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Wednesday, July 25, 2001

On the origin of speciesism


Staff writer

That there's something menacing about the title "Planet of the Apes" says more about our ignorance than it does about the writer's ingenuity: Earth is already a planet of apes.

Helena Bonham Carter as Ari in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes"(C)2001 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Humans share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees. We are more closely related to chimps and gorillas than chimps and gorillas are to orangutans. We are apes, yet, in speciesist denial, we don't think of ourselves as apes.

So we trash their jungle habitats for minerals to feed the computers and machines of our technological society. In the central African forest alone, a huge bushmeat industry annually wipes out the equivalent of 4 million head of cattle in the form of gorillas, chimps, elephants and antelopes. Some scientists give the great apes five-10 years before they are extinct across most of their range.

Tim Burton's update of the film seems to urge ecological respect by having the plight of humans on a distant planet mirror that of other apes on Earth. "Our cities are encroaching into human habitats," notes Ari, the chimp played by Helena Bonham Carter. Yet, next to this chimp liberal, there is strutting lost astronaut Leo (Mark Wahlberg), casually calling apes monkeys, in a speciesist way that uncomfortably echoes racism. He gets a well-deserved beating for this later in the film. "We're not monkeys," growls the offended gorilla. "We're apes. Monkeys are further down the evolutionary ladder, just above humans."

In fact, we and the other apes are only distantly related to monkeys. Our common ancestor with chimps lived in Africa 5-7 million years ago; soon after that the lineages split, and our ancestors were walking upright on two feet while the ancestors of modern chimps were still knuckle-walking.

Nonhuman apes in the film are seen riding horses and wielding swords, abilities that would require them to undergo fundamental embryonic developmental changes. Chimps have a locking wrist that allows them to walk on their knuckles, and move their arms mainly from the shoulders. Bipedal locomotion -- not to mention talking -- would require such extensive genetic "enhancement," as they put it in the film, that the differences between humans and other apes would probably vanish.

In the film, chimps, gorillas and orangutans happily form an alliance against humans and live together in an integrated society. But it is biologically meaningless to group humans separately from chimps, and studies of primate behavior suggest that there would be no happy family of ape species. Even rival groups of the same species engage in violent battles over territory or females. Early Homo sapiens is thought to have wiped out its brother species, Homo neanderthalensis. Why would different species live together?

The film touches on the tension between scientific and religious explanations of the world, without seeming to make up its mind. "Let's teach them about evolution," says Leo, though he showed himself earlier to be an unreliable source. "As we get smarter, we get more dangerous," Leo says about science, and later torches an ape shrine, where a gorilla had been praying to Semos, the first ape.

We share most of our DNA with that of chimps, but the small amount that we don't share makes such a difference. It gives us huge brains, which give us a highly complex culture, science and religion. "But most educated apes don't believe in that [religion]," says Ari. Science is dangerous, the film seems to say, though it offers no alternative.

The difference between humans and other apes is that we can be vastly more destructive, but also vastly more compassionate. Science can be used toward both ends, but the film sits on the fence on the issue.



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