by Dr. David Harley (An Address Presented to the American Bertrand Russell Society)

H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell:  Education or Extinction 

 C.E.M. Joad, writing on the subject of education stated that in no other field of human intellectual endeavor has so much been written by so many to be read by so few.  But of those few who were read even by so many, fewer are remembered today or are only remembered for other aspects of their work.  H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell can be seen as examples of this.   Both were devoted to the reform of educational practices of their day, and both were committed to the belief that education was the most important focus upon which to peg human progress and survival.  As public intellectual figures of their day with wide readership, their impact on contemporaries was significant albeit that Wells very greatly overshadowed Russell in this regard.  Within the limitations of the current paper, I do not wish to discuss here the subject of Well’s and Russell’s educational theories per se but rather will highlight their roles as educators and public intellectuals.  The immediate focus will be upon their attempts to awaken concern in the general public regarding the future survival of a humanity threatened by the impact of science and technology and the central role and importance of education in addressing this crisis.

Both Wells and Russell have been associated with some form of scientific utopianism and an almost unbounded optimism for the potential benefits of science.  Indeed, both have come under attack at one time or another for having been its unqualified advocates.  Yet this simplistic interpretation of their ideas is quite without foundation.  Although both thought that science could yield the means whereby mankind had and could make rapid progress towards an improved future, both blamed science for the crisis that it had brought about and ultimately believed that it was more likely than not to pave the way to its destruction.  As such, Wells and Russell believed that humanity was inexorably headed in that direction and that change was not a matter of choice but rather an existential priority.  They were among the first thinkers of the 20th century to see with the fullest clarity the devasting consequences of science projected into a future in which mankind’s enhanced ability for destruction was fast exceeding any chance of its ability to control it and both framed this within the Darwinian framework of the extinction of a maladaptive species.  

To prevent the suicidal course that Wells and Russell believed the present age was on, both thinkers devoted their energies to political activism and works of popular education.  At the end of their lives, Wells in 1946 and Russell in 1970, neither of them believed that there was much cause for hope that humanity would survive, and both attributed this imminent disaster to the effects of science now made manifest in the development of nuclear weapons.  Hence, it is ironic that writers who are associated with an advocacy of science should at the same time have been proponents of the view that it would, in all probability, cause the demise of the species.  In the following, I would like to explore this apparent scientific dualism espoused by Wells and Russell while indicating lines of parallel development and similarity between their ideas and ultimate conclusions.

H.G. Wells is known today for his classic works of science fiction such as The War of the Worlds, The Time Machineand The Invisible Man.  However, few are now aware that a large percentage of some 130 books were non-fictional and that many of his fictional works were thinly disguised vehicles for the promotion of his ideas.  In the tradition of Charles Dickens, Wells sought to use literature as a form of propaganda for social change.  Even fewer people know that Wells received a B.Sc. degree from the University of London, studied under T.H. Huxley who had urged Darwin to publish his Origins of the Species, was trained as a biologist, and produced a textbook of Biology in 1893.  His work under Huxley left a profound impression on Wells’ thought and found its way into his scientific romances.  Huxley had written:

“The theory of evolution encourages our intellectual anticipations.  If, for millions of years, our globe has taken the upward road, yet, sometime, the summit will be reached and the downward route will be commenced.”

Echoing this sentiment, we find Wells writing an article entitled “The Extinction of Man” appearing in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895:

“… the coming terror may be crouching for its spring and the fall of humanity be at hand.  In the case of every other predominant animal the world has ever seen… the hour of its complete ascendency has been the eve of its entire overthrow.”

Indeed, Huxley’s cosmic pessimism was to find an outlet in almost all of Wells’ early works of fiction.  In The Time Machine (1895) the main theme is that of the running down of humanity and its evolutionary development after a cataclysmic world war into two divisions of man, the Eloi and the Morlocks where the former is raised by the latter like cattle only to be slaughtered and eaten.  In The Wonderful Visit (1895) an angel falls to earth only to be driven to the point of death because the “divine” nature of his character is incapable of adopting to an essentially hostile struggle to survive.  The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) presents an impression of what science can become if divorced from humane control. Dr. Moreau becomes at once a parody of uncontrolled applications of science in the particular case of eugenics as well as a parody of a blind, merciless nature guiding the evolutionary process.  Dr. Moreau is heard to say:

“Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, this time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.”

In The Invisible Man (1897), Wells presents a picture of the gradually deteriorating moral character of the man who has become invisible and, hence, freed from morality.  In the belief that his invisibility gives him freedom from social constraints as a result of his new power, the invisible man regresses to a level of madness and antisocial behavior where he must eventually be killed because of the threat that he poses.  The War of the Worlds (1898) stages an invasion of highly evolved and technologically advanced Martians who, despite their high level of evolution are hideously ugly and live by draining the blood from human victims.  The “advanced” weaponry of man is powerless against them.  But, despite their highly evolved and technologically advanced state, the Martians are eventually wiped out by a virus.  In The First Men on the Moon (1901) we find another highly developed civilization where each individual is specifically evolved and bodily adapted for a particular social role.  Their insect-like description is reminiscent of ants and despite their harmonious and stable society, the Selenites are portrayed as emotionless and soulless creatures.  Upon finding out the destructive, emotional nature of man, they stop the scientist Cavor, from transmitting any more messages to the earth and we are left to speculate as to his future fate at their hands.

A fundamental change in Wells came about sometime around the year 1900 when he took on the role of prophet and social theorist.  According to one biographer, Wells came to believe that:

“… only the elect could hope for salvation, their righteousness triumphing over human fallibility and establishing the Role of Saints on earth.  Wells, who now identified himself with the elect, had defined his mission.”

In 1901, Wells published his Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought.  A book which was extremely successful.  So successful was it, that Sidney and Beatrice Webb asked him to join the Fabian movement with the result that its active membership more than doubled.  In 1902 Wells published The Discovery of the Future: A Discourse Delivered to the Royal Institution on January 24th, 1902.  In the following year appeared Mankind in the Making, a book which dealt largely with reforms in education.  1905 saw A Modern Utopiacame to print, a book in which Wells describes a Utopian state run largely along the lines of Plato’s Republic and ruled by an elite group of selfless dedicated scientists called “Samurai.” 

Yet some did not take kindly to the new works produced by Wells.  H. L. Mencken, for example, in a chapter entitled “The Late Mr. Wells” argues that having been once a gifted writer of fiction, Wells had become a “tin-pot reformer… merchant of banal pedagogies… hawker of sociological liver-pills.”  Wells coasted comfortably as a prophet social thinker until the outbreak of the first war, but that conflict impressed upon him anew a sense of immediate urgency for social change.  As F. M. Doughty has written:

“… that civilization had its way still to find was, in 1908, a calmly enough proposed dictum; in 1914 it was a fact to be shouted from the housetops, to be ingeminated in any and every fashion…”

On the eve of that war, Wells had written The World Set Free in which he portrayed the collapse of the old order in a global war employing atomic bombs, from it, emerged a world order operated on sane principles.  In the case of the Great War, Wells came to believe that a similar eventuality might come about, and he coined the now famous phrase “The War to End All Wars” to express his belief in a better possible post-war era.  In The Commonsense of Warfare(1914) he presented the argument that civilization was caught up in a race between “education and catastrophe” and, indeed, launched the entire notion of “reconstruction” that was to become the catchword of those years immediately following the end of the first world war.  Moreover, during the 1914 to 1918 period, Wells, as the expression goes “got religion” but as it would be expected, his God was at variance with that presented by orthodox Christianity.  As a result, he came under attack by both the devout and the rationalists.  In a volume entitle God and Mr. Wells­ (1917) by William Archer, we find the following:

“When it was known that Mr. H. G. Wells had set forth to discover God, all amateurs of intellectual adventure were filled with pleasurable excitement and anticipation. For is not Mr. Wells the great Adventurer of latter-day literature?  No quest is too perilous for him, no forlorn-hope too daring.  He led the first explorers to the moon.  He it was who lured Martians to earth and exterminated them with microbes.  He has ensnared an angel from the skies and expiscated a mermaid from the deep.  He has mounted a Time Machine (of his own invention) and gone careering down the vistas of the Future.  But these were comparatively commonplace feats… It might be said that he was fitted for far greater things.”  There remains, “we said to ourselves,” the blue ribbon on intellectual adventure, the unachieved North Pole of spiritual exploration… What if it should be reserved for Mr. Wells to bring back the first news from a source more baffling than that of Nile or Amazon – the source of the majestic stream of Being?… We almost held our breath in eager anticipation, just as we did when there came from America a well-authenticated rumour that the problem of flying had at last been solved.  Were we on the brink of another and much more momentous discovery?

Yet despite such attacks and many others, Well’s emerged from the war period with his reputation considerably enhanced by the runaway success of his Mr. Brittling Sees It Thorough.  Unlike Russell, Wells had not been a pacifist and had argued that the war had to be fought out to the end.  Indeed, in 1917 Wells attacked Russell’s pacifism as absurd and dismissed Russell as one who “objected to Euclid upon grounds no one could possibly understand, in books no one could possibly read.”  In the post-war era, however, the ideas of Wells and Russell ceased to be incompatible with respect to the programme of reconstruction.  Wells began a massive project to undertake the re-education of English-speaking peoples and in 1919 – 1920 produced The Outline of History (a work which made him immensely rich) followed by a three-volume work entitle The Science of Life: A Summary of Contemporary Knowledge about Life and its Possibilities (1930) and the 2 vol. The Work Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931).  These three works form an educational trilogy which Wells had deliberately fashioned as the new bible of civilization.  The first dealt with a universal history beginning with the primaeval ooze and ending with the League of Nations.  The second gave a general account of all biological life and how it adapted to its environment.  The third gave an account of economic theories and how economic organization could be employed so as to lead to human happiness.  Interestingly, when Russell founded his experimental school Beacon Hill in 1927, these titles were used as student textbooks.  However, despite the considerable impact that these works did have at the time people soon gave up the feeling of intense urgency for social reform as prosperity increased and memory faded.  When later prosperity decreased, they were little concerned with such plans because a war was increasingly viewed as inevitable.

It has been said that Wells’ last books – especially, Mind at the End of its Tether (1945) shows how optimism turned to despair.  But indeed, it is an erroneous assumption that Wells really believed that society would reform along more constructive lines.  We do know that he hoped it would, but in the final analysis it may have simply been a grasping at straws – a valiant last-ditch attempt to confront impending doom.   In Wells’ own description of The Time Traveler, he writes that his character thought:

“… but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back and destroy its makers in the end.”

Wells’ adds:

            “If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so.”

It is not impossible to interpret Wells as having taken his own advice.  Moreover, we find with the last works by Wells that he returns to the same biologically based theories of adaptation and evolution as had occupied him earlier.  In 42 to 44: A Contemporary Memoir, Wells pronounced:

“plainly the human animal, of which I am a sample, is not constituted to anticipate anything at all, it is constituted to accept the state of affairs about it, as a stable state of affairs, whatever its intelligence may tell it to the contrary, and to resist and disregard any ideas that transverse the acceptance of the “Thing that is.”

He continues

“Is it too fantastic a metaphor to say that the universe is impelled to express itself and has seized upon man as its medium of understanding, and that it is resolute now to wipe out every generation, as mine is being wiped off the slate, and to destroy every social frame in which we take refuge from the pitiless confrontation of reality?  The anthropomorphism in this metaphor is manifest, but that is due to the limitations of our mind and language.”

A summary of Wells’ final position could be said to be this:  Man’s adaptive capacities are limited to the immediate environment of his day-to-day activity.  As society has become more complex and the results of science have freed man from traditional adaptive measures, the whole within which each part operates is not longer controllable.  As each increase in complexity results in a corresponding increase in potential instability, therefore, there arises the necessity for overall control and direction of the whole.  Because adaptation occurs only within the immediate environment, men cannot be brought to regard the considerations of the whole as being of equal emotional importance to their everyday experience.  Hence, the emotional and intellectual energy of the individual cannot be adapted to the survival of the whole in a conscious manner.  As a result, therefore, of the extensions of power bestowed upon man by science, the natural limitations have been upset, and, excluding the possibility for a proportional increase in the wisdom necessary to control these changed circumstances, mankind will perish.  

Russell’s views bear a striking resemblance in many ways to those offered by Wells.  In his little-known Icarus or The Future of Science (1924) which was printed as a rebuttal of Haldane’s blithely optimistic work entitled Daedalus, Russell writes:

“Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father Daedalus, was destroyed by his rashness.  I fear that the same fate may overtake the populations whom modern men of science have taught to fly.”

He continues:

“Science has increased man’s control over nature and might therefore be supposed likely to increase his happiness and well-being.  This would be the case if men were rational, but in fact they are bundles of passions and instincts.  An animal species in a stable environment, if it does not die out, acquires an equilibrium between its passions and the conditions of its life.  If the conditions are suddenly altered, the equilibrium is upset… When a certain amount of something is useful, and the difficulty of obtaining it is diminished, instinct will usually lead an animal to excess in the new circumstances.” 

 Russell’s hope for the future lies in a continuing increase in the global dimensions of industrialism and organization such that the whole will become one producing and consuming unit.  With the possibility of competition between 2 rival groups, comes the possibility of the defeat of one by the other and the subsequent establishment of a world state which he regards as the only means whereby mutual extermination can be prevented.  Echoing Wells, Russell argues:

“I believe that, owing to men’s folly, a world government will only be established by force, and will therefore be at first cruel and despotic.  But I believe that it is necessary for the preservation of a scientific civilization, and that, if once realized, it will gradually give rise to the other conditions of tolerable existence.”

He concludes:

“Science has not given men more self-control, more kindliness, or more power of discounting their passions in deciding upon a course of action.  It has given communities more power to indulge their collective passions… Men’s collective passions are mainly evil; for the strongest of them are hatred and rivalry directed towards other groups.  Therefore, at present all that gives men power to indulge their collective passions is bad.  That is why science threatens to cause the destruction of our civilization.”

With the advent of the atomic bomb, Russell’s hopes for any kind of satisfactory resolution to the problems of modern civilization were greatly reduced and were replaced by fears of human extinction.  Since an atomic war would, he believed, entail the destruction of civilization but of mankind itself, any resolution between major powers which might have, before the advent of atomic weapons, lead to world government now became impossible.  Therefore, the only recourse for human survival was the possibility of educated rational control through the fear of consequences.  Russell hoped that the destructive power of modern weapons, if adequately publicized, might be enough to force the re-education necessary for human survival.  Indeed, his slogan “Adapt or Perish” threatened extinction of the race unless, by force of will, man would evolve in wisdom to a level commensurate with his power.  But of this possibility, Russell was not optimistic.  His History of the World in Epitome for Use in Martian Infant Schools published for his 90thbirthday is a worthy companion for Wells’ Mind at the End of Its Tether.  Its six pages read:

“Since Adam and Eve ate the apple man has never refrained from any folly of which he was capable [a picture of an atomic bomb exploding followed by] The End.

In conclusion, therefore, the central bond between Russell and Wells was that of a shared awareness of the major issue of the 20th century – namely, that given the fact that a species must adapt in order to survive – then, it follows that if an environment is radically altered such that old habits of mind and action are no longer adequate, then the human race must perish.  The changes wrought by science upon society can only be a boon if there is a corresponding growth in the maturity of the species to cope with and direct these changes.  In all of this, education is central.  And, in all of this focus on education, the central idea is to educate people to think clearly and to break the bondage of traditional dogmas.  For this reason, their joint advocacy of progressive educational theories may be seen as a fundamental aspect of their overall social and political reform advocacy and their work as popular educators as its most forceful extension.  Adapt or perish, therefore, may be read as re-educate or perish. Whereas the crisis grew and evolved in scope and complexity, to the advent of nuclear weapons was added the further existential crisis of climate change.  Their belief was that the predominant focus of the current age must transcend individual economic survival towards a  focus on the collective adaptability required to confront these perils.  To date, the results are far from encouraging.