September 21, 2011
The beauty and shame of blogging, we all know, is that you can post whatever you want whenever you want. But guest blogging is a little different, since it requires the cooperation of a host site.
I’ve been asked to do a few guest blogs in support of Primacy, and I’ve obliged.
Before all of those, a few months ago my publicist had an idea for a guest blog that would tie in to the Planet of the Apes movie, which then was about to be released. Despite having only seen the trailers at that point (the movie hadn’t opened yet), I obliged his request and came up with the following.
Since seeing the movie, I could write an essay on the similarities and contrasts between Primacy and Planet, and I may do so one day. It would be very different from this piece, which ended up in the “round file” when my publicist couldn’t place it. Yet the essay seems worthy of better than that, so I share it here, simply because I can.
The War at the End of the Family Tree
By J.E. Fishman
Now and then we learn from the news that a person has jumped into the bear enclosure or the lion den at a zoo and been torn to shreds by an animal on the other side. When we hear such things, we may be of two minds. Part of us thinks: that idiot got what he had coming. Another part can’t help wondering whether the lion is now also changed forever, having acquired a taste for human blood and become a threat to us all.
The presumption in the former sentiment is that it’s foolhardy to provoke wild animals. But the second analysis carries an underlying assumption that when push comes to shove every one of us stands for the human race against all comers.
This us-or-them attitude may have had something to do with the destruction of Neanderthals, the first (and perhaps last) great challengers to homo sapiens. It is a consequence of an outlook on life that philosopher Peter Singer calls “speciesism,” which he defines as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.”
Sadly for the other species, this prejudice appears to be alive and well in 2011. Witness the new prequel to the “Planet of the Apes” franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. At the foundation of this series lie the original book by Frenchman Pierre Boulle and the first of the motion pictures, starring Charlton Heston with a script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling.
Both of those treatments provoke more self-pity than they elicit empathy for other species, despite laying blame for the human-ape turnabout on inadvertently self-destructive choices made by people. In the book, talking-ape civilization has its roots in a society that allowed itself to become dependent upon ape slaves, who subsequently overthrew their human masters. In the original film series, the source of human destruction was nuclear war. “You maniacs!” Heston cries in the first movie’s final scene. “You finally did it! You blew it up!” By “blew it up” he doesn’t mean our planet and many innocent creatures that once lived upon it; he means human civilization.
Therefore, where are our sympathies meant to settle? Surely not with the apes, most of whom, we are led to believe, would treat us as badly as we’ve treated them if given half the chance. The tag line of the new film is “Evolution becomes revolution” — cue the war scenes with survival of our very species at stake.
All this might merely be entertaining if the speciesism in question didn’t lead to consequences for an entire class of beings with a capacity to suffer that at least approximates our own.
Are we currently at war with great apes? If primates other than man could speak, they might tell you so. Gorillas and chimpanzees (as well as monkeys and other species farther from us on the evolutionary tree) are deliberately killed regularly in Africa to feed the bushmeat trade, while human deforestation narrows the territory of our unwitting “enemies” by millions of acres each year. Meanwhile, scientists daily subject more than sixty thousand primates to painful and often unnecessary experiments in animal testing laboratories across the United States.
In my novel, Primacy, one of these creatures is a young female bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, that has mutated for speech. For Liane, the young researcher whose job it is to care for her, seeing the young animal crossing the threshold of communication leads to a crisis of conscience. Suddenly her subjects are not mere apes (lost in the plural), but individuals.
Liane will come to realize that many qualities that we presume distinguish us from lesser beings are present, too, in animals, if only we’d bother to look. But first we must fight through convenient biases that we justify with a logical thread that runs something like this: those things I want I will declare that I need; anything harmed in the taking of them I will claim has interests less worthy than my own.
Thomas Moore, writing in another context, put this attitude succinctly when he asserted: “At different times in our history we have denied soul to classes of beings we have wanted to control.”
It may be unlikely that apes will ever talk as humans do, but they do communicate with one another (heck, even bugs do that), they demonstrate altruism, they use tools, they reason. Most important of all, as Singer and Jeremy Benthem before him have observed: they have the capacity to suffer. Most of us, captive to our own perceived self-interest, don’t want to hear that.
Speaking to her friend, Mickey, Liane asks: “What so scares humans about the prospect of a talking animal, anyway?”
Mickey responds: “I’ve always thought it’s because we don’t really want to know what’s going on inside their heads… We don’t like to have our illusions shattered.”
At which point Liane concludes: “I think, more than knowing who they really are inside we fear that they’ll tell us the truth about ourselves—about who we really are.”
Reflecting on our treatment of other species should horrify us indeed. For no matter how many San Francisco police cars and helicopters the apes destroy in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in the real world it’s mankind who acts with maximal callousness toward other species, not the other way around.
Far from rising to oppose us, at the hands of homo sapiens great apes on earth face torture and destruction with few limits. Reduced to chattel or shunted into the last wild corners of our shared planet, they don’t even possess the means to fight back.
Off the big screen, it seems, victory in every war goes to the same primate: not the one that lives up in the trees, but the one you see in the bathroom mirror each morning.
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Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 28: The Trouble with Free
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