How is Social Darwinism exemplified in War of the Worlds?

Expert Answers
teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In War of the Worlds, social Darwinism is exemplified through the narrator's sympathetic portrayal of the Martian invasion.

According to social Darwinism, it is natural for the "strong" to overpower, enslave, or destroy the "weak." This social theory was promoted by Herbert Spencer, the 19th century English philosopher, who is said to have popularized the phrase, "survival of the fittest." Spencer, of course, was an admirer of Charles Darwin. His social Darwinist theory justified imperialist European ambitions and the racist policies that enslaved Africa in the 19th century.

Spencer believed that the strongest species were the most adaptive ones in a violent, changing world: whether this was being applied to plants, animals, or humans, the strongest always moved toward greater self-sufficiency and individual potential. H.G. Wells's story exemplifies Spencer's social Darwinism through its portrayal and characterization of the Martians.

For example, the narrator describes how the Martians may have evolved and how their "animal side" appears to have been suppressed by their formidable "intelligence." He hypothesizes, based on the writings of a "speculative writer of quasi-scientific repute," that human beings will evolve in much the same way as the Martians and that natural selection will steadily annihilate peripheral appendages such as the "nose, teeth, ears, and chin." The only "cardinal necessity" will be the brain and, as in the Martians' case, tentacles that serve as capable hands. The narrator obviously presents the Martian species as the superior species, well within its rights to subjugate an inferior species such as humans.

In the story, the narrator's perception of the curate is colored by his social Darwinist bias. He calls the curate the type of man who is "void of pride, timorous, anaemic. . . full of shifty cunning, who face neither God nor man, who face not even themselves." The narrator harbors contempt for his weaker companion and is philosophical about physically fighting over their food rations. He talks about "wrestling contests" between the two of them and the curate's descent into madness.

When the curate's delirium becomes a threat to him, the narrator reaches for a meat cleaver and strikes the curator with the butt end of the knife. Later, the narrator watches with fascination as the tentacle of a handling-machine drags the curator away. The implication is that the curator will experience a gruesome death at the hands of the Martians. The author's portrayal of the struggle to the death between the narrator and the curate exemplifies the social Darwinist theory championed by Herbert Spencer.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a good question. A little historical information might help you. H. G. Wells studied under the noted scholar Huxley, who was a proponent of social Darwinism. Moreover, it is good to realize that the social context in which Wells lived was infused with the ideas of social Darwinism. 

Here are a few ways in which the idea of Social Darwinism plays out. First, there is a sense in which the Martians are superior humans. In fact, there is a learned reference to one of his former essays about Social Darwinism ("Man of the Year Million"). Here is the quote:

"It is worthy of remark that a certain speculative writer of quasi-scientific repute, writing long before the Martian invasion, did forecast for man a final structure not unlike the actual Martian condition..."

He, then, goes on to say that the Martians are more evolved than humans. 

Second, based on the first point, there is a sense that there are lesser and more superior beings. Through this idea the notion of natural selection comes out. So, in the end, while Wells' work is not about Social Darwinism, it comes out as he is a product of his time.