Back in university, (it seems like a thousand years ago) I did my master’s thesis on the evolutionary debate that raged in England in the mid 1800s. In particular, I was looking at the divergence between Darwin and his rival Alfred Russell Wallace on the subject of human evolution. Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection fourteen years after Darwin, and sent him a paper clearly outlining the whole idea. Darwin still hadn’t gone public, and Wallace basically forced him to publish On the Origin of Species and drop the bombshell of evolution on good Christian Victorian society.
Wallace gave credit to Darwin for the theory and went on to explore its implications. So, while Darwin was busy defending the theory and supplying empirical evidence for it, Wallace began to wonder if the theory was sufficient to explain the development of human consciousness. He veered off into spiritualism, and his investigations increasingly irritated and even embarrassed Darwin.
Oddly enough, the fairy tale has led me back to the subject of evolution. In fairy tales, you don’t see a lot evolution at work. Human beings start out as human beings, and then they get put under spells that turn them into lower forms. Brothers are turned into swans, kings into frogs, and so on. When the spells break, the characters recover their original humanity. The stories reflect the way self-conceptions are acquired early on and then challenged later in life as we become self-governing individuals.
This process, which Carl Jung called “individuation,” is natural for human beings, but I do wonder if it only applies to human beings. Do other species challenge the authority figures in their lives and then become self-governing individuals? I honestly don’t know enough about animal behavior to answer that question but I do remember watching a documentary about a female orangutan who decided to leave the feeding platform that humans had provided for her, and completely rehabilitate herself for the wild. It wasn’t easy for her because she didn’t know how to fend for herself in the forest, and she nearly starved to death. Still, she chose to return to her original state.
While most fairy tales “reverse” the evolutionary process and take us to the roots of what it means to be human, every now and then you find a story where an animal character wants to become human and succeeds. Pivi in Pivi and Kabo is a cheerful little bird who sings at sunset, and when he breaks his leg and falls into the river, he taken in by an old woman who heals his leg. Before he goes to sleep, she gives him instructions about what to do when the ants come out at night. Trusting little Pivi follows them and in the morning when he wakes he finds that he has become a handsome man.
For me, the most beautiful “evolutionary” tale of all is the Egyptian story, The Blue Faience Hippopotamus. Here is a hippo who lives in the river and falls in love with a lonely princess. He makes a great voyage up many waterfalls to the cave of a wizard who has a renowned ability to transform one species into another. When the hippo finally arrives, he discovers, to his great disappointment, that he can’t become human because the wizard doesn’t have it in his power to transform a lower species into a higher one. He could become a butterfly or a gazelle, but, sorry, no humans have ever been known to step out of that cave.
I won’t tell the whole story here, but in the end, our beloved hippo does become human. It doesn’t happen the way he hopes, but perhaps the outcome is even better than he could hope. What is important is that he becomes human by demonstrating something that is so fundamentally human that it makes him human—and that’s his love.
I don’t think I could have written my master’s thesis on how love makes us human. It was hard enough to get through my oral exams with a thesis that gave Wallace’s spiritual inquiries serious consideration. I remember Wallace’s children saying that he was the sort of man who never acknowledged a “No Trespassing” sign when he was out walking. That’s the sort of fellow you find in fairy tales, following a way entirely his own that leads him back to himself.
illustration by Michelle Tocher