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Volume 3944

Edgar Rice Burroughs and Darwin Revisited:
The Science of Jane
Robin Maxwell
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of Hollywood science fiction, Ronald Shusett (Alien, Total Recall, Minority Report) on scripts and an as-yet unpublished novel.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.

Book Brahmin: Robin Maxwell
Shelf Awareness ~ September 19, 2012

Robin Maxwell often wonders how growing up a suburban New Jersey girl, an education at Tufts University as an occupational therapist, stints as a music business secretary, parrot tamer, casting director, dozens of Hollywood script development deals and marriage to yoga master Max Thomas prepared her for a career in writing. After eight historical fictions, including Signora da Vinci and The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, she is jumping genres with Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan (Tor, September 18, 2012), the first Tarzan tale written a woman and authorized by the Burroughs estate.

On your nightstand now:

I've had some trouble with my eyes, so I now happily listen to audiobooks. I just finished one of the most extraordinary and indescribable novels ever -- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. There are six distinct voices read by six amazing actors, each of them cleverly linked to the others. The language and the concepts boggle the mind. It was one of those books that made me think, how did that author write that? I never could have.

I'm halfway through Old Filth by Jane Gardam. I bought it because my two best girlfriends--separately--told me they'd read it and it was utterly fantastic (and because I was intrigued by the title). Again, I'm stunned by the beauty of the language, the originality of the story and characters, and its wicked humor.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I grew up reading the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales--the darker the story, the better. These stories stimulated my love of horror and fantasy, as well as my comfort with the medieval/Renaissance period, royal courts, princes and princesses, which later showed up in my historical fiction.

Your top five authors:

I learned a lot about writing by reading early Stephen King--particularly dialogue, of which he is a great master. Loved the scares, too. Doing research for my first historical novels, I found that the Tudor biographies of Carolly Erickson were the most fun to read. She wrote with real attitude and wasn't afraid to go out on a limb, saying things other historians didn't dare say. Loved the weird brilliance of Kurt Vonnegut and the late Terrence McKenna, who delved into the world of psychotropic drugs and their impact on human evolution, a fascinating subject to me. His sentence structure (when writing or lecturing) was so complex and off-the-chart brilliant that you couldn't believe he'd finished a single thought that had gone on for an entire paragraph that was grammatically correct and insanely incisive. C.W. Gortner stands out among the ever-increasing gang of historical fiction authors as a real gem. He fearlessly chooses the most reviled women in history and explodes the clichés and myths about their characters and deeds, guiding readers to an understanding of how they became these iconic figures.

Book you've faked reading:

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. I didn't exactly fake reading this monster bestseller. I tried reading it twice because everyone was raving about it. But I couldn't get through it--it was such an unrelentingly grim story of growing up dirt-poor in Dublin with an alcoholic father. I finally gave up trying. Then my friend gave me the unabridged book on tape, read by McCourt himself. There was so much natural humor in his voice that it transcended the darkness of the material. Listening to Angela's Ashes stands as the single greatest literary experience of my life.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. How does a book about a year in the life of a medieval village struck by the Black Plague end up as the book I most evangelize about? Gorgeous language. Heartfelt characters brimming with the deepest emotions under the most horrible of circumstances. Brooks taught me a lot about how to make readers root for the heroine.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire.

Books that changed your life:

Norah Lofts authored the first historical fiction novels I ever read -- The King's Pleasure, about Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and The Concubine, about her successor, Anne Boleyn. By the time I'd finished Concubine, I was hooked on everything Tudor. It would be 25 years before I'd write my debut novel, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, but I'd write five more about the Tudors and their immediate ancestors before I broke rank and departed for the Italian Renaissance. Lofts' two books changed the course of my career, my fortunes and my life.

Favorite line from a book:

You don't have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

--From "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems Vol. 1.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock. I've always been fascinated by lost civilizations and the antediluvian world. British journalist and skeptic Hancock set off with his wife to disprove the most persistent myths about these mysterious places, and came away a believer. His beautifully researched doorstop of a book documents them all, ending with a sharply drawn theory of the whereabouts of the granddaddy of lost civilizations -- Atlantis. Fingerprints is a big Brooklyn cheer to those who consider seekers of the great mysteries of the universe (like myself) a bunch of crackpots. Even now I'm putting the final touches on my own Atlantis novel.

Book you wish you'd written:

Fingersmith. Holy cow, can Sarah Waters write! This is another book I believe was enhanced by having it read to me by talented actresses. But the characterization of two very different young women in Victorian England tied together by the strangest of circumstances, a circuitous but neatly worked plot and a cast of characters so colorful they rival Dickens's best, kept me up night after night until it (sadly) came to an end. A stunning end.




Tarzan And I Swing By Comic-Con
Part II: The Naked Truth About Tarzan and Jane
Meet the Author: Robin Maxwell
JANE: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan ~ Book Excerpts
Tarzan Never Dies, Part I: 100 Years of Books and Movies
Tarzan Never Dies, Part II: Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?
Jane: Queen of the Jungle
Edgar Rice Burroughs and Darwin Revisited: The Science of Jane
JANE: Reviews ~ Photos ~ Video

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