Set in the post-apocalyptic San Francisco, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) narrates about the subversion of nature as the onslaught of a global viral outbreak, caused by unregulated drug testing for Alzheimer’s Disease, wipes out most of the human population. Apes, the test subjects for these experiments, are genetically enhanced and obtain immunity against the virus as well as sentience that makes them super-intelligent beings. The bitter past interactions between the two species have resulted in strong enmity among the apes against mankind and results in the apes’ determination to prove their superiority over the human survivors.
Throughout the narrative, it is evident that the apes are resistant to adopt human lifestyles due to strong beliefs that they are different and better than the humans. Caesar, the alpha ape, expresses his distaste for humans to his trusted orangutan companion, Maurice, by exclaiming how “humans destroyed each other… but [apes] are family”, which illustrates the fact that they do not view humans of the same calibre. The antagonism against mankind has led the apes to constantly attempt to differentiate themselves from humans. Yet, there are ironically many subtle resemblances between two species. With their newfound intelligence, the apes slowly evolve from the communication method of simian sign language to human speech. Caesar’s increasing proficiency in the English language allows him to converse verbally with the human survivors and the more intelligent apes. Furthermore, there is also a functional political system – supposedly mankind’s unique social construct – within the ape civilisation, that largely resembles a socialistic and, to some extent, dictatorial system. There are also developments of higher order thinking among the apes, which are often thought possible only for mankind. For instance, when Caesar is posed with a difficult moral dilemma between rebuilding a diplomatic relationship with the human survivors and attacking them to ensure the survival of the ape species, he is able to rationalise the circumstance and come up with a moral decision that is not swayed by the majority apes’ negative emotions towards mankind. Koba, a survivor of brutal human torture, is extremely angered by Caesar’s decision and plots a ruthless takeover of his leadership in order to wage war against humans, all in the name of self-preservation. The differences between the two species in Dawn have been blurred, given their vast resemblance in terms of their perspectives on self-preservation, emotional intelligence, political ideology and moral philosophy. These striking similarities between the two species have led me to conclude that the apes in Dawn have attained the level of sentience comparable to mankind, and this serves as the basis for Dawn to infuse various human ideologies and instinctual behaviours in the depiction of anthropomorphism among the apes.
One of the human attributes used in the personification of the apes is the inclination to self-preserve their own species. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers, famously argued that self-preservation, the act of seeking own interests, is one of the guiding principles of human soul. The self-preservation efforts of the apes illustrate how the apes are no longer primitive creatures but intelligent beings that have acquired human’s higher order reasoning ability in justifying their actions of preserving their own species. While some may argue that self-preservation is an innate desire in all species for the purpose of survival, it is important to note that humans’ ability to reason allows them to act beyond their primitive desires by either restraining their own actions or justifying their more-than-necessary self-preservation efforts. Indeed, when Caesar leads his apes into the human city to declare a military ceasefire with the human survivors despite many of his fellow apes being in favour of attacking the humans, the apes, more specifically Caesar, have proven themselves to be more than just barbaric animals. The self-control exercised by Caesar is beyond what is typically expected of animals and resembles that of a reasonably rational person. Caesar wisely dismisses the other apes’ requests to retaliate against the humans for the mistreatment a decade ago as he understands that self-preservation is fundamental to protect the apes’ interests, i.e. survival, and not to ensure the other species’ demise.
On the other extreme, in an attempt to self-preserve the ape species, the other protagonist, Koba, ironically resorts to deceptive measures by assassinating Caesar and burning down the entire ape habitat under the disguise of humans, in order to instigate a war between the two species. He evokes old memories of human torture and abuse among the apes and rallies them to attack the humans who are at a more disadvantaged position due to the viral apocalypse. Apart from being an unnecessary and counter-productive self-preservation effort, this serves as an evidence that the apes exhibit human behaviours. From the historical point of view, man, too, is known to wrongfully justify war against his own species by drawing an analogy between self-defence and national defence (Rodin, 2004, pp. 63-68). The human concept of diffidence, anticipation of foreign invasion which rationalises the plan to strike first as self-defence (Lloyd and Sreedhar, 2014), is largely evident in the portrayal of Koba in Dawn. Therefore, it is reasonable to claim that the apes are not primitive and have, in fact, attained human-level sentience.
Another aspect that demonstrates how the apes have attained human-level sentience is Caesar’s political ideology. Beyond the name adaptation of Julius Caesar, the first dictator of Rome, the leadership style of Caesar, the alpha ape, is also largely shaped by the Caesarean dictatorship. Julius Caesar, the then politician and military general, played a critical role in the revolution which led to the fall of the Roman Republic as well as the rise of the Roman Empire (Mark, 2011). He assumed control of the government as a benign dictator and initiated many reforms as he was persistent in making a change in the political system. In the same vein, Caesar, the alpha ape, is dissatisfied with the oppressive human rule and blatant disregard of the rights of the apes, which results in his initiation of ape revolution and establishment of the ape civilisation. He, too, assumes the role of a benign dictator and implements a major reform in the ape civilisation by introducing the village motto of “ape not kill ape”,
forbidding all apes from killing one of their own kind. After observing the unhesitant nature of humans in harming other species which they deem less superior and intelligent, Caesar imposes this principle to prevent the ape civilisation from being corrupt like the human civilisation and meeting its demise eventually. Caesar’s ability to develop his own political ideology shows the clear distinction between the apes and ordinary animals and demonstrates their higher order sentience.
ETHICS & MORAL PHILOSOPHY
The depiction of the apes as moral beings with ethical standards clearly illustrates how they have become increasingly human. De Waal argues that “human beings have some capacity that is discontinuous with the natural capacities of all nonhuman species” (de Waal, 2009, p. 16), of which it allows humans to have moral reasoning skills. Therefore, there is a strong association between having moral reasoning skills and acquiring human sentience. In Dawn, the apes are portrayed to be complex creatures that adopt various moral philosophies. Most of the apes practise utilitarianism – a consequentialist moral philosophy that justifies morality based on whether the consequences are favourable for everyone (Fieser) – in the egalitarian ape society established by Caesar. These apes adhere strictly to the principle of “ape not kill ape” introduced by Caesar obediently as they dare not disrupt the decade-long peace and harmony within the civilisation. In spite of resentment towards Caesar’s decision to avoid warfare against mankind, they choose to accept his decision as they understand his rationale of preventing both species from suffering unnecessary warfare. This shows that these apes, while not as intellectually capable as Caesar, are able to rationalise and adopt their own moral philosophy as well.
On the other hand, just as humans have diverse ethical standards, some of the apes too adopt different moral philosophies, such as ethical egoism. Ethical egoism is a consequentialist theory that justifies morality based on whether the consequences are favourable to oneself (Fieser). Caesar is one of the characters that arguably adopt this moral philosophy. While Caesar is often portrayed to be seeking out the best interests for the apes, it is undeniable that his decisions are often motivated by his selfish desire to reconnect with human beings. Despite his supposedly strong belief that mankind is ruthless and therefore two species cannot coexist in the same environment, Caesar struggles with that belief internally as he understands that there is good in mankind and it is unreasonable to generalise mankind as merely a species with great appetite for destruction. These results in his poor management of the long-standing hostility between the two species by extending friendly gestures to the human survivors. His actions are resented upon by Koba and cause a chain of events that lead to the destruction of the ape civilisation. Therefore, the apes’ capacity to develop complex ideas such as moral philosophies again illustrates how they have achieved human sentience.
The display of emotional intelligence, a key anthropomorphic characteristic, among the apes serves as persuasive evidence that the apes have become humanly sentient. According to Mayer, emotional intelligence is the ability to “[connect] thoughts to feelings [to] better ‘hear’ the emotional implications of [its] own thoughts, as well as understand the feelings of others from what they say” (Mayer, 1996, p. 89). In essence, one is considered emotionally intelligent if one is able to display great understanding of his and others’ emotions through his actions. Growing up under the care of humans, it is not surprising that Caesar possesses emotional intelligence that resembles that of human beings. He always rationalises his negative emotions in order to do what he perceives to be morally right. When the human survivors encounter severe
power constraints, he exhibits empathy towards their suffering by allowing them to access the hydroelectric damn located in the ape territory despite the perennial enmity between humans and the apes. When his wife is dying from childbirth, he is willing to lay down his pride as an ape by allowing human survivors to enter his habitat to provide medical assistance for his dying wife in spite of the human survivors repeatedly betraying his trust. He also chooses to forgive the human survivors as a gesture of gratitude to them.
Furthermore, Caesar has the moral courage to acknowledge that not all men are evil and therefore the apes should not remain self-righteous and hostile towards mankind. After the war ceases between the two species, he does not blame the chaos on the humans but humbly admits that the apes are the ones who have started the war. This again exemplifies how emotionally mature and intelligent Caesar is as he rarely lets his emotions cloud his judgements and perceptions. Maurice is another noteworthy character who displays a high level of emotional intelligence when he stood up for the human survivors against Koba. Like Caesar, he repeatedly protects the human survivors and warns them about potential danger when Koba initiates the rebellion. Therefore, these pieces of evidence collectively show how the apes inherit the human attribute of emotional intelligence and therefore become sentient on a human-level.
In a nutshell, Dawn presents an interesting irony, of which the apes’ attempts to dissociate themselves from mankind progressively make them human. Their display of various attributes that are uniquely human demonstrates how they have attained human-like sentience. Through the development of sentience in the apes, the film perhaps intends to reinforce that mankind remains at the top of theevolutionary ladder and any non-human species, regardless of the level of advancements, could only be on par with mankind. Nonetheless, Dawn poses a big question: is human sentience necessarily the highest order of sentience?
De Waal, F. (2009). Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. 16. Retrieved November 23, 2017.
Fieser, J. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu. Retrieved November 23, 2017.
Julius Caesar Biography.com. The Biography.com website. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/ . Retrieved November 23, 2017.
Lloyd, S.A., Sreedhar, S. (2014). Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy. The Stanford Encycopledia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved November 23, 2017.
Mark, J. J. (2011). Julius Caesar. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Julius_Caesar/. Retrieved November 23, 2017.
Mayer, J.D. (1996). Emotional intelligence and the identification of emotion. Intelligence, 22(2). 89. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com. Retrieved November 23, 2017.
Rodin, D. (2004). War and Self-Defense. Ethics & international affairs, 18(1), 63-68. doi:10.1111/j.1747-7093.2004.tb00451.x. Retrieved November 23, 2017.