Some have beaks. Some have horns. Some bear a superficial resemblance to earthly farm animals, and some look more like mythological trolls and ogres. At a glance, the nine creatures on the island of the Wild Things come from entirely different branches of the evolutionary tree.
And yet they're all approximately humanoid in shape, with arms, legs, eyes and ears all following the same basic plan. What's more, they're all approximately the same height and weight—about twice as tall as an adult human and (I'm guessing) two or three times the mass of an adult grizzly bear. Some have opposable thumbs—a characteristic unique to primates, panda bears and certain tree-dwelling marsupials.
They all share another curious characteristic as well: oversized heads. Each one sports a cranium the size of a Smart car—big by any standard—and in proportion to their bodies these noggins are many times larger than anything we see—or have ever seen—in the animal kingdom. Their features are also much flatter than those of the species they resemble.
Now, this is reminiscent of an evolutionary trick called "neoteny," where adult animals (I'm assuming the Wild Things are adults) retain juvenile characteristics. This is a sort of shortcut, a way for evolution to tweak the body plan quickly—say, over a few hundred generations—by (in essence) allowing larvae and toddlers to become adult-sized and sexually mature without ever really becoming adults.
In nature, one of the most striking examples of this is ourselves, the human animal: a hairless, skinny, upright-walking ape with flat, delicate facial features and a large head. Newborn chimpanzees and gorillas look remarkably, creepily like our own human babies, but as they grow up they first get hairy and then gradually hunch over, bulk up and generally turn more apelike. We don't do this; we simply grow larger.
To an ape, we look like ridiculous oversized babies, but the evolutionary reason for this is clear: As humans gained proficiency with tools, we needed larger brains and greater use of our hands. Neoteny provided us with both, by keeping us in a sort of permanent larval stage that let us walk around on two legs, carrying a giant baby head around.
But neoteny isn't all that common in the animal kingdom, and it seems odd that Maurice Sendak's creatures should share so many characteristics with a notably neotenous creature like, say, the young boy Max who befriends them. So I can't help wondering: Is the island of the Wild Things perhaps the same place as the Island of Dr. Moreau?
According to the Victorian author H.G. Wells, this island was discovered by one Edward Prendick, sometime before 1896, and was the home of a sort of biotech research company. Long before the advent of genetic engineering, Dr. Moreau allegedly used a combination of drugs, surgery and selective breeding to create hybrid animals with human characteristics.
Most of the species described in Wells' book are clearly incompatible with human DNA and could not interbreed, even to produce sterile hybrids. So, scientifically speaking, the only way this could work, given the technologies available at the time, would be through the creation of "chimeras"—creatures that look like single animals but consist of a (roughly 50-50) mix of cells from two different species.
Animal chimeras produced by science so far include stuff like the goat-sheep ("geep"), but also, disturbingly, both human-rabbit and human-cow. In both cases the embryos were terminated before development had proceeded very far, but the proof of concept is certainly there.
Of course, chimeras do not breed true; even today, two geeps cannot get bizzay and make a geep baby. So we have to assume that after Moreau's untimely death, some successor took his place, and then another and another, like the master vintners of a family winery. And over time, they added a new wrinkle: not only neoteny and chimerism, but also gigantism. These creatures are big! There may also have been some tweaks along the way to extend their lifespans, because time has erased all traces of human habitation on the island of the Wild Things, and the Wild Things themselves have no memory of previous human contact.
So here's my theory: All of today's Wild Things were infants at the time the last Moreau died or fled. They were raised by other Wild Things, who eventually grew old and died, after first passing along the civilized arts of language and model making and such. All of them are 50 percent human and 50 percent "other," and like the animals of the Wells account, they have thrown off the shackles of Law and live in a kind of dreamtime, halfway between civilization and true animal wildness.
And now that we've settled the issue of what, we're still left with the title question, unanswered by the book or movie: Where exactly are these Wild Things? Clearly, they're within a one-night sail from some portion of the U.S. coast (Key West? Oahu?), and from the climate it appears they're well south of the snow line. In fact, the temperature doesn't seem to vary at all, from day to night or season to season, which makes perfect sense if they reside in the one place satellite imagery would never find them: inside the human heart.
Ramos, Vitorino: The Biological Concept of Neoteny in Evolutionary Computation—Simple Experiments in Simple Non-Memetic Genetic Algorithms, CVRM—Instituto Superior Técnico, Av. Rovisco Pais, Lisboa, PORTUGAL
Morgan, Elaine: The Aquatic Ape, Stein & Day Publishers, 1982
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org): "thumb", "chimera"
The Encyclopedia Britannica 2008 Untimate Reference Suite: "neoteny", "H.G. Wells"
Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and most recently, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available as a free download.