Planet of Apes Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

What Makes a Human?

Last month, moviegoers flocked to theaters to see War for the Planet of the Apes, in which an army of retrovirus-modified primates – chimpanzees on horseback, machine-gun-wielding gorillas, and scholarly orangutans – wage war against humanity. But could anything like that ever happen in real life?

ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND – Last month, moviegoers flocked to theaters to see War for the Planet of the Apes, in which an army of retrovirus-modified primates wage war against humanity. Chimpanzees on horseback, machine-gun-wielding gorillas, and scholarly orangutans undoubtedly make for good theater. But could anything like this ever happen in real life?

In Planet of the Apes, Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel upon which the films are based, space traveler Ulysse Mérou is stranded on a terrifying planet ruled by gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees who have copied their former human masters’ language, culture, and technology. The humans, meanwhile, have degenerated into brutal and unsophisticated beasts.

Much of the sinister realism in Planet of the Apes stems from Boulle’s impressive attention to scientific detail and knowledge of research into animal behavior at that time. His book tapped into the still-popular notion that animals such as chimpanzees and dolphins have complex but covert communication systems that humans cannot even fathom. Many people would prefer to think that all those “arrogant” scientists who have concluded that animals cannot talk have simply failed to decode animals’ calls.

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