Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Mankind in the Making (1903)

A good portion of Wells's Experiment in Autobiography concerns his years as a Fabian, which group he joined in 1903, and from which he resigned in 1908. A short period, perhaps, but very important to Wells in lots of ways. He was, at first, enthusiastic: attended meetings and delivered papers on what we would nowadays call collectivisation, the consolidation of private smallholdings into larger nationalised farms and factories. This research, he says, was behind The Food of the Gods (serialized in 1903 and published as a book in 1904), ‘which began with a wild burlesque of the change of scale produced by scientific men and ended in the heroic struggle of the rare new big-scale way of living against the teeming small-scale life of the earth.’ He adds that ‘nobody saw the significance of it’ and ‘it left some of its readers faintly puzzled.’ Maybe fiction was too distracting a mode for these ‘researches’.
The more formal research for the realization of the New Republic was pursued in Mankind in the Making. I was realizing that the correlative of a new republic was a new education and this book is a discursive examination, an all too discursive examination of the formative elements in the social magma. [Wells, Experiment in Autobiography, 559]
The result presents itself as a development of the arguments in Wells's surprise hit Anticipations, although it had markedly less impact than the earlier book, largely I suspect because it is simply not as good. Mankind in the Making is prolix where the first book was tight, underpowered and diffusely distracted by the minutiae of its own argument. The Experiment in Autobiography, with really quite remarkable honesty, characterises this as ‘my style at its worst and my matter at its thinnest, and quoting it makes me feel very sympathetic with those critics who, to put it mildly, restrain their admiration for me.’ It's hard to disagree.

Since this book is sometimes taken as evidence that Wells abandoned eugenics almost as soon as he took it up, it's worth looking into that topic in more detail. It is certainly true that through the Fabians Wells had met and befriended Graham Wallas, and it was in part through discussion and correspondence with him that Wells wrote the individual papers that make up Mankind in the Making; his influence being most pronounced in the earlier chapters.
Chapter 1: The New Republic
Chapter 2: The Problem of the Birth Supply
Chapter 3: Certain Wholesale Aspects of Man-Making
Chapter 4: The Beginning of the Mind and Language
Chapter 5: The Man-Making Forces of the Modern State
Chapter 6: Schooling
Chapter 7: Political and Social Influences
Chapter 8: The Cultivation of the Imagination
Chapter 9: The Organization of Higher Education
Chapter 10: Thought in the Modern State
Chapter 11: The Man's Own Share
Very broadly, Wallas argued that reformers' efforts needed to be directed towards nurture rather than nature: towards education and re-education rather than eugenics and selective breeding. The slackness of Mankind in the Making is in part explicable by the slowness with which Wells integrated these new ideas into his worldview, or perhaps indexes his reluctance fully to accept the case. Although he had himself been a teacher, and although his own career had grown out of education, Wells didn't really have the patience properly to embrace the slowly-slowly gradualist model of social improvement. His writing prefers some sudden lightning-strike that instantly disposes of all the clotted backhistory of inequality and squalor, as happens magically in In the Days of the Comet (1906), or (in a rather different way) in the novel he was working on at the same time as drafting these pieces, The Food of the Gods (1904). And whilst Wallas's influence means that Mankind in the Making does downplay Anticipations's eugenics line, this is not because Wells has turned against the concept. Rather it's because he doesn't think we know enough to be able to apply it effectively.

‘Chapter 2: The Problem of the Birth Supply’ begins by asking, in a manner indicative of a writer keen to sidestep the sentimental reaction sweet little babies tend to evoke in people: ‘how much may we hope, now or at a later time, to improve the supply of that raw material which is perpetually dumped upon our hands?’ Dumped: right. It's almost as if we're not talking about living, breathing human beings.

And that's because, well, we're not. Not really, not according to Mankind in the Making. This is a book that takes it as axiomatic that population is a burden, rather than a resource—what we could call the old Malthusian error. I don't want to derail my discussion here with a lengthy digression, but I think it's fair to say that Malthus's gloomy prophecies of global collapse have not come to pass. It is true, of course, that more people put more strain on resources; but the element missing from Malthus's analysis is that more people also provide the solution to that strain. Only people can solve the problems caused by more people, and a larger population provides a richer supply of that essential problem-solving resource. Wells's simply does not take the force of Ruskin's core insight that the only wealth is life. For him wealth is productivity, money (there are a great many fiduciary specifics in Mankind in the Making) and efficiency. For the purposes of Wells's argument in this book humanity is a mere dead weight to be manipulated, with only the best portions to be ‘made’ into something worthwhile.

Really, Mankind in the Making's question is not whether but how best can eugenics manage the transition from homo sapiens to the Wellsian homo utopiens. His view is that we do not yet have a good enough grasp of all the variables to be sure of achieving desirable ends this way. It's not, to repeat myself, that Wells repudiates eugenics: if we could be ‘clear what points to breed for and what points to breed out’, then we would be entirely justified in doing so; and he endorses the notion that certain hereditary diseases should indeed be ‘bred out’ from the population—for example, he reports disapprovingly that two deaf people were married in Saffron Walden in September 1902, and insists that the New Republic ought not to allow such things [Mankind, 66]. But, he worries that there are just too many variables to mean that we can be sure selective breeding will definitely improve the race.

The book breaks the topic down into: the positive traits beauty, health, capacity, genius and what he calls ‘“energy” or “go”’; and the negative traits criminality and alcoholism. None of these, taking them each in turn, are simple: a criminal may exhibit positive traits such as daring and ingenuity alongside the negative ones of amorality and social delinquency, and to breed out the latter may breed out the former. Not that Wells is advancing a more socially progressive agenda; in on the contrary.
The “perfect” health of a negro may be a quite dissimilar system of reactions to the “perfect health” of a vigorous white; you may blend them only to create an ailing mass of physiological discords. [Mankind, 49]
In some ways this is more racist than anything in Anticipations, since it both assumes that ‘race’ embodies a kind of biological fixity and that miscegenation must degrade the species. ‘The problems of the foreign immigrant and of racial intermarriage loom upon us’ Wells says a little later [Mankind, 67], sounding every inch the reactionary. He adds that the lack of ‘certainty’ means ‘there is nothing for it’ but ‘to leave these things to individual experiment’ for the time being, although ‘prompt and vigorous research’ must perforce be undertaken into these questions. So far from repudiating eugenics, Mankind in the Making calls, with manifest reluctance, for its postponement until such time as science can work out how to prosecute it effectively.
This missing science of heredity, this unworked mine of knowledge on the borderland of biology and anthropology, which for all practical purposes is as unworked now as it was in the days of Plato, is, in simple truth, ten times more important to humanity than all the chemistry and physics, all the technical and industrial science that ever has been or ever will be discovered. [Mankind, 72]
In the meantime, Wells turns his attention to educating the stock we have. He has a number of practical suggestions to this end, not all of which have aged well. First, pre-school: here the young child requires ‘constant loving attention’ which ‘is to be got only from a mother or from some well-affected girl or woman’ (so not, we can take it, from a father or well-affected boy or man). He has a real bee in his bonnet about the evils of adults using baby-talk with their children, a thing which must on no account be permitted: ‘those who are most in the child’s hearing should endeavour to speak—even when they are not addressing the child—deliberately and clearly. All authorities are agreed upon the mischievous effect of what is called “baby talk”.’ He goes on and on about this, with a sternness that seems, to put it mildly, misplaced:
When a child says to its mother, “Me go mome,” it is doing its best to speak English, and its remark should be received without worrying comment; but when a mother says to her child, “Me go mome,” she is simply wasting an opportunity of teaching her child its mother-tongue. One sympathizes with her all too readily, one understands the sweetness to her of these soft, infantile mispronunciations; but, indeed, she ought to understand; it is her primary business to know better than her feelings in this affair. [Mankind, 124]
That's telling them! Wells also had a fixed idea that children do not understand abstractions: ‘counting should be taught be means of small cubes, which the child can arrange and rearrange in groups. It should have at least over a hundred of these cubes—if possible a thousand’. Now I must say that, speaking as the father of two children, I doubt that filling my house with thousands of small cubes would result in the creation of two mathematical geniuses and strongly suspect it would lead to cubes being scattered everywhere in every room, clogging my vacuum cleaner and causing pain to the naked soles of my feet as I pad blearily downstairs in the morning to make tea. More practically, I doubt Wells's assertion that young children cannot handle abstractions: is there any actual research into child learning that supports this claim?

He is more sensible on schooling, which he thinks should teach the basics of reading and writing, instill espirit de corps and allow pupils to explore extensive libraries to uncover science for themselves. Then again, reasonableness here is never very far away from sheer bug-eyed ranting, as with this attack on the state of national education in the early 1900s.
There grows a fine crop of Quack Schools; schools organized on lines of fantastic extravagance, in which bee-keeping takes the place of Latin, and gardening supersedes mathematics, in which boys play tennis naked to be cured of False Shame ... The subjects of study in these schools come and go like the ravings of a disordered mind; “Greek History” (in an hour or so a week for a term) is followed by “Italian Literature,” and this gives place to the production of a Shakesperian play that ultimately overpowers and disorganizes the whole curriculum. [Mankind, 228-29]
You really do have to think Wells could have found worthier targets for his scorn than nude tennis, surely not a pastime that ever amounted to a national problem (did any actual school ever actually advocate it I wonder?)—and it seems to me that describing a curriculum that follows a history lesson with two lessons on literature as ‘the ravings of a disordered mind’ is more than a little de trop. On the topic of sex education, and perhaps surprisingly, Wells advocates censorship: art and literature should be ‘limited’ to ‘the sphere permissible to the growing youth and “young person”.’ To avoid ambiguity he adds: ‘yes. I am on the side of the Puritans here, unhesitatingly.’ In Chapter 9 ‘The Organization of Higher Education’ Wells proposes fifteen as an age at which inferior children should be syphoned-off ‘into employment suited to their capacity, employment which should not carry with it any considerable possibility of prolific marriage’ [Mankind, 313]. Enjoy your lives as neutered shop-assistants or street-cleaners, kids! The cleverer ones should go into university, and so develop (in Chapter 10) into citizens of the New Republic.

At this point, and in what is, at the very least, a failure in absolute objectivity, Wells launches into a lengthy disquisition on the importance of literature. Great writers are vital, he insists, for the intellectual life of the Republic, and accordingly it is a scandal that writers are compelled to earn money by constantly writing books and articles.
“No book, no income” is practically what the world says to an author, and the needy authors make a pace the independent follow; there is no respect for fine silences, if you cease you are forgotten. The literature of the past hundred years is unparalleled in the world’s history in this feature that the greater portion of it is or has been written under pressure. It was the case with Scott, the case with Dickens, Tennyson, even with Browning, and a host of other great contributors to the edifice. No one who loves Dickens and knows anything of the art he practised but deplores that evil incessant demand that never permitted him to revise his plans, to alter, rearrange and concentrate, that never released him from the obligation to touch dull hearts and penetrate thick skins with obtrusive pathos and violent caricature. [Mankind, 380]
Wells's solution is to subsidize writers to produce as little or as much as they like with a nationally endowed guaranteed income of ‘£800 or £1000’ annually. Wells can hardly pretend to be a neutral party where this proposal is concerned, and the significant quantity of text he gives over to discussing it really does look like special pleading. He even acknowledges as much: ‘it may seem to the reader that all this insistence upon the supreme necessity for an organized literature springs merely from the obsession of a writer by his own calling.’ Luckily, though, he has a persuasive rebuttal to such insinuations: ‘but, indeed, that is not so’ [Mankind, 389]. So there we are.

Then, abruptly, Mankind in the Making ends, with a peroration to Youth (‘without the high resolve of youth, without the constant accession of youth, without recuperative power, no sustained forward movement is possible in the world. It is to youth, therefore, that this book is finally addressed, to the adolescents, to the students ...’). Which is to say, Wells believes the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Except the ones from the poorest third of society, obviously.

The point is that this superstructure of specific educational proposals, confected in equal parts of Wells's own experiences growing up (hence: allow clever kids free run of the library), as a teacher himself and from the reading he was doing—it all rests upon an implacable meritocratic-elitist foundation. This reformed pedagogy is not for all; and if there comes a future in which all the citizens of the New Republic do get to play with thousands of wooden math blocks and play decently-clothed tennis, it will be because the ‘people of the Abyss’ have been written out of the equation. Immanent throughout the book is the question about how to handle what Wells calls ‘birth waste’. And what a superbly dismissive phrase that is, to describe what, by Wells's own calculations, amounts to nearly a third of the entire population.

Wells's answer to this problem is certainly not to establish a comprehensive welfare state that can bring everybody up to the necessary level. Mankind in the Making is remarkably Thatcherite-heartless on this score. ‘Philanthropic people,’ says Wells ‘[strive] to meet the birth waste by the very obvious expedients of lying-in hospitals, orphanages and foundling institutions, waifs' homes, Barnardo institutions and the like’. But this merely serves ‘to encourage and stimulate births in just those strata of society where it would seem to be highly reasonable to believe they are least desirable.’ Wells's own estimate is that 30% of the UK population belong to this category, and must be either discouraged or actively prevented from having kids, though on the latter score he notes regretfully that ‘these people are fiercely defensive in such matters as this’ (‘these people’!) and that attempting to intervene is like trying to ‘handle the litter of a she-wolf’. He argues that a minimum standard of housing, nutrition, education and nurture is required if any given child is going to be able to fulfill their potential, but rather than propose (say) that the state guarantee these standards for all he proposes a range of laws to punish delinquent and poverty-stricken parents (‘these will converge to convince these people that to bear children into such an unfavourable atmosphere is an extremely inconvenient and undesirable thing’) and brushes aside the suggestion that this would be in any sense unfair:
It will be urged that these things are likely to bear rather severely on the very poor parent. To which a growing number of people will reply that the parent should not be a parent under circumstances that do not offer a fair prospect of sound child-birth and nurture. It is no good trying to eat our cake and have it; if the parent does not suffer the child will. [Mankind, 106-07]
Hand-in-hand with this is the proposal, important enough in Wells's view to merit italicisation, that ‘it is better in the long run that people whose character and capacity will not render it worth while to employ them at the Minimum Wage should not be employed at all’. Let them starve, it seems. I mean not the writers, obviously; they should receive generous patronage from the State. But all the rest. This class
arrests the development of labour-saving machinery, replaces and throws out of employment superior and socially more valuable labour, enables these half-capables to establish base families of inadequately fed and tended children (which presently collapse upon public and private charity), and so lowers and keeps down the national standard of life. [Mankind, 107]
Tough love indeed. And it is in this way that Wells brings eugenics into his argument by, as it were, the back door. Such legislation will persuade ‘an increasing section of the Abyss’ to ‘contrive to live childless’, in which case they will breed themselves out of the body politic by default: ‘a childless wastrel is a terminating evil.’

It's true that Mankind in the Making doesn't include any of those perorations to pitilessness and steel-hearted genocide that so blot Anticipations; but in a way, by evading this fundamental, the book is, because more evasive, less savoury. At no point in his analysis can Wells conceive of this increasing population as possessing any inherent value. On the contrary: human life is a dangerous inundation. In a truly bizarre image, which Wells nonetheless insists is ‘a permissable picture of human life’, he invites us to ‘[imagine] all our statesmen, our philanthropists and public men, our parties and institutions gathered into one great hall, and into this hall a huge spout, that no man can stop, discharges a baby every eight seconds.’ Stem the ‘unending stream of babies’ or drown civilization. As far as that goes, and despite several times repudiating a Jean-Jacques Rousseau style subordination of life to ‘Nature’, Wells reverts to a pitiless Malthusian Darwinism. What of infant mortality, for example?
A portion of infant and child mortality represents no doubt the lingering and wasteful removal from this world of beings with inherent defects, beings who, for the most part, ought never to have been born, and need not have been born under conditions of greater foresight. [Mankind, 88]
I'm trying to remain objective here, but it is hard. You see, I was myself a defective birth: the result of an injuriously prolonged labour, a forceps delivery and a very ill baby, prone to fits, severely asthmatic and sick. 1960s-era medical science kept me alive. It is clear to me that at pretty much any earlier period in human history I would either have died during birth (killing my mother in the process) or soon after. So it's difficult to read Wells's breathtakingly offhand cruelty of tone here as anything other than a personal affront. But ‘fuck you, Bertie!’ is neither a proper nor objective mode of analysis, so for now perhaps I'd better step away from the keyboard and leave Mankind in the Mistaking for the time being.


  1. Ye Gods! This is getting interesting, at least.

    My reaction to Wells's child-rearing advice was to try to recall if I'd ever heard of any Wells progeny (besides, as I mistily remembered, a by-blow from his relationship with Rebecca West) and my immediate assumption was that nobody so obtuse could (or should) be a parent.

    But I double checked. Wells had kids (and, yes, there's an Anthony West) ---

    George Phillip "G. P." Wells (1901–1985)
    Frank Richard Wells (1903–1982)
    Anna-Jane Kennard (1909–2010[1][2])
    Anthony West (1914–1987)

    It very much feels like Wells himself summed up his central inspiration for writing MANKIND IN THE MAKING: '"No book, no income” is practically what the world says to an author ... there is no respect for fine silences, if you cease you are forgotten.'

    1. Indeed! In fact Wells was writing Mankind in the Making as his wife Jane was pregnant with their second child; although he left child-rearing entirely to her, and spent a good chunk of her pregnancy on a walking tour in Switzerland with the Graham Wallas mentioned in this post, discussing the issues that went into the book. He also spent quite a lot of time in Switzerland trying to get the women he met on his walking tour to go to bed with him, and Wallas rebuked him for his raging libido ...

  2. 'Wallas rebuked him for his raging libido ....'

    _That_ will be a continuing theme of your Wells retrospective, of course.