Bringing Evolution to the Masses: Disney’s Fantasia as History of Biology

04 December 2017 by pencechp • permalink

I spent my Thanksgiving break working on a guest post for the awesome folks over at the Extinct blog, on how we might read Walt Disney’s classic Fantasia, particularly its evolution sequence, as a document in the history of biology.

Go check out the post over there! I’ve archived a version of it below on the lab website for posterity, but if you’re feeling like leaving a comment, please go join the bigger discussion at Extinct!


The year is 1940. We find ourselves just fifteen years beyond the (in)famous Scopes Trial, in which John Thomas Scopes is convicted of a crime for teaching evolution to his high school students – Tennessee’s Butler Act having made it illegal to teach “that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” (Of course, it’s not actually clear that he did teach evolution, and it’s eminently clear that the trial was staged, broadly, as a PR stunt. But let’s not get hung up on the details yet.) At the same time, we are in the middle of the building of the Modern Synthesis, between the groundwork of Fisher, Wright, and Dobzhansky and the later work of Julian Huxley, Mayr, Simpson, and Stebbins. The Synthesis’s mission of making and remaking evolution is, arguably, the central task of the biological sciences.

Into this deeply ambivalent cultural context marches an unexpected figure: Walt Disney. Released on November 13, 1940, Disney’s Fantasia includes an segment of some twenty minutes that pairs Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring with an animated sequence which portrays the evolution of life from ocean microbes right through to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Others much more qualified than I have already worked through the particulars of the paleontology offered in the film. (For more discussion of the dinosaur segment and its relationship to the paleontology of its day, check out this great post by Jillian Noyes, right here on Extinct!) I want to try to convince you of a broader claim – that Fantasia deserves to be interpreted not merely as a piece of pop-culture animation, but also as a significant event in the history of biology. Fantasia was genuinely exceptional for its time, offering a publicly accessible picture of evolutionary theory in a period when, in general, such portrayals were few and far between. Untold numbers of Americans were likely given a formative picture of Darwin’s theory by twenty minutes of Walt Disney cartoons – a fact that deserves analysis and attention from historians of the biological sciences.

So what does the Fantasia sequence actually show? We start by zooming into a volcanically active Earth, as various torrents of lava dance artfully to the first few sections of the Rite of Spring. As they cascade into the ocean, we fade to a point of view from beneath the waves, panning down into the inky blackness, which in turn fades into clusters of microorganisms. We have no picture of abiogenesis itself here – veritable clouds of microbes already float in the primordial ocean. We zoom in on a particularly intrepid pair of such microbes briefly – “and we who live on earth today may well give them a respectful salute down through the ages,” says narrator and musicologist Deems Taylor in the accompanying book1 – before another fade (crafted from silt rising from an undersea vent) brings us to a collection of tube worms. These are soon replaced, in turn, by trilobites, jellyfish, and some early fish.

After one ambitious fish time-lapses its way into the first tetrapod (a dead ringer for the standard museum-diorama reproduction of Tiktaalik), we skip ahead a few hundred million years to a portrayal of dinosaurs, which forms the majority of the piece. A variety of forms make an appearance, including plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, some (inaccurately water-bound) large sauropods, ceratopsians, and even a brief cameo by an Archaeopteryx. We are treated to a brief, uplifting interlude of egg laying and hatching, with some fairly adorable mini-sauropods and mini-ceratopsians, prior to our central conflict, a fight between a Stegosaurus and a T. rex (with, as Jillian notes, the wrong number of fingers), won by the carnivore after a plucky performance by its armored antagonist. The sequence closes with the extinction of the dinosaurs, drawn from the contemporary hypothesis (often ascribed to Barnum Brown, one of the movie’s consultants) that a prolonged period of drought was to blame. Geological cataclysm ends the drought, and the score of the Rite of Spring is edited (much to Stravinsky’s chagrin) to close the way it begins, with its haunting bassoon solo.

Now, to convince you that this is actually a worthwhile document in the history of biology in the United States, rather than just a piece of Disney pop schlock. To start on that project, it’s worth saying something about the context of film – and, particularly, educational film – in the US in the 1930s. Spurred by the importance of movies to popular culture, projectors steadily make their way around the country, particularly as smaller-gauge, non-flammable film is adopted by classroom and educational film providers. The American Museum of Natural History first exhibited film to its visitors in 1908, and by the 1920s, it served as a distributor of films and lantern slides, free of charge, to schools throughout the New York City area (a movement in which paleontologist and president of the museum H. F. Osborn was instrumental).2 (Exhibiting a bit of questionable judgment, they stored their entire stock of highly flammable nitrate feature film material for a time in the attic of the AMNH building. Luckily, disaster failed to strike.)

After some initial skepticism about the educational value of film, by this point the utility of a good movie in the classroom is taken to be an evident and broadly unproblematic fact, thanks to a handful of (industry-funded) studies that, supposedly, conclusively demonstrate film’s educational value3 – the 1930s have even been called “something of a golden era in film education in the United States”.4 Students are introduced to a wide variety of topics by increasingly diverse catalogs of classroom movies, and the use of educational film by the military in World War II would soon cement its status.

But not all educational topics are created equal. “Scientific accuracy” in educational materials frequently had to square off against the intense scrutiny of censorship boards, which were all too keen to shield young eyes from topics such as sexual education or, equally dangerously, evolutionary theory.5 Max Fleischer, best known as the animator responsible for characters like Betty Boop and Popeye, produced a 1925 short film called Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which his son (Richard Fleischer, director of Soylent Green) would recall in a memoir caused “pretty much the same” reaction whenever it was screened: “large crowds filling the theaters, arguments and fistfights afterward.”6 In 1931, a film containing the slightest suggestion that man might have been the product of “a long process of organic revolution [sic]” was met with wholesale rejection of the entire film by no fewer than fourteen state film censorship boards.

This reaction certainly parallels broader societal trends in the United States at the time. While evolutionary theory had become relatively uncontroversial in America by the last few decades of the nineteenth century, that soon changed. After the Great War and through the early part of the 1920s, fundamentalist opposition to evolution of the sort familiar today – an important social force with little support from or substance in the scientific community – began to emerge in the US. By the late 1920s, after the Scopes Trial, a number of textbook manufacturers had preemptively removed mention of evolution from their books.7

Rather than depicting evolution, then, movies about nature (even when they claimed to have evolutionary upshot) tended instead to gravitate toward “fighting, hunting, and feeding” – staged dramas “filled with sensationalized scenes of animals in conflict” that provided more bang for the audience’s buck. Jennifer Peterson, for example, describes a 1925 film titled The Struggle for Existence, which, as she argues, would not have left students particularly enlightened about the ideas of Darwin:

Students who viewed this film may not have learned any specifics about evolution or natural selection, but they would have viewed a loose interpretation of Darwin’s concept that shares more in common with the fairground than the classroom.8

The extent to which Fantasia’s evolution sequence is both unusual and a product of its time, then, can perhaps begin to be appreciated. To be sure, the fight sequence between our T. rex and Stegosaurus is a standard feature of the 1930s nature film. But to stop the analysis there sells Fantasia short. Evolution was a taboo subject even in films dedicated for the classroom, much less those for popular consumption – and yet, the censors seem to have left the evolution portion of Fantasia more or less alone. An early concept had the sequence conclude with the evolution of humans and the discovery of fire, but this ending was cut to avoid any trouble with creationists – just enough, it seems, for the movie to have flown entirely under the censors’ radar.

It is important that we recognize that a significant chapter in the history of biology unfolded when the “roadshow”-style screenings of Fantasia spread out across the US during the first few years of the 1940s.

I don’t doubt that taking Disney seriously involves a bit of mental gymnastics for most of us. As David Whitley puts it,

we have been used for some time now, particularly in academic circles, to seeing Disney as the enemy of progressive forces and perhaps the chief promulgator of a gaudy, synthetic and sentimental view of the world that we characterize pejoratively as ‘Disneyfication.’9

And there is more work to be done – I hope to soon tell a more detailed story that places the animators’ collaboration with the AMNH into the context of the film and the American reception of Darwin more generally. But I hope that it’s now a little more plausible that Fantasia can be profitably read as part of the spread of a Darwinian approach to natural history. It remains an impressive and unusual instance of the popularization of evolution in the pre-war, pre-Synthesis period in the United States – and one that’s still viscerally fun to watch.

  1. Taylor, Deems. 1940. Walt Disney’s Fantasia. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 72. 

  2. Griffiths, Alison. 2012. “Film Education in the Natural History Museum: Cinema Lights up the Gallery in the 1920s.” In Learning with the Lights Off, edited by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, 124–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 124, 134–5. 

  3. Orgeron, Devin, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible. 2012. “A History of Learning with the Lights Off.” In Learning with the Lights Off, edited by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, 15–66. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 20. 

  4. Smoodin, Eric. 2011. “What a Power for Education! The Cinema and Sites of Learning in the 1930s.” In Useful Cinema, edited by Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, 17–33. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 18. 

  5. Orgeron, Devin, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible. 2012. “A History of Learning with the Lights Off.” In Learning with the Lights Off, edited by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, 15–66. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 23. 

  6. Fleischer, Richard. 2011. Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. p. 36. 

  7. Numbers, Ronald L. 1998. Darwininsm Comes to America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 2–3, 89. 

  8. Peterson, Jennifer. 2012. “Glimpses of Animal Life: Nature Films and the Emergence of Classroom Cinema.” In Learning with the Lights Off, edited by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, 145–67. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 159. 

  9. Whitley, David. 2008. The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation. 2nd ed. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. p. 161.