H.G. Wells
Best known today for science fiction novels such as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells was in his own day widely regarded as a prophet. Trained in science, he predicted the wireless telephone, directed energy weapons such as the laser, and the production of human-animal chimeras through genetic engineering. Yet Wells’ prognostications did not stop with science and technology. His imagination also ventured into the socio-political realm, where he predicted the development of a rational world government that would give rise to perpetual peace. Wells believed that if only the fate of the world could be placed in the hands of truly enlightened individuals cast in the mold of Wells himself, humankind could be saved from itself, averting disasters such as famine and war and ushering in a new era of human felicity. Yet many observers, particularly those with a strong fondness for liberty, would find Wells’ prescriptions less utopian than dystopian. Peer deeply enough, and Wells’ seemingly benevolent vision turns out to be misanthropic in the extreme.

Consider his work, Anticipations,1 published in 1901, just at the beginning of what Wells presumed would be humanity’s most momentous century. At the time, he was 34 years old, and he would later refer to this bestselling work as “the keystone to the main arch of my work.” Published initially as separate essays, it represents his first extended foray into socio-political commentary, anticipating a complete reorganization of society and the transformation of many spheres of human life. To Wells, human history up to that point had been a mere prologue- in many respects a collection of cautionary tales of ignorance and superstition. Only with the birth of a new age of reason and science, heralded by Wells, was humanity finally prepared to take up the reins of its own fate and craft a better world. Of special interest is the final essay in the book, its ninth chapter, which he entitled, “The Faith, Morals, and Public Policy of the New Republic.” In it, Wells lays out his vision of a humanity liberated from the bonds of outmoded religious beliefs, drawing instead on the insights of Thomas Robert Malthus and Charles Darwin.

Wells’ “new republic” will be a world state composed of capable, rational men. Thanks to technological developments such as faster transportation and communication, men naturally suited and capable of governing will be able spread their control over vast stretches of territory, soon to encompass the entire globe. Technological advances will also eliminate many of the scourges of mankind, such as famines and plagues. And perhaps most importantly, technology will make it possible to address the greatest threat to humanity, which Wells refers to as the “people of the abyss.” These are human beings who are both poor and lack “any evident function in the social organism.” They are, in short, useless, merely taking up space and using resources that could be put to better purposes. Faced with the existence of such “worthless eaters,” the rational governors of the new world order will see no alternative but to reduce the numbers of such parasites, eventually eliminating them altogether.

“In encountering these central features of Wells’ vision, readers must ask themselves, is this a description of a kind of paradise that we would choose to bequeath to our children and grandchildren, or is this something quite different, perhaps even a terrifying vision of human pride run amok?”

For too long, the survival and increase of the people of the abyss, Wells argues, have proceeded outside of human control. In the new century, however, their very existence would pose a question that no rational person could any longer ignore: “What will you do with us, we hundreds of millions, who cannot keep pace with you?” These hundreds of millions, Wells asserts, will consist not only of the “multiplying rejected of the white and yellow civilizations” but also “a vast proportion of the black and brown races.” The new republic will “meet, check, and control these things,” moving him to consider both the broad principles by which such control will be exerted and the nature of the methods that will be employed. In encountering these central features of Wells’ vision, readers must ask themselves, is this a description of a kind of paradise that we would choose to bequeath to our children and grandchildren, or is this something quite different, perhaps even a terrifying vision of human pride run amok?

Wells turns almost immediately to the religious and moral convictions of the new human beings who will inhabit the new republic. Naturally, they will find purpose in the universe, supposing that reality itself is either one and systematic, “held together by some omnipresent quality,” or “an incoherent accumulation with no unity whatsoever outside the unity of the personality regarding it.” Wells readily admits that up to the present moment, both men of faith and men of science have tended to see a unified purpose, often connected to the idea of God. But the rational men of the future will, “like many of the saner men of today,” presume no knowledge of God and will reject as nothing more than anthropomorphic projection the notion that anything beyond the human can account for any notions of right and wrong. Instead of desperately positing some divine guarantor of human welfare and justice, they will face facts, looking for no revelation beyond that provided by their own nature and the natural world of which they are a part.

Although they need not be atheists, Wells’ new men will believe far less in God than in their own free will. And combining this free will with reason, they will soon recognize that the things that seem most apparent to us, such as the greenness of new-sprung grass, the hardness of wood, and the coldness of ice, are in fact, in the “abstract world of reasoning science,” really devoid of color, hardness, and temperature, which represent nothing more than the mind’s reaction to molecular processes that possess no such properties. Similarly, our ethical sensibilities enjoy no firm foundation in the nature of things, a truth Wells sees in what he calls the nineteenth century’s “breaking down and routing out of almost all the cardinal assumptions on which the minds of the eighteenth century dwelt securely.” Subjected to vigorous and fearless scientific scrutiny, Wells asserts, the chips of long-held moral and ethical convictions are now flying. For Wells this is not a process of destruction but one of revelation, much like the sculptor wielding his hammer and chisel.

Consider Malthus, whose 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, we discover, says Wells, that all dreams of earthly golden ages must, thanks to the human propensity to reproduce faster than resources can multiply, be either “futile or insincere, or both.” Malthus also provided Darwin with a key foundation for his theory of natural selection. Because natural organisms, including human beings, differ from one another in a variety of ways, some individuals will turn out by virtue of this process to be superior and others inferior to one another. Furthermore, says Wells, these differences will obtain not only at the level of individuals but also at the level of groups. In other words, some groups of human beings are naturally inferior to others, and as a result, they “cannot be given opportunities or trusted with power as superior peoples are trusted.” To treat them as equals would be “to sink to their level,” and “to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity.”

In the past, Wells asserts, people were content with a “mysteriously incompetent deity exasperated by an unsatisfactory creation.” But modern thought sees through such conceptions to a new dawn in human consciousness.

  • It has been like the coming of dawn, at first a colorless dawn, clear and spacious, before which the mists whirl and fade, and there opens to our eyes not the narrow passage, the definite end we had imagined, but the rocky, ill-defined path we follow high amidst this limitless prospect of space and time. At first the dawn is cold—there is at times a quality of terror almost in the cold clearness of the morning twilight—but insensibly its coldness passes, the sky is touched with fire, and presently up out of the dayspring in the east, the sunlight will be pouring. And these men of the New Republic will be going about in the daylight of things assured. (Anticipations, p. 108)

To be sure, not everyone will be up to this challenge, and some will continue to “lead their little lives like fools, playing foolishly with religion and all the great issues of life.” But the new republic will be led not by fools but by “those who by character and intelligence will fearlessly shape all their ethical determinations and public policy anew.”

The dominant human beings in Wells’ new republic would be a naturally segregated class of individuals characterized by “a desire, a passion almost, to create and organize, to put in order, to get the maximum result from certain possibilities.” Their aim will be not to produce a paradise, which by definition would be a place of stagnation, but a world state of,

  • … active ampler human beings, full of knowledge and energy, free from much of the baseness and limitations, the needless pains and dishonors of the world disorder of today, but still struggling, struggling against ampler but still too narrow restrictions and for still more spacious objects than our vistas have revealed. For this general end, for the special work that contributes to it as an individual end, they will make the plans and the limiting rules of their lives. (p. 110)

They will aim to produce “what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity, beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds,” and to check the procreation of “base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men.” And the method that must be called upon in achieving this vision is death.

In Wells’ new ethics, life will be seen not as a God-given gift or a political right but as a privilege. The citizens of the new republic will have little pity and even less benevolence for the “multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonor, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity.” They will recognize that making life convenient for the breeding of such people is an abomination and that the procreation of such children can only be regarded as a kind of disease to be purged from humanity. Simply put, Wells reveals himself to be a eugenicist. From his point of view, those who fail to face up to these facts are merely burying their heads in the sand, and in so doing, they inflict great harm on humanity.

To repeat, the key for Wells is death. The squeamish and the fear-driven must be replaced by the unsympathetic and the courageous. Wells waxes eloquent in his description of these leaders of the new republic. And here emerges in full the horror with which any decent person must regard his program.

  • The men of the New Republic will not be squeamish either in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess. They will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while, like Abraham they will have the faith to kill, and they will have no superstitions about death. They will naturally regard the modest suicide of incurably melancholy or diseased or helpless persons as a high and courageous act of duty rather than a crime. And since they will regard, as indeed all men raised above a brutish level do regard, a very long term of imprisonment as infinitely worse than death, as being indeed death with a living misery added to its natural terror, they will, I conceive, where the whole tenor of a man’s actions, and not simply some incidental or impulsive action, seems to prove him unfitted for free life in the world, consider him carefully and condemn him and remove him from being. All such killing will be done with an opiate, for death is too grave a thing to be made painful or dreadful and used as a deterrent from crime…. To kill under the seemly conditions science will afford is a far less offensive thing. The rulers of the future will grudge making good people into jailers, warders, punishment-dealers, nurses, and attendants on the bad. People who cannot live happily and freely in the world without spoiling the lives of others are better out of it. That is a current sentiment even today, but the men of the New Republic will have the courage of their opinions. (p. 111)

Killing the unfit, whether their defects be physical, mental, or moral, is not a crime against nature but the fulfillment of nature’s true purpose. Only the fit should survive; they are reducing inefficiencies, making society more consistent, and beautifying it, by removing the ugly.

Where, precisely, does Wells go wrong, and what, precisely, is he guilty of? Let us count the ways. First, he exhibits excessive faith in human rationality, supposing that a more rational world will necessarily be a better one. Likewise, his faith in technology is exaggerated. Yet we can extend the range and speed of transportation and communication without reaching a better destination or sharing a better message. In fact, in some cases, traveling farther or talking faster actually degrades quality.

Far more disturbing is the ease with which Wells is prepared to place persons or whole peoples in different categories, ultimately amounting to the chosen and unchosen. To presume to say that a person or a people belongs in the abyss betrays a remarkable lack of fellow-feeling. Wells is supremely confident that he and those like him are adequately prepared to render such judgments, a degree of pridefulness that rises to the level of hubris. And the criteria by which he does so, such as utility, evince absolutely no appreciation for a concept such as human dignity or the inherent worth of each human being as human. He never questions that he knows the difference between a useful and a useless human being, and knowing this alone, he is prepared to consign the latter to destruction. Unanswered is the question, “Useful for what?” And even people he regards as useful, such as the economically self-sufficient and productive, may in fact turn out to be real blights on humanity.

Like the ancient Greek sophists before him, Wells ends up concluding that man is the measure of all things—that is, that there is no standard outside the human to which we can appeal in attempting to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate. There is no God, no natural law, no extra-human standard by which we can calibrate our moral compasses. Instead, we must simply look to the standards our own nature provides, namely the laws of natural selection which distinguish the fit from the unfit. And yet such a view implies, ultimately, that the only natural goods are survival and reproduction. Wells is horrified that that the people he regards as his equals—the well-off and well-educated—seem to produce progeny at a relatively low rate, while those he despises appear to be considerably more fecund. Yet if the rate of reproduction is the standard, how can he prefer a social group that produces fewer offspring? We are left with the conclusion that Wells prefers people who bear a striking resemblance to him, and that their fecundity has relatively little to do with it. Having determined what he likes in the way of people, he simply wants more of them.

Wells seeks to erase from the world many of its primary characteristics; he would break down moral sensibilities such as sympathy and generosity and leave in their place nothing but a hyper-rational commitment to efficiency and utility. His is a world predicated on scarcity, where there is not enough to go around, and where some must inevitably do without. On this basis, he savors a competitive arena in which the strong will prevail and the weak will be extinguished. Far from pitying those he perceives as weak and defective, he despises them and longs to be rid of them. Aware that many readers will recoil, he ridicules the revulsion and disgust good that good people will naturally experience at such suggestions. He attempts to recast vice as virtue and misanthropy as good, referring to inhumanity as enlightened courage. Yet many readers will not be fooled. They will not fail to recognize that a perfectly appropriate feeling in facing evil is fear.

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We can only conclude that, in creating his version of a better world, Wells is serving not the interests of humanity but his own. His new republic is populated with his kind of people and devoid of the kind of people he finds off-putting and objectionable. By his own admission, Wells is not a bringer of life but a harbinger of death, a prophet of a new kind of human being and society that will dispassionately dispense “scientific” poisons for the sake of his version of a larger good. Where nature was once the selector in natural selection, now it will be Wells and his tribe of the scientific elite. Wells ultimately resembles nothing so much as an extremely urbane and well-informed name caller, heaping scorn on the “diseased little men and women” he so abhors. Unwilling to leave such matters to the hands of a God in whom he does not believe, Wells sets himself up as judge, jury, and executioner. Yet perhaps it is not for the weak and infirm but Wells himself that our most severe condemnation should be reserved. He is not expunging the gods from the world but setting himself up as one.


[1] H.G. Wells, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress: Upon Human Life and Thought. 1901. Harper and Brothers, 1901. (Quotations referred to herein are from the Dover Thrift edition, 1999.

*Richard Gunderman is Chancellor’s Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, Philanthropy, and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University. He is also John A Campbell Professor of Radiology and in 2019-21 serves as Bicentennial Professor. He received his AB Summa Cum Laude from Wabash College; MD and PhD (Committee on Social Thought) with honors from the University of Chicago; and MPH from Indiana University.