Infectious disease is one of the few genuine adventures left in the world.—Hans Zinsser, 1935
A deadly virus once saved humanity from destruction. A civilization so technologically advanced as to appear invincible was brought down by microscopic pathogens it had not known existed, let alone considered in its plans for global domination. Inside their gleaming mechanical tripods armed with all-consuming heat rays and poison gas, the invading Martians had brushed aside all our military defenses and reduced the great cities of the world to rubble. Yet at their moment of conquest the great machines tottered, swayed, and fell. The flabby, shapeless alien creatures who controlled them had been felled by the common cold, to which they had no resistance. “After all man’s devices had failed,” the narrator concludes, the Martians were destroyed by “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”
H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds has never lost its power to unsettle, but it has become peculiarly resonant with the arrival of Covid-19. When it was first published, in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, it was a shocking riposte to the national chorus of celebration and self-congratulation. It punctured the image of a world-bestriding British Empire with a merciless depiction of how brittle such a civilization really was. Its opening chapter reminded the reader that indigenous Tasmanians had recently been “entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants” armed with weapons beyond anything they had ever seen or imagined, and asked pointedly, “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
Beyond the scenario of all humanity under assault from a common enemy, the novel colonized the modern imagination with the first depiction of our global civilization stopped in its tracks. “The further I penetrated into London,” the narrator writes, “the profounder grew the stillness.” The city becomes a “mighty desert of houses,” the streets abandoned to packs of dogs—images that until 2020 were for most of us the stuff of science fiction but now inevitably bring to mind the eerie panoramas of cities in lockdown around the globe, from London and Los Angeles to Lagos. Just as affecting today is the closing scene in which the narrator, walking into London’s “silent and abandoned” streets with the Martian tripods frozen motionless as sculptures, feels “a wave of emotion that was near akin to tears” at the realization that “the shadow had been rolled back” and “the pulse of life, growing stronger and stronger, would beat again in the empty streets and pour across the vacant squares.”
The interruptions we have suffered to modern life are, compared with the medical emergency that necessitates them, mostly trivial, yet their impact has been profound and visceral. Like an earthquake, they make us question things that until now we had assumed to be the bedrock of our world. We have been obliged to surrender our routine social intimacies—elbowing our way to a crowded bar, filing through the turnstiles into a stadium, wandering through bustling markets—in the realization that our reflexive exchanges of welcome, food, social ease, and personal affection are the transmission routes of fatal illness.
For those of us lucky enough to have avoided war and other catastrophes thus far, the existential shock of physical distancing has shaken our assumptions, and our society, like nothing else in our lifetimes. Despite the drumbeat of warnings from medical experts, this pandemic has appeared seemingly from nowhere, bringing with it unprecedented state interventions that cut across the grain of a lifetime characterized by ever greater freedom to travel, to socialize, and to experience the world. Nature and biology have irrupted into what we assumed was our impregnable domain, forcing us to recognize the tension between our biological and cultural selves.
This was precisely the tension that Wells wanted to explore, and the plot device he chose to resolve his narrative—a disease to which the Martians had no immunity—was the chink in their armor, just as it has been in ours. If we follow the path by which Wells arrived at The War of the Worlds, it becomes clear that the similarity is more than coincidental. It was the culmination of his struggle with the question of whether nature or human progress would write the story of our future.
On May 17, 1893, Wells was hurrying home through central London toward Charing Cross underground station, clutching a heavy bag of geology samples, when he felt the sensation he dreaded most: blood leaking up from his lungs and filling his mouth. By the time he reached his apartment in the suburb of Putney and his wife, Isabel, his handkerchief was dripping crimson; by the small hours of the morning, he was hemorrhaging torrents of blood across his bedsheets and on the verge of death. Tuberculosis had long been suspected though was never confirmed; the modern city’s choking coal-fired smog exacerbated and preyed on many forms of respiratory weakness. At the age of twenty-six, Wells was now an invalid, too delicate to continue commuting to his job teaching science or work regular hours. His only recourse, from this point on, was to write.
Saint John the Baptist Entering the Wilderness, by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1455. The Art Institute of Chicago.
He turned out to have a remarkable talent and, over the next few years, produced a constant stream of short stories and journalism for the popular weeklies. His scientific reportage, speculative essays, and short fiction introduced readers to a breathtaking landscape of scientific marvels and menaces: flying machines, remote viewing, the fourth dimension, deep-sea bathyscaphes, anesthetic visions, and, naturally, the newly discovered world of microscopic pathogens. Among his earliest stories was “The Stolen Bacillus,” which ran in the Pall Mall Budget in 1894, in which an urban terrorist visits a laboratory and purloins a test tube of deadly bacteria. He gloats in anticipation of the microbes’ progress once he releases them into the water mains, “creeping along streets, picking out and punishing a house here and a house there where they did not boil their drinking water, creeping into the wells of the mineral-water makers, getting washed into salad, and lying dormant in ices.” The terrorist’s plans are foiled, but the larger point is one Wells returned to frequently: the seemingly remote and abstruse discoveries of modern science had the power to upset daily life in unforeseen ways.
There was one big idea that Wells nurtured with particular care. It had been planted in him nearly a decade previously when, as a teenage scholarship boy, he had spent a year at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington under the tutelage and spell of T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” the great popularizer of evolutionary theory and its implications for understanding nature and our place in it. On the dissection table and under the microscope, studying sea squirts and fossil fish, glacial deposits and mouse embryos, Wells found a guiding story for his life. Huxley, like Wells, had risen from humble origins, and his account of evolution was rich with the exhilarating sense that life was not a fixed hierarchy or a smooth upward ascent to perfection but a cosmic game of chance, where those who appeared to be winning were also those with furthest to fall.
Wells’ big story emerged in 1895 as The Time Machine, a slim novel on a scale never previously conceived. All life, up to and including the death of the solar system, was contained within its frame. Evolution’s remorseless progress over this timescale put the prevailing view of humanity as the summit of creation into cruel perspective. First it divided our species into two, physical embodiments of the inequalities of class: the Eloi were the descendants of art-for-art’s-sake aesthetes lazing in the sunny uplands of society while the brutalized Morlocks toiled beneath them. Then, as time careened forward (in a scene that appeared only in the original serial version, deemed too shocking for the novel), these post-humans degenerated into the type of scurrying mammals from which we had originally evolved. After their extinction, giant crabs and sea slimes claimed final dominion over the planet in the dim red light of the dying sun.
We should always presume the disease to be curable until its own nature proves it otherwise.—Peter Mere Latham, 1845
It was a devastatingly bleak vision, wrung from a man whose own death loomed before him. But Wells was also gripped by the transformative potential of the science that had revealed it. Were we really fated to be mere passengers on a random evolutionary journey, or might a technological civilization find a way to take control of its own destiny?
This became the theme of his next major novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau. He marked out his intentions in early 1895 with the essay “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” in which he questioned how far the humanity of the future would remain bound by our biological inheritance. “The birth tendencies are only one set of factors,” he observed. Could not bodies already be restructured by the newly developed techniques of “plastic” surgery and tissue grafting and minds reprogrammed by techniques such as hypnosis? Buoyed by his promising literary career and with his health improving, he began to spin a narrative around a doctor of genius who discovers how to evolve animals into humans by surgical intervention rather than, as nature had, blindly over millennia.
Around the same time Wells was writing, however, a German biologist named August Weismann made a dramatic intervention in the evolutionary debate. Weismann claimed to have shown, by studying the embryos of sea urchins, that acquired characteristics could not be inherited: all information passed from parent to offspring was contained at birth in a “germplasm” that traversed the generations unaltered by the life the parents had led. Weismann’s discovery would eventually be recognized as a formative statement of what we now know as genetics, but many in 1894 found it implausible, Wells among them. Writing in The Saturday Review, he ridiculed the idea that the mature adult might be perfectly formed in microcosm in the egg, immune to all subsequent influences.
Yet as he worked through two drafts of Moreau, he found himself paring back his early optimism about plasticity and technologically enhanced evolution, and increasing the emphasis on Dr. Moreau’s need to borrow nature’s tools of pain and fear to discipline his beast people into their surgically created humanity. The book finally emerged with a vision even bleaker than that of The Time Machine, shot through with scenes of intense cruelty that horrified reviewers and scared off the public. He later reevaluated Weismann’s work, accepting the “destructive criticisms” of human plasticity and everything that meant for the future. Wells was forced to admit that “natural selection grips us more firmly than it ever did,” however much we might wish it otherwise.
Aaron Transforming the Water of the Nile into Blood (detail), by Jan Pynas, 1610. Rijksmuseum.
The biological mechanisms of evolution, it seemed, were beyond human reach. Yet its larger meaning for humanity was not yet settled. In 1893 Huxley had used the honor of delivering the annual Romanes Lecture at Oxford University to attack the doctrine known as social Darwinism, encapsulated by Herbert Spencer (to Darwin’s approval) in the phrase the survival of the fittest. Underpinning this doctrine was the assumption that, just as humanity’s dominance over nature demonstrated its evolutionary superiority, the current hierarchy of human society reflected its natural order. Many who made this case relied on Huxley’s writings, which had often presented a harsh and imperialist view of Darwinism, stressing the “gladiatorial” aspects of natural selection. In this lecture, however, Huxley made it clear that the laws of nature held no brief for human society. On the contrary, the project of civilization, properly understood, was “building up an artificial world within the cosmos” by which the random cruelty of nature could be kept at bay. The state should not be an extension of nature but a bastion against its tyranny.
Huxley set out the relation between nature and human culture with a grand historical sweep. For early civilizations, such as ancient India or classical Greece and Rome, there had been no choice but to accept the cruel laws of nature; as a consequence, they developed passive philosophies such as Buddhism or Stoicism that helped them endure. The creed of “survival of the fittest,” he argued, was no more than this ancient fatalism in modern dress, “a misapplication of the stoical injunction to follow nature.” In the modern era, however, science had radically extended our powers and ambitions, he argued, and should do the same for our ethical horizons. “I see no limit,” he pronounced, “to the extent to which intelligence and will…may modify the conditions of existence, for a period longer than that now covered by history.”
Huxley’s expansive view of science’s transformative power gave Wells fresh inspiration, and he laid out a new direction in 1896 in a long essay titled “Human Evolution, an Artificial Process.” Biological creatures we were destined to remain, but the terms of our relationship with nature were nonetheless being rewritten by “a different sort of evolution altogether, an evolution of suggestions and ideas.” Our biological plasticity might be constrained, but we were rapidly becoming “the highly plastic creature of tradition, suggestion, and reasoned thought.” Our dizzying technological acceleration was already pushing the forces of natural selection into the background as technology enclosed us in a homeostatic bubble, regulating our temperature, food supply, and susceptibility to disease. Stunning recent advances in medicine, from surgery to pharmacy to bacteriology, meant that “the civilized human animal is under the harrow of death less than any animal perhaps that ever lived.”
In strictly evolutionary terms, Wells argued, there was little difference between Paleolithic man and his modern-day successors. The difference was undeniably vast, but it was wholly artificial. Humanity had been transformed not by biological evolution but by an accretion of discoveries that the man of ten thousand years ago, if transported to a modern metropolis, would have no chance of comprehending. Our descendants, by the same token, might easily surpass our own conception of humanity in ways we are still unable to imagine. The future of humanity was no longer inscribed in nature’s book; it was “a possibility to be lost or won” through “the careful and systematic manufacture of the artificial factor in man.” “This view,” he concluded emphatically and with evident relief, “reconciles a scientific faith in evolution with optimism.”
’Tis the destroyer, or the devil, that scatters plagues about the world.—Cotton Mather, 1693
The far future of humanity might be impossible to imagine, but Wells had attempted this task two years before writing The Time Machine, in one of his earliest scientific essays, “The Man of the Year Million,” published in 1893 in the Pall Mall Gazette. Following the logic of Darwin’s “descent with modification,” he had identified the traits that might be bred out over generations of civilized life. Our apelike features—hair, large jaws and ears—might fade, leaving us as smoother, more delicate beings with “a larger brain and a slighter body”— his first sketch of the post-humans he would bring to life as the Eloi. In “The Man of the Year Million,” Wells extended evolution, in incremental stages, to a haunting image of the human of the far future: floating in a marble pool filled with nutritive liquid, encased perhaps in a vast crystal dome, by this stage no more than a huge, sensitive hand controlled by a vast brain, the rest of his body shriveled to a “dangling, degraded pendant.” Cocooned in advanced technology, our future selves would be as alien to Homo sapiens as anything from a distant galaxy.
This was the image that Wells now dusted off for The War of the Worlds to illustrate a possible end point for the process of “artificial evolution.” He allied it to astronomers’ recent speculation that Mars, a desiccated and dead planet, was a harbinger of Earth’s distant future. He imagined that planet’s dominant species at the end of its long evolutionary journey as no more than giant brains, the rest of their bodies reduced to vestigial sacs except for a supersensitive hand able to transmit the brain’s instructions to the advanced technology that had become an exoskeleton.
There was a pleasing irony in demonstrating the possible scope of artificial evolution by visualizing the human race brutally swept aside by our future selves. It was equally satisfying to annihilate the Martians with a twist that perfectly illustrated the quixotic reversals of Darwinian evolution. Once they arrived on Earth, the Martians exposed their Achilles’ heel: inside their technology they were still biological organisms, part of the ecology of their home planet and not of Earth. This is the revelation that strikes the narrator as he stumbles through the wreckage of their previously indestructible machines: “There are no bacteria on Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow.” When Wells was writing, the common cold was believed to be a bacterium. The existence of a class of even smaller pathogens came gradually into focus through the 1890s, and the term virus was first applied to them in 1898, the year after The War of the Worlds appeared. The “common cold” turned out to be a cluster of over two hundred virus strains, among them coronaviruses, which cause around 15 percent of colds.
With The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells had a second best seller to follow The Time Machine, and he became a distinctive presence in the literary landscape. His health improved markedly, as if he had sweated out his fever dreams of things to come; for the first time in his life, it was showing every prospect of sustaining him to a ripe old age. The spacious new home that he commissioned to reflect his success and status faced the sun and had all its main rooms on one floor in case its owner ended up confined in a bath chair, but these measures reflected the ingrained habits of a long-term invalid more than the formidable public figure he had become.
For the next fifty years, artificial evolution remained Wells’ relentless theme, though he soon discarded its biological terminology and harnessed it to more explicitly political projects, from eugenics to Fabian socialism to expansive visions of internationalism—the League of Nations, the Open Conspiracy, the “World Brain”—that urged humanity to unite and act as one. The War of the Worlds was a work of youthful iconoclasm, a parable of how quickly our civilization might be brought down by an unforeseen crisis and how powerless our institutions, from religious faith to military might, would be to save it. But it was iconoclasm with a purpose, to spur his readers on to the remaking of the world. In visualizing the wholesale destruction of modernity, Wells was mocking not progress but complacency. “It may be,” the narrator speculates at the book’s conclusion, “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.”
Burning Tree, Allandale Station, by Murray Fredericks, 2015. Digital pigment print, 47 x 19½ inches. © Murray Fredericks, courtesy the artist and Robert Mann Gallery, New York.
Since that moment over a century ago, we have expanded and reinforced what Huxley called our “artificial world within the cosmos” to the point where it had come to seem impregnable for many in the developed world. The shock of the Covid-19 pandemic is not the same as that suffered by humanity in The War of the Worlds. It is closer to what the Martians—the humans of Wells’ future—faced when tiny organisms beneath their consideration toppled their technological edifice. Like them, we assumed that we had confined nature and subjected it to our designs, but we have not escaped our own biology. We remain vulnerable, as they were, to what the narrator calls the “germs of disease [that] have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here.”
Wells’ prediction that humanity was poised to attain a previously unimagined ascendancy over nature was correct, but his pessimism that this ascendancy could ever be final or total was also correct. As Huxley told his audience plainly in 1893, the phrase survival of the fittest contains an “unfortunate ambiguity”: fittest connotes “best,” and about “best” there hangs a moral flavor. In cosmic nature, however, what is “fittest” depends on the conditions. The principle may just as easily work to the benefit of viruses as to the vastly more advanced and complex species they infect.
This pandemic has shown us how, as we push ever further into nature’s domain and disturb the balance of its homeostatic systems, it will find new ways to invade ours. The pulse of life is slowly returning to our streets and our cities, but it seems mistaken to hail this as a victory. The metaphors of war, for which we reach so readily when discussing disease, are as misleading as talk about victory over the changing climate, and for the same reason. The War of the Worlds was indeed a war: a conflict to the death against a hostile alien invader. What we are engaged in is a struggle for equilibrium within the biosphere we share.