The fear of evolution going awry, which dominated Victorian apocalyptic thinking, seems relatively quaint compared to, say, nuclear annihilation.
For typical Victorians, their apocalyptic fears boiled down to two horrifying scenarios: either human evolution would take a wrong turn, or the sun would die, or even both. After the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the popularization of evolutionary theory, some Victorians worried that, with the growth of urban slums, large masses of humans would degenerate and overwhelm their more refined neighbors. This alarming prospect is what led Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, to conceive of a solution. Galton saw eugenics as a way to seize control of the evolutionary process and ensure the progress of humanity. And we all know how well that went.
Victorian fears were most vividly expressed in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. In this dystopic novel, a time traveller goes to the year 802,701 only to discover that the human race has degenerated into two species: the cannibalistic Morlocks (descendents of the slum dwellers) and the child-like Eloi (the descendents of the affluent). Worse, when he travels further into the future, the human race has disappeared completely and monstrous crab-like creatures rule the earth.
Wells didn’t stop there, touching as he did on the Victorian fear that thermodynamics would lead to the gradual death of the sun and the extinction of all life on earth. When Wells’s time traveller goes as far into the future as he dares, he observes a red sun that casts little heat or light.
To Lord Kelvin and other founders of energy physics, who were devout Christians, the doctrine of energy dissipation was a confirmation of purpose in the natural world. Ironically, their version of an apocalyptic ending of the Earth, and the death of the sun, was intended to counter T. H. Huxley and the defenders of evolution. Kelvin believed that evolution implied materialism, but saw energy dissipation as evidence that nature had a divine direction. To those who didn’t share Kelvin’s religious interpretation of the end of the Earth, energy dissipation became a type of pessimistic fatalism.
Perhaps we should envy the Victorians: they faced a much shorter list of all the possible ways the human race could end, all of which seemed out of their hands. Nobody in the nineteenth century worried about global nuclear annihilation.It wasn’t a scientific possibility until after Einstein conceived of his theory of relativity. Although the Victorians were aware of the downside of the industrial revolution, such as environmental degradation and poor urban sanitation, few people believed that the consequences of their actions would destroy humanity. The idea that bacteria could be a factor in disease wasn’t even accepted until the 1870s, and antibiotics weren’t developed until near the end of the nineteenth century. The alarming specter of antibiotic-resistant bacterium was a long way off.
Isn’t it interesting that the two newest, and most important, scientific theories of the age also generated the greatest fears of the Victorian period? These theories made sense of the present and the past, but they cast the distant future in a terrifying light. Compared to our long litany of fears, in which our newest scientific theories often threaten us with almost-immediate annihilation, the Victorians were relatively carefree.