The savvy primates in ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ may be CGI, but the film presents a terrifying post-apocalyptic world that furthers the central conceit of the decades-long ‘Apes’ franchise. We decided to ask the experts – could the movie happen in real life? The answers may surprise you.
“It could happen,” says Professor Volker Sommer, an evolutionary anthropologist and ape expert from University College London. “The average human (from the genus Homo) and the average chimpanzee/bonobo (whose genus is Pan) probably differ in only a few functionally important genetic components. So conceivably, if one could engineer certain Homo-like genetic components into members of the genus Pan, they might become more ‘human-like’.”
There have been increasing worries within the scientific community about over-reaching when it comes to increasing animal intelligence. A report from an Academy of Medical Sciences working group published in 2011 warned of the need for new rules governing research involving attempts to humanize animals. “The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate in something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctly human,” said Professor Thomas Baldwin, who worked on the report.
“Fire appears to the key,” says Ray Hammond, a world-renowned futurologist and author of ‘The Modern Frankenstein’. ‘Cooking meat helps process protein much faster and this huge input led to the runaway growth of the mind, the development of language and that actually made humans the dominant species. If [apes] had the impetus of fire and were beginning to stand upright for long periods, they could develop and become the dominant species.”
They would definitely win in a fight – but only if it was hand-to-hand combat. Gorillas have six times the upper body strength of humans.
“If we brush ethical considerations aside and allow a modern Frankenstein to try anything he/she pleases to do, there would be mostly dysfunctional outcomes,” admits Professor Sommer. “However, there might well be big surprises in stock. For example, hybrids of humans and chimpanzees might emerge or modified chimpanzees and bonobos might start to walk the Earth.”
And the simian flu that has all but wiped out mankind in ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ is something that prognosticators have considered.
“We know that’s possible,” says Hammond. “The AIDS virus came from apes. If it had infected mankind even 60 or 70 years ago, it could have wiped us out.”
That said, as time goes on, a worldwide pandemic gets more unlikely. “We put it as a possibility not a probability,” he adds.
According to Ray Hammond, any transition would take a minimum of 300 million years to take place and that’s if apes gained human-level intelligence.
Also, while a disease could spread worldwide, it’s unlikely to be an extinction-level event. “The reality is that humankind has become so flexible, adaptable and clever,” he says. “Although something might come along that had an absolutely devastating effect, the chances of absolute wipeout are vanishingly small.”
The amount of people any illness would have to kill is also an important factor. There are around seven billion people on the planet. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, the populations of all kinds of apes are decreasing, with many only numbering in the few tens of thousands. That’s hardly enough to stage an uprising.
Nevertheless, our comparatively limited knowledge of apes might also mean there are some apes somewhere already talking about taking over the UN. It’s only been around 50 years since legendary primatologist Jane Goodall embarked on her landmark research. “Human societies have been studied for thousands of years,” says Professor Sommer. “There are maybe 8 or 10 groups or small communities of apes where we know what’s going on.”
However, even if apes did have the wherewithal or desire to conquer humankind, the sorts of togetherness required would probably be beyond them.
“If we were talking science fact, it’s likely an intelligent ape would have entirely different, though not completely dissimilar qualities [to a human],” says Hammond.
“It is unlikely one would see ‘mixed’ societies of non-human apes, because the lifestyles and communicative repertoires are too different for a coherent system of co-operation to develop,” adds Professor Sommer.
In fact, were there to be an epic battle, we’d probably have some of our hairy cousins on our side.
“It’s important to recall that chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas or orangutans,” continues Sommer.
In other words, chimps and bonobos would sign up to the human army, which would mean that were the battle to go tree-based, there would be more than enough suitable recruits.