Science at the movies: War for the Planet of the Apes

18 July 2017

Interview with

Lauren Brent, University of Exeter and Zanna Clay, Durham University.

How accurate is the primate science in War for the Planet of the Apes? Our resident film enthusiast Georgia Mills asked Lauren Brent from the University of Exeter and Zanna Clay from Durham University...

Georgia - War for the Planet of the Apes is the third film in the reboot of the 1968 classic. It’s a sci-fi but how accurate is the sci? Could apes really rise up, start talking, go to war with humanity? At a screening of the film, I found some people who were able to help, some primate experts who could tell me just how well the movies ape the apes.

Lauren - I'm Lauren Brent. I'm a behaviour ecologist at the University of Exeter. I really am interested in societies and how they're structured, and how individuals relate to each other in those societies. There are many ways that the films are quite accurate in that. So chimps are a patriarchy. There's a dominant male who gets most of the resources. He leads groups. Everyone needs to submit to him and that’s really borne out in the films. And also, they're highly competitive, both within their group and also with outgroup members. So in this case, those are humans, but if we imagine in the wild, it would be a rival chimp group that bordered their territory. There were a few things that aren't what chimps do, so they're not monogamous. So you wouldn’t have a single female partner where you had all your children with her, but there are lots of reasons why what they’ve portrayed in the films are fairly spot on in terms of chimp society.

Georgia - And let’s speak of some speech a bit because in the films, they do speak – the apes – and they also sign, so are these things we think apes can do or could ever do, or is it completely in the realms of sci-fi?

Lauren - I think a lot of it is in the realms of sci-fi in terms of the level of intentionality in the communication. Signing is certainly something you can train an ape to do, but the extent to which they then apply syntax and create sentences, that’s getting a little bit into the realms of science fiction. And certainly, the vocalisations, apes are limited in the sounds that they can make for a variety of reasons so the types of sounds they were making basically English speech is something that current apes that exist for a whole host of reasons probably can't do.

Zanna - I'm Zanna Clay. I'm a comparative psychologist at Durham University in the UK. In terms of their vocalisations, the naturalistic data suggests actually, largely they lack a lot of the skills in terms of learning new vocalisations and intentional signalling that humans have to use for language. But actually, captive apes and there are some interesting data suggesting that captive apes actually are able to use new vocalisations. They're not necessarily using their vocal tract but they're using, blowing air through the throat and so on. They can produce novel sounds, so it’s not completely out of the realm of science fiction. It could just take one or two genetic mutation that could actually create more flexibility than we see. So these weird sounds that captive apes make, they seem to be able to control those. If they could speak, they really would like they want to communicate, they want to ask for food and so on. The best they can do is go “oehhh”. So, there is an intention there but they're lacking the machinery.

Georgia - So a big part in this film is motion capture and the actors are acting like apes. So say, I'm Andy Serkis asking you for advice on how to look like an ape, what advice would you give? How do you act like an ape?

Zanna - Yeah, I spend a lot of time watching individual apes. You can really ape an ape by using the right body movements. It’s hard to ape an ape in a bipedal posture because mostly, really quintessential mannerisms you see in apes is how they use their body physically on the ground. There's also some specific facial expressions that apes show. Not all of which map directly onto what we see in humans. So, it’s hard for these actors to appreciate the differences between certain emotional expressions or facial expressions that you see in great apes like chimpanzees. But there are some really interesting crossovers. And then I think also the use of like, eye gaze and attentiveness is a bit different in apes. So I think it’s important to look at how they respond to others. Chimps are easier to imitate vocally than gorillas, orang-utans, and bonobos.

Georgia - Give me your best chimp.

Zanna - (making chimp sound)

Georgia - Fantastic!

Zanna - I would do a dull one but I'm not going to…

Georgia - Do you do the chest beat of a…?

Zanna - I'm not going to do it because that would be really loud. I mean, maybe if I’d had another glass of wine. I can also do food calls like (making a chimp food call sound). That’s like a happy food call of a chimp. And a laugh – I could do a laugh (making a chimp laugh sound).

Georgia - And they generally do that when they're finding something funny?

Zanna - They do, yeah. That is really what they sound like. It sounds a bit of a demonic laugh but that’s what they do.

Georgia - So, we can breathe a sigh of relief. While chimpanzees enjoy a fight or two, we’re not in danger of smack-talking or any kind of military organisation. But they might just enjoy a laugh at our expense.

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