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Rise of the Planet of the Moralists 1: Introduction

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

Rise of the planet of the apes poster

Rise of the Planet of the Moralists Series
1: Introduction
2: Chains and Trees
3: Clades and grades
4: Predicting traits
5: Social dominance and power

This is an extended meditation upon the recent film Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). There may be spoilers (first and final warning) so read at your own risk.

The film is an extended attempt to make sense of the somewhat absurd and confusing remake of Planet of the Apes in 2001. I shall not pay much attention to the merits of the film-making or acting. I am most concerned with the portrayed behaviours of humans and the other apes in the film, and in particular, Caesar, the chimpanzee given the intelligence enhancing treatment who is raised in a human home. For those who haven’t seen the film, Caesar eventually leads an escape by other primates kept in a terrible research facility.

Caesar is, in the film, the most moral agent. He protects all primates, including humans, and acts only in defence of those who are unable to defend themselves. The source of his moral stance in the film is shown to be twofold: his upbringing, but more importantly, his attainment of reason. Caesar is a neo-Kantian exemplar. As Kant argued, the moral sense is what follows from rationality in the film.

Humans, on the other hand, are shown as brutish, self-interested, and exploitative, of each other as well as the apes. They are the “rational egoists” of game theory and economics, interested solely in what they can get from others. They treat other persons as means. They exemplify utilitarian ethics.

This somewhat bleak assessment of human nature, and the almost Rousseauesque portrayal of the apes as noble savages, has a long history in western thought. It keys into a debate about human nature that can be found in the writings of Lord Monboddo and William Smellie, among others, in the 17th century. And, so far as we can tell from modern studies, it is wrong. Study after study shows that it is the human species that acts in empathy and has a bias towards prosocial behavior – treating others not merely as means but as ends worthy of care even when no apparent genetic or economic benefit is likely to come.

On the other hand, primates in general, and common chimps in particular, do behave like the rational egoists of economic models, defecting when the risk is outweighed by the reward in predictable fashion. They are known to attack and kill other chimps when it is in their benefit, as a matter of course.

Why does the film, and popular literature generally, think of humans and primates this inverted way? The reason is that we have adopted a particular mode of thought, sometimes called the Great Chain of Being, but which is better called Gradism, in which reason is the nadir zenith of the living world, and moral behaviours arise out of the capacity for reason. In traditional philosophy, only humans actually occupy the nadir, both as moral agents and as rational agents, but in the film, humans are clearly less rational than the apes. The film plays against this assumption of the western tradition. The trouble is, it does so against our best science.

In subsequent posts I shall consider why this is wrong, and what we might have predicted about human, and enhanced chimp, behaviours from a general knowledge of evolution and systematics, if we hadn’t been making a subtle point about morality as the scriptwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver clearly were.


  1. Nick Matzke Nick Matzke

    Nadir? Do you mean zenith?

  2. The Other Jim The Other Jim

    ” Study after study shows that it is the human species that acts in empathy and has a bias towards prosocial behavior – treating others not merely as means but as ends worthy of care even when no apparent genetic or economic benefit is likely to come.”

    Except on the internet ;-P

  3. Sam C Sam C

    Nick Matzke:
    Nadir?Do you mean zenith?

    I wondered that too, but my first thought was that the Mighty Silverbacked Intellect has a flossofer’s precision of word use so maybe it was my misunderstanderating. But the MSI does live in Upside-Down Ozland so maybe a Strine nadir is a Yurrpean zenith?

    • Hey, I’m moving cities, packing boxes, and aching. Forgive my failure to use medieval Persian correctly. Oy!

  4. jeb jeb

    A mix of entertainment and moral instruction are key features of most of the narratives that deal with this theme. You have hit the nail on the head on that I think.

    Not seen the film but from what you say the old rhetorical concept of simia seems to be at play.

    A very terse description of the concept and an early picture of what Lord Monboddo and William Smellie were thinking about below.

    • Jeb Jeb

      “I confess freely to you I could never look long upon a monkey, without very mortifying reflections.”

      Sir William Congreve. Letter to John Dennis, 10 July 1695.

  5. Wilfred Wilfred

    Are you aware of the studies of Frans de Waal into the ethology of apes?
    Chimpanzees are not that malignant.

  6. Jeb Jeb

    I am only aware of de Waal from references in relation to other works on violence in human culture, but I thought the perspective was violence occurred but mechanisms were in place to limit widespread disruption.

    Not a million miles away from what you see in small scale human cultures were violence occurs between small localized social groups in competition with each other.

    But I must confess I did not pay to much attention. Enough problems to resolve when looking at violence in human culture were the evidence base is vastly more extensive.

    The field work for primates struck me as tiny by comparison and problematic for this reason. A limit to the questions you can fire at the evidence.

    But ethology is not exactly my strong point and it is certainly a very valid line of enquiry.

  7. Jeb Jeb

    Refreshing my memory on ethology and social dominance behaviour in other species from my book stash on the subject was confronted straight away by this on ‘the rise of the moralist’.

    “What has been neglected in so many ethnographic treatments of feuding is the fact that indigenous actors not only accept feuding systems as morally necessary but also understand their own feuding systems and purposefully modify them as they go along. My argument here must not be misunderstood. Feuding systems are not consciously constructed from the ground up by omniscient native social engineers. But they are, in fact, routinised modes of behaviour that keep conflicts under control…. Thus the
    human capacity to forsee and avert severe and dangerous social disruption functions as a deliberate mechanism of selection. This mechanism should reduce the chances of extinction for a given group.”

    C. Boehm, Blood Revenge, 1984

    Whilst I would avoid the use of the term feud I found these remarks interesting. I should have said essential rather than valid when it comes to the contribution of ethology and biology in regard to these questions.

  8. Jeb Jeb

    I will bore everyone with a further detail as I am a man like ape train spotter.

    Science attempts to deal with these creatures as they are in the natural world but these are creatures of thought, science and fiction and that has always been the case just as science is one vital part of a wider cultural discussion.

    I think this demonstrates the mix of direct observation and imagination in regard to violence and the habits and disposition of this creature and our own.

    De Simea cap. 96

    Auicen saith, that the Ape ac|cordeth in shape with a man, & in haire with a wolfes & some apes haue euil ma|ners, & tatches, & their teeth be as it were hounds teeth, & haue malitious biting, and namely those that haue tailes, and some be rough and all hairie before, ex|cept the face, & such haue teeth as a man, & haue other things as a man, and red|dish eyen & sharpe, and paps and teats, in the breast, and handes, feete, and fing|ers, and toes, and may goe and steppe on two feete, for they haue soles in theyr féet as a man hath, & so hath few beasts except a man, and namelye foure footed beasts, as Aristotle saith. And ye female Ape is like to a woman in the priuye chose, and the males yarde is like to an hounds yarde, & his entrailes be like to a mans entrailes Huc vsque Auicenne. And Aristotle saith, yt some foure foo|ted beasts commeth to mans kinde, as the Ape. There he rehearseth all ye fore|said likenesse. The Ape is a beast won|derfully shapen, but he hath some likenes of mankind, and is learned and taught, and so he is taught to leape and play in diuers manner wise, and is an vntamed beast, and malitious by kinde, and is ta|med and chastised by violence wt bea|ting, and with cheines, and is refrained with a clogge, so that he may not runne about freely at his owne will, to abate his fiercenesse and outrage. And the Ape safeth all manner of meats & vncleane things, and therefore he séeketh and loo|keth wormes in mens heads, and thro|weth them into his mouth, and eateth the~.

    De Proprietatibus Rerum 13th cen. From the 16th cen corrected edition so a composite document, which has to be viewed first in it’s later context.

  9. Raving Raving

    Gradism, in which reason is the nadir zenith of the living world, and moral behaviours arise out of the capacity for reason.

    Gradism? Humans are clearly at the zenith of the living world. The trend in biological evolution is towards greater usage of ‘information’. Humans represent an explosion of bio-cultural evolution.

    The presumed gradism is less about a capacity for reason and more a the capacity to involve and propagate ‘information’

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