“The Extinction of Man” is a challenge to humanity’s assumption that it will escape extinction, when no other dominant species has yet done so. Written by the English author H. G. Wells (1866–1946), it was first published in The Pall Mall GazetteEvening newspaper launched in London on 7 February 1865. It introduced investigative journalism into British journalism, along with other innovations. on 25 September 1894, and subsequently reprinted in Certain Personal MattersCollection of 39 mainly humorous essays and articles by H. G. Wells, first published in 1897. (1897). The founder and secretary of the H. G. Wells Society, J. R. Hammond, has described it as “one of Wells’s early exercises in pessimism”.[1]

Synopsis


The author begins by musing on the fate of previously dominant species such as the dinosaurs, and concludes that their extinction was brought about by the emergence of some type of animal “hitherto rare and unimportant”.[a]It is generally considered by scientists today that the dinosaurs – with the exception of birds – went extinct 66 million years ago. Perhaps because of a gigantic meteor impacting the Earth – the Alvarez hypothesis, posited in 1980 – or as a result of the dust and debris thrown into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions, or a deadly combination of the two events.[2] He points out that although man may currently be dominant on land, the sea is a largely unknown territory. There are already tropical land crabs, for instance, and fossil evidence suggests that crustaceans could grow to a length of six feet (1.8 m). With their highly aggressive nature and amphibious capability, the narrator considers that such crustaceans would present a considerable threat, comparable to a shark able to hunt on land.

Photo of H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells, c. 1918
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The second danger foreseen by the author is posed by cephalopods such as the octopus, whose close relatives the gastropods[b]Snails and slugs. have already learned how to breathe air. If a new species of air-breathing giant octopus emerged, and acquired a taste for human flesh, perhaps by feeding on shipwrecked sailors, we would be powerless to hunt it down when it retreated back to the sea.

The author goes on to identify a third threat to our continued existence, the migratory ants of central Africa, against which we are largely defenceless. If European immigrants were to disturb the balance of nature keeping the ants in check by endangering the ant-eating animals either deliberately or inadvertently, the advance of the ants might be unstoppable.

The fourth and final threat identified to our survival – “out of a host of others” – is disease, “a plague that will not take ten or twenty or thirty per cent., as plagues have done in the past, but the entire hundred”.

Even now, for all we can tell, the coming terror may be crouching for its spring and the fall of humanity be at hand. In the case of every other predominant animal the world has ever seen, I repeat, the hour of its complete ascendency has been the eve of its entire overthrow.

Commentary


Wells explored the idea of an invasion of octopus-like creatures with a taste for human flesh in “The Sea RaidersShort story by H. G. Wells, first published in 1896, about a raid by an unknown species of octopus-like creatures on the south coast of England.” (1896). He also developed the notion of a plague of ants in “The Empire of the Ants” (1905).

See also


  • H. G. Wells bibliographyList of publications written by H. G. Wells during the more than fifty years of his literary career.

Notes[+]

References



Bibliography


Hammond, J. R. An H. G. Wells Companion. The Macmillan Press, 1979.
Jaggard, Victoria. Why Did the Dinosaurs Go Extinct? 31 July 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/dinosaur-extinction.