Planet of the Hominids

WETA/20th Century Fox: The ape rebellion in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

ANDREW C. REVKIN  (x-post from Dot Earth

6:35 p.m. | Updated 

Last weekend, I took my two sons, 13 and 21, to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which we thoroughly enjoyed on several levels. It’s a rousing slave revolt, an entertaining techno-thriller, a drama about a dysfunctional household (chimp included) dealing with disability and job-related stresses (in the conflicted genetic engineer played by James Franco). (Manohla Dargis liked it, too, as did my sons’ favorite critics, the team at Spill.com.

It’s also a film about the troubled relationship of Homo sapiens to its closest kin, the other species in our taxonomic family, the Hominidae. Abuses have occurred from the forests of the Congo basin and Borneo to the research centers of drug companies and universities.

In the realm of drugs and medicine, there’s certain research that can only be done on apes or other primates. Where does one draw the line, in terms of which research goals are lofty enough to justify killing or causing pain to animals. Are some animals too sentient for such uses?

These questions go well beyond our treatment of other hominids, of course, and arise in considering everything from factory farming to the global trade in endangered species to the routine use of countless other species in medical and other testing.

The film, not surprisingly, got a seal of approval from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which also gave an award to the director, Rupert Wyatt, for insisting that no real apes be used during filming (something possible thanks to the geniuses assembled by Peter Jackson in New Zealand.

I was heartened to see that the film did not completely tilt toward the predictable Hollywood approach to “Big Pharma” of an evil corporation plotting terrible things in the pursuit of money.

While the new “Apes” film has the greedy head of a biotech firm only concerned about profits and dismissively referring to the company’s research chimps as property, its human star, Franco, represents something of a middle path. He plays a researcher who is willing to use apes as test subjects for drugs aimed at improving the human condition (including that of his father, fading from Alzheimer’s) — but who had an ethics-based line he wouldn’t cross.

We all have benefited, knowingly or not, from all manner of research involving animals. (I’m sure the post-stroke levels of coumadin in my blood right now were worked out on other species first.)

These are tough issues. I think the film will help nudge people to consider the potential ethical failures that underlie their health care. Another helpful prod was an Op-Ed article today by Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican of Maryland, who makes a powerful argument for ending all laboratory work with chimpanzees.

Yesterday, I was able to spend 45 minutes interviewing the film’s screenwriters, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, who conceived the story after collecting string on various instances in which a chimpanzees ended up beingraised in human households, almost always with bad outcomes. (Listen to more on “The Idea” by clicking that link in the audio box.)

Only after their research was well under way did Jaffa have a “classic lightbulb moment,” Silver recalls, where he realized they had the seed of a fresh approach to the seemingly dormant “Planet of the Apes” franchise.

They described the remarkably smooth effort to pitch their new take on the “Apes” saga to 20th Century Fox executives. (Click “The Pitch” in the audio box at left for more.)

But we mainly focused on issues related to research labs where the animals are housed and studied, some of which I reported on in the 1990s. (Click “The Issues” button in the audio box.)

I noted how, while watching the scenes in the film of chimps watching TV, I was reminded of my tour of a onetime New York University chimp center in Tuxedo, N.Y., where the televisions were showing “The Wizard of Oz.”

We explored how the fast-forward pace of scientific knowledge and technical skill is seemingly outpacing humans’ capacity to comprehend and honestly grapple with the ethical issues that arise.

In discussing the ethical issues, Silver said: “It’s easy to be shrill,” but added that they sought a more nuanced approach. “Would you test on a chimp to save someone you loved?” she asked, alluding to the quandary of the Franco character. “The deepest moral questions are the ones that force you to make difficult moral choices.” Audio:

Here’s another interesting interview with Jaffa and Silver:
http://www.hulu.com/embed/d8Hwe5tk2fI9bZqLfP44Cw

If you’ve seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” what elements irked or pleased you?

6:26 p.m. | Postscript | 
I have to note a broader point relating the clash of hominids at the heart of this movie to the Medea hypothesis of the paleontologist Peter Ward, which Ward explored in the context of human population growth in an interesting interview with Scott Thill for AlterNet. Consider the following statement from Ward in the context of the long string of Apes films:

My view of life on Earth is that it’s a huge board game, and every species has but one goal: to take over the planet. And every species that could, would, if it got the chance. So we’re just doing what evolution has pounded into us: Produce as many of yourselves as you can. Make sure that, as you produce, you aren’t threatened in your production and co-opt all the planet’s resources. Kill any competitors, and spread to every place that you possibly can. We’re doing all of that. We get the prize, ironically, because of the brains that we have. Read the interview.

2 Responses

  1. While I liked the movie, I wasn’t thrilled with the notion that the chimps had to be genetically enhanced to be more “human”, cognitively, in order to be worthy of respect. That seems like the same ole same ole to me. Smarter does not equal deserving of greater moral status in the human world, why does it when we step outside our own species?

    With respect to Big Pharma and nuanced ideas of animal exploitation, I was glad that the Franco character was sympathetic, but don’t consider that an argument in favor of seeing exploitation as morally correct, or even as nuanced. It’s just good storytelling, and closer to the truth: people are complicated (human as well as nonhumans).

    As to Peter Ward’s quote: reductio ad absurdum. A strictly genetic viewpoint like that leaves too much out, justifies too much, and relieves humans of making the “difficult moral choices” you talk about. Why not look at individuals instead of genes in both humans and nonhumans? As Jonathan Balcombe (biologist/ethologist) puts it (paraphrased) — Nature may be cruel, individual animals usually aren’t.

    I don’t think the movie will change any status quo thinking. To you, that may be fine. To me, an abolitionist, it isn’t, really. But I liked it anyway. As I said, peeps are complicated.

  2. I enjoyed your blog post, but I am concerned about your statement that “certain research” requires the use of chimpanzees. That is no longer the case, according to everything I heard at last week’s meetings of the federal Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Biodefense experts destroyed the canard that chimpanzees will be needed to test against bioterrorism. Most importantly, I was pleased to learn, as I know you will be, that pharmaceutical companies no longer need to use chimpanzees for their research.

    Using chimpanzees in research is a matter of choice now, not necessity, with the wonderful scientific advancements of the last 10 years. Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline gave presentations explaining how they stopped using chimpanzees. They are now setting a powerful example for their more reticent colleagues in the industry.

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