Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

— paraphrasing The Sayer of the Law from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau

When franchises get stale, Hollywood does reboots — invariably a prequel that tells an origin story retrofitted to segue into already-made sequels either straight up (Batman, X-Men) or in multi-universe alternatives (Star Trek). Given the iconic status of the Planet of the Apes original, a similar effort was a matter of time and CGI.

In The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we get the origin story with nods to the original: throwaway references to the loss of crewed starship Icarus on its way to Mars; a glimpse of Charlton Heston; the future ape liberator playing with a Lego Statue of Liberty. As Hollywood “science” goes, it’s almost thoughtful, even borderline believable. The idea that the virus that uplifts apes is lethal to humans is of course way too pat, but it lends plausibility to the eventual ape dominion without resorting to the idiotic Ewok-slings-overcome-Stormtrooper-missiles mode. On the other hand, the instant rise to human-level feats of sophistication is ridiculous (more of which anon), to say nothing of being able to sail through thick glass panes unscathed.

The director pulled all the stops to make us root for the cousins we oppress: the humans are so bland they blend with the background, the bad guys mistreat the apes with callous glee… and the hero, the cognitively enhanced chimpanzee Caesar (brought to disquieting verisimilitude of life by Andy Serkis), not only fights solely in defense of his chosen family… but to underline his messianic purity he has neither sex drive nor genitals. This kink underlines the high tolerance of US culture for violence compared to its instant vapors over any kind of sex; however, since Project Nim partly foundered on this particular shoal, perhaps it was a wise decision.

As it transpires, Ceasar is exposed to little temptation to distract him from his pilgrimage: there are no female hominids in the film, except for the maternal vessel who undergoes the obligatory death as soon as she produces the hero and a cardboard cutout helpmate there to mouth the variants of “There are some things we weren’t meant to do” — and as assurance that the human protagonist is not gay, despite his nurturing proclivities. Mind you, the lack of a mother and her female alliances would make Caesar (augmented cortex notwithstanding) a permanent outcast among his fellows, who determine status matrilinearly given the lack of defined paternity.

Loyal to human tropes, Caesar goes from Charly to Che through the stations-of-the-cross character development arc so beloved of Campbel/lites. Nevertheless, we care what happens to him because Serkis made him compelling and literally soulful. Plus, of course, Caesar’s cause is patently just. The film is half Spartacus turning his unruly gladiators into a disciplined army, half Moses taking his people home — decorated with the usual swirls of hubris, unintended consequences, justice, equality, compassion, identity and empathy for the Other.

Needless to say, this reboot revived the topic of animal uplift, a perennial favorite of SF (and transhumanist “science” which is really a branch of SF, if not fantasy). Human interactions with animals have been integral to all cultures. Myths are strewn with talking animal allies, from Puss in Boots to A Boy and His Dog. Beyond their obvious practical and symbolic uses, mammals in particular are the nexus of both our notions of exceptionalism and our ardent wish for companionship. Our fraught relationship with animals also mirrors preoccupations of respective eras. In Wells’ Victorian England, The Island of Dr. Moreau struggled with vivisection whereas Linebarger’s Instrumentality Underpeople and the original Planet of the Apes focused on racism (plus, in the latter, the specter of nuclear annihilation). Today’s discussions of animal uplift are really a discussion over whether our terrible stewardship can turn benign — or at least neutral — before our inexorable spread damages the planet’s biosphere past recovery.

When SF posits sentient mammal-like aliens, it usually opts for predators high in human totem poles (Anderson’s eagle-like Ythrians, Cherryh’s leonine Hani). On the other hand, SF’s foremost uplift candidates are elephants, cetaceans – and, of course, bonobos and chimpanzees. All four species share attributes that make them theoretically plausible future companions: social living, so they need to use complex communication; relative longevity, so they can transmit knowledge down the generations; tool use; and unmistakable signs of self-awareness.

Uplift essentially means giving animals human capabilities – primary among them high executive functions and language. One common misconception seems to be that if we give language to near-cousins, they will end up becoming hairy humans. Along those lines, in Rise chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are instantly compatible linguistically, emotionally, mentally and socially. In fact, chimpanzees are far closer to us than they are to the other two ape species (with orangutans being the most distant). So although this pan-panism serves the plot and prefigures the species-specific occupations shown in the Ape pre/sequels, real-life chances of such coordination, even with augmentation, are frankly nil.

There is, however, a larger obstacle. Even if a “smart bomb” could give instant language processing capability, it would still not confer the ability to enunciate clearly, which is determined by the configuration of the various mouth/jaw/throat parts. Ditto for bipedal locomotion. Uplift caused by intervention at whatever level (gene therapy, brain wiring, grafts) cannot bring about coordinated changes across the organism unless we enter the fantasy domain of shapeshifting. This means that a Lamarckian shift in brain wiring will almost certainly result in a seriously suboptimal configuration unlikely to thrive individually or collectively. This could be addressed by singlet custom generation, as is shown for reynards in Crowley’s Beasts, but it would make such specimens hothouse flowers unlikely to propagate unaided, much less become dominant.

In this connection, choosing to give Caesar speech was an erosion of his uniqueness. Of course, if bereft of our kind of speech he would not be able to give gruff Hestonian commands to his army: they would be reliant on line of sight and semaphoring equivalents. However, sticking to complex signed language (which bonobos at least appear capable of, if they acquire it within the same developmental time window as human infants) would keep Caesar and his people uncanny and alien, underlining the irreducible fact of their non-human sentience.

Which brings us to the second fundamental issue of uplift. Even if we succeed in giving animals speech and higher executive functions, they will not be like us. They won’t think, feel, react as we do. They will be true aliens. There is nothing wrong with that, and such congress might give us a preview of aliens beyond earth, should SETI ever receive a signal. However, given how humans treat even other humans (and possibly how Cro-Magnons treated Neanderthals), it is unlikely we’ll let uplifted animals go very far past pet, slave or trophy status. In this, at least, Caesar’s orangutan councillor is right: “Human no like smart ape,” no matter how piously we discuss the ethics of animal treatment and our responsibilities as technology wielders.

Images: top, Caesar; bottom, Neanderthal reconstruction (Kennis & Kennis, National Geographic). What gazes out of those eyes is — was — human.

23 Responses to ““Are We Not (as Good as) Men?””

  1. Caliban says:

    The movie was more fun, and less immediately silly, than many recent pseudo-sfnal films; though as you noted, credulity becomes increasingly strained as the film progresses.

    Too bad the makers felt they had to dehumanize the humans. As you and I noted in private communication, the sole female role existed primarily to give the obligatory “we were not meant to play God” speech.

  2. Athena says:

    Agreed, on all counts. Despite its obvious flaws, it was a film that did not aggressively require you to abandon your brain cells at the door. And had they been bolder, it could have been notable.

  3. Sovay says:

    However, sticking to complex signed language . . . would keep Caesar and his people uncanny and alien, underlining the irreducible fact of their non-human sentience.

    I haven’t seen the film, but that choice could have been very interesting; I think most non-Deaf humans find speaking silences uncanny.

  4. Athena says:

    Exactly! Though apes do have a repertory of sounds, they convey much with body language. Between that and the specifics of sound production (especially consonants), sign language would have been both the natural and more interesting choice — even if Caesar’s first spoken word is a defiant “No!” to being abused.

  5. Asakiyume says:

    Wow, this is just such a wonderful essay on so many levels, and I want to talk about that, but first, since I saw her comment as I was scrolling down to leave mine, I wanted to add to what Sovay said about silences being eerie to non-deaf humans: this seems to be particularly so in contemporary US culture. In the original Japanese version of Laputa (Miyazaki’s city-in-the-clouds movie), when the protagonists travel through a tunnel of clouds, in a storm vortex, there are about 30 seconds of silence. It’s very powerful. But when the movie was done into English by Disney, they added music to that part. Couldn’t take the silence, I guess.

    I think it would have been awesome to have the apes communicate with sign language and gesture. They could have used subtitles–it would have been awesome. (From which comments, you might get the impression that I’ve seen the movie, but I haven’t yet–but I’ve read several people’s reactions.)

    Okay, I’ll leave a separate comment on your wonderful essay!

  6. Asakiyume says:

    Your discussion here was so lucid, and your writing so entertaining; it’s a real pleasure to read the review! And then, taking us through the movie and discussing the science problems and the notions of animal uplift, etc.–fascinating.

    When we lived with my in-laws in England, there was a dairy farm next door, and so I was able to see and interact with cows up close, daily. I was struck by how profoundly alien this species was. We live with it, we have a sense of its needs, but wow: and this is a creature that people have domesticated. So alien.

    I do think that part of the problem with animal uplift is precisely the desire to turn the animal into a human being in an animal suit. People have a hard time accepting difference (as we know…), which is a shame. Difference, variation, these things make the world the marvelous place it is. Let apes be apes and dolphins be dolphins and elephants be elephants. Their intelligences and their views of the world will be unique, and if we can appreciate and try to understand that, how much richer our sense of the world will be.

    Orangutans are fascinating because they’re much less social than chimpanzees or bonobos (or humans).

    Amusing about Caesar’s lack of genitals. Oh Hollywood! Oh US audiences! And I appreciated what you said about the fact that a smart bomb wouldn’t change apes’ physiological structures. Making them walk upright is part of the turning-them-into-humans thing: why couldn’t a creature be intelligent and walk on their hands? The answer is, there’s no reason why not. But we make the equivalence between them and us more viscerally when we see them upright–but that’s our limitation.

    Loyal to human tropes, Caesar goes from Charly to Che through the stations-of-the-cross character development arc so beloved of Campbel/lites. –wonderful line, made me laugh out loud. You’re good! I’m glad he’s a compelling character in spite of that.

  7. Sue Lange says:

    Personally, I think all the movies made after the original take away the magic. I don’t need things explained. Sure I can pick apart the original. How did the apes evolve so quickly? I mean the Statue of Liberty hadn’t even eroded away yet. Back then the answer to such questions as how did this happen was that mutation due to radioactivity caused it. Movies like LOTA didn’t even need to state it because we all just it. It was common knowledge, even if it was bad science. That didn’t matter, the film’s impact came from Charlton Heston laughing about the U.S. flag being planted thousands of years in the future. And the point was driven home when we saw the Statue of Liberty at the end. How we got there from a scientific standpoint was not important. The point is, your frame of reference is invalid: all things change and probably due to your insistence on your frame of reference invalidating others’. To make sequels, remakes, and prequels of that is silly. But it’s going to continue because we go out and watch it.

    I think Hollywood does try to fix the bad science in past movies, but they introduce more. I think that’s just an indication that the possibility they present is probably impossible. That’s okay, because movie is a thought experiment. And in that way, it is legitimate. The message again is more important.

    Thanks for the review. I’ve added the movie to my Netflix queue which I probably wouldn’t have done before. I just don’t trust Hollywood blockbusters. I also added Project Nim.

  8. Athena says:

    Francesca, I’m delighted you enjoyed the article! I had fun writing it and reflecting upon the issues raised by the film. Orangutans are indeed solitary — each of our primate cousins have a totally different social organization, another pointer to uniqueness.

    As you point out, homogenizing/standardizing is a powerful urge with us (an understandable one, but problematic) and our primacy has essentially short-circuited any likelihood that other terrestrial species will have the chance to attain sentience. Having limbs permanently free does confer an advantage for tool use but no other primate is optimized for bipedalism. Also, cultures can be incredibly complex with minimal technology. Additionally, previous engineering by the slower methods of cross-breeding had to pass the iron test of procreative capacity. I do enough engineering myself in the lab to know how fragile the crash-program results usually are.

    Sue, I’m glad this piqued your interest. As to your points, yes and no. Films are indeed thought experiments (as is all art) but how you conduct the experiment matters; so does the intent that led to the experiment. Making films with good science is not more expensive than making films with lousy science, and to excuse terminal sloppiness in that domain seems special pleading (few people argue for similar cavalier treatment of period details, although even there history is cheerfully mangled to make points).

    Revisiting an original is also a frameshift: seeing the same problem from a different viewpoint, brought on by new experience/knowledge/mindset. A really good reboot or remake is not a waste of time or magic, as long as its makers are not cynically riding the coattails of the original. One example on my mind is the latest Jane Eyre, which I plan to discuss at some point.

  9. Definitely more mavelous writing by Athena!

    I would add to the elephants, bonobo etc., list of uplift cantidates, the African grey parrot and the octopus. I have my suspicions about racoons as well; the ones around our house are entirely too smart.

  10. Athena says:

    Awww, Gerry!

    As to your list, definitely. In the article, I deliberately restricted myself to mammals. I would also add crows and mynah birds, which fulfill the conditions of social living, longevity and tool using (and, like racoons, appear suspiciously smart).

  11. zarpaulus says:

    I suspect that at some point people will “try” uplifting nearly every species on earth. After all the species you and some of the other commentors listed I suspect they’ll try domesticated species, likely with little success (though labrador retrievers could use a couple more brain cells).

  12. Athena says:

    Almost all domesticated animals are bred for docility, in addition to whatever other specific attributes are targeted. But some of them are allowed to stay smart — among them, herding dogs as well as some hunting breeds. A good herding dog can take care of a flock of sheep by itself, without human aid. But these are exceptions, because they counteract docility (intelligence tends to be less tractable).

  13. Athena says:

    The first sentence really says it all: “For housewives of the 21st century who prefer animate rather than mechanical domestic servants, there may be a choice other than the robot.” Eeeough!

  14. Dylan Fox says:

    I want to say a big, ‘Hell Yeah!’ to what Asakiyume said. Fantastic article.

    As to the changes to physiolography, it’s a necessary part of the narrative. Like every retelling of Frankenstein since the original, the story is one of our children rising up and punishing us for our mistakes. We have to be able to recognise them as our children, be they zombies, robots or whatever. If we can’t identify the agents of revenge as human (in some important, ‘gut-feeling’ way), then the narrative changes. It becomes one of an outside, external force taking revenge on us instead of a self-created force punishing us for our mistakes (most often, of course, scientific hubris). I’m not saying I agree with it or like it (I’ve read Frankenstein, loved it, and acknowledged the narrative is almost two-hundred years old and we don’t need to keep retelling it), just that that’s the template.

    On the idea of retelling Frankenstein, one of the more interesting readings of the original is Victor deliberatly seeking to cut out the feminine, to remove its place is the heirachy of nature. Is it too kind, do you think, to believe this movie is making the same point by the exclusion of female characters? (Probably not, given they’ve removed the hero’s ability to reproduce naturally.)

    (It’s kind of a shame about the science. I was kind of hoping for science of the ‘so silly it’s fantasy’ variety so I could sit back and enjoy the movie. You know, uplifting by cosmic rays or brain transplants or something. Looks like it’s more of a tediously long–why are all Hollywood films so long these days? What happened to good, ninety-minute films?–morality play with more flaws than the Empire State Building…)

  15. Athena says:

    Happy you enjoyed it, Dylan! It is a morality play (as are all films in this vein) and I agree with you about the need for identification, despite uncanny valleys — but I prefer having the science plausible. It lets me watch the plot/characters unfold without having to constantly grind my teeth. What made it interesting, in my view, was that the film tried to move, ever so slightly, from the usual black/white demarcations to the Antigone mode: a struggle between two incompatible versions of good: a cure for dementia that requires this experimentation versus the right of apes to be treated with compassion and justice, whether they’re uplifted or not.

  16. Walden2 says:

    Flawed as it was, you have to give the 1970 sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes some props: The plot included mutants with telepathic powers living under the ruins of NYC who worship a nuclear bomb complete with hymns! Though none of the films could match the original in terms of quality, they all carried some relevant social commentary.

  17. Athena says:

    I have to say I missed that one, Larry! I saw the original, the Tim Burton remake (which I actually thought decent, given the low bar of the franchise) and the reboot.

  18. Walden2 says:

    I found almost all of the various incarnations of the Planet of the Apes franchise to have merit to some degree or another. At least they all had *something* of substance to say about modern society, coming from that brief pre-Star Wars Golden Age of intelligent SF films.

    Even the 1975-1976 Saturday morning animated series, Return to the Planet of the Apes, had quality in both story and animation that is found lacking in most other SF, animated or otherwise. I loved the fact that the spaceship our main characters flew in was a giant white Mercury capsule!

    Plus this time the underground mutants worshipped the goddess Usa (get it?), believing that some day “she” would return and they could reclaim their rightful place on the surface from the apes.

    Though they did not call it such then, Return to the POTA was the earliest reboot of the franchise, along with the live TV series at the same time. That too wasn’t too bad, but it was not nearly as visually interesting as the Saturday morning version.

    And you must have liked the fact that it is always Zira who is the smartest, bravest, and most caring ape around, while her husband Cornelius, though very supportive of his wife, is frequently more cautious and even timid when it comes to defying the rules and beliefs of their culture. Though he did kick simian butt when he had to.

  19. Athena says:

    I certainly liked the portrayals of the female apes, though I couldn’t help having the sneaking suspicion that they were like that to highlight the “unnaturalness” of such strength.

  20. Sue Lange says:

    Well, I finally got to Project Nim and Rise on my Netflix queue. I’m most impressed with how Hollywood mapped the Ape movie onto the experience of Project Nim. Not that Project Nim can be seen as a gold standard, but at least it’s a documentary about human/ape interaction. It shows how we really don’t have a clue, which is pretty much the point of the Ape movie.

    Good job of critiquing the movie, BTW.

  21. Athena says:

    Thank you! And indeed, the links to Project Nim were very visible in the Apes reboot.

  22. […] By the way, Athena Andreadis has a whole different take on the Apes movie. She wrote a review when it first came out and you can read it over at her blog. […]