By Ishan Dasgupta


The new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a reboot of the classic series, gives a modern makeover to Pierre Boulle’s novel about the boundaries of humanity.

 

“I designed the 112 for repair, but Caesar has gone way beyond that.”

 

Will Rodman (played by James Franco) is a scientist at a San Francisco pharmaceutical company GEN-SYS attempting to find the cure for the degenerative brain disease afflicting his ailing father. Rodman is depicted as an altruistic visionary who develops an intervention called ALZ-112, a retrovirus that stimulates neuron growth in the brain. Although developed to treat Alzheimer’s disease, Rodman quickly realizes that 112 has the potential to enhance the brains of both humans and chimps beyond normal capacities. Chimps given the drug are able to solve puzzles they had previously been baffled by, and Rodman’s father not only overcomes his Alzheimer’s temporarily but begins playing the piano like Mozart.

 

After a terrible accident, however, in which one of the chimps runs wild throughout the lab, Rodman is forced to oversee the termination of all but one chimp in his lab. The chimp to be spared is baby Caesar, the protagonist of the film, who has genetically inherited an enhanced brain from his mother. With this intelligence comes a degree of self-identity and purpose—ideas that grow within Caesar throughout the film as he witnesses the cruel world of humans. Ultimately, Caesar decides he has had enough of trying to be a human and revolts against both Rodman and other humans.

 

Audiences might leave the film jokingly asking, “Is such a takeover actually possible?” A more important question, however, might be if creating super apes becomes a scientific possibility, is this something we should allow? Thankfully for viewers, the film does an excellent job of bringing some of the relevant ethical dilemmas to the forefront: Is research on chimps for human benefit justified? How would a sentient non-human ape view the world and itself in it? Would bringing such a creature into the world be unnecessarily cruel? And finally, how would we deal with a new sentient species?

 

“In Biology it’s called neurogenesis, here at GEN-SYS we call it the cure for Alzheimer’s”

 

Throughout the film, there is an overt struggle between Rodman and GEN-SYS over the development of ALZ-112 and its testing in humans. Predictably, Rodman, who is more concerned with the social benefit of the drug, is met with resistance at first from board members until the financial incentives of the discovery become blatantly clear. The research ethics issues portrayed in the film highlight many of the common struggles in drug development, but more importantly present the view that ethical boundaries are often crossed without concern when there is money on the table.

 

“Are you a pet? No. You’re not a Pet”

 

Enhancing a non-human ape to make it sentient has the potential to create not only mass confusion among humans, but for the ape itself. Thanks to a brilliant performance by Andy Serkis (the man behind Gollum) as Caesar, audiences are able to envision the moral and existential anguish faced by a creature that is born into a world in which it is the first of its kind. Caesar, although not treated like a pet by Rodman, is dragged along by a leash, and at one point is caged along with other non-enhanced apes. Caesar is not human, but he is no longer a chimp. One of the biggest ethical problems with mixed species research is in sorting out how we would categorize it, and more importantly where the creature would categorize itself.

 

“What is Caesar?”

 

This existential question is at the heart of Caesar’s anger towards humans. The pain created by humans in bringing him into the world is perhaps the deepest motivation for Caesar’s decision to enhance his fellow Apes with an airborne version of Rodman’s virus, and begin a takeover of San Francisco.

 

As Sarah Chan and John Harris discuss in a recent paper, the suffering that could be induced in a creature of this nature might be enough justification to make rules that prohibit such research. However, they, also argue that human existence, although often full of suffering, is rarely a matter of moral strife among common people. The fear that a child might experience pain because of a possible birth defect or because he or she is subject to discrimination usually does not prevent people from procreating. Rather, parents attempt to create a loving and supporting environment that helps to deal with the inevitability of human suffering. Similarly, it is reasonable to argue that we could take the same approach with enhanced apes, and attempt to create a system in which their suffering would be reduced in society.

 

“Caesar is home!”

 

There is a good chance no matter how much society attempted to treat a new sentient ape with respect and dignity that the human tendency to place themselves in groups would be divisive and unfavorably influence a new species. Human history is littered with strife caused by racial and religious differences and one would not be out of place to suggest that many in society would discriminate against enhanced apes. This in return might cause resentment and hatred and lead to struggle. Therefore, although the scenario in the film is hyperbolic, it is not unreasonable to think that should we create a new class of sentient beings that they might be victims of human prejudices and feel justified in being violent towards humans rather than peaceful. In the film, Caesar, speaking for the first time, tells Rodman that he no longer wishes to live with humans and is home with his own kind in the jungle.

 

So, where does this leave us in regards to the perhaps whimsical question of whether non-human apes could ever take over the world? In the original films, the downfall of humankind was brought about by a nuclear holocaust, which the new intelligent apes somehow avoided. In the new film, the writers elegantly tie in a pandemic caused by a new version of the virus, which while beneficial for chimps is deadly in humans. The film ends with a scenario similar to the upcoming film Contagion, in which presumably most human life will be wiped out. But is this a conceivable scenario in reality?

 

A recent report published by the Academy of Medical Sciences on Animals containing human material (ACHM) examines the issue of whether it is justified to introduce human capacities into a non-human animal. Their recommendations suggest that both experts and the public, while at times discomforted by this idea, feel it is justified if there is a good chance it will benefit humans in the future. The working group suggests that we take a slow approach including additional expert oversight, but nothing that would indicate that they felt this research was inherently problematic. This points to the fact that our society will more than likely continue to allow research that introduces human materials into animals, and perhaps someday even research that allows apes to become enhanced.

 

Yes. If we continue down our current path of research it is not unreasonable to think we will one day be able to create a species with enough human capacities for it to become intelligent or sentient. Furthermore, mutated viruses from other animals, take H1N1 or HIV, can be potentially devastating to only a certain species. Couple this with the cruelty often exhibited by humans towards each other and other animals, and one can see how a new species could feel the need to play a game of role reversal. Yes, this is all still science fiction! But like a good science fiction film it asks us to consider the ethical issues surrounding a scenario before it actually happens. One hopes we can learn to be a little more caring so the future apes don’t hate us too much.

 

~ Ishan Dasgupta, B.A., is a research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is interested in the enhancement of human (and animal) traits and the implications this has for society

 

 


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