Tarzan and the Triumph of Heredity

The recent Disney animation of “Tarzan” provides an interesting contrast to the original story by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The hero of the film is deprived of human contact from infancy and is adopted by a family of apes. Amazingly, however, he thrives and becomes “King of the Jungle.” More amazingly, he adapts rapidly when he first encounters other human beings. His social and language skills develop at a pace that enables him to prevail in human culture as successfully as he has in the jungle.

The Disney version of the Tarzan tale is pleasing and engaging. The human and animal characters are interesting and entertaining and the heroes and villains clearly discernable. Goodness and justice, of course, prevail at the film's conclusion. Unlike earlier movie versions that were disappointing to Burroughs, he probably would have liked the animation in “Tarzan.”

Burroughs' first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes, was published in 1912. The first Tarzan movie premiered in 1917. Many Tarzan sequels followed the original novel, and several generations of Hollywood Tarzans portrayed the hero. No human actor, however, could satisfy Burroughs' conception of how Tarzan should look and act. The author decided that animation was the most promising way to present his character. In a 1936 letter to his son, Burroughs wrote of his desire to form a company called Tarzantoons and to make an animated version of his story. He explained, “The cartoon must be good. It must approximate Disney excellence” (Green, 1999, p. 32).

It would be interesting to know whether Burroughs would also appreciate the significant changes in his story that were made for the Disney script. As with most Disney films, the overt message of the film is that the greedy and evil character of the villain is defeated by the virtue of the hero. The message of Burroughs' book is much more complex, both philosophically and politically. His infant Tarzan is raised by a family of apes and, as in the animation, the child grows up stronger than his peers and conquers his environment. According to Burroughs' book, however, Tarzan thrives and becomes the “master” of his jungle community for one very compelling reason. Millions of years of evolution had prepared people of his race and class to do so. “I was mainly interested in playing with the idea of a contrast between heredity and environment,” Burroughs wrote in 1930:

For this purpose I selected an infant child of a race strongly marked by hereditary characteristics of the finer and noble sort, and at an age where he could not have been influenced by associations with creatures of his own kind. I threw him into an environment as diametrically opposite to that which he had been born as I might well conceive. (pp. 29–30)

Edgar Rice Burroughs was fascinated with eugenics. Tarzan of the Apes was not written for children. On the contrary, it was written as Burroughs' epic of eugenic triumph. He believed that human heredity had reached its zenith in British aristocracy. The story begins when mutinous sailors maroon Tarzan's English parents on the coast of Africa. Early in the novel, Burroughs (1912) described the father, Lord Greystroke, as “the type of Englishman that one likes best to associate with the noblest monuments of historic achievement upon a thousand battlefields—a strong, virile man—mentally, morally, physically” (p. 2). Tarzan's mother, also of the English nobility, dies shortly after he is born following an assault on her by a great ape. His father is killed when a group of apes return to the family's cabin. Hearing a cry from the crib and intending to destroy him, the male apes are persuaded to spare the infant by a female, Kala. She is in mourning over the death of her own child and, against the advice of the other apes, she adopts the human baby.

In his earliest developmental years, Tarzan lags behind the young apes in his group in climbing, running, and swinging through trees. In an interesting turn on the arguments that have been made about withholding care and treatment from infants with disabilities for eugenic reasons, Kala's husband urges that they abandon this clearly defective child:

“He will never be a great ape,” he argued. “Always you will have to carry him and protect him. What good will he be to the tribe? None, only a burden. . . let us leave him quietly sleeping among the tall grasses, that you may bear other and stronger apes to guard us in our old age.”. . . “Never. . . ” replied Kala. “If I must carry him forever, so be it.” (Burroughs, 1912, pp. 55–56)

Soon, however, Tarzan's physical development catches up with that of his ape peers, and by adolescence he has surpassed them in physical prowess; he has become the young “King” of his environment. Even more remarkable, however, are his intellectual feats. His reasoning and problem-solving skills make him clearly superior to all of the other inhabitants of the jungle. Most astounding, Tarzan returns to the cabin home of his parents and discovers picture books, a primer, and a dictionary. Using these, he teaches himself to read and write. In describing the epiphany that reading gave Tarzan about himself, Burroughs wrote:

By the time he was seventeen he had learned to read the simple, child's primer and had fully realized the true and wonderful purpose of the . . . [letters in the books]. . . . No longer did he feel shame for his hairless body or his human features, for now his reason told him that he was of a different race from his wild and hairy companions. . . . From then on his progress was rapid. With the help of the great dictionary and the active intelligence of a healthy mind endowed by inheritance with more than ordinary reasoning powers he shrewdly guessed at much he could not really understand. (Burroughs, 1992, p. 83)

Soon Tarzan becomes aware of the presence of other humans in the jungle. He observes a group of African warriors and studies their skin color and other physical features. Burroughs described in detail Tarzan's thoughts about what he perceives to be the human-like, but not fully human, creatures. He also provides an account of the thoughts and feelings Tarzan expresses when he kills one of these warriors, a sense of relatedness but distance from this “other kind” of man.

The Disney animation avoids the race issue by removing all African men and women from the story. When other Europeans arrive on the shore of Tarzan's home, he and the animals are the only inhabitants. In Burroughs' book, however, race is a dominant theme. Tarzan announces himself to the newly arrived white people by leaving a printed message. He warns them, “This Is The House Of Tarzan, The Killer Of Beasts And Many Black Men. Do Not Harm The Things Which Are Tarzan's. Tarzan Watches. Tarzan Of The Apes” (Burroughs, 1992, p. 170).

It is Jane, of course, who fully elicits Tarzan's innate emotional and intellectual superiority. Unlike the early movie descriptions of a “Me Tarzan. You Jane” relationship, the Tarzan of Burroughs' novel is soon speaking fluently to her, claiming Jane as his love and subsequently discovering his rightful title as Lord Greystroke. Burroughs presented this rapid and remarkable transformation as the inevitable flowering of latent genetic excellence. In describing Tarzan's response to his encounters with the Anglo-Saxon world, he wrote: “It was the hallmark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate” (Burroughs, 1992, p. 277).

Burroughs and “Moral Imbecility”

Burroughs continued to be intrigued with eugenic ideas and proposals. This fascination was expressed in a number of Tarzan squeals. In Tarzan and the Last Empire, for example, he created a city originally overrun with criminals and vagrants. A new emperor, however, establishes a stern policy of genetic laundering. According to Burroughs' story, the emperor

made laws so drastic that no thief or murderer lived to propagate his kind. Indeed, the laws of Honus Hasta destroyed not only the criminal but all members of his family, so that there were none to transmit to posterity the criminal inclinations of a depraved sire. . . . the laws of Honus Hasta prevented the breeding of criminals. (Burroughs, 1929, p. 53)

After 2 millennia of this policy, Tarzan finds a city completely free of crime.

Burroughs' inspiration for the eugenic laws of Honus Hasta appears to have come from a nonfictional source. A month before he began work on Tarzan and the Last Empire, Burroughs reported on a 1928 murder trial for the Los Angeles Examiner. The defendant, William Hickman, was charged with the brutal murder of a 12-year-old girl. In his accounts of the trial for the Examiner, Burroughs ridiculed the defense argument that Hickman was insane. He wrote:

“Hickman is not normal. But abnormality does not by any means imply insanity. Hickman is a moral imbecile and moral imbecility is not insanity.”

This abnormality, Burroughs asserted, was genetic—an

inborn brutality of will. . . . If we hang him we have removed. . . a potential menace to peace and happiness and safety of countless future generations, for moral imbeciles breed moral imbeciles, criminals breed criminals, murderers breed murderers just as St. Bernards breed St. Bernards. (cited in Taliaferro, 1999, pp. 229–231)

Burroughs argued that the Hickman case should be a call for a change in social policy regarding “mental defectives”:

The city has plenty of moral imbeciles that we might well dispense with . . . a new species of man has been evolving through the ages and only when society awakens . . . will it realize that the members of this new species may not be judged by the same standards that hold for us. . . . Destruction and sterilization are our only defense and we should invoke them while we are yet numerically in the ascendancy. (cited in Taliaferro, 1999, p. 230)

Burroughs was likely encouraged in his claims of moral imbecility by testimony during the trial documenting that there were epileptics, imbeciles, and “constitutional inferiors” in Hickman's family history (Cantillion, 1972). Still, his zeal for diagnosing Hickman as mentally inferior and his call for extreme eugenic measures predated and outlasted the case. In an unpublished manuscript he wrote around the time of the trial, Burroughs presented a vision of an idealized civilization of the future. In the article “I See a New Race,” he described the adoption of mandatory intelligence testing and sterilization statutes:

The sterilization of criminals, defectives and incompetents together with wide dissemination of birth control information and public instruction on eugenics resulted in a rapid rise in the standards of national intelligence after two generations . . . prizes went to the families that produced the most intelligent children. Stupidity became unfashionable. (cited in Porges, 1975, p. 461)

John Lafitte, Daisy Juke, and the Genetic Imperative

A second unpublished manuscript by Burroughs was found after his death in 1950. Written in 1932, it is yet another novelized account of the crucial struggle in modern society between heredity and environment. It is also Burroughs' testament to the ultimate threat of “bad genes” over “good environment.” In the novel Pirate Blood, published posthumously in 1970, John Lafitte and Daisy Juke are college sweethearts. They are also the descendants, respectively, of the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte and “Old Max Juke” of the famous family degeneracy story. Both John and Daisy are fearful of what heredity will mean in their lives. Early in the story they each admit to the “genetic taints” in their family histories. Daisy says,

My people never amount to anything. Dad's the best of the bunch but he's only a poor farmer. He doesn't even believe in education. I wouldn't have gone beyond high school if it hadn't been for mother. I got my looks from her, but I guess the rest of me's Juke. (Burroughs, 1932/1970, p. 72)

John complains, ” I don't seem to quite make the grade ever . . . I guess it's the old Mendelian Law at work.” (Burroughs, 1932/1970, p. 73) A friend tries to console John Lafitte concerning both his own heredity background and that of Daisy. He criticizes eugenic theory and the fatalistic philosophy it contains. In speaking of Daisy he says,

It's a horrible theory; it takes all hope from life. What chance would she have with that bloodline back of her—the blood of Old Max Juke that has produced over twelve hundred physical, mental and moral wrecks, paupers, prostitutes, thieves, murderers and other criminals during the past two hundred years? I tell you it was environment that made those people the way they were. (Burroughs, 1932/1970, p. 75)

By the end of the story, however, John Lafitte has fallen into a life of crime. He tracks down Daisy whom he has not seen in years and discovers that she is a prostitute. “It's the blood, the curse of the blood,” Daisy tells John. He tries to comfort her saying, “We'll get out of this and start over again somewhere.” Daisy is inconsolable and questions him, “I wonder if we can ever escape our putrid blood streams, either here or hereafter” (Burroughs, 1932/1970, p. 172). She leaves the room and a moment later John hears a pistol shot. Daisy has fulfilled her genetic legacy.

Breeding “True To Type”

In 1933, Burroughs wrote a serialized novel that was originally published in seven installments in Argosy Weekly. This story is one of several novels based on trips to Venus by his American hero Carson Napier. In Lost on Venus, Napier visits the city of Haratoo, where eugenics is the prevailing law. When he firsts encounters a citizen of Haratoo, Napier is questioned about his homeland. More important he is questioned about his appearance.

“I've never heard of your country. In fact I have never seen a man before with blue eyes and yellow hair. Are all the people of California like you?”. . . “Oh, no! There are all colors among us, of hair and eyes and skin.”. . . “But how can you breed true to type, then?” he demanded. . . “We don't,” I had to admit. “Rather shocking,” he said to himself. “Immoral—racially immoral.’’ (Burroughs, 1933/1963, p. 274)

In explaining his remarks to Napier, the Venusian describes Havatto before and after it was taken over by a eugenicist ruler.

Half of our people lived in direst poverty, in vice, in filth; and they breed like flies. The better classes, refusing to bring children into such a world, dwindled rapidly. Ignorance and mediocrity ruled. . . . [the new ruler] wiped out the politicians, and to the positions many of them had filled he appointed the greatest minds of Havatoo—physicists, biologists, chemists, and psychologists.

He encouraged the raising of children by people whom these scientists passed as fit to raise children, and he forbade all others to bear children. He saw to it that the mentally defective were rendered incapable of bringing their like into the world, and no defective infant was allowed to live. (Burroughs, 1933/1963, p. 280)

Utopia and Mental Retardation

During the 2000 annual meeting of the American Association on Mental Retardation, two conversations appeared to emerge through the meeting's theme, “Ethics, Genetics, Leadership, and Self-Determination.” On one hand, speakers and panels provided updates and projections on the prevention and elimination of various forms of mental retardation through advances in genetic science. On the other hand, there were presenters and sessions devoted to the creation of communities and a society that value people with mental retardation and are more inclusive. A synthesis of these voices seemed to communicate a contradictory message: Let us value and embrace those people with mental retardation who are with us, but we must do everything we can to eradicate in future generations the cognitive and social characteristics that define their mental retardation.

Utopian visions of human perfection and utopian visions of communities of inclusiveness may, however, be incompatible. The future of mental retardation, indeed the future of human diversity, may lie in the resolution of the conflicting visions of human perfection and of a world that values and embraces human variation. The portrayals of human perfection by Disney and by Edgar Rice Burroughs, while different, may be equally dangerous. Whether in “Tarzan,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” or “Pocahontas,” the Disney version of complex human dramas is sanitized and trivialized. In many ways it is the corporate entertainment equivalent of telling our children to “look the other way” when encountering profound human differences and their important social implications. On the other hand, Burroughs constantly presented the world view that a truly utopian society can only be achieved by eliminating the “unfit.” Only by freeing society from the clear and present dangers posed by people with diverse and defective characteristics, will a new level of human happiness be achieved. Although Disney denied differences, Burroughs villainized them.

The future of mental retardation must be explored with an open and clearly focused dialogue concerning the contrasting issues of the scientific amelioration of this form of human diversity, and the place of people with mental retardation in a humane and inclusive society. The tension between efforts to eliminate the human suffering that has been associated with some forms of mental retardation, and efforts that embody a philosophy of genetic quality control, is complex and confusing. It deserves, however, our full attention and care. Mental retardation may be a crucible through which the most compelling questions of the future of individuality and the integrity of personhood in general are examined. The answer to the question of whether there is a place or no place for people with mental retardation in the future may be a barometer of whether or how diversity and difference in the human experience will survive. In speaking of genetic science in a 1947 essay, C.S. Lewis said of the conquest of nature,

The final stage is come when Man by eugenics. . . has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of nature to surrender to Man. . . . The battle will indeed be won. But who precisely will have won it? (p. 72)

References

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Author notes

Authors:J. David Smith, EdD, Dean, and Alison L. Mitchell, MS, Graduate Assistant, School of Education and Human Services, Longwood College, Farmville, VA 23909.