Last updated on 22 Jun 2018
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.