Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a bioethical feast

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, now available on DVD, was one of the blockbuster releases in the summer of 2011. A prequel to the classic series of films (5 cinema releases between 1968 and 1973, TV spin-off and Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of the main Planet of the Apes), the new movie tries to offer a plausible mechanisms for the evolution of apes into a dominant global force.

(Warning: contains spoilers!) The new film is a veritable gold-mine for discussion of ethical topics, it would make as excellent vehicle for an engaging “film night”. In terms of bioethical issues, the film touches on all of the following:

  • Research ethics – there are lots of examples where aspects of the conduct of research are raised (some of which are picked out specifically in the list below). The motivations for doing research are touched upon at several points in the film – these include financial gain, fame and a desire to do good, both for mankind in general and specifically for the benefit of a relative in need. GenSys boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is the embodiment of profit as a driver for research whereas Will Rodman (James Franco) represents more noble aspirations. A discussion of the ethics of research funding could follow naturally.
  • Conduct of clinical trials – there are clear rules governing the necessary stages in the development of a medicine for human use. At different times in the film Rodman and Jacobs express varied opinion regarding how to proceed. Early on, and motivated by the need to find a treatment for his father’s Alzheimer’s Disease, Rodman wants to press on to human trials whereas Jacobs expressed caution. In desperation, Rodman gives the ALZ112 drug to his dad in an unauthorised fashion. Later on it is Jacobs who wants to push forward whereas Rodman, with insights gained from experience seeing his father’s recovery and subsequent decline, suggest progression with more caution.
  • Animal experimentation – should research be conducted on animals at all, or primates in particular? Why is the research done? What are some of the potential risks? As an illustration of the latter, the revised medicine ALZ113 apparently works well for apes, but is fatal for humans. If animals must be used should they be bred for the purpose or is it acceptable, as in the opening scenes of the film, to take them from the wild?
  • Animal welfare – over and above the specific issue of experimentation on primates, the conduct of the staff at the San Bruno Primate Shelter raises questions about appropriate care of animals. Intelligent, and social, creatures spend a lot of time confined in very small cages lacking stimulating activities. They are brutalised by one of their keepers (Dodge Landon, played by “Malfoy” actor Tom Felton).
  • Gene therapy – the treatment being developed by GenSys is described as “gene therapy” (e.g.00:04:56 and 00:37:15). We are told that the agent has a viral delivery system, but beyond that we are not party to the detail of how the medication would supposedly work. This is far from the worst representation of gene therapy in the movies (that dubious honour still goes to Bond film Die Another Day). Discussion here could pick up on the difference between germ line therapy (Caesar is apparently permanently altered as a consequence of in utero exposure to ALZ112, whereas Rodman’s dad Charles (John Lithgow) requires repeated treatments. A discussion of the real state of gene therapy research could follow, including safety issues with immune response to viral vectors as experience here by Charles and, sadly, in the real life case of Jesse Gelsinger.
  • Therapy v Enhancement – is there an ethical difference between use of a medicine for treatment of a condition (e.g. Alzheimer’s Disease) and enhancement (e.g. to improve cognitive abilities beyond the ‘normal’ range)? In the film Will Rodman gives the ALZ112 drug to his father with the aim of treating Charles’ illness. Caesar is clearly an example of the enhancement potential and it is the cognitive improvement seen in another ape Koba (veteran of many research programmes) that excites Jacobs, even moreso than the treatment potential of ALZ113.
  • Speciesism – what is it that distinguishes Homo sapiens from other species, e.g. apes such as Pan troglodytes? The film makes big play of development of speech by Caesar, but even before we become aware of this capability, there is ample evidence offered that he is manifesting skills over and above those of normal chimps? Is there a point at which an animal warrants different treatment? In the care expressed by Caesar in protecting Rodney (the kinder guard at the primate shelter) from beating by the other apes and again on the bridge as he stops a man being killed (01:23:00) are we to see compassion modelled which really ought to have been more evident in the human actors? Australian ethicist Peter Singer has been at the forefront of campaigning about the rights of great apes. Concerns about the irony of training real chimps to perform in a film about inappropriate treatment of apes is reported to have been one of the reasons why director Rupert Wyatt chose to go down a route of human actors and “performance capture technology”.

If time is constrained and you are looking for a short section of the film to launch a discussion of bioethics, I would recommend one of the following:

  • Scenes 1&2 (start to 00:08:57, especially 00:01:01 to 00:05:13) – capture of wild chimpanzees, “bright eyes” doing Lucas tower in 20 steps, Will Rodman’s conversation with Jacobs, necessary evidence, ethical approval for human trials, Rodman’s explanation to share-holders, including gene therapy. Bright eyes escapes and is shot on the conference room table.
  • Scene 8 (00:24:17 to 00:28:30, especially 00:24:47 to 00:28:30) – is Caesar a pet? Visit to GenSys where Will explains to Caesar about his origins and reason for his intelligence. Caroline (Freida Pinto) the girlfriend/vet asks for explanation. Drug designed for repair offers enhancement. “This is wrong Will”, “You are trying to control things that are not meant to be controlled”, “This is a good thing, Caesar’s proof of that and so is my father”.
  • Scene 11 (00:36:56 to 00:39:33, especially 00:37:48 to 00:39:33) – Charles’ immune system rejects virus, hampering the therapy. Disease returned, need for improved delivery method. Will and Jacobs in the lift – how many drugs has company produced that could save millions of lives? Will admits his illegal trail as evidence ALZ112 does work. Enhancement applications “my father didn’t just recover, he improved”. Permission to test new drug on chimps.
  • Scene 17 (00:57:03 to 00:59:02, especially 00:57:03 to 00:58:30) – Will surprised to find that experiments taking place on more chimps before they’ve examined Koba’s biochemistry. Studies authorised by Jacobs. Don’t know human effects. Drug effectiveness. “You make history, I make money”, threatened regarding illegal drug. Rationale for animal experimentation.

3 Responses to Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a bioethical feast

  1. […] Bites has some analysis here of the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike […]

  2. […] Rise of Planet of the Apes (Film review) […]

  3. […] bioethics issues. To find out more please take a visit to our sister site Bioethicsbytes (follow this link). The IMDb page for the film can be found via this […]

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