Aug. 5, 2011 at 11:09 PM ET
Experts say the premise behind "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," the latest movie about intelligent chimps gone wild, is almost laughable. But they're not laughing about the wider issues raised by the cross-species romp — ranging from the genetic humanization of other animals, to the way we treat our fellow apes, to the long-running debate over the definition of "humanness."
Let's start by acknowledging that there's no way just administering a drug or fiddling with a few genes can confer human-type intelligence or language ability on chimpanzees or other non-human primates. "The scientific notion is preposterous," Jon Cohen, author of the book "Almost Chimpanzee," told me today.
Cohen said the oft-cited claim that there's a 1 percent difference between the human and chimp genetic code has led people to believe mistakenly that the two species are separated only by a few molecular tweaks here and there. When the differences in non-coding DNA are taken into account, that difference rises to 4 or 5 percent. Chimps and humans don't even have the same number of chromosomes (48 for chimps vs. 46 for humans).
"We have to get away from this vastly oversold notion that we're the same," Cohen said. "Let's grow up, and let's stop that."
The differences range from physiological factors (chimps don't suffer from the kinds of heart disease and cancer that afflict humans), to behaviors (humans can swim, chimps generally can't), to cognitive abilities. For years, primatologists have debated whether chimps can use language, or teach concepts to each other, or do math, or identify with the plight of someone else — but there's no debate that humans put chimps to shame in those departments.
Cohen thinks there are several factors behind our desire to think that chimps are like us:
So unless you have 5 million years to spare, don't expect to take over the world by breeding an army of intelligent chimps. An army of intelligent robots is a more likely option. However, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" does provide an opportunity for some serious reflection of the wholly human variety. Among the issues to reflect upon are these:
One of the closing lines of Cohen's book resonates particularly strongly as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" goes into its big opening weekend: "Humans will determine the fate of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees of course will have no say in the fate of humans. And that may be the single most conspicuous difference between the two species."
Do you agree? Feel free to weigh in with your comment below. And, oh, by the way: Let me know how you liked the movie.
Extra credit: If you're looking for a blockbuster movie that's on firmer (but equally scary) scientific ground, Cohen suggests keeping an eye out for "Contagion," a meticulously researched action-thriller that's due to debut next month. Looks like it has a dynamite cast — Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, to name a few — but the trailer is making me feel a little skittish about putting my fingers on the computer keyboard.
More about chimpanzees and humans:
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