Rise of the Planet of the Apes

We’re going to take a (belated) look at the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie, which turned out to be surprisingly good. Like usual, we’re leaving more thorough evaluations of the movie’s merits as such to others, and spoilers will abound.

I. Human and Animal Testing

The lynchpin of the movie is that Will Rodman (James Franco) is an up-and-coming scientist (geneticist? biochemist?) researching a cure for Alzheimer’s, motivated in no small part by the plight of his father, who is declining fairly rapidly as his disease progresses. Rodman’s basic technique is… well we’re a little fuzzy on that one. It’s either gene therapy, whereby a virus is modified so that it replaces “bad” genes with “good” ones, or some kind of straight-up viral therapy, wherein the virus attacks damaged cells and structures, giving the body a chance to heal. The fuzziness lies in the fact that when the virus is given to apes, it seems to be gene therapy, i.e. a once-and-done treatment which permanently changes the patient, and when it’s given to his dad, it’s viral therapy, i.e. a stop-gap measure which requires regular applications and may not actually be a cure.

Either way, the film portrays animal testing reasonably well, from a legal perspective. There aren’t a ton of restrictions on what researchers can do with their animals. Wikipedia has a decent summary: basically, as long as it can be scientifically justified, and the funding can be arranged, animal experimentation is not legally problematic. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (USDA homepage) specifically excludes mice, rats, cold-blooded vertebrates and invertebrates. It also excludes livestock and animals used for food. Basically, we’re looking at dogs, cats, and, especially, non-human primates.

But Gen-Sys largely seems to follow the regulations that do exist. The procedures being done aren’t particularly painful, so no anesthetic is needed, and they’ve got a veterinarian on staff. There’s no mention of an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, but those are only required for researchers using federal funding, and Gen-Sys seems to be a significantly stockholder-driven enterprise.

Of course, Rodman using the virus on his dad is completely illegal, unethical, and wrong. But the movie presents it as such, so there’s not much to say beyond that.

II. Chimps and the Law

Then we get to the issue of housing Caesar at Rodman’s residence. Non-human primates are on the California Restricted Species List, meaning they are illegal to import, export, possess, or release into the wild without a permit. We know Rodman doesn’t have a permit, as he steals Caesar from the lab, so that, right there, is a problem. The California Department of Fish and Game apparently stopped issuing licenses for chimps as pets in 1992, so Rodman probably couldn’t have gotten one if he’d asked, either. As a matter of interest, Bubbles, Michael Jackon’s pet chimp, was acquired in the 1980s, so he could well have been licensed, and the DFG didn’t revoke any licenses they had issued.

Note that we said that Rodman “steals” Caesar from the lab. That’s not just a metaphor: animals, including chimps, are viewed by the legal system as personal property. They are owned, and taking them without permission is theft. So Caesar is, technically, Gen-Sys property.

It’s not at all clear that Caesar getting smart is going to change that. Here we get into our discussion of non-human intelligences, particularly “elevated” animals (See Section I). For most of the movie, Caesar, while demonstrably more intelligent than your average chimp, can’t talk or really communicate linguistically. It’s doubtful that a court would afford him personhood without that, as legal and civil rights are pretty much limited to humans under the current system, and the human/everything else distinction is pretty firmly ingrained. Still, at the end of the movie he’s talking, and assuming that the virus doesn’t wipe out all of humanity in the next few weeks, he might well be able to get legal recognition if he bothered to try.

III. Conclusion

We’ll give the movie 1-1 for its handling of major legal questions. It gets the human and animal testing things right, largely having the characters either comply with the law or explicitly break it. But it seems to paper over just how hard it would probably be to keep a chimp in one’s home, especially in a San Francisco suburb. That’s illegal, and it’s quite likely that the first time a neighbor saw him outside, the cops would have been called and Caesar removed.

12 responses to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes

  1. Isn’t Caesar communicating quite clearly via sign language considerably before he starts vocalizing? That would surely count as communicating linguistically, wouldn’t it?

    • Sorta. There are already primates who might know some sign language–Koko is the most famous example–but their linguistic faculties are controversial, to say the least. I’m guessing that it would probably take the leap to speech before a court would be sufficiently convinced that Caesar was sentient and not just exhibiting trained behavior.

      • But how do you define “speech”? If you mean phonetic speech, the ability to produce vowels and consonants with your mouth and larynx, that would be discriminatory against the many human beings who are mute or deaf and communicate only through sign language, or through electronic devices like the one Stephen Hawking uses. Nobody would suggest that Hawking is not intelligent or not a person. If Caesar could be shown to be communicating complex and original thoughts, regardless of whether he uses spoken language, gestural language (and make no mistake, sign is a full-fledged language in its own right), or a technological device like the touch screen where Koba writes Jacobs’s name, then he should be recognized as sapient.

        What I found problematical was the ape sanctuary in the movie. Its treatment of its residents seemed rather abusive — not just the behavior of Tom Felton’s character, but simply keeping them locked up in small, dirty cages and inside a crude, fake “outdoors” enclosure. Naturally the awfulness of it was exaggerated for dramatic effect, but I have a hard time believing the laws governing animal sanctuaries would tolerate something like that. At least, I’d hope they wouldn’t in this day and age, though I know chimps have been kept in far worse conditions in the past. It was particularly obscene to see a lone gorilla, one of the most social and gregarious of the great apes, locked up in solitary confinement (although those abusive conditions did justify why Buck was so aggressive, a good effort to reconcile the original PotA’s stereotyped portrayal of brutish “warrior” gorillas with the reality that gorillas are the least aggressive great apes unless provoked).

      • Mr. Bennett:

        The law does not tolerate these conditions, and if it was said or implied in the movie that such a facility was legally sanctioned, it was wrong.

        That being said, you might be flat-out amazed at how many private animal shelters (or just collectors) have extremely dangerous animals – I’m talking about tigers, lions, large primates – in conditions which are *not* legally sanctioned and, almost worse, they could quite easily escape from.

        Just as one example, did you know there are more tigers in the United States than there are in the rest of the world *combined?* Most of those are in private hands – the best estimates I have seen are in the tens of thousands. And most of those are kept in chain-link enclosures from which they could easily escape if motivated enough. I am never surprised when I see one of those “police find tiger in man’s basement” stories. I am surprised I don’t see one every *day.*

  2. Using “speech” as a criteria is not discriminatory, because it applies to the species, not the individual. Stephen Hawking, a deaf/mute, and an infant are all human, and humans are sentient, therefore the examples above would all be considered sentient. Chimps are not considered sentient, Caesar is a chimp, therefore he would not be considered sentient unless he proved himself to be so far advanced that he could no longer be considered to be a chimp. Writing (like with the touch screen) would probably be a good start if he used full sentences with conjugation and other grammar rules, but an ape using a touchpad with pictures on it is not far enough beyond what can be done with trained behavior.

    • But defining speech strictly in terms of vocalization IS discriminatory, because sign language is also a form of speech, one that has full-on grammar and every other property that defines a true language. In fact, it’s believed that human evolved sign language first, and the portions of the brain that controlled gestural language were then repurposed for vocal language. So that’s what I’m saying: The court would have to recognize any form of grammatical speech, not just the ability to make sounds with your mouth and throat.

      • Really? The court would “have to”?

        Just the other day I was getting into an argument with foolish undergrads who were mechanically repeating lessons that had been drilled into them about the importance of “diversity,” without stopping to consider the fact there are lots of people who don’t care. Now, I’m all about civil rights and I completely agree that the deaf community is under-represented and deserves more respect. But, that soap box is irrelevant to a legal analysis for what courts are likely to do. Feel free to call judges bigots if you want. It’s just how it is.

      • The court would have to recognize any form of grammatical speech, not just the ability to make sounds with your mouth and throat.

        From a human? Certainly. From an ape? Not necessarily.

        The question isn’t really what counts as speech. The question is one of proof, i.e. will a court be convinced that a particular chimp is actually using grammar if he isn’t speaking? I suppose writing might work too, but even that’d be a harder sell.

        Remember, we’re talking about doing something completely unprecedented in the history of the legal system, and not just ours, but every legal system in history: recognizing that anything other than a human being is entitled to the protections of the law. Whatever judge gets that case is not going to rule that way unless he is absolutely convinced not only that he’s right, but that any other judge that looks at the case will agree with him.

        What I’m suggesting here is that some facility with sign language may noy be enough. This is not the same thing as ruling as a matter of law that sign language does not count as speech. Nor even that it can’t be used to prove sapience. Only that that alone might not be enough to convince a judge to rule in Caesar’s favor.

  3. Travis has it. Even being able to spell the odd word probably isn’t enough here: a court would probably need full-on grammar, at least, before it would take the radical step of recognizing an animal as a person.

  4. As someone who works for a company that certifies clean room facilities for the biotech industry (among others), I do have to note that, while Gene-Sys may or may not have been breaking any LAWS, per se, their clean room protocols can most charitably be described as “slap-happy”.

    If someone’s mask gets knocked off during the administration of an experimental viral therapy vector, they are almost certainly going to go right into isolation themselves. And conducting all your sensitive experimentation inside fragile glass lab enclosures, just one or two barriers away from your major meeting room? Oif.

    Most companies are far more rigorous than the regulations demand, precisely BECAUSE they’re the profit-motivated bottom-liners that make such useful cinematic bad guys. Experimental Stuff getting loose means, at BEST, lawsuits. Contamination of the PRODUCT is even worse, from their standpoint.

    I loved the movie, but too much of the plot hinged on irresponsible lab design.

  5. Not to mention the safety aspects of how they kept the chimps. First thing that occured to me was that they did not seem to have any idea of how _strong_ a chimps arms are. The Guy who got his arm grabbed would probably have lost it on the spot, and letting the chimp out to rely on those loops to catch it?

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