Edgar Rice Burroughs and Darwin Revisited: The Science of Jane

My love affair with science and science fiction has gone on for my entire adult life. I studied anatomy, physiology, neuroanatomy and neurology at Tufts Medical School, but once out in the world I found that the only thing I craved reading was science fiction (Herbert, Heinlein, Vonnegut, Le Guin, and Greg Bear). I was a non-convention-going Trekkie, an X-Files junkie, and am currently addicted to Fringe. Back in the 70s when I moved to Hollywood to pursue a screenwriting career, aside from broad, bawdy comedies, I found myself drawn back time and time again to sci-fi. I was fortunate to partner up with the very “Godfather” of Hollywood science fiction, Ronald Shusett (Alien, Total Recall, Minority Report) on scripts and an as-yet unpublished novel. Later I got side-tracked into writing historical fiction, and fifteen years later have eight books in that genre under my belt.

Somewhere along the way I acquired a jones for “missing link” creatures, and the great unexplained leaps in human evolution, even the possibility that they could be explained by extra-terrestrial intervention—ancient astronauts. I couldn’t get enough of archeology, ancient cultures, lost civilizations and the antediluvian world.

From scientist to crackpot—that was me.

But it was not until I decided to reboot the hundred-year-old Tarzan story in Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan that I found the vehicle to pull nearly every one of my scientific and sci-fi passions into play. Edgar Rice Burroughs is considered by many as the grandfather of science fiction, primarily for his groundbreaking John Carter of Mars series of novels. But tucked within his twenty-four Tarzan novels were some sci-fi conundrums that fired my imagination.

At the heart of ERB’s first Tarzan story are the “Mangani,” a tribe of ape creatures who are both responsible for the deaths of Tarzan’s English parents and for their son’s rescue and upbringing. Burroughs’ Mangani were large, powerfully built fur-covered primates that lived in the jungle canopy and easily brachiated with long fingers and toes through that same canopy. They lived in groups, bulls dominating the females who tenderly reared their young. One might have concluded that they were gorillas, but for one fact: they could talk. Not hoots and grunts and cries and whimpers. They used spoken words to communicate: proper names, nouns, verbs, and adjectives were formed into simple sentences. The name given to the human child rescued by the Mangani was “Tar-zan,” which in their language translate: Tar (white) zan (skin). Clearly, there was cognitive thinking going on.

This single circumstance placed Tarzan of the Apes squarely in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, as no primates on earth can speak. For me, it opened the door to a scientifically-based justification for the fiction, one I believed would be satisfying to sophisticated modern readers.

I wanted to set the tale in the period in which Burroughs had written it, the early twentieth century. By then, Darwin’s Origin of Species had been in print for half a century, and while details were still debated, his theories were widely embraced by most scientists and lay people. His Descent of Man postulated “missing links” in human evolution, but paleoanthropology had yet to be recognized as a legitimate science. Those engaged in trying to uncover fossil evidence for these creatures were merely “enthusiastic amateurs.”

I needed a believable motivation to get Jane Porter and her father Archie Porter to Africa so that the famous meeting of Tarzan and Jane could take place. So I made Archie a professor of human anatomy at Cambridge University’s medical school, as well as an amateur paleoanthropologist who, year after year, searches East Africa for missing link fossils. A progressive, forward-thinking man, he not only insists that his only child, Jane, audit his classes and dissection labs at Cambridge (which is all women were allowed to do in 1905), but she becomes his trusted assistant in his home laboratory, sorting, drawing, and documenting the bones he brings home every year from his expeditions.

Archie and Jane are both fervent Darwinists who believe—as the great man did —that the missing link in human evolution would be found nowhere else but Africa. Yet after six expeditions, Archie has come up empty-handed.

This was where I was in my story outline when I found the book of my dreams: The Man Who Found the Missing Link, Eugene Dubois and His Lifelong Quest to Prove Darwin Right, by Pat Shipman. The subtitle is slightly misleading, as Dubois sets his sights not on Africa to find his fossil evidence, but Indonesia. There, in 1893, after extensive excavations along the Trinil River he found a skull, a femur and a tooth from the Pleiocene era that indeed proved a “transitional species” between ape and human. Dubois called it Pithecanthropus erectus (P.e., more commonly known as “Java Man”).

A reconstruction of P.e., sculpted by Dubois himself, shows an upright posture, straight-legged creature (indistinguishable from humans in terms of posture). This is one of the main distinctions that separates human from ape—the shape of the pelvis and the leg bone. P.e. also has long fingers and a prehensile big toe. The face is chimp-like and the skull size somewhat smaller than Neanderthal Man (discovered in Europe in 1848), but larger than an ape’s. Though Dubois was hooted and howled out of every university on the planet by, ironically, the most closed-minded people alive—other scientists—he has been posthumously vindicated.

I was thrilled both that Dubois made his find late in the nineteenth century and that one of the universities at which he presented his “bones of contention” was Cambridge, at the Fourth International Zoological Congress in 1898. With some date-fudging of only seven years (about which I later come clean in Jane’s author’s note) I had Archie and Jane attend this lecture. I was able to engage these characters in a lively debate. Dubois and his famous teacher, Ernst Haeckel, were believers in the missing link being found in Asia, while the Porters were Darwin purists that insisted it could only be Africa. Add a safari guide who claimed he knew where such bones could be found—though in East Africa—and suddenly I had a scientifically-based motivation for Jane and Archie to turn up in Tarzan’s jungle. But where was my big, strapping missing link in Africa? Mary Leakey’s three million year old “Lucy” (Australopithecine) was a petite creature, not even four feet tall. Even “Turkana Boy” (Homo Ergaster) at 1.5 million years, was still a shrimp.

Then came my miracle, just when I needed it most.

In July 2010, National Geographic published a story about a team of paleoanthropologists, Tim White, Berhane Asfaw, and Giday Wolde Gabriel who, fifteen years before, had discovered in the Middle Awash area of Ethiopia a full skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus (“Ardi). The female, with its straight legbones giving it a human, upright, “bipedal” stance, also had opposable “prehensile” big toes perfect for grasping branches and the face and the skull of a chimp. Calculations projected a full grown male standing over six feet tall. Ardi was, to my eye, the closest creature to a missing link that I had ever seen. To my pleasure (and Charles Darwin’s, if he had been alive), it had been found in Africa. Except for the hairy body, Ardi looked strikingly like Dubois’ Java Man.

Suddenly I realized that just across the continent from where Jane and Archie needed to be, a “transitional species” once lived. If not probable, it was POSSIBLE that Ardi might have migrated west and survived in isolation (not unlike Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest).

While Ardi’s discoverers believed the species was too primitive to have the power of speech (the other characteristic that distinguishes apes from humans), I borrowed one of ERB’s most important fictional conceits about the Mangani—that not only could they make meaningful sounds, but that they had a spoken language. This way, I reasoned, when Jane meets Tarzan, she discovers that the “tribe” that brought him up—one that he secretly allows her to observe—is actually a LIVING MISSING LINK SPECIES. So Jane, a budding paleoanthropologist, gets to make one of the biggest scientific discoveries in history.

Certainly, ERB studied Darwin, but we’ll never know if ERB’s “anthropoid apes” were, in his own mind (though never specified in his books), living missing links. I simply made it it a crucial aspect of Jane, and I was entirely satisfied with this blend of science fact and science fiction.

Robin Maxwell is the bestselling author of eight novels of historical fiction, including Signora da Vinci and The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. She jumps genres with the publication of Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, the first Tarzan classic in a century written by a woman and told through the eyes of the ape-man’s beloved Jane Porter. It is enthusiastically supported and fully authorized by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs.


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