The following article was written in celebration of Darwin Day.
I recently had the pleasure of listening to the translation of the original, French-language book in the Planet of the Apes series in audio-book format. I’ve always considered PotA folklore to be among the most underrated, most enjoyable in all of science fiction, but it also raises many interesting cultural and philosophical questions.
Planet of the Apes was pop culture’s response to the tensions generated by the clash between the Darwinian theory of evolution and its denial, which invariably found its roots in Judeo-Christian myth and narcissism.
Like with the earlier film King Kong, the tensions found expression in a clash between human and simian races. But unlike Kong, who was a brute, the apes here lived in an alternative history where homo sapiens had not evolved reason in the manner that we have evolved it, and instead apes had the closest thing to human culture.
A curious fact that most people do not often consider, is that we once lived in a Planet of the Apes. The series proposes that PotA is Earth, in the far future after we’ve destroyed ourselves, but the real Planet of the Apes existed, not in the future, but in pre-history. When our homo erectus ancestors roamed Africa, there were dozens of other inter-related hominid species about as intelligent as they were. Our ancestors survived, in part, because they were omnivores. Many of these species survived up until as recently as 10,000-15,000 years ago (in the case of the tiny Flores man, better known as the hobbit) and 25,000-28-000 years ago (in the case of Neanderthal man, who shared Europe with our ancestors for about 10-15 thousand years). There was also the Denisovan human in Asia, which (like the Neanderthal) didn’t entirely die out. Aboriginals in Papua New Guinea and Australia still carry about 6% Denisovan DNA, and all non-Africans carry about 4% Neanderthal DNA.
We do not know what the interaction was like between our Cro-Magnon ancestors and Neanderthals in Europe. We can imagine there was competition for prey during the Ice Age, probably warfare and slavery, probably sexual relations. We know Neanderthals were blond or red-haired, and that they had culture, language, and played musical instruments. If we were to also dignify one of them with clothes (which would have been required, to live through the Ice Age), perhaps he would remind us a bit of Dr. Zaius.
Dr. Zaius – I know who I am, but who are you? How in hell did this upside down civilization get started? – Taylor
We don’t know what happened, but our ancestors survived and Neanderthals didn’t. Some scientists have suggested we could bring them back for research purposes via cloning, but this has generated too much discomfort and controversy to be taken seriously.
The religious attack on the teaching of science generates controversy both within the series in the Planet of the Apes, and in our own culture (as the Bible says, “on Earth as it is in heaven”). When the teaching of evolution began to take place in the science classrooms in the United States, the Christian groups were so scandalized by the idea of man descending from apes that the very-publicized Scopes Trial took place. The teaching of evolution, the parties of God argued, posed a threat to our civilization. Science, and Darwinian evolution, were on trial, but the Christians felt that it was God who was on trial.
The original Planet of the Apes film dramatizes and mocks the scandalized Christians, of course, by depicting intelligent apes carrying out a trial where the credibility of Zira and Cornelius was being questioned. These were the main scientists assigned to work with the talking human specimen in the film. One of them had proposed (in private, as it was too dangerous to say it in public) something he called a theory of evolution: that maybe ape civilization and primitive humans originally descended from the same ancestral line in the Planet of the Apes.
The most obvious reference to religious notions of exceptionalism was the faith of the apes in the series. Their God, Simos, was a culture hero, founder of their society, and Christ-like messiah who had brought about the separation of the ape races from the rest of nature. The simian scriptures told of how man was a beast and had committed self-destruction in a previous era, whereas God had created simians in his image and conferred reason upon them. In this manner, Planet of the Apes places a mirror before humankind, showing us how fragile our false views about the nature of things are. In one scene from Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes we find this quote:
Of course, most educated apes consider such religious notions as fairy tales. Metaphors we use to explain our origins. I doubt if there ever really was a Simos.
– Dr. Zira
Perhaps, even without religious fantasies about non-natural origins, some people may have difficulty handling their inner monkey when confronted with the truth about their animal nature and their simian origins. Perhaps Darwin Day can serve to help us work out the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual repercussions of our origins, to get to know our inner hairy beast and to reconcile ourselves with our evolutionary truth.
February 12 is Darwin Day. There are many ways to celebrate Darwin. You may watch anthropological and educational documentaries. You may even play Poo the Card Game, which is very entertaining (instead of points, the game keeps score in terms of poo flinging). In the tradition of secularists practicing parody religions (like Pastafarianism), you may set up a Darwinian shrine to Simos (or to Hanuman, for that matter). OR (as you may suspect, this is my favorite), you may watch any of the Planet of the Apes movies with your friends. Whatever you do, have a great Darwin Day.
Learn more: TheMonkeyTrial.com – on the Scopes Trial
Pierre Boulle’s Planet Of The Apes – BBC Radio Adaptation – Listen to the entire audio book online