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THE INFLUENCE OF EVOLUTION ON SCIENCE FICTION

Jerry Bergman

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:

Much of this literary genre was at first called scientific romances or science novels. Science fiction proper as a separate classification of literature dates back to only about 1926 when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stones Magazine to specialize in literature that he called "scientifiction." Gernsback's successful venture was soon widely imitated. Science fiction has covered many, if not most, scientific innovations long before they were on the drawing boards. Not unexpectedly, surveys have shown that many practicing scientists themselves enjoy science fiction literature, often more than any other type.

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:

Along with the modern realization that there were other "worlds" far away from the Earth came the possibility that living beings may exist on these planets. This in itself did not influence a belief in the view of strange other worlds which is a common topic of science fiction for one important reason: until the turn of the century, it was almost universally believed that God had directly created humans and all life. Hence, if life existed on other planets. God must have created it. Thus, the life there must be similar to that on Earth. Because God was believed to have been a loving heavenly Father, it was incomprehensible that He would create physical creatures on other planets which were grotesque, cruel, or naturally malicious towards the Earth as commonly represented in much early science fiction.

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:

Literature, especially science fiction, served to give the common person this new view of the cosmos and life (see for example Verne, 1878). One of the first popular works about life from other planets was H. G. Wells' War of The Worlds (1895) which told of the story of grotesque monsters with tremendous powers that came to Earth from Mars. The belief that beings inhabited other planets became accepted to the extent that a 1938 fictional radio dramatization of War of the Worlds by Orson Wells was mistakenly understood by many listeners as a genuine news report! The result of this broadcast was that, as one newspaper stated, America "was convulsed by panic and hysteria." Many people believed that the broadcast was real--so much so that hundreds of doctors and nurses called their local hospitals to volunteer their services. Men in the armed forces offered their help, and city officials began to work out mass evacuation plans (Cantril 1966). Some people actually poisoned themselves, preferring to die by their own hands rather than from the ray guns of Martians (Cantril 1966). This incident conveys the fact that many people then had a strong belief in the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds--and that it could be malicious, and in some way very harmful to the people on the Earth. Later, a number of other stories about space travel became popular. Many featured odd, often malicious creatures from other planets, such as those in the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon books and later in their television series.

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.


References

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.

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