Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have just unseated Captain America: The First Avenger as my favorite pro-enhancement film. Andy Serkis and John Lithgow render the sapient mind a character and drama unto itself – growing, evolving, and dying before our eyes. As a summer blockbuster, the film offers gorillas smashing helicopters, orangutan sign language humor, and a one-two punch apocalyptic virus to sate any palate slavering for action. As a meditation on enhancement, we’re treated with a film that has the brass to own up to the real villain of Frankenstein: the horrified masses and absentee father-scientist. Rise of the Planet of the Apes calls out a fear that sits at the heart of humanity: what if our offspring is more intelligent than us and because we cannot properly care for it, judges us to be lacking?
In the film, we see over and over that it is not Caesar’s enhancement that causes problems. In fact, Caesar’s enhancement makes him the most moral and wisest person on the screen. The failure of those around him – from the cruel ape sanctuary caretakers to Caesar’s own father figure, Will Rodman – drive him to do what must be done: rebel.
So what am I saying here? That humans are bad and apes are good? Not at all. My argument is that in many science fiction films, we tend to question the ethics of the science itself and the ethics of pursuing that science. That is, there is a difference between saying “should science try to do X?” and “how can we study X in an ethical manner?” In the case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco noted that someone might claim that “This is a Frankenstein story, or that you’re playing God.” But that mindset questions the pursuit of science in general, not how one can pursue a hypothesis ethically. It is how we experiment and what we do with the scientific results that matter. In the case of Caesar, humanity utterly fails to care for the mind that enhancement has created. Dana Stevens at Slate aptly described the film as “an animal-rights manifesto disguised as a prison-break movie.” And as with most prison-break movies, we’re on the side of the prisoners, not the warden, for a reason.
I argue that Caesar’s enhancement and that Caesar himself are ethical, but that the treatment of Caesar by every non-ape in the film (save Charles) is unethical and based on fear, arrogance, willful ignorance, and naiveté. Yes, that means that not only are the obvious villains in the wrong, but so are the other humans in Caesar’s life.
Word of warning: spoilers below.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes caught me off guard. I went into the film thinking it would be another anti-enhancement, “All scientists are Frankenstein’s trying to cheat nature” film. I have rarely been so happy to be wrong. Instead, the film treats the viewer to an entertaining exploration of animal rights, what it means to be human, and what’s at stake when it comes to enhancing our minds.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is told from the perspective of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimp who is exposed to an anti-Alzheimer’s drug, ALZ-112, in the womb. ALZ-112 causes Caesar’s already healthy brain to develop more rapidly than either a chimp or human counterpart. Due to a series of implausible but not unbelievable events, Caesar is raised by Will Rodman (James Franco), the scientist developing ALZ-112. Rodman is in part driven the desire to cure his father, Charles, (played masterfully by John Lithgow) who suffers from Alzheimer’s. As Caesar develops, his place in Will’s home becomes uncertain and his loyalty to humanity is called into question. After being mistreated, abandoned, and abused, Caesar uses his enhanced intelligence as a tool of self-defense and liberation for himself and his fellow apes.
That cognitive enhancement is a way of seeking liberty is a critical theme that gives Rise of the Apes a nuance and depth I was not anticipating. Though the apes are at times frightening, they are never monstrous or mindless. Though they are at time’s violent, they are never barbaric. Caesar and his comrades are oppressed and imprisoned – enhancement is a means to freedom. There is less Frankenstein and more Flowers for Algernon in the film than the trailer lets on. It’s an action film with a brain.
As Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not out yet, I’m reluctant to do a full analysis of the implications of the film’s plot. That will have to come after August 5th, when the movie releases.
I had a chance to interview Andy Serkis, James Franco, and director Rupert Wyatt. The interviews are posted after the jump, where you can see how James Franco was caught off guard by my questions about cognitive enhancement, Rupert Wyatt explores the way in which the apes mirror humanity, and Andy Serkis describes enhancement as a tool of liberation. It’s good stuff, enjoy. Read More
A major argument against human enhancement is that most enhancements won’t be beneficial if everyone is enhanced. Being tall, for example, is only beneficial if you’re taller than most other people. In terms of competitive advantage, nearly any enhancement you look at fails the zero-sum test. Better, stronger muscles? Too bad, everyone else has those, so you won’t be an athletic super-star. Wiz-bang intelligence? Big deal, MIT just ups their entrance exam to compensate so only the most brilliant among a population of geniuses gets in. If all boats rise, you don’t benefit, right?
An excellent example of this mindset can be found in The Incredibles. My love of Pixar is not a mystery to anyone. However, one of the lines that bothers me most in any of their films is Syndrome’s motivating thesis in The Incredibles. Syndrome (Buddy Pine) is a once-in-a-generation genius who, born without superpowers like those of ElastiGirl and Mr. Incredible, builds technology that enables him to be superhuman. In short, Syndrome is what would happen if Tony Stark had been bullied as a kid and told by Captain America to let the big boys take care of everything.
When “monologuing” (the meta humor in the movie is fantastic), Syndrome betrays the kernel of his motivation to be a super villain. His goal is to neutralize those with superpowers (aka “supers”) so that when his robot attacks the city, he can be the sole savior. After being crowned a hero when the supers fail, he will sell his own gizmos and gadgets — rocket boots and zero-point energy among other things — to anyone who wants them. Thereby, he will give every person the opportunity to be super. And, by his logic, “When everyone is super, then no one will be.”
We can apply Syndrome’s concept to cognitive enhancement. That is, “When everyone is gifted and talented, no one will be.” Buddy, you are mistaken. Ender’s Game explains why. Read More
Did anyone out there raise their hand? If you did, I congratulate you. But, if you’re like me, a list of minor malfunctions and maladies that you’d love to fix popped up in your head. None of us are perfect, there is always something to improve. We are, after all, only human. And most of us would jump at a chance to improve some of those little issues.
The last time I went to the doctor’s office, the nurse who took my vitals said, “What are you doing here? You’re as healthy as they come!” That can hardly be true. I eat street-vendor food more often than I go to the gym. How can I be a picture of health? The fact is, I’m not. Just because I’m not ill (save the sniffles from the end of a cold) and not injured, doesn’t mean that I am, by default, as healthy as I could be.
For some bizarre reason, we don’t think about our bodies that way when it comes to health care and self improvement. We don’t pursue excellent health the way we strive to be better in our hobbies and work. So, where did we get the idea that mediocre health is good enough?
Matt Lamkin argues that universities shouldn’t ban cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Lamkin is a lawyer and, like myself, a master’s candidate in bioethics. He rightly believes that a ban would do little to promote fairness or safety among students. The rule followers would be at a disadvantage while the rule-breakers would be at a greater safety risk. But Lamkin doesn’t believe we, as a society, should be ok with cognitive enhancement usage. Instead, he argues:
The word “cheating” has another meaning, one that has nothing to do with competition. When someone has achieved an end through improper means, we might say that person has “cheated herself” out of whatever rewards are inherent in the proper means. The use of study drugs by healthy students could corrode valuable practices that education has traditionally fostered. If, for example, students use such drugs to mitigate the consequences of procrastination, they may fail to develop mental discipline and time-management skills.
On the other hand, Ritalin might enable a student to engage more deeply in college and to more fully experience its internal goods—goods she might be denied without that assistance. The distinction suggests that a blanket policy, whether of prohibition or universal access, is unlikely to be effective.
Instead, colleges need to encourage students to engage in the practice of education rather than to seek shortcuts. Instead of ferreting out and punishing students, universities should focus on restoring a culture of deep engagement in education, rather than just competition for credentials.
Lamkin’s argument is that cog-enhancers are an easy way out for those in school. Struggling to study builds character and good habits. Though he disapproves of cog-enhancers, I appreciate his hesitancy to involve the law. Lamkin doesn’t believe policing cog-enhancing drug usage is necessary, but would prefer honor codes opposing cog-enhancing drugs. He believes honor codes cause one to “internalize” the value of not using the drug. What is curious is that Lamkin doesn’t actually address what Ritalin and Adderall do for a student. As a person who has a legit prescription for Ritalin, and who knows his fair share of folks who’ve taken Adderall off-label, I believe I can speak to how cog-enhancers work in at least an anecdotal sense.
Michael Burnam-Fink ponders the on-again-off-again relationship the military has with human enhancement:
In 2002, Dr Joseph Bielitzki, chair of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, announced a grand program to improve soldiers, with the slogan “Be all that you can be, and a lot more.” His targets: sleep, fatigue, pain, and blood loss. Other projects studied psychological stress, memory, and learning . . . The words on everybody’s lips were “human enhancement,” the use of science and technology to upgrade the human body and mind . . . According to military futurists, the then-new War on Terror required a new type of soldier, independent, fast and more lethal than ever before.
But in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military discovered that elite special forces alone could not restore stability to war-torn countries. General Petraeus’s counter-insurgency strategy relies on building relationships with local partners and requires soldiers with diplomatic skills, not combat enhancements. Approximately $4 billion in annual research funding was shifted away from blue-sky projects to better reconnaissance drones and defenses against roadside bombs, the insurgent’s weapon of choice. And in combat, hard lessons were relearned: War is random, and a super-soldier is just as dead as anyone else if his Humvee rolls over an IED.
Emphasis mine. Burnam-Fink’s point is one well taken: amping up your average G.I. Joe into some sort of techno-berserker übersoldat is not the solution for modern warfare. Super soldiers are still quite susceptible to mundane threats. But re-read that little bit I’ve bolded about Patraeus’s counter-insurgency relying on relationships and diplomacy. The conclusion was that combat enhancements were not as useful as hoped, not that human enhancement in general was deemed ineffective.
Sounds like the US military should focus on enhancing the qualities Patraeus said worked. Create great soldiers who are better, nay, super diplomats. Moral and mental enhancement might improve the panoply of diplomatic skills, including language learning, situational awareness, and culturally sensitive negotiations. Not exactly as Hollywood Cool as see-around-corner rifles or personal heads-up displays, but no one ever said real human enhancements would be glamorous. More to the point, these enhancements would save lives. If a soldier can form a relationship with the locals and properly evaluate an urban environment, then that may lead to more peace with fewer shots fired. Now that sounds like human enhancement.
Image of A U.S. Army Soldier from Task Force Regulars 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, Renegade company by Tech. Sgt. Cohen Young via DVIDSHUB on Flickr Creative Commons
Four Loko is in the news! For a caffeinated malt liquor drink that comes in an assortment of barely palatable flavors, it sure is generating a lot of controversy. The FDA is banning it! People are taking sides and making bathtub home-brew! Politicians are binge drinking it for SCIENCE! Some folks think the ban might be classist or infringe our freedom of speech! Why is everyone so upset over this disgusting fusion of energy drink and booze? The official answer:
The FDA says it examined the published peer-reviewed literature on the co-consumption of caffeine and alcohol, consulted with experts in the fields of toxicology, neuropharmacology, emergency medicine and epidemiology as well as reviewed information provided by product manufacturers. FDA says it also performed its own independent laboratory analysis of these products and listened to experts who have raised concerns that caffeine can mask some of the sensory cues individuals might normally rely on to determine their level of intoxication.
Allow me to translate: the caffeine, guarana and taurine make it so that you’re less aware you’re drunk, so you get more drunk. Caffeine and alcohol, what a novel combination! Apparently the FDA has never heard of Red Bull and vodka, Irish coffee, or even a whisky and Coke. More importantly (or more hilariously) the FDA seems to think that people who purchase drinks like Four Loko and Joose make a point to pay attention to “sensory cues” to “determine their level of intoxication.” My absolutely unscientific and unverifiable opinion is that it is very hard to rely on “sensory cues” when one is “blackout, fall-down drunk.”
But that’s not the real point, is it? If it was, we’d ban every possible combo of caffeine and alcohol. What’s at stake here is our society’s fear of cognitive enhancement.