The Edge of Evolution

Advance copy!

First copy outta the box!

The Edge of Evolution is my book published by Oxford University Press; its subtitle is Animality, Inhumanity, and Doctor Moreau. It’s now in stores and available for ordering on-line! (see links at right)

It’s about human exceptionalism – the notion that humanity is a special thing in any terms at all, with a special role relative to the rest of nature. This notion wears many different guises or is taken to include many different purposes or justifications. I’ve learned, long ago, that refuting it, however sensibly, is a lost cause – instead, I’m simply writing from the opposing viewpoint and seeing what you think.

But that’s all too abstract and I probably lost you already. Let me try again … I’m writing about the old novel (1896), The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells, like so:

  • In the late 19th century, the question “what does it mean if people are animals?” received much more attention and explicit emotional stress than it does today. That’s not because it’s been resolved, but because it was swept under the rug, not only in reaction by non-scientists, but by modern biology itself.
  • Wells was a student of Thomas Huxley’s and deeply engaged with Huxley’s brilliant final lecture, Evolution & Ethics (1893), when he wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau. It is, in my view, his best and most significant work, catapulting the already mind-blowing lecture material into the realm of drama and explicit ethical crisis.
  • Therefore the novel is even more relevant today, with greater barriers to overcome and greater insights to offer, relatively speaking, than ever. I’m writing to rehabilitate it for a new reading, to bring its story and content right into the reader’s lap, bringing that primary question unavoidably into the light.

Check out the Table of Contents and please feel free to ask any questions – I’ll collect them and post a special answer-session at the blog at least once a month.

Tone and style: Probably as good news, I’m not writing to fellow academics. This book is written to the sensible, curious, and slightly-suspicious audience that I’ve been teaching to for the past 25 years. I’ll toss in a sample to show what I mean as soon as the publisher says it’s OK.

Artwork: In the novel’s Chapter 16, Prendick tries to describe the human-animals on the island, and laments that he cannot sketch. Inspired by this line, Mike Hoffman produced a sketchbook of his own, attuned solely to the novel without reference to cinema or prior illustrations. Mike has immeasurably enhanced the power of my book by allowing me the use of his sketches in the book, some of which you’ll see here & there at this website.

5 thoughts on “The Edge of Evolution

  1. Just me, maybe, but “about human exceptionalism” doesn’t lose me at all. I remember that idea as a rock-solid foundation of my science/biology education through high school. Somewhere in the decades since it just … evaporated. Perhaps not surprising from someone who’s been known to say “it’s all just hydrogen complications,” but maybe that’s the dabbling in Bioinformatics talking.

    The book may well be/include an answer to this question, but – would you say there are any … “worthy successors” (in these terms of biology/human exceptionalism) to Wells’ Moreau in the century+ since?


    • There are some, but far less than I’d hope for. An enormous amount of SF is not only human exceptionalist, but supremacist, even when it’s not “don’t meddle.” The first four Planet of the Apes movies qualify in spades, not surprising considering Rod Serling’s involvement. The original novel too, although not as strong. It’s instructive to compare these to, say, Brin’s Uplift series. I’d like to save that for a post rather than developing it here.


  2. I really like your book so far. As expected, it’s neither dry (cf. the anecdote about refering to a child’s hand as a paw) nor shallow (cf. the analysis of a student’s reaction to that). Also, I was astonished by the revelation that there’s an earlier version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel — I wrote a seminar paper on Gothic novels and only ever read the later version. Quite the eye opener! I look forward to continue reading!

    Liked by 1 person

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