Picture a majestic T. rex receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments in its undersized forelimbs, or an elegant octopus crucified on an old rugged cross with four crossbars instead of one.
Such images are what Kenneth Miller presumably had in mind with his comforting Darwinist thought that intelligent creatures were guaranteed to pop up even in the course of an evolutionary process of purely unguided, purposeless churning. You see, he tells us, evolution was bound to “converge” (as theorized by Simon Conway Morris) not necessarily on a human being but on — well, as Miller has said, it could have been “a big-brained dinosaur, or… a mollusk with exceptional mental capabilities.” Fine, let’s grant the merit of “convergence” as an unproblematic scientific observation. My argument here is not with Miller’s science but with his imagination.
A Roman Catholic and a Brown University biologist, Ken Miller is one of those theistic evolutionists who want other religious believers to feel there’s nothing in Darwin to offend religious sensibilities. He and others (like Francis Collins) invite us to imagine God being delighted with such creatures, noble and impressive in their way, as the culmination of the evolutionary process that he chose not to guide. But what if the intelligent creature that resulted from all the purposeless churning, and that was intended to reflect God’s own image, had been something really horrible.
That’s the scenario that an author I enjoy and often re-read around Halloween time, a committed Darwinist and atheist — H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) — allows us to contemplate. In his terrifically imaginative horror stories, most set in a spooky, antiquated New England, the great theme is that humanity is but a tiny, unimportant speck in an unimaginably vast universe that has cast up innumerable varieties of extraterrestrial beings, some of which have colonized our planet. Darwinists love him, as you know if you follow P.Z. Myers’s blog.
Many of Lovecraft’s creatures are so repellent that when a human being encounters them, he’s as likely as not to die right on the spot from sheer terror. Here’s a description of one, depicted in the form of a little statue at the beginning of “The Call of Cthulhu”:
It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.
“Shockingly frightful”! Lovecraft writes in the opening paragraph of the same story:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
In his biography H.P. Lovecraft: A Life (Necronomicon Press), Lovecraft maven S.T. Joshi gives Darwin, Huxley, and Haeckel as Lovecraft’s “chief philosophical influences.” His reading went back to the Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus, but he got his Darwinism primarily by way of the English science and philosophy popularizer Hugh Elliot and from Darwin’s foremost German disciple, Ernst Haeckel.
From Elliot, Lovecraft absorbed “the denial of teleology,” of cosmic progress toward any particular goal, and “the denial of any form of existence other than those envisaged by physics and chemistry.” Darwin was important for having refuted the “argument for design,” thereby guaranteeing man’s “comic insignificance.”
Play the videotape of evolutionary history back again and Ken Miller imagines you get a charming brainy creature for God to play with — something lovable and admirable. Lovecraft would have seen that as sentimental nonsense.
In a universe unguided by the intelligent purpose of a just, loving God, there’s no reason to imagine that the intelligent creature or creatures that resulted from the endless churning would be nice, cute, or noble. The probability seems reasonably high — why not? — that they would be grotesque, obnoxious, loathsome, abhorrent, ghastly. Those are all, by the way, favorite adjectives with Lovecraft. He was big on adjectives, deploying them extravagantly. His fiction, over and over, asks us to consider the possibility that the university is filled with such horrors: “terrifying vistas of reality.”
Here is his description of a shoggoth, another monster in his Cthulhu mythos (from “At the Mountains of Madness”):
It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train — a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.
“They were the hellish tracks of the living fungi from Yuggoth,” is a characteristic Lovecraftian sentence (“The Whisperer in Darkness”).
In his Introduction to The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Classics), S.T. Joshi reminds us that Lovecraft has to be appreciated “in the context of the philosophical thought that he evolved over a lifetime of study and observation. The core of that thought…is mechanistic materialism.” Lovecraft dealt not with the supernatural but with the “supernormal,” as Joshi puts it — the unrealized side of material reality. The terrible possibilities he raises follow from that philosophy.
Sure, they’re just stories — and often kind of silly ones at that, though wickedly entertaining. Yet after reading him, you can’t comfortably go back to the naïve Ken Miller way of thinking that Darwinian evolutionary was somehow certain to provide God with children over whom he would approve with the Biblical formulation, “And behold it was very good.”
Photo: H.P. Lovecraft in 1934, by Lucius B. Truesdell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.