The Science of 'Planet of the Apes': Could Simians Get Scary Smart?

Is the film plausible? Kinda sorta, say experts.

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20th Century Fox

There's only about 1.2 percent of genetic difference between human beings and chimpanzees. It's not much of a separation from our evolutionary relatives—though, as with any relatives, we cherish a fair amount of distance.

But what if the gap closes? The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which opens today, taps into the fear that our primate kin could transform into angry biological doppelgangers. An origin of species story, the film is a prequel to the 1968 classic—and 2001 re-make—that portrayed modern man traveling through space and time to find the ultimate evolutionary uncanny scenario. Rise depicts scientist Will Rodman, played by James Franco, performing Alzheimer’s research on apes at a pharmaceutical company. In doing so, he produces Caesar, a chimpanzee with cognitive powers that rival our own.

A recent report speaks of the "‘Frankenstein fear’ that the medical research which creates ‘humanised’ animals is going to generate ‘monsters.’”

Director Rupert Wyatt sets the movie in the present day, inviting viewers to imagine the imminent reality of his premise. Aspects of the film seem pretty believable. We have been enhancing both animals and humans for years, through everything from selective breeding—which brought us "designer dogs" like the Puggle—to the wakefulness drug, Provigil. And scientists have taught apes to communicate using sign language, just as Ceasar does.

What's more, there's some eerie validity to the on-screen science. The technique used to treat Alzheimer’s in Rise, for example, has been tried in labs. Scientists can engineer what amounts to a genetic delivery system—a virus sent out to the brain that infects neurons with desired genetic material. Once the transfer is made, those genes can change or improve cognitive functioning.

This has been done experimentally, says Dr. Lary Walker of Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. But usually on mice; never on apes. And the results aren’t quite as extraordinary (or quick) as those seen in the movie. “The idea that the next day, they’re going to be Einsteins—or that at any point they’re going to be Einsteins—is not going to happen,” he says.

Like Franco’s character in the film, Walker is an Alzheimer’s researcher. He spent a portion of his 25-year career in the pharmaceutical industry before returning to academia. While he brushes off any comparisons between him and the movie's protagonist, he gives the Rise filmmakers some credit for their nods to reality. "They did their homework," he says. "But when you take it in aggregate, it all tends to fall apart. It had elements of good science, but in the end, it was science fiction with the accent on fiction."

There are, however, scientists raising alarm about the possibility of a real-life plot line that mirrors the movie's. A report released last month by the Academy of Medical Sciences in the U.K. warns against certain types of research that incorporate human genetic material into animal cells, stating that “there is a ‘Kafkaesque concern’ which we need to take seriously, alongside what one might call the ‘Frankenstein fear’ that the medical research which creates ‘humanised’ animals is going to generate ‘monsters.’”

That "Kafkaesque concern" alludes to Franz Kafka’s 1917 short story, “A Report to an Academy,” about an ape who is shot, captured, and trained to become human. Like Caesar, he comes to recognize the painful constraints of his captivity. “Muffled sobbing, painfully searching out fleas, wearily licking a coconut, banging my skull against the wall of the crate…these were the first occupations in my new life,” Kafka’s ape tells scientists. “Apes belong at the crate wall—well, that meant I had to cease being an ape.”

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Betsy Morais is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.

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