Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939)

This brisk book consists of 26 short chapters, surveying the world and pointing the way forward as Wells saw it. Published in August 1939, it went through three editions in its first fortnight, so it clearly found an audience. Beatrice Webb, who had long since become reconciled with Wells after their Fabian falling-out, recorded in her diary: ‘it is the work of genius in its indictment of western civilisation’. She wrote to Wells that she and her husband Sidney, who was recovering from a stroke, had read the book ‘with unlimited admiration’.
§ 1. Preliminary Statement
§ 2. Biology Invades History
§ 3. How Species Survive
§ 4. History Becomes Ecology
§ 5. Union Now?
§ 6. What Is Democracy?
§ 7. Where Is Democracy?
§ 8. What Man Has To Learn
§ 9. Sample Of A Generation
§ 10. Estimating Hope
§ 11. Survey Of Existing Forces
§ 12. The Jewish Influence
§ 13. Christendom
§ 14. What Is Protestantism?
§ 15. The Nazi Religion
§ 16. Totalitarianism
§ 17. The British Oligarchy
§ 18. Shintoism
§ 19. The Chinese Outlook
§ 20. Subject Peoples
§ 21. Communism And Russia
§ 22. American Mentality
§ 23. Three Factors In Everyone
§ 24. Summary
§ 25. Impossibility Of Utopianism
§ 26. Decadent World
I wonder (though I can find no evidence to support the supposition) whether the American edition was renamed The Fate of Man because its publishers were worried US readers would neither know nor care who Homer Sapiens was, much as the sixteenth James Bond movie had its title changed from Licence Revoked to Licence to Kill, because American test audiences didn't know what ‘revoked’ meant. I daresay I'm being unfair.

It's a compact and readable book: short chapters, direct journalistic prose and some pithy and memorable turns of phrase. Of course, the dedicated reader of Wells through the 1930s will find nothing new in it, but it's a handy summary work. And to cut to the chase: Wells thinks our fate will probably be dire, although he also thinks it's still not to late to avert catastrophe and build towards a global future.

The books starts by describing war as a consequence of the evolutionary and biological success of our species: ‘primitive war was a necessity forced upon the human community by biological success through the production of a surplus of young males ... You can write human history in a variety of ways, but one way of writing it would be to consider how, age after age, humanity has met the problem of What to do with out sons’ [4].

History, according to Wells's slogan, is ecology. The future has become a general issue for the world, in a way that didn't use to be the case (‘the intelligence of the 1890s attached much more importance to the past and much less to the probabilities of the days to come, than do any contemporary minds now’ [9]), and the best possibility for the future is not the partial democracy currently signified by the word, but the full democracy of the egalitarian World State.
If democracy means economic justice and the attainment of that universal sufficiency that science assures us is possible today; if democracy means the intensest possible fullness of knowledge for everyone who desires to know and the greatest possible freedom of criticism and individual self-expression for anyone who desires to object; if democracy means a community saturated with the conception of a common social objective and with an educated will like the will of a team of football players to co-operate willingly and understandingly upon that objective; if democracy means a complete and unified police control throughout the world, to repress the financial scramble and gangster violence which constitute the closing phase of the sovereign state and private ownership system; then we have in democracy a conception of life for which every intelligent man and woman on earth may well be prepared to live, fight or die, as circumstances may require. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 6]
Wells thinks youth and (in a stirring little chapter) hope are on the side of the angels, where this future is concerned; but then he lists a variety of forces liable to block his much-wished-for consummation. This where things get tricky.

The main obstacle, he thinks, is religion, expanding the term to encompass both traditional faiths and political fanaticism. He starts with the Jews, and the reader's heart sinks just a little bit. Because, although Wells declares himself broadly sympathetic to the difficulties Judaism faces, he can't seem to shake his belief that the Jews themselves are at root to blame for their own persecution by the stubbornness with which they refuse to assimilate to Gentile society. He quotes a Reform Rabbi, Lewis Browne, to the effect that ‘Gentile intolerance makes the Jews and keeps them together’ in order to contradict him: ‘I argue that the Jews make themselves and that Gentile intolerance is a response to the cult of the Chosen People’, and he adds with a breeziness that has aged very badly indeed, ‘the hostile reaction to the cult of the Chosen People is spreading about the entire world today. ’
No country wants them on such conditions. Why should any country want these inassimilable aliens bent on preserving their distinctness? Palestine is an object lesson. Until they are prepared to assimilate and abandon the Chosen People idea altogether, their troubles are bound to intensify. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 12]
Wells can fuck off with this sort of ‘analysis’, he really can. Although he's harder, in one sense, on Christianity, sketching its evolution as a faith in terms of a vast higgled-piggled accumulation of often incompatible elements (‘century by century, the great fabric of the faith goes on accumulating. It has become a sort of Cumberland Market of religious notions’) and asking, in exasperated mode: ‘why do intelligent people accept this strange heap of mental corruption as a religion and a rule of life?’ [13]. From here it's on to Nazism as a quasi-religion, and Wells's analysis becomes, shall we say, spicier:
It is plain that the Fuehrer is insane; he shows all the symptoms of a recognized form of sex mania, the jealous fear and hate of the great raping black man—who in his case becomes the Jew. Since in his case his obsession endangers the lives of people about him, he should be certified and put under restraint. ... Hitler's insanity would have had little effect upon the world if it had not slotted very easily into certain essential needs of the German situation. But for that he might be shouting, frothing and orating in a madhouse at the present time. But it happened that he supplied just the inflexible spearhead, the inhuman pertinacity, required to give extreme expression to the feelings of a humiliated and outrageously treated people. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 15]
No less a person than Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons took official exception to Wells's comments, rebuking him that talking thus about a sitting Head of State was outrageous, insulting and counter-productive. Not a good look, I must say, defending Hitler only months before Hitler invades Poland and sets-off the most catastrophic war humanity has yet seen. But hindsight is easy, of course. On the bright side: Wells's comments here and elsewhere earned him a prominent place in Hitler's notorious Black Book: he was listed to be eliminated by not one but three branches of the German military machine, Amtsgruppen VIG, IIB4 and IIIA5, which is quite the achievement.

In Chapter 17, ‘The British Oligarchy’, the English aristocracy is treated as a kind of cult, which is an interesting perspective. Then the book jumps via a summary of Shintoism, and some startling anti-Japanese racism (‘their lapses into moody murderousness ... an unintelligent blood-thirstiness is in their nature and tradition’ [17]) to China, Buddhism and Taoism. Wells is grandly dismissive of these ancient, widely-followed religions, paths that many millions have found wise and sustaining, and whilst he's at it, he manages to insert a sideswipe at Aldous Huxley. So that's all good:
Essentially these religions are behavior systems—or misbehavior systems. Taoism is frankly anti-social, an imaginative dissipation of the mind and will, and Buddhism is at least a withdrawal from life. They are both what it is now fashionable to call escape systems. Their teaching finds its Western equivalent in the ‘detachment’ of Mr. Aldous Huxley. Both foster religious orders and inflict a great multitude of monks and nuns upon the community, and neither has anything of importance to contribute to that intelligent reconditioning of the human mind which the present world situation demands. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 19]
On the subject of Black Africans, Wells is less racist than in some of his earlier works, and trades only in positive stereotypes (although such things are, of course, still stereotypes):
His bitterest detractors are unable to deny the Negro an enviable sense of rhythm, natural good-humor and an instinct for civility, a sense of fun, brilliant mimicry, rich artistic aptitudes. And more than that. In the United States, in spite of the severest handicaps, black men have been able to struggle up to do distinguished scientific and literary work, and in South Africa it has been found necessary to protect skilled white labor from the competition of able colored people by discriminating against the apprenticing of natives to skilled trades and restricting ‘certificates of competency’ in various mechanical employments to whites. Obviously you cannot put up barriers to protect yourself from the colored man and at the same time declare that he is incurably your inferior. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 20]
A good point. The book ends on a downbeat note: Wells's earlier optimism has deserted him. Utopia is unachievable, western civilisation is in a state of decadence, ‘actual warfare, red war, on a planetary scale’ [26] is about to engulf the globe, and this in turn could bring back ‘the Dark Ages over again, a planetary instead of a merely European Dark Ages’. Even if it doesn't, Wells, with unusual accuracy of prophesy, thinks that the coming war will lead to greater global divisions, and less chance of a World State.
The world emerging from the next great war, then, will be a tougher world, more disunited than ever, abounding still more in concealed aims and secret preparations and the fears and suspicions they engender. What else can it be? [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 26]
Cold War, here we come.

1 comment:

  1. Wells can fuck off with this sort of ‘analysis’, he really can.

    ** Voltaire, Twain, Lovecraft--he was hardly alone among great intellectuals/writers who expressed such views and they were not the result of inexperience. This part is especially valuable because supremacist ideology remains a big problem. White supremacy is talked about all the time, but not other kinds. "The whole question turns upon the Chosen People idea, which this remnant cherishes and sustains, which it is the "mission" of this remnant to cherish and sustain. It is difficult not to regard that idea as a conspiracy against the rest of the world. ...Almost every community with which the orthodox Jews have come into contact has sooner or later developed and acted upon that conspiracy idea. A careful reading of the Bible does nothing to correct it; there indeed you have the conspiracy plain and clear. It is not simply the defensive conspiracy of a nice harmless people anxious to keep up their dear, quaint old customs that we are dealing with. It is an aggressive and vindictive conspiracy. People are apt to catch up and repeat phrases about the nobility of the Book of Isaiah on the strength of a few chance quotations torn from their context. But let the reader take that book and read it for himself straightforwardly, and note the setting of these fragments. Much of it is ferocious; extraordinarily like the rantings of some Nazi propagandist. The best the poor Gentile can expect is to play the part of a Gibeonite a hewer of wood and a drawer of water for the restored elect. It is upon that and the like matter that the children of the orthodox have been fed. It is undeniable. There are the books for everyone to read. It is not tolerance but stupidity to shut our eyes to their quality."