I went to see War For The Planet of The Apes recently, and despite how silly it seems at face value, I find the series covers some thoughtful stuff. In the modern reboot series, many apes are accidentally infected with a virus that was adapted to treat Alzheimer’s in humans through gene therapy, but gives other great apes human-like intelligence. Though not particularly realistic in hard details, it’s a neat idea, and I always love to see real cool genetics techniques like viral vector gene therapy in popular media.
Cool semi-hard Sci-Fi stuff aside, I find this series also challenges our thinking on something we tend to take for granted. No other species on our planet compares to our intelligence level or society. At least not anymore.
Once upon a time there were other species/subspecies of humans on our planet. Neanderthals once lived in Europe more than 40,000 years ago, but they aren’t our neighbors anymore. In fact, modern humans moving into the neighborhood may have had a hand in pushing them out of existence. Not very neighborly, but that is the law of the jungle.
Other peoples like the Denisovans and Homo floresiensis are likewise now gone. Similar story: modern humans move in, neighbors disappear.
It isn’t clear that modern humans were the direct cause of any of these extinctions, but at the end of the day the result is the same. We’re the only ones here with anywhere near our level of intelligence and culture.
And here’s where I find the new Planet of The Apes series to be interesting. It asks the question: what would we do if we were no longer so alone? The answer that I think the first two films give is probably we would kill each other. I suspect that’s true, unfortunately. As is we’re already doing a pretty good job driving all other great apes to extinction in real life.
The third film pushes the envelope on this question. The virus mutates and starts rendering humans much less intelligent and unable to speak. If you were feeling comfortable about killing off the apes before, are you still comfortable when the ape is much more “human” in thought and behavior than your own family? Or would you see your family as sub-human and OK to kill too?
The film doesn’t just ask that question, though. It provides a moral answer and message that I think is true to the gospel.
By the end of the film we are given a stark contrast between two characters: On the one hand the lead Bad Guy is willing to do anything to salvage humanity’s abilities. He will kill off the apes, put them in concentration camps, and kill them along with any infected humans if that is what it takes to stop the infection spread. Not a subtle characterization here. He is very pro-human race, and not at all pro-life.
On the other hand there is a human character, who is infected, mentally deficient, and unable even to speak. But this character is still capable of loving. They love people, and apes, and whoever unconditionally. This is obviously the character we are supposed to side with.
The moral message is clear: what makes humans “human” with moral value is not our ability to make advanced technology, culture, or to defeat others. Those things are good, but they are not holy. Perhaps our capacity to love is the best (or at least most important) explanation of what being “made in the image of God” means.
A consequence of this assertion about humanness and love is that in the hypothetical Planet of The Apes scenario, we should love our ape neighbors as ourselves. It would be the same story if we someday encountered aliens with similar capacity as us. Perhaps there are other life forms on Earth we have already encountered that we should treat this way.
Because of these consequences, some folks will strongly oppose this idea about potentially loving other species as neighbors. Some folks interpret the Bible to mean that the only real priority in creation is human life, and anything (or anyone) else can be morally sacrificed for human well-being.
I think that’s an easy perspective to take when no other species seems particularly like your neighbor. It’s also an easy perspective to pull out of Genesis 1 if you’re into proof texting. After all, we’re the only ones mentioned as being made in God’s image. I won’t pretend to be certain what that phrase really means in entirety.
I think that would be a much more difficult perspective to take if any of us were to meet a non-human being with similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences as us.
I would hope, at very least, that this thought experiment would remind us that it isn’t our ability to make money, think brilliantly, or speak eloquently that make us valuable. We are all neighbors who owe each other love.