had been believed by the majority for millennia–that humans were made in God’s image, exempt from nature, and therefore were superior to all other living kind on Earth. Darwin’s theory challenged that established belief and forced many to question their scientific understanding, religious beliefs, and ancestral lines. However, there soon appeared an answer to the confusion in the form of “Humanism,” or the “solidarity of humanity in the struggle with its environment. (Pearson 29)” Humanists were able to mold Darwin’s theory to fit their idea that while humans may be governed by nature, they too hold power over their fates. However, the author, H.G. Wells, in his novel, The War of the Worlds, writes of a foreign and threatening species, one with no relation to humans at all, that exhibits the same behaviors and actions that proponents of humanism argue are unique to humans. The scholar, Aaron Worth, claims that H.G Wells wrote his novel as a way of criticizing the British Empire’s imperialist expansion into Asia and Africa; however, one could take it one step further and say that underneath H.G Wells’ warning against imperialism there is another criticism–a dismantling of the humanist theory.
In his analysis, The Grammar of Science, Karl Pearson talks about the idea of humanism, a theory that had existed since Renaissance times, but was then strengthened and used by those disturbed by Darwin’s evolutionary theories to separate and allow humans to bend the laws of nature to their own whims. He talks of a “third factor of evolution…the profit that arises to humanity at large from common organization against organic and inorganic foes.” (Pearson 29) He gives an example of a “failure…to master their physical environment” that will lead to “famine.” (Pearson 29) By joining together, humans would, in theory, hold as much responsibility for their rise and fall as the laws of nature. They triumph over foes and struggle when mistakes are made. Instead of simply being governed by the laws of nature, such as the natural selection described by Darwin, humans, proponents of humanism argue, are also governed by their actions. They have “human control over man’s physical and biological environment,” (Pearson 29) something that no other living creature on Earth possesses.
However, Wells’ writing of fictional Martians may very well discredit that theory. In Aaron Worth’s analysis, “Imperial Transmissions: H. G. Wells, 1897–1901”, he claims that “Wells elaborates monitory parables that link near-infinite imperial expansion with the threat of imperial extinction. (Worth 69)” He asserts that War of the Worlds was written as a warning–the British empire was engaged in a massive colonization and expansion campaign and Wells believed that such an operation would lead to the ultimate extinction of the civilization. In fact, as Worth points out, “the British Empire is curiously absent from The War of the Worlds…surely because the British Empire is present in counterfactual form in the novel, symbolized as the Martians’ invading force; England, in effect, is confronted with its own possible (imperial) future. (Worth 71)” The roles are reversed in Wells’ novel–instead of Britain being the all-mighty power, they are the conquered nations, the unassuming natives confronted by an all-too-powerful threat.
And, while Wells’ martian forces were most likely intended to represent the British Empire in his allegory on imperialism, there is another group that they could also represent–the human race as a whole. Within moments of their arrival, the people of Earth witness firsthand what happens when another species joins together to defeat foes. By harnessing the power of nature, the Martians “slay men so swiftly and so silently” with a deadly heat ray. The narrator doesn’t know exactly how such a deadly machine was created and used, but based on his hypothesis of a “parabolic mirror” reflecting “heat, and invisible, instead of visible light,” (Wells 28) we can infer that it had to do with the manipulation of nature–an ability that supporters of humanism only attribute to humans.
The evidence of the Martians’ ability to manipulate their environment, however, does not stop there. The narrator witnesses a Martian deploying capsules of “Black Smoke,” which upon being released,“hissed against the walls, smashed all the windows it touched, and scalded the curate’s hand” (Wells 116). This fictionous poisonous gas causes devastation to the world around our narrator, killing all those who encounter it on ground level and proves to be a powerful weapon, especially when combined with the heat ray introduced earlier in the novel. Comparable to the mustard gas used during WWI, this poison uses the same means of delivery as how Nature delivers us with oxygen–through the air. The Martians took a harmless feature of nature, one that surrounds humans and is unavoidable, and turned it into a harmful and deadly force through the use of a scientific and technological weapon.
We see in documentation of the British imperial movement that the majority of their success came from the careful manipulation of nature through the use of advanced technology. According to the Saylor Foundation, Britain’s use of “steam engines and steel ships allowed imperial forces to penetrate inland using the rivers that had previously been unnavigable. (Saylor 5)” If the laws of nature were the only factors in play, the British would not have been able to access and conquer the civilizations protected by dangerous rivers. However, as humanism argues, the ability to have “human control over… [the] environment” (Pearson 29) made it so that humans (in this case the British imperial forces), were not hindered by the natural formations of the region–their mastery of technology and manipulation of the environment made them superior beings…just like the “heat ray” of the Martians made them more powerful than the people of Earth in The War of the Worlds.
However, humanism concedes that not always does man’s control over his surroundings lead to ultimate success. While Pearson mentions an example of a famine in his The Grammar of Science, the Saylor Foundation brings up a real life example of what happened to Britain and their force during their quest for Africa. While “the steamship aided European mastery over much of Asia;… in Africa, Europeans were still stymied by malaria.” (Saylor 5) Having moved too quickly into the African continent, toting guns and advanced technology, Britain did not account for the risk of unknown illnesses befalling them. This wasn’t simply a case of Darwin’s natural selection, for without the conscience choice to move men from Europe to Africa in an effort to gain control over resources and land, the British imperial forces would not have ever been exposed to malaria. It took the collective failure of humans to properly prepare combined with the dangerous diseases present in Africa to lead to the infection and initial failure of Britain’s invasion of Africa.
Therefore, it’s not just the Martians’ success in harnessing nature to defeat foes that forces us to question the idea of humanism, but also their failure at the end of the novel. Humanism admits that a collective failure can most definitely lead to great consequences, and the Martians, like the British in Africa during their colonization, certainly did face ramifications. The novel does not end with some great battle between the aliens and humans; rather, it ends with the simplest of solutions: bacteria. Having not accounted for foreign diseases and microscopic dangers during their invasion of the planet, the Martians were “slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared.” (Wells 168) Wells most likely was using this demise to show that the overexpansion of the British empire was conscience suicide, but he inadvertently also made an important comparison between humans and the Martian race, one crucial to the argument against humanism. Like the humans in Pearson’s example of the famine, or Saylor Foundation’s discussion of the failure of the British empire, the Martians were subjected to the same consequences as man–their fates were not simply governed by nature, they were decided by the consequences of their actions and their conscience decision to defy the laws of nature and enter into an area that they would have never naturally come upon.
Proponents of humanism based their arguments off the concept solidarity– that humans are the only living things on Earth to possess a skill or trait that allows for them to manipulate nature’s laws and forces. Humanism uses this idea to accept Darwin’s controversial theory on evolution– such a theory can still exist in their natural world, because human solidarity exempts them from the known laws of nature, of natural selection, of “survival of the fittest.” All other creatures, because they do not possess the same solidarity, are subject to nature’s ways. But, Wells shows that this may not actually be the case. While Martians are technically not of this Earth, and there is a possibility that some can argue that this fact means a comparison between Earthly humans and alien Martians cannot be made, there is no denying that it weakens the foundations of the humanist argument. If a fiction author can so easily imagine another creature possessing superior traits, it is quite possible that another creature, perhaps even one of Earth, is also on the same level. For once, in War of the Worlds, the tables have turned on humans–our belief that nothing is greater than us is severely contested when the new arrivals in the novel so easily take us down. Humanism was an accepted solution to the conflicts between traditional religious beliefs and Darwin’s modern theories, but after Wells’ allegorical representation of the British empire in the form of cruel space invaders, perhaps another way of merging religion and scientific thought needs to be made.
Ultimately, the largest critique against humanism in The War of the Worlds is not simply the fact that a species separate from humanity has the capacity to possess the same traits as humans. No, it has to do more with the entire idea of controlling nature. No matter how many examples are given for the manipulations of surroundings; whether you are examining the Martians’ heat rays and poisonous fog or the British’s steamships and guns, there never seems to be a permanent solution. Yes, the Martians and humans found a way to bypass the laws of nature for a moment. They created great clouds of poison, travelled up unforgiving rivers. They defeated foes through superior technology. But in the end, they were met with the same fate–eventually nature caught up to them and took them out with the most simple of threats: disease. Humanism allows for the possibility of failure, but for those who argue for the theory, such failure is only through one path–a collective failure. They attempt to keep the control within the hands of humans. But disease can wipe out one individual or many; you can collectively fail to protect yourself, but you can’t collectively fail to stop disease–it will occur with or without you. So while the idea of an inhuman species possessing the same traits that humanists argue are unique to humans in itself dismantles the theory of Humanism, it is the demise, and what facilitated it, of the Martians in The War of the Worlds, that ultimately challenges Humanism. Control of nature, no matter who supposedly holds it, is as fictional as the alien monsters described by H.G Wells.
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