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Homo Inferior

A common theme in science fiction is the idea that humanity is constantly evolving towards a more perfect form, a Homo superior (of which more next time). However a substantial body of work also considers the possibility that humanity may instead devolve - become somehow less than it currently is. This devolution may take many forms. One genre of such stories are the post-apocalyptic narratives, in which civilisation collapses for any of a number of reasons, taking education and culture with it. However perhaps more interesting are the narratives in which human capacity itself, rather than merely its utilisation in civilised societies, is compromised.

The Time Machine

As with many of the strongest themes in science fiction, this trope emerged early, with one of the first examples appearing in H G Wells’ classic novel The Time Machine (1895). This story extrapolates humanity to the year 802,701 and features not just one but two possible outcomes of human evolution, each fundamentally flawed and monstrous in its own way. The Eloi at first appear to be utopian successors to humanity, reduced in size to the form of children and living in edenic simplicity and innocence. However, it soon becomes clear to Wells’ Time Traveller that while they have gained innocence, they have lost intellect and drive, becoming little more than pampered cattle. As he describes,

“It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity on the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realise an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness.”

Movie poster for the 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine, directed by George PalThe cattle-like Eloi in this case have been too secure for too long. The cattle herders - and cullers - in this case are the second degenerate form of humanity. While the Eloi descend from the elite of modern western society, the Morlocks descend from the working classes. Confined to underground workplaces, over many generations they become physically distorted, described as ape-like, and become not only carnivorous, but cannibalistic, consuming the unsuspecting Eloi. The Morlocks are described as white and large eyed, with a fear of light: “You can scarce imagine how nauseatingly inhuman they looked - those pale, chinless faces and great, lidless, pinkish-grey eyes!”. They are shown to be intelligent and cunning, and also capable of using tools and technologies that lie beyond the comprehension of the Eloi. However their nocturnal habits, savagery and animal-like appearance put them firmly into the category of monstrosities.

[Image: Movie poster for the 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine, directed by George Pal. The poster shows both the monstrous Morlocks and the beautiful Eloi, as exemplified by the woman in pink. Source: wikipedia]

Later in The Time Machine, Wells actually extrapolates still further into the future, in a segment omitted from some editions of the novel. Here the Time Traveller goes forward in time, into a still more distant future in which the Eloi have become further diminished into small, rabbit-sized herbivores. He kills one of these as an animal before realising that it is a humanoid [1]. Again, this is seen as a final consequence of the luxurious inertia of the leisured Eloi.

Distant Futures

Book cover for Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
The child-like forms and weak intellects of the Eloi are echoed in Hothouse by Brian Aldiss (novel, 1962), although with a rather different origin. Set in a dimly distant future, around 3 billion years hence, when the Sun is approaching the end of its life, the novel describes humanity as diminished in stature and divided into primitive, tree-dwelling tribes, in which male children are rare. They inhabit a world in which most animals have become extinct, and their ecological niches taken over by a vegetation that runs rampant in the new solar irradiation. As Aldiss states, “It was no longer a place for mind. It was a place for growth. For vegetables” [2].

While the majority of the novel focuses on the battle for survival of a tribe and a young man coming of age, a rather odd digression reveals more of the history of humankind. According to a fungus intelligence tunnelling in to the racial memories of the protagonist, humanity anticipated the changes in the Sun and intended to circumvent their effects:

“As their preparations were being made, people began to fall sick. The sun was pouring out a new band of radiation, and gradually all mankind succumbed to the strange sickness. It affected their skin, their eyes - and their brains. After a prolonged spell of suffering, they became immune to the radiations. They crawled forth from their beds. But something had changed. They no longer had the power to command and cogitate and fight.” (Baen books edition, 1984, pg 143-144)

It turns out that what changed was the death of symbiotic fungi known as morels which, in Aldiss’s world, lived inside human brains and were the origin of true social intelligence. Thus while the changes in human form are at least in part a direct consequence of survival in a hotter, vegetable-dominated world, they also reflect the withdrawal of an influence which was never recognised when present.

Book cover of SF Masterworks edition of Last and First Men by Olaf StapledonBoth Hothouse and The Time Machine describe humanity in a steady decline - a twilight of sentience. By contrast, Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (novel, 1930) takes a far more cyclical approach. In a narrative that spans two billion years, Stapledon describes no fewer than eighteen distinct species of mankind, and a number of sub-species, each developing over long intervals from the one before. In some cases, the new race results from deliberate manipulation, for example to adapt to conditions on a new planet [3]. However in other cases, the new species arises gradually by natural selection. At several points, the result of this process is a human species either monstrous by conventional standards, or intellectually deficient. Amongst these are Stapledon’s Sixth Men - "Sadly reduced in stature and in brain… So restricted and constant was the environment of these human remnants, that they remained biologically and culturally stagnant for some millions of years” - and degenerate forms of the Ninth to Thirteenth Men.

Despite this, the ultimate result of human evolution in Stapledon’s vision is the advent of the Eighteenth Men - a near-immortal, philosophically and mentally-advanced super-human, who ultimately spread their influence beyond the Solar System. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note how Stapledon sees the inevitable decline of humanity in its current form (the First Men) as a consequence of its flaws and faults - and the recognition that resolving these may well take numerous iterations and geological timescales.

Broken People

Much shorter timescales are often invoked in science fiction narratives which ascribe the fall of humanity to its own actions. A common theme in mid-twentieth century science fiction was the idea that nuclear war would result in a diminished humanity. In most cases, such as the television drama Threads, for example, this was shown as a loss of civilisation due to resource shortages and failure of infrastructure and education systems, but the capacity of humans for learning and intellect (while under-utilised) remained intact. However in some cases, the resulting devolution was physical as well as cultural, with radiation-induced mutation fundamentally changing the human race. Often such mutation involved a reversion to ape-like forms more akin to early hominids - although stories often focus on survivors who have retained their humanity (examples abound, including Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (film, 1979), The Chrysalids (novel, Wyndham, 1955) etc.).

An example of a Link - a future human in television series Blake's 7An interesting variant on this theme can be found in Blake’s 7 (TV, 1978-1981). In the episode “Terminal”, the antagonist Servalan exhibits individuals known as the Links which result from an artificially accelerated evolution. She claims that these hairy-pelted, savage and animalistic creatures are the ultimate fate of humanity - although their regressive, hominid-like form is implied by their name which invokes the archetypal (and scientifically outdated) missing link of evolution. In the context of the series, this future for humanity serves as some form of self-justification to Servalan, who repeatedly demonstrates her contempt for humankind and her lack of belief in striving for moralistic or intellectual improvement.

The distorted haemovores of the future in Doctor Who story The Curse of Fenric

Doctor Who introduced a human species mutated by pollution in the 1989 television serial “The Curse of Fenric”. These human descendents from the distant future of 500,000 years hence are Haemovores - vampiric predators who preyed on human blood, were physically repulsive, telepathic and attacked with savage claws under the influence of the alien Fenric. Little is shown of the specifics of their evolution, although this is somewhat expanded upon in Doctor Who prose fiction. In this case the pollution is specific to an alien compound but there is a strong implication that anthropogenic pollution could have a similar effect on distorting our descendants.

A predatory and monstrous Dreg from the Doctor Who story Orphan 55.Another, more recent, entry which echoes the environmental theme is the 2020 Doctor Who episode “Orphan 55”. A spa resort visited by the Doctor and her companions proves to be inside an artificial bubble sited on a desolate and abandoned “orphan” planet. As becomes clear, the planet in question is a distant future version of Earth, and the creatures attacking the spa are a degenerate form of humanity. These Dregs have been mutated through a combination of environmental and nuclear catastrophe, and honed by a battle for survival into a form of apex predator. While their form is monstrous, and their actions savage, they are clearly intelligent. The Doctor perceives their origin through making mental contact with one individual, but her companions find it harder to comprehend:

Ryan: “How did Earth end up like this?”

Doctor: “You had warnings from every scientist alive!”

Yaz: “Global warming…”

Doctor: “The food chain collapses, mass migration and war.”

Unusually for Doctor Who though, this is portrayed as only one of a number of possible timelines, with a remarkably heavy-handed and moralistic coda explaining that humanity can still avert this future.

In none of these examples (nor in the post-nuclear narratives of the twentieth century) is a really plausible mechanism explained for the devolution. Most mutations of the type described would be fatal, while many others would convey no selective advantage, so it’s hard to see how an entire species could devolve so uniformly unless descending from a population bottleneck and a very small breeding pool.

Marching Morons

A different approach in science fiction has been to anticipate the degeneration of humanity through breeding pressures associated with modern western culture. A notable example here is the work of Cyril Kornbluth.

Illustration for Little Black Bag from Astounding Magazine, July 1950
In The Little Black Bag (short story, 1950) an entirely automated medical kit deployed by low-intelligence ‘doctors’ in the future according to a rote set of instructions is accidentally transported back in time to our present, allowing a quack medicine man to become a leading cosmetic consultant. The necessity for such kit is explained straightforwardly: “​​After twenty generations of shilly-shallying and "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," genus homo had bred himself into an impasse. Dogged biometricians had pointed out with irrefutable logic that mental subnormals were outbreeding mental normals and supernormals, and that the process was occurring on an exponential curve.” As might be expected, deploying the future technology needed to deal with this situation outside of its own time leads to disaster in the present.

Illustration for The Marching Morons from Galaxy Magazine, April 1951Perhaps unsurprisingly given the bitter ending of this story, Kornbluth returned to this possible future in a still bleaker tale, The Marching Morons (short story, 1951). Here he describes a cryogenically-frozen man, “Honest John" Barlow, awaking a few hundred years hence to find a world in which the average intellectual level is substantially below the current norm, with an average IQ of just 45. A small, isolated population of a few million people living at the south pole have maintained their intellect, and act as éminences grises. They form a secret network of secretaries, doctors and administrators in subordinate roles, and manipulate the behaviour of their nominal superiors in order to keep society as a whole functioning.

As becomes clear, this is the result of “the Problem of Population” - the observed fact that those of lower intelligence are considered more likely to reproduce than those with higher intelligence, leading to a negative evolutionary pressure on intellect. As one of the hidden elite informs Barlow:

“You were a blind, selfish stupid ass to tolerate economic and social conditions which penalised child-bearing by the prudent and foresighted.”... “We need the rockets and trick speedometers and cities because, while you and your kind were being prudent and foresighted and not having children, the migrant workers, slum dwellers and tenant farmers were shiftlessly and short-sightedly having children - breeding, breeding. My God, how they bred!”

Challenged to find a solution to this problem, Barlow shows not the slightest moral compunction in eliminating the ignorant masses in a horrifying turn of events. Kornbluth does not try to hide this or gloss over its appalling historical precedent, as we are told at one point: “Luckily Barlow remembered that the problem had been solved once before - by Hitler.”

Here the future of humanity is salvaged in some sense by the surviving “supranormals” at the pole, but the question of cost, and of how the recurrence of the same demographic pressures will be avoided, is left unresolved.

Advertising image for the 2006 film Idiocracy, showing the descent of manThis same future scenario is represented more comedically in the motion picture Idiocracy (2006, dir. Judge). In this biting but witty satire, an average American private soldier, Joe Bauers, is selected for a hibernation experiment, but forgotten. Awakening five hundred years later, he finds himself lauded as the most intelligent man on the planet. In this case, he is accompanied by a female hibernatee, a sex worker substituted at the last minute for the more formally selected and skilled woman volunteer. As they both discover, and as in Kornbluth’s work, the demographic pressure has been for educated men and women to breed less, and those of lower socioeconomic classes to breed more in the intervening centuries. As a result, most humans can barely function. Eventually, as President of America, Joe marries his female counterpart, and they hope to restore civilisation with their children - although the idiot-children of his Vice-President far outnumber the comparative geniuses they produce.

Racism, Classism and Social Commentary

As always, science fiction reflects the social and scientific context in which it is written. Fears regarding the possible degeneration of humanity and its impacts on society have been present since civilisation began. However they gained some degree of scientific credence in the latter half of the nineteenth century, largely as a result of the work of Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). His influential work introduced the concepts of inherited intelligence and of eugenics - the selective breeding or restriction of breeding of humanity in the interest of improving the race. Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin and saw his work as a continuation of his cousin’s work on survival of the fittest.

However his contention that talent and intellect were inherited was less than robust and has had a contentious and problematic history. In particular, it failed to recognise the impact of privilege (in the form of better education, nutrition, health and resources) in ensuring that the relatives of prominent men were themselves prominent, while those from the families of menial workers rarely rose to prominence, regardless of intrinsic intellectual ability. While Galton did recognise that controlled studies (for example tests on separated twins to separate nature from nurture) would be necessary to account for this, it didn’t stop his work having a huge impact on those who associated intelligence with socioeconomic class.

The lingering impacts of his writings, repeated satirically or otherwise can be seen in Kornbluth’s short stories, and even into the twenty-first century with Idiocracy. In both, the inheritance of intelligence is taken as a given, together with the (demonstrably mistaken) presumption that those from less affluent backgrounds are necessarily less intelligent than those more likely to attend university or reach senior positions given the privilege of family support.

Galton’s eugenics and its historical consequences cast their dark shadow across a large swathe of contemporary fiction. However the work of Wells, Aldiss, Stapledon and others highlight the counter-fear associated with rampant class division. Instead of being alarmed by over-breeding of undesirables, their concern was that the removal of social and environmental pressures - either through the need to work, conflict or other fights for survival - would lead to a humanity that lost the drive that made it human. In these decadent futures, the descendents of the elite, rather than the deprived, form the degenerate race. In the case of avid socialist Wells, the sub-humans encountered by his Time Traveller are the inevitable consequence of social, economic and class segregation, and the associated taboos regarding cross-breeding between classes, but in all the cases discussed here, elements of racism and classism abound.

Neither selective pressure - for low intelligence or for decadence - is decisive in the narratives of a humanity twisted by war, pollution or other outside influence, but of all the stories discussed here, these sit on the weakest scientific foundations. While Dalton and his successors had some claim to (flawed) scientific credibility at the time, and build their work on demographic studies, geneticists (even those contemporary to the writers) would be unable to countenance the monstrous radical mutations seen in, for instance, Doctor Who.

Science fiction has a remit to extrapolate current knowledge to its limits and sometimes beyond. The idea that humanity might change over time has fascinated and appalled us since first proposed, and the idea that this evolution may work in a direction perceived as negative by current standards is undoubtedly fascinating. The specific ways in which humanity is shown to devolve reflect the different concerns of the writers - whether those relate to class, environment or other phenomena - but each asks us to question aspects of our contemporary culture and how it shapes us as humans, both now and in the potential future of our dreams… or our nightmares.

“Homo Inferior”, Elizabeth Stanway. Cosmic Stories blog, 9th April 2023.


[1] There is also an unspoken suggestion that the crab-like monsters and desolate butterfly-creatures he sees on a trip thirty million years into the future could also represent the eventual descendants of Eloi and Morlocks respectively, although this is never clarified and their extremely discrepant forms may make it unlikely. [Return to Text]

[2] Hothouse frequently appears on lists of environmental science fiction, due to its portrayal of a much hotter world, in which socially-degenerate humans must scrape a difficult survival against carnivorous plants and insects. However, its premise and setting are far beyond any which can plausibly be extrapolated from anthropogenic climate change, and its description of the Sun-Earth-Moon system and Earth’s subsequent climate are wildly implausible and best considered as fantasy. [Return to Text]

[3] The deliberate breeding of sub-species of humanity also features in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although here the low intelligence epsilon-minus individuals bred as workers are still recognisably human and contemporary with their more fortunate, higher-category masters. [Return to Text]

Ideas and opinions discussed above are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Warwick. Images reproduced from public domain sources online and used here non-commercially, to clarify academic discussion.