Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Science of Life (1929-30)

The success of The Outline of History (1920) inspired Wells to undertake two other mammoth projects of total knowledge synthesis: The Science of Life, a sort of ‘Outline of Biology’ published 1929-30 and 1931's The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind, concerning economics, politics and sociology. The former volume was co-written with Julian Huxley and Wells's own son Gip. Like Outline of History it's a massive work. I read it in the ‘Popular Edition’ of 1938 (‘fully revised and brought up to date’), which is a hefty single volume 1599 pages long. One thousand five hundred and ninety-nine pages! All the biological data is here.

The book was a significant success, although not one on the scale of The Outline of History. In his autobiography Huxley recalls that ‘its effects are still manifest in the increased space allotted to biology in the educational curriculum, and the greater interest of the general public in biological facts and their consequences’ [Julian Huxley, Memories (1970)]

It's not really a Wells title, this one. True, he initiated the project, and planned the whole thing in discussion with his collaborators; but in the end (according to Huxley's later estimates) Wells probably wrote about 5% of the whole, with Huxley himself writing roughly 70% and Gip 25% (the distribution of royalties did not reflect this division of labour: Wells took 40% of profits and his co-authors 30% each; but then his was the famous name, and the original idea). It means that we get, amongst other things, celebrated evolutionary scientist Julian Huxley's first compact statement of what evolution is, and it reads very well.

The work first appeared between 1929 and 1920, in thirty-one fortnightly instalments under the title The Science of Life: a summary of contemporary knowledge about life and its possibilities (published by Amalgamated Press) these being bound up in three volumes as the ‘first edition’. It was then reissued in one volume by Cassell in 1931. Cassell took the unusual step of re-serialising the book, because the stock market crash of 1929 had interfered with the commercial possibilities of the former run, reprinting each of its nine constituent ‘books’ separately 1934-1937
I. The living body.
II. Patterns of life
III. Evolution—fact and theory
IV. Reproduction, heredity and the development of sex
V. The history and adventure of life
VI. The drama of life
VII. How animals behave
VIII. Man's mind and behaviour
IX. Biology and the human race
It's still an informative read, and although the science is getting on for nine decades old now, most of it still stands up. The most noticeable difference is that of style, or tone: the prose, whilst always clear and expressive has that patrician flavour that 21st-century pop-sci writers tend to avoid. The book intersperses its technical explanations with quotations from Wordsworth and Shelley, and the later sections stray out of what we would probably think of the proper bailiwick of such a volume—a chapter on the possibility of a World State, presumably part of Wells's 5% (‘The Possibility of One Collective Human Mind and Will’), and a chapter on eugenics treating the subject positively (since Huxley was a notorious eugenicist, I assume this was one of his:
Negative eugenics is the prevention of undesirable births. Positive eugenics is the promotion of desirable births. Except in so far as the private judgments of young people about to marry are concerned, no attempts at positive eugenics are traceable in the world about us. Most young people about to marry seem to find an ounce of flattery, or a trustworthy investment list, more directive than any eugenic ideas. But negative eugenics is already in operation. In several American states surgical sterilization—a very slight operation, the ligaturing of the oviduct or the vas deferens—is performed upon various types of mental defectives incapable of self-control. 6.000 such operations have been performed in California alone and it would be difficult to find fault with the results. That there is pressing need for such negative eugenics in the Atlantic communities. [Science of Life, 9.3.6]
Ugh! I mean, seriously: fucking ugh. But there are less hideous chapters too: on ‘Borderline Science and the Question of Personal Survival’, which is to say souls and surviving death, on ‘Dream Anticipation and Telepathy’ and a long section on morality, which argues we should conduct ourselves with ‘candour’, ‘restraint and poise’, should show consideration for others, avoid repression (‘repressions accumulate below any line of conduct continually followed’ leading to ‘lapses’ although ‘two thirds of their harmfulness vanishes if this is recognised’ [8.51.4]) and also that we should strive to overcome our tendencies to ‘evasion, indolence and fear’. Which sounds like a pretty good ethical strategy, I'd say.

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