This week I had the very cool opportunity to speak with primatologist Tara Stoinski P.h.D in regards to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which Nick and I loved (review, Friday Video segment). The interview is enlightening, a bit scary, and goes to show that some very mature thinking when into the new film. You can read the full piece over at GUY.com, and I’ve pulled a few preview snippets to show you here… make sure you check out the whole thing!
Oh, and this isn’t the first time we’ve interviewed a cool science person about a cool film: My interview with a Neuromorphic Engineer about Source Code.
But back to the apes and their risings…
Renn: …I saw it last night and I’m happy to say it is actually great.
Dr. S: Good!
Renn: I was pleased with it, and its strength is that it’s not afraid to hand the narrative of the movie over to an ape, who is well rendered and emotionally fleshed-out. So if I can jump into that and ask a really heady question right off the bat: Reflecting on your experiences with the apes, what do you consider “sentience”? What line, if any, would you draw between ape and human intelligence and emotional capacity?
Dr. S: It’s a great question and can be answered a lot of different ways. One of the challenges is really figuring out ape intelligence and what we know from studies that have been done is that a lot of the time, it’s been our… not lack of intelligence, but our downfall instead of the apes in terms of when we found negative results and we found they haven’t been capable of something, it’s really been because of the way we’ve asked the question. And when we asked the question to the apes differently, we see that they actually can solve the task. So, it’s very challenging I think, to come up with these cross-species type of experiments. The way we approach things is obviously going to be very different, very human-centric, and the apes may be able to follow the task, they just might approach it in a very different way.
Given that, the challenge is that it’s actually in its infancy. We have so much still to learn about ape cognition that I think it’s really hard at this point to say: “here’s definitively where the line is, here’s what apes do and here’s what humans do.”
Renn: I wanted to ask before it slipped my mind: what kind of numbers are out there in terms of estimating the population of the different kinds of apes?
Dr. S: Well, the sad things for apes– and one of the things about this idea of Planet of the Apes in general is the ape domination of humans, and obviously it’s a science fiction movie of course, but unfortunately the situation is just the opposite. Humans really dominate apes, much to their detriment. There are only six species of great apes on the planet– you see, I think, three of them in the film: chimps, gorillas, and orangutans (well, there’s two types of orang’s and two types of gorillas). But all of these animals are considered to be endangered, or critically endangered, meaning they have a very high likelihood of extinction in the near future. Most scientists put out estimates that within several decades, possibly in my lifetime, we could see some of these species of apes go extinct in the wild. So, the situation for them is extremely grave, unfortunately.
Renn: So looking at the human relationship with apes, especially in an academic environment where these animals clearly are not pets– how does that relationship work in modern research?
Dr. S: That’s a great question, and just to talk to the pet point: they’re not pets, and they make horrible pets. Unfortunately there are people who have chimpanzees as pets, and we’ve seen evidence recently of people that have been severely injured by pet chimpanzees. For me, that’s one of the big kudos of the movie is that they do not use any live apes in this movie at all, it’s all computer-generated. But it’s interesting– when you look at old pictures of Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall, what I think really excited people or attracted them was this very close relationship with the apes, and again, this was forty-something years ago and we didn’t know all that we know now about issues- particularly pertaining to disease transmission. The ape are very susceptible to a lot of our upper-respiratory diseases — what could be a cold or cough in us could be much more serious in them, so for example: When I work with them in the field, we try and stay at least 20 feet away at all times, and try and not interface with them at all. When I’m there I just want to be seen as another part of their environment like a tree or a plant, I don’t want to be engaging with them.
Renn: Well I have to say, as happy as I am as a film critic that the film is so good, I do hope that it also serves to interest people in your field and maybe make your job getting funding a little easier.
Dr. S: I hope it maybe makes people a little more interested in apes and learning about apes. I’m always shocked by the fact because I sort of eat and breathe apes, that so many people are not aware of their status in the wild, and don’t realize how close we are to losing these populations. And that is really human driven– that’s driven by poverty, and by hunting, habitat loss and if people walk away from this movie and are fascinated by Caesar and want to learn more about chimp behavior… every bit that people learn about these animals is beneficial.
Again, the full interview can be found right here.
Let me know if you dig interviews of this sort on twitter, Facebook, in the comments, or on the boards. We should have some more cool ones soon…