Tuesday 22 February 2000


Pic of the day: Another beautiful winter day. But will a reader 50 years from now notice the power line among all the white snow, and condemn my subtle racist message?

Tarzan of the Apes

Today I finished reading the rather short novel "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg the other day.

The book is not just a reasonably well written story. It is especially interesting because of the pervading attitudes and views, which we must suppose to be either the author's or those of his intended audience. Some of these attitudes are very different from what is common today; indeed, it could be said for a few that we are at the other end of the swinging pendulum.

For instance, if I were to say about a woman that she "existed to be protected", it is a good bet that most of my readership would ignite into a conflagration of rage at the outright and demeaning sexism. So while such emotions may have occasionally crept up on my unsuspecting mind, I would make sure not to voice them.


And there's the race thing. I noticed the expression "the white races" at one point, indicating that there were taken for granted, at the time, that there were more than one race even of white people. To say nothing of the bloodthirsty, superstitious black cannibals. Even the "negresse" imported from America has only entertainment value: She mixes up long words, shrieks shrilly and faints whenever something exciting happens, not to mention that she is obese. While the two elderly scholars also are caricatured, the gross stupidity of the negroes seems to be a facet of life. Or it could just be a coincidence, I guess. There are not all that many main characters; most of the named crooks are certainly white too. Yet ... I bet it would not have been written in our time, certainly not published.

Today, it seems unfashionable to even indicate that there may be inherent differences in the average intelligence of various local populations. It is an established fact that intelligence is a highly inherited trait. We know that there are differences in other inherited traits between different local groups. Some are very short, some are very high, some are fatter and some are thinner. And yes, some are darker and some are paler. The variations within each group will frequently negate the differences for some individuals, but on average there are clear differences. This is not allowed to be true for intelligence, or subsets of intelligence.

There may be the unspoken assumption that if any group of humans are more intelligent than others, they are inherently "more human" and should have privileges over others. This is an equally untenable position: All geographically isolated groups of humans fall very clearly within any reasonable definition of humanity. And as far as we know, no group has so far reached its maximum potential. The Flynn effect is still going strong, upping the average intelligence with ca 3% per decade. Certainly, intelligence is a very desirable trait in a human. Then again, so is health. Would we oppress ethnic groups who are more likely to develop heart infarct or intestinal cancer?

In the past we have seen a wide range of excuses for one group to suppress another. Color is but one of the most recent. But with the history we look back at, even a hint in that direction can detract from an otherwise good story. I hope most readers will be able to take the unhappy coincidence in Burroughs' book for nothing more than the background noise it is. The creative talent of that man deserves to inspire new generations of writers. And I harbor no false assumptions that civilization will crystallize with us. If someone reads even these stray notes fifty years from now, they will probably boggle at traits of our society that I take for granted. In fact, some of you may be doing that already. :)

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