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.

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.”

Nature magazine published a report last year suggesting that non-human primates with sections of human DNA implanted into their genomes at the embryonic stage—through a process called transgenics—might develop enough self-awareness “to appreciate the ways their lives are circumscribed, and to suffer, albeit immeasurably, in the full psychological sense of that term.”

“That’s the ethical concern: that we would produce a creature,” says bioethicist Dr. Marilyn Coors, one of the authors of the Nature report. “If it were cognitively aware, you wouldn’t want to put it in a zoo. What kind of cruelty would that be? You wouldn’t be able to measure the cruelty—or maybe it could tell you. I don’t know.”

Although Walker doesn’t know of anyone doing research to enhance cognitive function in apes, and Coors knows of no transgenic apes, Coors points out that scientists theoretically have the technical capability to produce them.

Transgenic research is most commonly performed on mice—which Walker calls “the workhorse model”—or other rodents. But animals closer to us genetically are often the next step, and in 2001, scientists created the first transgenic non-human primate. In 2008, researchers studying Huntington’s disease produced a transgenic rhesus monkey.

Monkeys are reasonably close to humans biologically, but less so than the great apes featured in Rise: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

Beyond the ethical issues, Coors said research in apes is expensive, the gestation period is long, and studies can be hard to justify because there are no standardized ways to measure increased cognition in an ape.

Still, she said, the U.S. has "one of the more lax climates in which to do research on non-human primates than elsewhere in the world.” In the U.K., the used of great apes is banned for most research.

In April’s Journal of Medical Ethics, the director of Duke’s clinical ethics program, Dr. Philip Rosoff, wrote that if enhancement research looks promising enough, scientists will pursue despite extreme ethical objections. “I suppose it is possible that such cognitively enhanced animals would recover from the enhancement procedure (whatever that may be) and immediately start ‘acting human,’ but that is unlikely to be the case,” his report says. With no one coaching them in language ability as we do with human infants, young chimps—however clever they may be—would lack the proper environmental conditions to communicate on their own.

“The fears are there, but the possibility that this work is going to lead anytime soon to any hybrid species as the apes represented in the movie, is still quite a ways down the road, if it ever will happen,” Walker says. “But it is something that we as scientists need to deal with.”

Perhaps, he suggested, and his colleagues from the lab will all go together to see the film. At the very least, it’s an entertaining thought experiment.