Planet of the Apes: Pop Culture and Changing Social Consciousness

The 8th edition to the Planet of the Apes franchise was released this Summer. The most recent revival started in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picked up where “Rise” left off. I won’t go into detail about the storyline since it is such an iconic movie, but the latest two explore the ethical concerns underlying human exploitation of animals, specifically in terms of animal research.

(Spoiler Alert for “Rise.”)

I watched “Rise” about a year ago with my family. During the scene where Caesar leads a revolt against an abusive so-called primate sanctuary, my cousins emphatically rooted for Caesar. They don’t have any strong beliefs in favor of animal advocacy; they were just rooting for the underdog protagonist. The factors that go into a person’s shift towards caring about a social justice issue are multi-faceted, but I think these kinds of popular media cues have an effect that scholars are just starting to examine.

(For work that looks at pop culture and movements see Roscigno and Danager 2001, Treier-Bieniek and Pullum forthcoming, and the Mobilizing Ideas essay dialogue on art and music in social movements).

I still remember a news report that aired in the mid 1980s that showed footage of dolphins trapped and struggling in tuna nets. I was in elementary school, and I vividly recall that feeling welling up inside of me, of overwhelming frustration and wanting to do something to help. This is the reaction that activists hope for when they use mass media to expose their claims, right? Planet of the Apes could elicit the same kind of emotional response to an issue that is complex and wrapped up in ethical murkiness. More than any other issue in animal advocacy, animal research is the most complicated. In Western industrialized countries using animals for other reasons (food, clothing, entertainment) is unnecessary and pretty easy to debate against. Using animals to advance medicine is not as clear-cut.

The animal justice movement started organizing against animal research in the U.S. over 100 years ago. In 2011 they experienced the first state-based abolitionist success. The NIH commissioned the Institute of Medicine to form a committee to deliberate the ethics of chimpanzee research. Following their report, the NIH placed a funding moratorium on all new research using chimps. They just recently retired the rest of the federally owned chimps to sanctuaries. The IOM committee included a bioethicist. My dissertation project examines the long-term effects of regulatory oversight in animal research, and part of my findings are that policy reforms have provided bioethicists with significant access to decision making. This access allows bioethicists to instill cues that are slowly shifting the ethical foundations of animal research. Pop culture, and Planet of the Apes, is doing something similar.

I interviewed several prominent bioethicists about the IOM report and the role of ethics in decision-making about animal research. They reiterated how bioethicists are often included in deliberations on animal research, but that these committees usually neglect issues of moral justification, focusing only on scientific justification. This means that the committees focus on the potential gains of research and a harm vs benefit justifications, instead of deliberating on the moral status of animals. But the IOM report on chimpanzee use was different. As one of my informants told me,

“The beautiful thing about that chimpanzee report is that they explode the myths surrounding this problem. When you’re dealing with animals it’s never just a question of scientific justification, it’s also a question of the morality of using these animals, and the question of necessity for doing so becomes not just scientific, but moral.”

The NIH moratorium happened in 2011. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released in 2011. I’m not at all implying causation, of course, but there are shifts in social consciousness about using chimps in research that pop culture is fostering.

Peter Singer is a major figure in philosophy and especially in ethics. He is arguably the founder of practical ethics as a discipline. His book, Animal Liberation, is canonical in the late 20th century animal rights movement, and for more than four decades he has maintained a career as a broadly trained philosopher and activist on behalf of animals. He wrote about Rise of the Planet of the Apes after its release in 2011. He spoke with the movies’ creator, Rupert Wyatt, and wrote that,

“He acknowledged that there were practical reasons for not using real apes in this movie. But he also understood the ethical issue. ‘There are things I didn’t want to be involved in,’ he told me. ‘To get apes to do anything you want them to do, you have to dominate them; you have to manipulate them into performing. That’s exploitative.'”

Singer ended his essay writing,

“Perhaps the release of these two very different films will lead to a further push to bring great apes within the circle of beings with moral and legal rights. In that way, our closest relatives could serve to bridge the moral gulf that we have dug between ourselves and other animals.”

I think “Dawn” has the potential for making the audience question their beliefs about animals’ role in our society. One of the characters, Koba, is especially interesting for looking at how a well-developed character can shift the old fashioned axiom of “good” versus “bad.” The audience already sympathizes with Koba, who has endured countless “survivor procedures” in laboratories. Koba is the villain, but his actions seem justified because he has endured so much suffering. At one point he points to the scars on his face and body, saying with each scar, “Human work, human work, human work.” It is a poignant scene, and he is a poignant character who could create some moral quandaries.

Anyone who has ever behaved badly out of anger could identify with Koba, and then question their beliefs about animal research. I think that fostering compassion and empathy for any “othered” group requires these kinds of emotional triggers. Those emotional triggers are tied into how we see ourselves. If we can’t see ourselves in the “other” then we find it difficult to empathize or, more importantly, to respect a group that is marginalized. This seems to be the role of movies and television for movements who want to change social consciousness.

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