Requiem for the planet of the apes

The special effects for the latest Planet of the Apes movie are being made right in the city where I live – Wellington – by Weta Workshop.

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

That’s very cool, but I’ve always found the concept rather silly. The original 1968 movie took the human/chimp relationship and reversed it, largely as a statement against human incarceration of animals (especially chimps)in zoos, and for lab experiments. And too right – there’s been a lot of cruelty to animals in these and other ways.

But from the scientific perspective the title was nonsensical. By formal biological classification  Earth is, already, the planet of the apes. Us. This was known in the 1960s, and it’s known now. By strict science, we are classified as one of the seven surviving species of ‘great ape’. The others are two species of chimp, two of gorilla, one baboon and one orang-utan.

This group has seen far better days. Paleontological work has revealed that in past ages there were far more species of ape – including multiple species of human. At least two of those human species – the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores Island and the ‘Red Deer Cave’ people of southeastern China, did not become extinct until recently – between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago in the case of the latter.

Artists’ reconstruction of H. georgicus, a variant of H. erectus which was possibly the original human form.

That is an eye-blink against the span over which humans have been around. The first clearly recognisable example of our family was H. erectus who emerged some 1.9 million years ago, who had much the same body plan as we do, used tools, had command of fire, and spread across half the planet..

As a genus, apes have been on the decline throughout the Pliestocene period – including us. All our cousin humans died out during the last spasms of glaciation, including the Neanderthals – who has bigger brains than us and, among other things, invented epoxy resin derived from birch bark. Another casualty were the Denisovans, who – if current ‘candidate’ fossils are correct – also had much bigger brains than we do. Certainly they had more refined stone-age tech than our own ancestors, judging by exquisitely made stone jewellery found in the Denisova cave complex.

All of them are extinct. And it appears that we – as in H. sapiens – also came close to disappearing. Today, every human alive is unusually close, genetically, by normal biological standards – so close that if we were dogs, we’d be a single breed. That points to a severe population bottleneck, possibly as recently as 70,000 years ago.

Intelligence, it seems, hasn’t been a survival advantage. The killer was natural climate change across the period, which offered massive challenges. By chance, we survived when our cousin species did not. And we’ve since spread to fill the world – making it  the Planet of the Apes for real.

I think that could have happened had our cousins survived too – we’d be a world with three or four different types of humans, all in the same intelligence league.

Test Baker – a 23kt Mk III nuclear bomb detonated underwater off Bikini Atoll on 25 July 1946. US DoD, public domain.

So it’s a case of ‘good on us’, but I wonder whether all we’ve done is put off our demise. We’ve done everything to date by exploiting environments to the point where they break. We fight each other relentlessly and viciously, always with destructive intent – both physically and socially. Both were likely survival techniques, way back when. I expect our cousin species did the same thing – it’s ape behaviour, and chimps fight each other too. But these systems don’t work when there are 7.5 billion of us.

To natural climate change we’ve also added human-driven effects – I mean, we’ve been pouring trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for over 200 years, in ever-larger quantities. What did we think would happen? We’re losing the battle against harmful bacteria – all we’ve done is breed superbugs. And the social systems we’ve built rely on ongoing growth to prosper- which has to stop somewhere, because resources and space will run out.

All I can see is a calamity – not tomorrow, not next year. Probably not for a few generations. But something’s going to break, big-time. And we’ll go back to being isolated bands living in caves, banging sticks together and beating up the rival band in the cave across the valley. Or maybe we’ll disappear altogether.

Will chimps rise up to take over the world? Unlikely – the way we’ve behaving, we’re going to take a lot of today’s world down with us. While Earth’s general biota won’t disappear, it’ll change, likely dramatically. The other apes are a fragile group, a relict of earlier and better times for the genus, already under heavy threat from our assault on their habitats. I can’t see them surviving our own collapse.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

4 thoughts on “Requiem for the planet of the apes

  1. I like the 1968 film, even if the opening 15 minutes make for some rather weird 1960s type cinema (Charlton Heston chain smoking cigars in space).

    That’s the thing with human intelligence, we’re able to see the inevitable collapse of the species. I think all this space travel stuff is, furtively, (in part, anyway) a desperate search for some meaning of life, or aliens who will grant us superpowers and eternal existence. I don’t expect to be living on Jupiter in my lifetime, sadly.

    Maybe I’ve been watching too much sci-fi…

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  2. Totally agree with your concerns. We humans are a funny lot. Brilliant individually, we’re incredibly stupid in groups. Individually, we recognize that we’re wrecking the planet, but as groups we’re doing almost nothing about it. It’s like watching a train approach a ravine where the bridge is out. There’s plenty of folks who see the danger but nobody is pulling on the brake!

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