Progress is a disease of the mind that feeds on a profound misunderstanding of change. Last night, watching the overlooked 1932 horror classic Island of Lost Souls featuring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi—as well as Richard Arlen and Leila Hyams, the blonde who appeared in Tod Browning’s Freaks that same year—I was reminded of how change is misunderstood not only because of the irrational fear fueled by the de-evolution that threatens Dr. Moreau’s man-beasts with a regression to their animal natures, but in Moreau’s assumption that he is, as a human, somehow better than the beasts he transforms.
Based on H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, which in my opinion may be Wells’ best novel, Island of Lost Souls tells the story of the survivor of a shipwreck who finds himself on an uncharted island where Dr. Moreau, played with chilling restraint by Charles Laughton, surgically alters animals into humanoids. Moreau’s inspiration, the character reveals, is based on his misprision of Darwin’s theory of evolution: namely, he assumes that man is the top of the evolutionary ladder and that all animals are headed there, so why not help them along? That is, of course, utter nonsense, along the lines that William S. Burroughs pointed out when he asked collaborator Malcolm Mc Neill, “So how long do you suppose it takes for a cat to evolve into a rhinoceros?” The question is absurd. Cats don’t evolve into rhinoceroses any more than chimpanzees evolve into humans. There are cats and there are rhinoceroses, there are humans and there are chimpanzees, and each adapted to this reality—right here, right now—alongside one another. One didn’t stop evolving any more than the other.
But every generation suffers from the misconception of evolution as progress, not least of all in the idea that the current generation is somehow regressing from those that preceded it, that the progress promised by some Golden Age, or even a more recent generation, has been betrayed. This notion goes back in time at least as far as the ancient Greeks, who often saw themselves as mere shadows of those who had come before them, and it is still alive among my peers.
The real problem with this line of thinking is that things get neither better nor worse; they simply change. However, accepting that truth, as hard as it is, means acknowledging that there really was never anything there to begin with. After all, if something is never the same, just what is it? And if that’s the case, it problematizes the answer to Dr. Moreau’s seemingly rhetorical question, “Are we not men?” The answer to that, I would argue, is always being negotiated.