Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Project Nim and the science of chimpanzees.

The state of the universe.
Aug. 26 2011 7:02 AM

Risibility of the Planet of the Apes

On the great divide between humans and chimpanzees.

Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Click image to expand.
Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

In the gorgeous and stupidly fun Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar, a chimpanzee, has an oh-so-poignant identity crisis during a walk in the Muir Woods near San Francisco. Thanks to an experimental gene therapy for Alzheimer's that a biotech firm tested on Caesar's mother, the CGI-created chimp has inherited a brain with extraordinary wiring. He lives with the drug's developer, Will Rodman (James Franco), who occasionally takes Caesar on strolls through the giant redwoods and unleashes him, letting him express his inner ape. This day, they startle a woman walking a German shepherd on a leash. Caesar looks at his own collar and, in American Sign Language, plaintively asks Rodman, "Am I a pet?"

Leaving aside the spectacularly implausible scientific scenario that made Caesar a few marbles short of a human, Rise of the Planet of the Apes flirts with an idea that has beguiled researchers for more than a century. What if we could speak with one of our ape cousins? What would they tell us about their views of the world, their disappointments and dreams, their spirituality and existential angst? A second, recently released movie that includes a flesh-and-blood talking chimp, the documentary Project Nim, offers a most sober answer: not much. The subject of the sad documentary (based on the Elizabeth Hess book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human) mastered only 125 signs after years of training. "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you," he said in his most elaborate string of words ever recorded.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Project Nim have a mess of overlap, from the clothes that Caesar and Nim wear to their longing stares out the windows of their nicely appointed homes, the close-ups of their soulful eyes, the horrors of well-meaning scientific research, and the outright cruelty of some human caretakers. Yet there's one less obvious parallel: Both feature humans who have wildly exaggerated what we have in common with chimpanzees and blurred the line between our differences. The humans in each film are gobsmacked that the cute, innocent creatures they've adopted, so strikingly similar to our own kootchy-kootchy-coo babies, grow violent and dangerous by about age 5, ripping off faces and fingers of college-educated Homo sapiens who apparently forgot that Pan troglodytes is a distinct species. In answer to Caesar's humanlike question, Rodman says, no, you're not a pet—I'm your father. Ahem.

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Much as we may want to believe that a brain gene or two separates the chimp from the human mind, that with proper upbringing and training a chimpanzee could snuggle into our necks and share its innermost thoughts, the reality is that a great, inviolate divide separates the species. Two revolutionary and rightfully celebrated scientists, Charles Darwin and Jane Goodall, along with the masses that promoted their agendas, have lulled us into thinking otherwise.

The exaggeration of our similarities is a pendulum swing from the 1700s, when the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus feared a theological backlash if he followed his convictions and placed man and other "simians" on the same branch of the tree of life. By the time of Darwin, a century later, the religious still saw chimpanzees as "inventions of the devil." An infamous cartoon mocked Darwin by depicting the head of the longbearded scientist atop a chimp torso.

Darwin supporters soon turned the chimpanzee to their advantage, using the physical similarities between us and them as a cornerstone to prove evolutionary theory—they even tried to introduce one, resplendent in suit and bow tie, at the Scopes trial. Behavioral research with captive chimpanzees that began in the early 1900s demonstrated their remarkable, humanlike cognitive skills. Then in the 1960s, Jane Goodall emphasized chimp-human similarities in her pioneering studies of wild chimpanzees, overturning the canard that only humans used tools and, with her many disciples, going on to document a wide range of "human" attributes, from empathy to transmission of behaviors ("culture"), that existed in chimpanzees, too. In the 1970s, biologists cemented the evolutionary argument when they revealed that chimpanzee proteins differed from those in humans by a mere 1.2 percent. By this measure, we were 98.8 percent identical.

Nim Chimpsky. Click image to expand.
Nim Chimpsky

Darwin's theory of evolution and Goodall's conservation agenda today no longer need the help of chimpanzees. Modern genetics makes it abundantly clear that evolution is real. The conservation movement now rightly protects the welfare of all animals, putting special emphasis on threatened and endangered species, regardless of their human attributes: Many of us care deeply about saving black rhinos, beluga sturgeon, and northern right whales, none of which have looks or behaviors that make us purse our lips and feel a squishy bond.

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