'Administrative Nihilism': The Evolution of Ethics in Utopian (Science) Fiction After Darwin

Models for ideal societies, read as social commentaries as well as blueprints for the future, have been written at least since Plato's Republic. Thomas More gave this thread of intellectual history a name when he called his contribution Utopia. While eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century utopian thinking still corresponded with Newtonian physical science, Darwin's theory of evolution transformed the nature of the genre. Prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), it was possible to speculate that humankind might undergo fundamental biological change through the transmission of acquired characteristics or the atrophy of organs or limbs from disuse; Auguste Comte, for example, forecast female self-fertilization--an idea borrowed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Herland (1915)--but these changes only assured the greater perfection of humanity and buttressed the prevailing assumption that the greater purpose of humanity was moral. Vulgarized Darwinism made real the prospect of human evolution and degeneration in a universe that was basically amoral. For Marx, Darwinism strengthened his conviction that revolutionary struggle, not gradual reform, was inherent in nature; for Bagehot, Spencer, Froude, and Kingsley it was proof that nature enjoined the powerful (white, Christian male) to dominate and only the fittest of them to survive; for Arnold, Tennyson, Clough and Hardy it produced an abiding sense of pessimism which was variously overcome by reaffirmation of Faith, Culture, Nature and Art; for scientists and philosophers it offered the possibility of a new individual with different physical and psychical facilities, ever progressing--but to what end? That social Darwinism in many of its forms was a distortion of Darwin's evolutionary theory is irrelevant. Phrases such as the "struggle for existence" came to imply that conflict was embedded in human nature, while the will and intellect were devalued and debased.

Once the humanist belief in the essential goodness and perfectibility of humanity was refuted in favour of an arbitrary and non-directional evolutionary process in which humankind is no longer central to the schema, any attempt to ground morality in a notion of sanctified 'human nature' was seriously undermined. On the Origin of Species supplants Genesis as the authoritative model, metaphor or myth of creation. 'What can I know' and 'how should I live' are questions which are variable and subjective (if not unanswerable) in a post-Darwinian dispensation. Darwin eliminated religious teleological explanations by arguing that species arose by purely causal processes and in so doing left humankind without a plausible external ideological framework in which to operate. Dostoevsky, for one, grapples with the articulation of a satisfactory response to the nature of evil in Brothers Karamazov. Ivan worries that "without God all things are permitted." Ivan's angst is increasingly typical in the period; for if all things are permitted and are equally valuable, then the very concept of value begins to lose significance.

We can trace a growing recognition of the ideological implications of Darwin's theory in the ways in which it is coopted in utopian writing. I will look briefly at Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895) and particularly at The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) to examine how notions of order and progress are affected by Darwin's theories; and how eugenics and the accompanying fear of devolution (along with a growing mistrust of science itself) inform a growing sense of alienation. Moreover, I will analyze these works in order to understand how what Thomas Henry Huxley called "administrative nihilism" was combated and what literary attempts were made to restore an ethical frame to social and scientific discourse.