One of the most radical aspects of The Time Machine is that it questions the centrality of human beings to history by challenging the notion that humans will endure in their present form forever. Written about thirty-five years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin’s seminal text on evolution, The Time Machine takes Darwin’s theory of evolution seriously and explores its possible consequences. In The Time Machine, present-day humans have diverged into two different species, neither of which is stronger, smarter, or more moral than contemporary people. The Eloi are helpless, the Morlocks are cannibals, and both species have lost the language and intelligence that characterize contemporary humans.
In the late nineteenth century, when The Time Machine was written, many thinkers were trying to make sense of Darwin’s new theory, which led to a proliferation of different, and sometimes contradictory, ideas. Wells embraced some of those—the idea of natural selection itself, obviously, and the idea that struggle is what produces strength—but he rejected social Darwinism, a set of ideas positing that the human species could be improved by selecting only the “best” humans to reproduce. The Eloi, who are the descendants of the British elite (and thus the people whom social Darwinists would prefer to reproduce) have degenerated into a silly and helpless species, which challenges both the idea of the inherent superiority of the upper classes, and the notion (a misinterpretation of Darwin’s actual ideas) that natural selection means that humans will naturally improve forever. In fact, a rigorous reading of Darwin suggests only that a species adapts to the conditions with which it is presented—as in The Time Machine, the technology-enabled ease of the Eloi leads them to evolve in a way that present humans would consider regression, an adaptation consistent with Darwin’s ideas.
In addition to showing a future in which humans have evolved into different species, Wells also shows a future in which humans do not exist at all. Chapter Eleven finds the Time Traveller on a beach in the distant future in which the only signs of life seem to be giant crustaceans and algae that has washed ashore. Wells’ descriptions of the changed sky—there is no moon, the constellations are different, the atmosphere is thin, and the sun is dying—are reminders that the human species is but a blip when considered in the scale of geologic time. The universe is much, much older than humans—so, too, the Earth—and both will endure long after humans are unrecognizable or gone. This, in tandem with Wells’ treatment of Darwinism, serves as a reminder of the limited power of human beings to control their own fate and the fate of the world at large. While the time machine itself is a feat of technology and innovation that seems to promise mastery of humans over natural processes, the end of The Time Machine shows this notion to be hubristic. The time machine is but an impressive tool—it cannot, itself, change the power or destiny of human beings, or enhance their relatively minor role in the universe.
Humans, Nature, and the Universe ThemeTracker
Humans, Nature, and the Universe Quotes in The Time Machine
What might appear when that hazy curtain was altogether withdrawn? What might not have happened to men? What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful? I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness—a foul creature to be incontinently slain.
Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt this close resemblance between the sexes was after all what one would expect; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force…
Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!
But gradually the truth dawned on me: that Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-world were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages.
And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organizations, the nations, languages, literatures, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence. Instead were these frail creatures who had forgotten their high ancestry, and the white Things of which I went in terror.
Then I tried to preserve myself from the horror that was coming upon me by regarding it as a rigorous punishment of human selfishness. Man had been content to live in ease and delight upon the labours of his fellow-man, had taken Necessity as his watchword and excuse, and in the fullness of time Necessity had come home to him. I even tried a Carlyle-like scorn of this wretched aristocracy in decay. But this attitude of mind was impossible. However great their intellectual degradation, the Eloi had kept too much of the human form not to claim my sympathy, and to make me perforce a sharer in their degradation and their Fear.
I saw an inscription in some unknown character. I thought, rather foolishly, that Weena might help me to interpret this, but I only learned that the bare idea of writing had never entered her head. She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human.
I understood now what the beauty of the Over-world people covered. Very pleasant was their day, as pleasant as the day of the cattle in the field. Like the cattle, they knew of no enemies and provided against no needs. And their end was the same.
It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers. So, as I see it, the Upper-world man had drifted towards his feeble prettiness, and the Under-world to mere mechanical industry.
So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth’s fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away.
Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man’s culminating time!
And I have before me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.