Horsfall, H.G. Wells, & Degeneration

Thomas Horsfall and H.G. Wells, the science-fiction novelist and Horsfall’s contemporary, held similar views on the importance of educating the working classes. As he wrote in The Outline of History (1920), Wells believed that as time goes on, “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Maintaining the class divides and keeping the working classes uneducated, Wells believed, meant flirting with disaster. Studying his work, especially his 1895 The Time Machine, alongside Horsfall, however, reveals something even more terrifying moving beneath the surface of Horsfall reform work: the fear of degeneration, one of many popular pseudo-scientific ideas (like mesmerism and phrenology) in the late 19th century.


Sir Leslie Ward, Sir (Edwin) Ray Lankester, 1905.

Degeneration,” which stemmed from a now-debunked reading of Darwinism, is sort of a reverse-evolution: it is the notion that organisms can devolve to be simpler rather than more complex. One proponent of this theory was the British zoologist Sir Ray Lankester, who argued in his 1880 essay, “Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism,” that mollusks must be the product of some more biological complicated creature devolving over time. Lankester combined this theory with racialism and argued that degeneration could happen to human beings and human cultures as well –  populations could become deviant and criminal, and a once-mighty and sophisticated culture could devolve into barbarism. Lankester’s portrait, seen above, illustrates both the supposedly scientific and biological aspects of this theory – he is depicted with several animals, which he is presumably studying – as well as Lankester’s importance in Britain at the time, since Vanity Fair published a picture of him as "Sir" Ray Lankester. The racist implications of all of this cannot be overstated, of course, and while we know the theory of degeneration as it relates to humans to be false today, the fear of it was very real at the end of the 19th century. Degeneration would have captured Horsfall’s attention, too, whose concerns about the increasingly “excessive use of beer and spirits and tobacco and opium” suggests he worried about the downward direction of the British people ("The Study of Beauty in Large Towns").


H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1956 illustrated edition

Horsfall’s Manchester Art Gallery, then, could be seen as an attempt to educate people out of degeneration. In his 1895 The Time Machine, however, H.G. Wells – who in fact studied under and remained friends with Lankester – offers a vision of a future where reformers like Horsfall failed in their attempt to elevate the working class to their middle-class understandings of morality and culture. In The Time Machine, Wells looks 800,000 years ahead and imagines that humanity has degenerated into two distinct species: the beautiful, peaceful Eloi, and the beastlike Morlocks who live underground. This vision of degeneration is grounded in socioeconomics more than it is in biology, however, since Wells writes that the Eloi-Morlock split followed from the class divide between the capitalists and the workers that was so prominent throughout the 19th century. Initially, the book’s protagonist, the “Time Traveler,” believes that the Eloi, “pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty” above ground, continue to oppress the Morlocks, who toil away beneath the Earth to support their way of life. Even here Wells echoes Lankester, writing that the decadent lifestyles of those above ground “led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength, and intelligence” that resulted in them becoming the Eloi.


George Pal, The Time Machine, 1960. 

This still from the 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine illustrates the distinctness of the Eloi and the Morlocks, though the Eloi appear far more human in the film than they do in Wells's book.

Soon, however, when he witnesses the Morlocks rise up to cannibalize the Eloi, the Time Traveler discerns that his previous understanding was horribly incorrect. While Eloi remain the descendants of the capitalist classes and the Morlocks the descendants of the working class, 800,000 years after industrialization, the power dynamics had shifted. The Time Traveller realizes that, after millennia of decadent living, the “Eloi were mere fatted cattle,” farmed by “the ant-like Morlocks [who] preserved and preyed upon” them. Combining degeneration theory with his own socialist politics, then, Wells offers a stark prediction to British elites: if reformers like Horsfall fail, he seems to argue, if capitalists do not end the rampant inequality and bridge the class divide, the elites will degenerate into weakness and impotence to be consumed by those they oppressed for so long. In Wells’s vision, then, Horsfall and other reformers were not just trying to save the working classes – they were trying to save themselves.

Written by Emmett Schlenz



Horsfall, H.G. Wells, & Degeneration