The Shape of Things to Come

Book the Fifth
The Modern State in Control of Life

9. A New Phase in the History of Life

H.G. Wells

FROM the point of view of the ecologist the establishment of the Modern State marks an epoch in biological history. It has been an adaptation, none too soon, of our species to changing conditions that must otherwise have destroyed it. The immense developments and disasters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries show us mankind scrambling on the verge of irreparable disaster.

The infinite toil of millions of tormented brains, the devotion and persistence of countless forgotten devotees, gave form and clear purpose in time to what were at first mere flounderings and clutchings towards safety. The threatened race did not fall back into that abyss of extinction which has swallowed up so many of the bolder experiments of life. In pain and uncertainty it clambered past its supreme danger phase, and now it has struggled to such a level of assurance, understanding and safety as no living substance has ever attained before.

By means of education and social discipline the normal human individual today acquires characteristics without which his continued existence would be impossible. In the future, as the obscurer processes of selection are accelerated and directed by eugenic effort, these acquired characteristics will be incorporated with his inherent nature, and his educational energy will be released for further adaptations. He will become generation by generation a new species, differing more widely from that weedy, tragic, pathetic, cruel, fantastic, absurd and sometimes sheerly horrible being who christened himself in a mood of oafish arrogance Homo sapiens.

The differences of the coming man from the man of the past will be multitudinous and intricate, but certain broad lines of comparison appear already. We have noted already the difference in the age cycle between ourselves and our ancestors, which has prolonged the youthful phase and shifted on the valid years towards the thirty-five to eighty period, and we have cited also the completer physical development, due to the release of vital energy from the task of resisting various infections, poisons and morbidities of growth. We are probably only in the beginning of very much more considerable physical modification. The æsthetic ideals of the past are likely to play a large part in determining the direction in which these modifications will take us. But these physical developments, important though they must ultimately be, are as yet much less important than the changes in moral form that are manifestly in progress. A brief consideration of these will make a fitting conclusion to this general outline of history.

Essentially they constitute a readjustment of the individual to the racial life. When we go back in time for a million years or so we find our ancestor species in a phase of almost fundamental individualism. Except where sexual life and the instinct system to protect offspring came in, the subman shifted for himself. He had no associates in the food hunt, no allies for defence. He was as solitary an animal as the tiger. From that he passed through stages of increasing sociability. The onset of these stages was made practicable by the retention of immature characteristics into adult life. The same thing is happening to the remnant of the lions today. They remain cubbish and friendly now to a much later age than they did a few-score thousand years ago. Man passed through a stage when he was as sociable as a modern lion and on to a phase when he was as sociable as a wolf or hunting dog.

But he did not rest at that. All the conditions of his life favoured the formation of still-larger communities and still-closer interdependence. He became a cultivator, an economic animal, and his communities expanded to thousands and scores of thousands of individuals held together by mutual service. He produced language and religion to bind the will and activities of these aggregations into an effective common policy. The history of mankind, as we unfold it to the contemporary student, is a story of ever increasing communication and ever increasing interdependence. Insensibly the material side of individual freedom was modified into unavoidable cooperation with the community.

Stress must be laid upon that word material. The physical subjugation and socialization of the human animal far outran his moral subjection. The history of mankind is also a history of education and compulsion. It is a record of give and take. Man almost up to the present day has remained at heart still the early savage, caring only for himself, for his sexual life, and, during the few years of their helplessness, his children. He has been willing to associate for aggression or for defence, but only very reluctantly for a common happiness. He has had to barter his freedom for the advantages of collective action, but he has done so against the grain, needing persuasion, pressure and helpful delusions.

The history of mankind has had to be very largely the history of a succession of religious and emotional inventions and reconstructions, to override the inherent distaste in the individual for subordination and self-sacrifice. At every opportunity the individual has sought to recover its personal initiatives. Its egotism has battled instinctively of necessity to get the best of the bargain and receive with as little giving as possible.

Man’s natural self struggles to do that now as strongly as ever he did. But he struggles now in a better light and more intelligently; he realizes what is impossible, and the long conflict of individualism with society has arrived at a rational compromise. We have learnt how to catch and domesticate the ego at an early stage and train it for purposes greater than itself.

What has happened during the past three and a half centuries to the human consciousness has been a sublimation of individuality. That phase is the quintessence of modern history. A large part of the commonplace life of man, the food-hunt, the shelter-hunt, the safety-hunt, has been lifted out of the individual sphere and socialized for ever. To that the human egotism has given its assent perforce. It has abandoned gambling and profit-seeking and all the wilder claims of property. It has ceased altogether to snatch, scramble and oust for material ends. And the common man has also been deprived of any weapons for his ready combativeness and of any liberty in its release. Nowadays even children do not fight each other. Gentleness in difference has become our second nature.

All that part of man’s life and interests has been socialized entirely against his natural disposition in the matter. In all those concerns the whole race is now confluent; it is becoming as much a colonial organism as any branching coral or polyp, though the ties that link us are not fleshly bands, but infinitely elastic and invisible and subtle. In the later chapters of this world history we have examined and displayed, with particular attention because of its culminating character, the essential individualism of the World War process, and we have told how, with what difficulty and after what scourgings, our race has been brought to its present phase of organized self-control. This present phase is the victory of creative power working through the individualities of a more intelligent minority, in the face of universal confusion, taking indeed advantage of that confusion to inaugurate our present order. That wilful minority has opened the gates to a power and abundance of existence beyond all former dreaming. But our Modern State has neither absorbed nor destroyed individuality, which now, accepting the necessary restrictions upon its material aggressiveness, resumes at every opportunity its freedom and enterprise upon a higher level of life.

The individuality deprived, or relieved if you will, of its primary instinctive preoccupations with getting and keeping, disillusioned about precedence, personal display and suchlike barbaric vanities, growing continually and swiftly in wisdom and knowledge, has now to go further afield to find itself. No longer a self-sufficient being, at war with all its kind, it has become a responsible part of a species. It has become an experiment in feeling, knowing, making and response.

The body of mankind is now one single organism of nearly two thousand five hundred million persons, and the individual differences of every one of these persons is like an exploring tentacle thrust out to test and learn, to savour life in its fullness and bring in new experiences for the common stock. We are all members of one body.1 Only in the dimmest analogy has anything of this sort happened in the universe as we knew it before. Our sense of our individual difference makes our realization of our common being more acute. We work, we think, we explore, we dispute, we take risks and suffer—for there seems no end to the difficult and dangerous adventures individual men and women may attempt; and more and more plain does it become to us that it is not our little selves, but Man the Undying who achieves these things through us.

As the slower processes of heredity seize upon and confirm these social adaptations, as the confluence of wills supersedes individual motives and loses its present factors of artificiality, the history of life will pass into a new phase, a phase with a common consciousness and a common will. We in our time are still rising towards the crest of that transition. And when that crest is attained what grandeur of life may not open out to Man! Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; nor hath it entered into the mind of man to conceive. . . . For now we see as in a glass darkly. . . . 


At this point Raven’s copied-out manuscript comes to an end—it seems to me a little abruptly. But it is the end; he has written the word “Finis” here. I will add only one word or so by way of comment. I have called that manuscript a dream book. Was it a dream book or was it indeed, as he declared and believed it to be, a vision of the shape of things to come? Or—there is a third possibility. As dreaming, this book is far too coherent; as vision, incredulity creeps in. But was Raven, too busily employed and too obsessed by the sense of urgency to embark upon a detailed analysis of world development, was he trying nevertheless to sketch out in this fantastic form a general thesis at least about the condition of things to come? If this is neither a dream book nor a Sibylline history, then it is a theory of world revolution. Plainly the thesis is that history must now continue to be a string of accidents with an increasingly disastrous trend until a comprehensive faith in the modernized World-State, socialistic, cosmopolitan and creative, takes hold of the human imagination. When the existing governments and ruling theories of life, the decaying religious and the decaying political forms of to-day, have sufficiently lost prestige through failure and catastrophe, then and then only will world-wide reconstruction be possible. And it must needs be the work, first of all, of an aggressive order of religiously devoted men and women who will try out and establish and impose a new pattern of living upon our race.

1.    This was the phrase of that interesting mystic St. Paul (Saul) of Tarsus (2-62 C.E. Epistles with analysis and commentary by Hirsch and Potter in the Historical Reprints: Development of Ideas Series), who did so much to pervert and enlarge the simpler cosmopolitan fraternalism of Jesus of Nazareth (-4-30 C.E.) before it was finally overwhelmed and lost in the sacrificial sacerdotalism of formal Christianity. For a brief period before it relapsed the Pauline cult had a curious flavour of Modern State feeling. There was, however, a politic disingenuousness in Paul which betrayed his undeniable intellectual power. He was ambiguous about blood sacrifices, immortality, private property and slavery, to the eternal injury of the Christian movement. It was completely prostituted to usage before the first century was over. See Ivan Mackenzie, General Elements of Religion 2103. Mackenzie has an excellent chapter on the anticipation of Modern State ideas by ancient writers, and is particularly interesting on the Superior Person (Generalized or Super Man) of Confucius (551-478 B.C.) and the City of God of St. Augustine (354-430).    [back]

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents

Back    |    Words Home    |    H.G. Wells Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback