Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636
Famous film versions (1925 and 1960) and innumerable further imitations, including King Kong (1933), have made The Lost World one of the most influential books in its genre. Willis O’Brien provided the special effects for both versions of The Lost World and for King Kong. The Lost World was adapted freely for the screen, with a female love interest added, changes in plot and characters, many new dinosaurs, and a culminating volcanic eruption. Exciting as animated dinosaurs and geological disasters may be, they obscure several thematic undercurrents important to the original story.
As Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the novel, there was no fundamental conflict between science and religion, though Challenger once equated himself with Galileo; rather, conflict arose between two groups within science, both of which supported evolution. One group affirmed the ideas of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Henry Walter Bates. The other supported those of distinguished German theorist August Weismann, whose “germ plasm” theory of heredity opposed Darwin’s, though he strongly endorsed Darwin’s theory of natural selection in other respects. The conflict between these two closely related groups underlies chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Doyle’s novel. Outside both groups were prominent life scientists who rejected Darwin’s theories altogether. Originally a Darwinian himself, Challenger is forced to reconsider his position somewhat.
Besides Darwin and Weismann, another important scientific predecessor to the world of the novel was Gideon Mantell, the “worthy Sussex doctor” mentioned in chapter 10. In 1825, Mantell announced and named Iguanodon, the second dinosaur to be discovered (Megalosaurus, not mentioned in the novel, was first) and the first known to be herbivorous. Because of Mantell’s further work, more became known about Iguanodon than about any other dinosaur. The reader therefore finds fairly detailed evocations of its behavior in the novel, whereas other dinosaurs are sketched more generally, and some of their supposed actions remain unsubstantiated. It is also taken for granted—and more than once affirmed—that all dinosaurs were incredibly stupid and therefore incapable of complex behavior.
Because dinosaurs were, for Doyle, too dumb to react to situations in other than repetitious and soon uninteresting ways, Doyle felt somewhat obliged to introduce further examples of more intelligent mammalian life. Of these, however, he makes real use only of his hominids—the ape-men and the humans. Hominid evolution had been a topic of great interest throughout Doyle’s lifetime. Relevant fossils of Dryopithecus and Pithecanthropus are mentioned in the novel. Examples of Paleolithic art had also been discovered and likewise appear. Doyle stressed that modern humans differ from their ancestors only in brain capacity. Professor Challenger, in particular, is described as being otherwise physically identical with the ape-men (chapter 13). The implication is that humans have not evolved so far as basically savage behavior is concerned, a lesson that World War I, already on the horizon in 1912, would do much to reinforce.
In addition to natural selection (survival of the fittest), Darwin also affirmed sexual selection, by which the evolutionary history of a species is determined in part by the freedom of choice exercised by females in selecting their mates. By having offspring, the selected males are thereby able to transmit their genes to a further generation, whereas rejected ones are not. In The Lost World, it is not known that any of the four outstanding male characters has children. Challenger is married but apparently childless; neither Summerlee nor Roxton is known to have descendants; and Malone is rejected in favor of a much less manly (and probably less intelligent) rival. The implication, therefore, is that a kind of human (the adventurous, as opposed to the domestic) is dying out. Perhaps in choosing to return to the lost world, Roxton and Malone decide also to accept the Indian wives offered them there and to escape the debilitating genetic ostracism of an increasingly effeminate England.
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