Harvard professor analyzes the evolutionary theory behind ‘Planet of the Apes’

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By Angelica Coleman

Staff Writer

The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline is making an effort to unite the world of film and the world of science in one event series.


Source: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

The theater sponsors the pairing of repertoire films with talks led by prominent members of the science/research community in Boston. The effort began here in the city twelve years ago and since then it has spread to 57 additional participating theaters, with the help of funding from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (scienceonscreen.org).

The latest event in the series, which took place on Nov. 21st, paired the film “Planet of the Apes” (1968) with a talk led by Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. The event began with Dr. Lieberman’s short talk, in which he dissected and debunked the evolutionary theory behind the film’s plot.

Essentially, “Planet of the Apes” is based on the concept that, in the absence of a human population on Earth, primates would rise and take the position of the dominant, critical thinking species. While this idea makes for a good Hollywood story, Dr. Lieberman explained why the concept is improbable scientifically.

Dr. Lieberman cited the many genetic transformations that took place in our hominin ancestors as evidence why primates would not be likely to develop a resemblance to humans in our absence. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, do not share with us the hominin ancestry, meaning their evolutionary path should be distinct from that of humans.

Another piece of evidence that contradicts the theory behind “Planet of the Apes” is the example of orangutans living in South -east Asia in the absence of human contact or influence.

Lieberman explained that this species has not evolved overtime to be more human-like in the absence of human influence, so it is unlikely that this would happen in other primate species.

Dr. Lieberman ended his talk with a clever tie-in to the world of cinema by proposing the controversial question, ‘Are humans really a good species for our planet?’ He concluded that this was a good question for Hollywood to explore.

With this joking statement, Lieberman validated the role of cinema in exploring the unknown. While art and film can never act as a replacement or equivalent of science, this event series proves that cinema can compliment science in truly impactful ways.

The next event in the series is on Dec. 5 at Coolidge Corner Theatre. The theatre will be featuring Ball of Fire (1941) and writer/linguist Ben Zimmer. The cost of general admission is $12 but for students it is $10.