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Planet of the Apes and Human Exceptionalism

This movie franchise makes us wonder what makes human beings unique.

One semi-random movie franchise I’ve been a massive fan of is the newest iteration of The Planet of the Apes. The original trilogy, directed by Matt Reeves (The Batman) concluded in 2017, but a “fourth” film is set to release on Memorial Day of 2024, and a trailer for it dropped this week.

I’m starting to become somewhat “anti-trailer” given that more often than not they tend to either distort the hype of the film or give away the story entirely. But in the cases of movies I’m most excited about, I confess that generally I give the trailer a quick view.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is set years after Caesar, the founder of the ape colony in the original trilogy, has died, and the remaining human beings on Earth are a minority. Here’s the trailer, if you want to give in like I did:

While in the trilogy, the apes use sign language and a few basic verbal words to communicate, now they’ve developed language skills as complex as the human race achieved. That’s why it’s a surprise that the voiceover at the beginning of the trailer belongs to an ape, and not a human being.

It’s a discomforting thought that another animal species could acquire human-level intelligence and basically replace us as the dominant species in the world. Such an idea seems compatible, though, with the logic of evolution: if we got to this level of emotional and intellectual sophistication, why not our apish half-brothers?

With the concept of “animal rights” quickly developing and taking hold in the West, such a movie could only push the conversation further, revealing the stakes, and asking the question: what’s so special about the human being?

The radical environmentalist might readily reply, “Nothing!” But the same sentiment that blames the human race for pillaging and ruining the created order also calls us to be responsible for fixing those same problems. We don’t expect the blue whales to waddle ashore and start instituting public policy protecting marine life and ecosystems.

What’s interesting is that I don’t develop empathy for the chimps in these films primarily because they’re mammals, but because they’re granted emotions, relational ties, and even a moral compass. It’s the personalizing of the apes that tempts the viewer to see them as equal in worth and dignity to their struggling human counterparts.

To whom does this bountiful planet belong? And what is the responsibility of human beings to steward and care for it? This movie will be another interesting look at what role humans play in their diminished condition, and what makes us unique apart from just our intelligence. If there’s no discussion of the soul, or the “image of God,” then it seems plausible that animals could rank as our equals. A paragraph from the “Laborem Exercens” applies well here:

Man dominates the earth by the very fact of domesticating animals, rearing them and obtaining from them the food and clothing he needs, and by the fact of being able to extract various natural resources from the earth and the seas. But man “subdues the earth” much more when he begins to cultivate it and then to transform its products, adapting them to his own use. Thus agriculture constitutes through human work a primary field of economic activity and an indispensable factor of production. Industry in its turn will always consist in linking the earth’s riches-whether nature’s living resources, or the products of agriculture, or the mineral or chemical resources-with man’s work, whether physical or intellectual. This is also in a sense true in the sphere of what are called service industries, and also in the sphere of research, pure or applied.

Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981) | John Paul II (vatican.va)

I think we’re meant to “rule” the earth with benevolence are called to care for the natural world and its many creatures. That means that we’re exceptional, and that animals, though we should never treat them poorly, will never be valuable in the same way a human person is.

But, overall, another Planet of the Apes movie? I’m all in.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

Planet of the Apes and Human Exceptionalism