‘Planet of the Apes’? We’re living in it…

I’ve always thought ‘Planet of the Apes’ has to be one of the most unintentionally funny movie titles ever.

monkey_readingWhen the original came out in 1968 it carried a powerful message about the injustice of what we are doing to chimps, and to the world in general. The ‘let’s reverse the positions’ idea was the same as the one H G Wells used in War of the Worlds (he was riffing on the British-Matabele war)A fair social point – and a necessary one. But to call Earth dominated by chimps at our expense the ‘planet of the apes’ is silly. Why? Because by the usual scientific definition Earth is, already, a planet of apes. Us.

Current taxonomy lists humans as one of seven surviving species of Great Apes, all classed as Hominidae. There’s one species of humans, two of chimps, two of gorillas and two of orang-utan. How did it happen? The Miocene period (c23-5 million years ago) was the great age of apes, and up to 100 species have been identified in the fossil record. However, apparently natural climate change during the period (‘Middle Miocene climate instability’) led to a reduction in afforestation across Africa. Some tree-dwelling apes adapted to plains living by standing upright. Other adaptations for the environment, possibly shared across more than one species, included an alteration of hair-growth, an ability to sweat – making it possible to run for long periods in the African heat – and tool-making. Eventually, one of those species became us. There’s also a hypothesis that chimps returned to the trees.

All the great apes are the same general family and do much the same things – just like domestic cats, tigers and lions all share the same general family stuff, including body-language. As three examples, I’ll point out:

  1. Wars. Chimps – Pan troglodyteswhich are a shade over 98 percent similar to us, genetically – fight organised wars and hunt in packs. Mostly, chimp wars are over territory – meaning resources. There is no question about how dangerous chimps are. Where I live in New Zealand, the local zoo has a ‘shoot immediately’ list, if the enclosures are breached by earthquake. The chimps are first on that list – regarded as vastly more dangerous than the great cats. Humans fight wars too – in our case, we’ve extended what we fight over to intellectual territory, such as ideology or belief.
  2. Tool making. Chimps use sticks to poke out anthills, pick up pieces of wood to beat things, and so on. They aren’t very precise because they lack the fine muscle control, but the intent is there. Early humans probably did too – we reduced our proportion of high-compression but clumsy muscle fibre in favour of weaker but more controllable fibres. That’s why chimps are four times stronger than we are but only half the size. Some of the high-compression stuff is there for us, available in deep emergency that’s not under conscious control.
  3. Eating. I once had breakfast with an Orang-utan (‘Man of the Forest’). An intriguing experience. These apes are not as close to humans as chimps. Yet they look like us, and I could see the link in behaviour – he was self-aware and curious, just as I am. If you check out the way people eat with their fingers, the body language is identical, even down to the tilt of the head and the attention focussed on picking out the food with our stereoscopic vision. A good comparison is the way Orang-utans or chimps eat small items – such as berries – versus the way humans pick out chips from a container in a fast-food restaurant.
Homo erectus georgicus, reconstruction and photograph by Élisabeth Daynes. Creative Commons 3.0 license, via Wikimedia commons.
Homo erectus georgicus, reconstruction and photograph by Élisabeth Daynes. Creative Commons 3.0 license, via Wikimedia commons.

So. Earth – a planet of the apes? Yeah. Us. And our conceit that we are exceptional doesn’t wash as far as I am concerned. Yes, we have achieved much – what we call the ‘humanities’. These are vitally important. Winston Churchill knew: when questioned over why he was still funding the arts during World War Two, he apparently said, ‘well, what are we fighting for?’ To me, that artistic expression includes the sciences. Setting aside the political framework, the fact remains that – through science – humanity went to the Moon. Think about it. After about 3.8 billion years of life on Earth that stayed there, guess what – humans flew to the Moon! Humans. Us only. And that is awesome.

The problem is that ‘the sciences’ have also given us better ways to kill each other and destroy our ability to survive on the planet. To me that underscores the problem; we could do wonderful things that transcend our limits, but all our intellect has done is let us do ape things on larger scale.  That’s the problem – our own ape behaviour is fast destroying the environment we, along with all our cousin species and everything else on the planet, actually relies on to survive. David Attenborough suggested in 2013 that we are Earth’s plague, and he was quite right.

The thing is, we carry a huge responsibility. Today we – Homo sapiens, all of us together, are the last humans. The very last. We are a single species, so close that were we dogs, we’d be a single breed. All of us on Earth, right now. We’re unique – and, now, alone. This is new. Fifty thousand years ago there were at least five different species of human living on the planet, from us to Neanderthals, Denisovans, Red Deer Cave people, Java Man, and the ‘hobbits’ of Flores island. All are gone except us. Just us – Homo sapiens. We alone survived the last ice age. But the evidence is building that this was as much chance as anything else. We got lucky. Yet today we’re behaving as if our first priority is to destroy each other and the environment, as fast as possible.

Why? Ape behaviour, that’s what. And if we want to be truly exceptional, the way ahead is to understand that behaviour – and to find ways of transcending it. Can we stop being stupid apes? I think we can. By being intellectually abstracted, tolerant, and learning how to step back and think about what we are doing?

Will that work? Time will tell. If we survive long enough.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


12 thoughts on “‘Planet of the Apes’? We’re living in it…

  1. I love David. I recently saw what you are talking about, in one of his documentaries. It showed the fight over territory between chimps. No different from what humans do. We really are similar.

    1. Attenborough is a total genius. And when he says something – well, we’d better listen! I believe he got a bit of stick for his ‘plague’ remark, but when I look around at the environmental mess we’ve made of the planet – even down to a giant floating island of plastic bags in the mid-Pacific, where the currents meet – and at the way we’re busy fighting each other all the time over stupid things (while making more mess), I can’t help thinking he nailed it.

  2. I still remember reading an article many years ago about rival factions amongst chimpanzees. At one point one chimp was ambushed by others who beat him to death. Eye opening. Arrogance is our undoing, for humans believe their fancy tools and ability to spread like rabbits makes them masters of the planet. Wrong. We’re caretakers. Masters will trample Earth to dust with no regard for the consequences. Caretakers preserve. On our present path Mother Nature has no alternative but to regard us as a plague, for we do what plagues do. We have become the Black Death.

    1. Caretakers – absolutely. We’re making a very bad job of it. And I expect we’ll be back in caves before too long, a sad remnant of what might have been. We have the intelligence to transcend our limitations. It never seems to happen… sigh…

  3. The news began to circulate today that perhaps the Red Deer people may have survived to as recent as 10,000 years ago, quite recent in terms of what we’re discussing. Interestingly, one comment I read in one of the articles went so far as to suggest it wasn’t impossible that there might be an undiscovered additional species of human living even today, in some remote part of the globe, although that seems rather unlikely indeed.

    1. Yes. I had heard of the red deer cave discovery when it happened but the release today is the full analysis as known. I expect there will be more revelations although the chance of finding another human species alive today is, as you say, extremely remote. To me the real question is not why our cousins all died out in the depths of the last glaciation but why we survived. And the evidence is accumulating that it was not due to any actual superiority on our part.

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