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Walt Disney and Evolution: A Study in Ambiguity

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Editor's note: December 15 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of filmmaker Walt Disney. Discovery Institute Senior Fellow John West is author of the new book Walt Disney and Live-Action, which explores the meaning and making of Walt Disney's live-action features. In this article, he explores the role of evolution in Disney's work.

Like many artists and intellectuals of his era, Walt Disney was smitten by the theory of evolution. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the "Rite of Spring" segment of his 1940 animated film Fantasia. Set to the music of Igor Stravinksy's famous composition of the same name, the segment presented a starkly materialistic account of the history of life.

No effort was spared to make it scientifically accurate for its time, including consultations with astronomer Edwin Hubble and evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley as well as paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History and Caltech. At the Disney studio in Burbank, animators studied the movements of live iguanas and a baby alligator, while other staff members were sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to do portraits of their dinosaurs.

Darwinian survival of the fittest supplied the organizing idea of the "Rite of Spring" sequence. During a story conference at the Disney studio, conductor Leopold Stokowski suggested the theme: "The jungle is full of...animals preying upon each other, and being preyed upon -- that is life. If we could put that on the screen and end with the most terrific and terrifying of the animals fighting and eating each other, people would gasp."

Walt Disney enthusiastically agreed. "We could base it on the 'dog eat dog' idea all the way through," he told his staff. "We could have a battle and build it to a grand climax. It is the fight for life."

Music critic Deems Taylor, the onscreen host in Fantasia, introduced the "Rite of Spring" sequence as "a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet's existence." He went on to explain:

Science, not art, wrote the scenario of this picture. According to science, the first living things here were single-celled organisms, tiny little white or green blobs of nothing in particular that lived under the water. And then, as the ages passed, the oceans began to swarm with all kinds of marine creatures. Finally, after about a billion years, certain fish, more ambitious than the rest, crawled up on land and became the first amphibians. And then several hundred million years ago, nature went off on another task and produced the dinosaurs... The dinosaurs were lords of creation for about 200 million years. And then... well, we don't exactly know what happened. Some scientists think that great droughts and earthquakes turned the whole world into a gigantic dustbowl. In any case, the dinosaurs were wiped out. That is where our story ends. Where it begins is at a time infinitely far back when there was no life at all on earth, nothing but clouds of steam, boiling seas, and exploding volcanoes. So now imagine yourselves out in space billions and billions of years ago looking down on this lonely, tormented little planet spinning through an empty sea of nothingness.

The "Rite of Spring" segment in Fantasia may have inspired the imaginations of generations of scientists. According to Time Magazine, the New York Academy of Sciences arranged for a private screening "because they thought its dinosaurs better science than whole museum loads of fossils and taxidermy." Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould later recalled being enthralled by the sequence when taken to see Fantasia by his father at age five.

Like many others in the decades after Fantasia's release, I first encountered the Disney version of "Rite of Spring" in science class, where it was being used to teach about the history of life. I only saw it as part of Fantasia years later. In many ways, that was unfortunate, because I initially missed something quite important: In the context of Disney's larger work, the depiction of evolution in "Rite of Spring" was much more ambiguous.

As I have re-watched Fantasia over the years, I have come to appreciate the "Rite of Spring" segment as more of an exposé of Darwinian materialism than a promotion of it. Indeed, it now seems to me that Fantasia as a whole can be properly interpreted as the exploration of several competing attempts to understand Nature. Only by contrasting these competing explanations can one see which is finally the most satisfying.

The opening "Toccata and Fugue" segment in Fantasia might be interpreted as man's attempt to comprehend the universe solely by his own faculties, without recourse to religion. In sharp counterpoint to the perfect order and clarity of J.S. Bach's Reformation-inspired music, the images on screen are indistinct, ambiguous, and abstract. The message is striking: Man cannot comprehend the cosmos relying solely on himself. He must reach beyond himself in order to understand the world that he inhabits.

The second segment -- "The Nutcracker Suite" -- offers the most primitive attempt to explain the mysteries of creation apart from man: animism. Here Nature itself is enchanted, and the trees and flowers are all inhabited by sprites and spirits. This is surely the most seductive of all the sequences in Fantasia, but in the end its explanation of the world proves unsatisfying. It fails to account for the universe as it really is because it can offer no explanation of evil. Nature is wondrous, but it can also be violent and cruel, as the "Rite of Spring" segment shows with savage clarity.

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The "Rite of Spring" seemingly portrays the development of life on earth from the standpoint of an atheistic version of evolution, driven not by God or by some higher purpose, but by mere survival of the fittest. In this materialistic creation story, there is no room for mercy, morality, justice, God, or any of those things that human beings intuitively recognize as the most important anchors of human life. Unable to adequately explain these fundamental facts of human existence, atheistic evolution also fails as an adequate explanation of the world.

According to animation historian John Culhane, thesequence was originally envisioned as extending through "The Age of Mammals and the First Men" to "Fire and the Triumph of Man." Culhane suggested that Disney scrapped the proposed sequences dealing with human evolution because "fundamentalists... threatened to make trouble for Fantasia if Walt connected evolution with human beings."

Culhane cited Disney animator John Hubley as the source for this claim, but Hubley's actual recollection of what happened was more complex. Acknowledging that "there were a lot of problems with the fundamentalist groups in terms of origins, and they didn't know how far back they could go," Hubley added that Disney himself "had a fundamentalist background...so he was a little bit torn between that and wanting to go with science. I think he really understood the rightness of the science, but he was a showman, you know, kind of mystical on that."

It's not clear from Hubley's account whether Walt Disney's decision to stop the "Rite of Spring" with the extinction of dinosaurs was due to outside pressure or to Disney's own ambivalence. Nor is it clear whether the proposed segments on human evolution would have preserved the overall sequence's depiction of evolution as unguided material process; it might have transformed the depiction of evolution into something more teleological, with human beings seen as a purposeful climax of evolution. Regardless, "Rite of Spring" as it was actually produced by Disney offers a vision of evolution that seems inadequate precisely because it does not explain many of the things human most value.

But if attempts to explain the universe in terms of Nature alone are revealed as insufficient in Fantasia, so too are explanations that rely on an inaccurate view of the supernatural. In "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," we are shown why human attempts to assume the supernatural powers of God must inevitably fail. Here Mickey Mouse -- the embodiment of humanity -- tries to take upon himself the magical powers of his Master. In the process, Mickey unleashes a destructive force that threatens to destroy his world in a deluge. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" underscores how man risks annihilation whenever he attempts to "play God." Mankind has neither sufficient wisdom nor sufficient goodness to take the place of the Divine.

The complement to "Sorcerer's Apprentice" comes in Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," which invokes the polytheism of ancient Greece. By attempting to fashion gods in the likeness of human beings, polytheism offers us "gods" who are as petty and vain as ordinary mortals; in the process, it fails to leave room for the existence of absolute goodness.

Only in the last sequence ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria") do we finally begin to approach an adequate accounting of both good and evil. Here evil is incarnate in a demonic figure who oversees the midnight revels on Bald Mountain. Goodness and absolute power (including the power to crush evil) is reposited in a God who transcends time and space, symbolized as the light toward which the pilgrims are drawn (each, by the way, carrying his or her own candle, symbolizing the spark of God planted within). This, of course, harmonizes with the historic Judeo-Christian conception of the universe; and it appears to be the explanation on which Fantasia finally settles.

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Over two decades later, Disney revisited the evolutionary account of life in "The Magic Skyway," a lavish attraction he mounted at the 1964-65 New York City World's Fair. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, the ride was visited by millions of people, including Dr. Martin Luther King and his children. The attraction took participants on a journey through evolutionary history, narrated by none other than Walt Disney himself. Seated in a Ford car, passengers initially found themselves visiting the age of the dinosaurs. Today one can see remnants of the Ford attraction on the train ride at Disneyland when it goes through "Primeval World," which includes robotic dinosaurs originally developed for the Magic Skyway.

What Walt Disney had refrained from doing in Fantasia, he now felt the freedom to do at the New York World's Fair: Tell the evolutionary story up to human beings and the birth of technology. After passengers on the Magic Skyway left the age of the dinosaurs behind, Walt told them: "And now as a changing Earth ends the rule of the reptiles, the Magic Skyway takes you forward in time once more, toward the shadow of a new arrival: Man." The attraction gingerly skirted the question of humanity's precise origins. Humans simply appear on the Earth -- the how of their appearance isn't explained. Nevertheless, the primitive humans depicted by Disney clearly exhibited features suggesting their kinship with apes.

On the other hand, Disney also acknowledged in his narration that humans represented something different from what had previously existed. "This was a strange new world," he told his passengers. "But man embarked on his adventure with a new power -- the ability to think and reason. Before long, the cave man discovered how to harness nature's fire to cook his food and warm his home. The things he learned, like fire-making and language, were passed from father to son and to a friend in need."

The arrival of humans in the Magic Skyway was rather too easy and pat: They just happened to appear. They just happened to have the ability to think and reason. They just happened to discover how to harness fire. They just happened to learn language. Hunting, tool-making, pictographs, and the invention of the wheel arose as a matter of course.

One wonders what might have been had Disney lived until our own day and encountered the writings and videos of someone like biologist Michael Denton. Imagine how much richer Disney's Magic Skyway would have been had it explored the exquisite features needed to enable humans to actually utilize fire. Imagine the additional wonder that could have been inspired by explaining just how unique human language really is.

Interestingly, when Disney moved pieces of the Magic Skyway to Disneyland, he didn't end up using the scenes about primitive humans. Perhaps even he recognized at some level that the story of human origins was far richer than he had been able to tell.

Sources:

John G. West, Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio's Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s (Theme Park Press).

John Culhane, Walt Disney's Fantasia (Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams), pp. 106-127.

Stephen J. Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (W.W. Norton and Co.), pp. 134-135.

Interview with John Hubley in Didier Ghez, editor, Walt's People: Talking Disney with the Artists who Knew Him (Theme Park Press), vol. 11, p. 82.

"Disney's Cinesymphony" Time (Nov. 18, 1940)

Fantasia (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)

Walt Disney and the 1964 World's Fair (Disneyland Records)

Photos: Walt Disney with cavemen, Look magazine, February 11, 1964; Rite of Spring cover, Disney Wikia; Magic Skyway, Disney Wikia.