In The War of the Worlds, Wells explores the extremes of what is possible under evolution and natural selection. Compared to humans, the Martians are highly advanced in their technology, suggesting that their evolutionary history is also longer than that of humans. Although the narrator says they “may be descended from beings not unlike” humans, it’s clear the Martians are much further along in their process of evolution than humans. Their advanced abilities make it easy for them to not only land on another planet, but also to swiftly destroy entire towns and cities. Despite their sophisticated development, however, they fall prey to the simplest of enemies: earthly bacteria. Indeed, it’s ironic that their undoing comes in the form of a small and ordinary menace against which humans—regardless of their lesser powers—have developed a tolerance. In this way, Wells shows readers that evolutionary progress and development isn’t magical, but rather a process that plays out according to a specific set of environmental circumstances. This is an important message, given that Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t yet widely accepted when The War of the Worlds first appeared in print, despite being almost forty years old. As such, Wells’s novel is as much a demonstration of and argument for the truth of evolution as it is an entertaining tale of survival.
Although the Martians possess unstoppable intelligence along with seemingly supernatural powers, they have evolved these strengths in response to their own planet, rendering their bodies unfit for life on earth. Humans, on the other hand (like all animals on earth), have developed immunities to earth’s various threats and challenges, and this is their only advantage in the struggle against the Martians. Following this logic, the hero of The War of the Worlds is arguably not a person, a weapon, or an organization—but rather the very process of natural selection itself. Through natural selection, humans have built up an immunity to bacteria, giving them a resisting power against the organisms that eventually kill the Martians. Although the Martians have clearly met other challenges on their own planet, they haven’t encountered the same bacteria that are found on earth, thus rendering them helpless against infection. By pitting such superior beings against such a simple enemy—everyday bacteria—Wells demystifies Darwin’s ideas about evolution, demonstrating that natural selection is a very simple matter of adapting—or failing to adapt—to one’s environment.
In addition to his consideration of literal survival, Wells illustrates how the adaptive process can also take place in the mind. In other words, he highlights how survival is both a physical and mental endeavor. Indeed, human survival in The War of the Worlds sometimes seems as much related to a certain outlook as to actual bodily safety. Faced with the Martians’ threat, humans must react according to the circumstances unfolding before them. Unfortunately, most of the narrator’s fellow humans respond to the Martian invasion inappropriately, failing to accurately understand the reality of the situation. The military, for example, exacerbates the Martians’ fury by continuously firing weapons at them, a futile endeavor that only leads to further destruction. Furthermore, most citizens treat the invasion as if it’s a natural disaster, openly fleeing from one town to the next with seemingly no understanding that—unlike a hurricane or flood—the Martians can easily follow them from town to town. The artilleryman, on the other hand, appears to better grasp the importance of adapting to danger in a manner that actually matches the nature of the threat. Having seen that military action and standard evacuation are both useless, he alters his personal survival plan, resolving to live like a “rat” in hiding by moving into the sewer system. This is perhaps an unglamorous course of action, but it shows his willingness to adapt mentally to changing external circumstances. Recognizing that the Martians will kill him no matter what he does to stop them, he attempts to remove himself from the situation entirely. Ultimately, this adaptive mindset saves his life.
The artilleryman’s outlook also contains an implicit critique of the posh and complacent lifestyle of the bourgeoisie of the Victorian era. He speaks disparagingly about Englanders, criticizing the way they used to “skedaddle” from work to home and from home to church, fearing trivial things all the while and worrying about money or social status. It’s no wonder, then, that very few people seem to respond appropriately to the threat of the Martians. The artilleryman portrays the people of England as a group accustomed to comfort, who take safety and survival for granted. To live like a “rat” is simply unfathomable to them because it is so far outside their conception of what it means to live. As a result, they run from town to town, hoping each time they’ll recapture the life they led before the invasion. Simply put, they don’t want to change, even though failure to adapt, in light of the Martians’ arrival, spells certain death. By contrast, the artilleryman is perfectly willing to give up his old lifestyle in the name of survival. He suggests that humanity has strayed too far from the true nature of existence, which revolves around struggle and the will to survive. “Life is real again,” he says, implying that the pre-Martian world of Victorian England wasn’t “real,” and that a decadent, bourgeois lifestyle is out of touch with the fact that living is, for many, a constant fight for survival.
With the new challenges presented by the Martian invasion, the human race’s evolutionary process is ultimately sped along, though not necessarily in a biological sense. The narrator touches upon this when he says, “It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.” It’s important to note that in this passage, the narrator lists primarily intellectual triumphs, not physical or biological advancements that have come as a result of the Martian invasion. He asserts that the invasion has contributed to humanity’s scientific endeavors while also stripping away society’s “serene confidence in the future,” which renders the species unprepared for the challenges it must face. In turn, The War of the Worlds not only clarifies the basic truth of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, but also advocates for advances in public thought and study, framing intellectual pursuit as a viable means of improving humankind’s resilience, longevity, and ultimately its chances of survival.
Evolution and Survival ThemeTracker
Evolution and Survival Quotes in The War of the Worlds
No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.
And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling, and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that generation after generation creeps upon them.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races.
The fear I felt was no rational fear, but a panic terror not only of the Martians but of the dusk and stillness all about me. Such an extraordinary effect in unmanning me it had that I ran weeping silently as a child might do. Once I had turned, I did not dare look back.
Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods. I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all. This feeling was very strong upon me that night. Here was another side to my dream.
But the trouble was the blank incongruity of this serenity and the swift death flying yonder, not two miles away.
I began to comfort her and myself by repeating all that Ogilvy had told me of the impossibility of the Martians establishing themselves on the earth. In particular I laid stress on the gravitational difficulty. On the surface of the earth the force of gravity is three times what it is on the surface of Mars. A Martian, therefore, would weigh three times more than on Mars, albeit his muscular strength would be the same. His own body would be a cope of lead to him. That, indeed, was the general opinion. Both the Times and the Daily Telegraph, for instance, insisted on it the next morning, and both overlooked, just as I did, two obvious modifying influences. […]
But I did not consider these points at the time, and so my reasoning was dead against the chances of the invaders. With wine and food, the confidence of my own table, and the necessity of reassuring my wife, I grew by insensible degrees courageous and secure.
“This must be the beginning of the end,” he said, interrupting me. “The end! The great and terrible day of the Lord! When men shall call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon them and hide them—hide them from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne!”
I began to understand the position. I ceased my labored reasoning, struggled to my feet, and, standing over him, laid my hand on his shoulder.
“Be a man!” said I. “You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Do you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man.”
At the sight of the sea, Mrs Elphinstone, in spite of the assurances of her sister-in-law, gave way to panic. She had never been out of England before, she would rather die than trust herself friendless in a foreign country, and so forth. She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar. She had been growing increasingly hysterical, fearful, and depressed during the two days’ journeyings. Her great idea was to return to Stanmore. Things had been always well and safe at Stanmore. They would find [her husband] at Stanmore.
In the end the red weed succumbed almost as quickly as it had spread. A cankering disease, due, it is believed, to the action of certain bacteria, presently seized upon it. Now, by the action of natural selection, all terrestrial plants have acquired a resisting power against bacterial diseases—they never succumb without a severe struggle, but the red weed rotted like a thing already dead. The fronds became bleached, and then shriveled and brittle. They broke off at the least touch, and the waters that had stimulated their early growth carried their last vestiges out to sea.
They just used to skedaddle off to work—I’ve seen hundreds of ’em, bit of breakfast in hand, running wild and shining to catch their little season-ticket train, for fear they’d get dismissed if they didn’t; working at businesses they were afraid to take the trouble to understand; skedaddling back for fear they wouldn’t be in time for dinner; keeping indoors after dinner for fear of the back-streets; and sleeping with the wives they married, not because they wanted them, but because they had a bit of money that would make for safety in their one little miserable skedaddle through the world. Lives insured and a bit invested for fear of accidents. And on Sundays—fear of the hereafter.
And we form a band—able-bodied, clean-minded men. We’re not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again. […] Those who stop obey orders. Able-bodied, clean-minded women we want also—mothers and teachers. No lackadaisical ladies—no blasted rolling eyes. We can’t have any weak or silly. Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race. And they can’t be happy. Moreover, dying’s none so dreadful.
For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehumen ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting-power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many—those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance—our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers.
At any rate, whether we expect another invasion or not, our views of the human future must be greatly modified by these events. We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding-place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space. It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.