I’m excited to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes this weekend, but while we’re waiting for it to make it into theaters, Jonathan D. Moreno, who teaches bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, kindly offered to give us some perspectives the cinematic tradition of science critiques the movie is heir to. This post is published in collaboration with Science Progress
By Jonathan D. Moreno
Hollywood has done it again. The latest film about creepy scientists setting us on the path to the end of the world as we know and, more or less, love it will soon be in a movie theater near you — Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Since we’ve been warned for so long by filmmakers and novelists about the dangers of science run amok, we really have no good excuse not to believe them. From The Island of Dr. Moreau to Brave New World to Blade Runner, Gattaca, Splice, and now the inevitable prequel to the iconic The Planet of the Apes, we learn anew why we should never tempt biologists with the latest science.
Don’t pass that apple, Eve, just transfect that genome.
Why are we so anxious about biology? Considering how sci-tech crazy the world is, including the convergence of physics, engineering, and genetics, basic biology would seem to be commonplace. That’s the question I pose in my forthcoming book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America* (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011).
Through the 18th century, the Enlightenment philosophers largely set the tone of growing admiration among the educated classes for the importance of science for social improvement. By the early 19th century, the growth of knowledge itself provoked anxiety. Since its publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been a touchstone of popular resentment of overreaching science and scientists. Lately, it has functioned as a standard reference point for the critiques of an arrogant scientific community that messes around with stem cells and cloning.
Although the creature might be the central figure in our nightmares (my mother remembers walking home alone in terror after seeing the just-released 1931 Hollywood version), the center of the story is the scientist, Dr. Frankenstein. The creature is a physical horror but an innocent; the scientist, with his Promethean overreaching, is a moral monster. He and his ilk are the ones we have to fear. Shelley’s tale is nearly always taken out of her context.
Like the later genre called science fiction that she helped inspire, Frankenstein is a commentary more on the present than on the future. Shelley wrote in an atmosphere stirred by the British Romantic science movement of that period, the experimental analogue of the Romantic poets, who were excitedly investigating the properties of air, water, heat, and electricity. They hoped that greater knowledge of the physical world would lead to radical social improvements such as more effective medical treatments.
And they believed that knowledge grounded in demonstrative experiments would liberate the human mind. The idea that electricity could reanimate a dead or assembled body was only one element of Romantic science. It is unfortunate, then, that the most famous reflection on the Romantic scientists is a horror story. Not only did the Romantics anticipate some of the experimentation that flowered a century later with more powerful devices and more nuanced theory, they also stumbled upon at least one discovery that would prove to be enormously beneficial: nitrous oxide, the first truly effective pain reliever.
Thus, already in Frankenstein there is a template: abstract but dramatic anxiety about the direction of science that obscures its concrete achievements for improving human life. Even then scientists needed better public relations. Granted that the bomb made it hard for atomic physicists to improve their poll numbers (especially with all those giant ants roaming around New Mexico in Them!, released in 1954), today’s biologists face an even steeper uphill climb.
In fairness, the director of The Rise of the Planet of the Apes says that his movie is not an antiscience morality tale but rather “much more about mankind’s hubris.” That, of course, is precisely the point of morality tales. Human overreaching tends to have bad consequences. Just ask Oedipus.
The movie isn’t out until later this week. But consider our recent experience with another planet dominated by allegedly higher primates. If the smart apes soon to rise in a theater near you can figure out how to straighten out Capitol Hill maybe we ought to give them a chance.
*I’ve read an advance copy of this. It’s great. If you’re interested in these issues, I highly recommend it.