Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – A Review, Along With a Brief Reflection on Just What, Precisely, It Might Mean to Be Human
By Ken K. Gourdin
I recently saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. While this wasn’t my first exposure to the general man-versus-apes storyline, my previous exposure came some time ago. While the story was being set up, it was hard for me to not conclude, “Oh, great. Here’s another story about noble animals and their ignoble human counterparts.” As the film progressed, however, it became harder to dismiss it on that simplistic basis.
I became conflicted: I was gratified by the increasing complexity of the storyline that didn’t allow me to dismiss it as a simplistic treatment, but, at the same time, was disappointed that some of those in both camps – man and apes alike – gave in to their baser instincts. Still, the fact that they did so added texture to the film and gave me a lot to think about.
One framework for considering the film’s ideas is through the lens of evolution: while I’m not a scientist, I do appreciate the scientific method. At the same time, I am also a person of faith. Do I believe in evolution? Yes, but I also believe that it has its limitations and that there are questions it has not yet answered – “The heart knows reasons that scientific reason knows not of,” to borrow and slightly alter the poet’s phrase. I also believe the scriptural phrase that God has made man “a little lower than the angels,” with all that such a lofty status (at least potentially) entails.
Since I believe in evolution, does that mean I also believe that humanity ascended (or descended, if you prefer) from apes, or from lower forms of life in general? This is where it gets somewhat complicated: men I revere as prophets of God have affirmed, repeatedly, the privileged place of humanity among God’s creations. On the other hand, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility (in fact, it’s even likely) that evolution is one of the tools God uses in the creative process.
What of the differing creation “accounts” offered by science and religion, respectively? Is there any way to reconcile them? Is the only way to do so to relegate Christianity’s creation story wholly to the realm of metaphor? I don’t know. Frankly, I lack an adequate background in both science and philosophy to be able to provide a coherent answer to that question.
Some have said that science provides the answer to the question “How?”, while religion provides the answer to the question “Why?” Were Adam and Eve as depicted in the Book of Genesis (not to mention in other accounts that are accepted as scripture in my religious tradition, on par with the Holy Bible) actual people? Even if one leaves that an open question, it is beyond dispute that what Adam and Eve are reported to have learned in those accounts, as well as how they learned it, is highly relevant to me: it provides a template that I, too, can use. That template figures prominently, not only in the texts that I accept as sacred, but also in certain religious ceremonies peculiar to my religious tradition.
All of this having been said, however my physical body came about, I adhere to a religious tradition that believes that I am, at my core, a spiritual being, and that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” Whatever questions evolution and science can answer, its capacity to answer the ultimate questions of being are limited because those questions, essentially, are spiritual rather than physical in nature.
Another of the film’s themes is that of discord, conflict, and, indeed, of the specter of all-out war as men and sentient, highly-intelligent, verbal apes attempt to navigate the complexities and vagaries of sharing the planet together. So much of discord, conflict, and war stem from simple misunderstanding magnified to a tragic result. Contrary to my initial impression, in fact, there proved to be much of both nobility and ignobility in both species: some members of both species attempt to build bridges between each other, while others attempt to widen the chasms between them.
And I cannot deny that various animals (albeit apes excluded) have played a special role in my life and in the lives of other members of my family. Some of them have even won a special place in my heart. Whatever cosmic questions remain about our respective roles in the mortal drama, I am the better for having surrendered that place in my heart to them.
The film provides a fertile ground and has set up a sturdy framework for a continuing exploration of just what, precisely, it means to be human – with all that such humanity entails: its capacity for nobility, as well as its capacity for ignobility; its capacity for enmity, and its capacity for amity (both within our own species and between our own species and other species); its capacity for good, and its capacity for evil.