Are We Playing God?
Science and Ethics in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
by the Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.
Warning! This review contains spoilers.
All my life, I have been a fan of science fiction and horror films. While these movies have diverse themes, one of the constantly recurring motifs is the danger that might be unleashed as a result of scientific discovery and innovation. Ever since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, expressing the fears of those living through the Industrial Revolution, there have been many attempts in literature and film to convey our anxiety that what we create might turn on us, the creators, and destroy us. Though Rise of the Planet of the Apes raises many other issues, the fear of scientific discovery once again comes to the forefront.
Will Rodman, played by James Franco, is passionately involved in genetic research. Part of his motivation is that his father (John Lithgow) is slowly deteriorating as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. Already a research pioneer in the field of genetic engineering, Rodman’s passion is inflamed as he is racing against the clock to find a cure for his father’s disease before his father’s mind goes completely, or he dies. Having developed a successful retrovirus that seems to work on chimpanzees, Rodman is anxious to try it on human beings. Unfortunately, things go wrong in the laboratory and his plans are thwarted—temporarily. All the chimpanzees that were treated with the new therapy must be destroyed, since it is feared that the treatments have made them overly aggressive. By chance, a chimpanzee has been born whose mother had received the gene therapy. Rodman conceals the existence of this baby chimp, and takes it home, where it begins to exhibit extraordinary intelligence. Finally, Rodman is prepared to take the responsibility upon himself and injects his father with the retrovirus. The results are dramatic, and the father is almost instantaneously cured, but the cure is short lived as his father’s system produces antibodies that counteract the effects of the new therapy. The chimp, named Caesar, a nod to the chimpanzee of the same name who led the ape revolution in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), continues to increase in intelligence. Unfortunately, he becomes aggressive and attacks a man who is mistreating Rodman’s father. By court order, Caesar can no longer live with Rodman and is taken to an animal shelter for apes. While there, Caesar grows increasingly hostile to the human race, including Rodman, and eventually leads other apes in a rebellion against human beings. Thus, the age-old fear appears in this movie once again—we have created something that we may not be able to control.
Very often, when scientific discoveries are made, the question occurs, “Have we gone too far?” In the not too distant past when people were concerned with questions about religious morality, they might have asked the question, “Are we playing God?” We look back with amusement on former times when people said things like, “If God had wanted people to fly he would have given them wings.” When people venture into new areas of research, they are accused of intruding in areas where they have no business going. As atomic research advanced and we discovered how to harness the power of the atom and utilize it in making weapons of mass destruction, many people proclaimed that we had gone too far, though there were benefits connected with the discovery of atomic energy. Perhaps nowhere have we seen this question of the impropriety of certain types of research as we have in the case of genetic engineering. We have great fears about meddling with the basic building blocks of our existence, especially at a molecular level. We have fears that if we tamper with DNA, we might create something that is not really human, or we have fears that we may create viruses or bacteria for which there will be no vaccines or cures. Occasionally we still hear the question, “Are we playing God?” Christians often ask this question, wondering if we should oppose certain kinds of research because human beings are going beyond boundaries that God has set. But Christians must admit that it is difficult to know where to draw the line. If some religious people had been allowed to choose, perhaps there would have been no scientific advancement at all, for some people have always seen scientific advancement as creating something that God obviously did not intend for us to have, or he would have given it to us in the beginning. Rodman’s girlfriend, Caroline (Freida Pinto), expresses these fears when she tells Rodman that he is trying to control things that cannot be controlled. Later, she tells him that some things were not meant to be changed. The idea that Rodman and his associates might be playing God is implied in the name of the corporation doing the research, “Gen Sys,” obviously a reference to the book of Genesis, hinting that we have become godlike in our capacity to create. While it may be true that there are some things we cannot control or change, if that kind of philosophy is taken too far then there would be no scientific or technological advancement. We now control many things, and we have changed many things that, in the past, people thought were beyond our ability to ever control or change.
Scientific advancement is part of fulfilling the command that God gave to human beings to take dominion over the earth and all that is in it. Are we playing God when we take dominion? God is often spoken of in Scripture as having dominion in this world. The Psalmist praises God, “Bless the LORD, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the LORD, O my soul” (Ps. 103:22). Again, in Ps. 145:13, we read, “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.” Christians do not question that God has dominion over all that exists. But God, in his own sovereignty, has charged human beings to exercise dominion in this world. Since we are created in his image, part of that image is one of dominion over creation. When God creates man, he speaks these words:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Gen. 1:26-28)
Human beings are to have dominion over the earth and subdue the earth. Subduing the earth is not “playing God,” but it is part of fulfilling the role of those who have been created in his image.
When human beings make scientific and technological breakthroughs, they are engaging in this process of taking dominion. When we find smart ways to ease the burden of labor, when we discover methods to make travel faster and more comfortable, when we invent computers that have such incredible ways to harness, gather, transmit, and store knowledge, we are taking dominion. The same is true when it comes to finding cures for disease. We shouldn’t say, “Well, since viruses exist, it must not be God’s will for us to overcome them.” Destroying viruses, finding cures for disease, helping those who are handicapped in any way is part of taking dominion. The difficulty develops when we might do things to take dominion that are immoral, unethical, or in plain violation of God’s word.
We cannot fault Rodman in Rise of the Planet of the Apes for wanting to find a cure for his father’s Alzheimer’s. Such people should be applauded in their quest. We should pray for and support with our prayers, talents, and time those who are engaged in the pursuit of alleviating human suffering. The dilemma crops up when we ask the question, “Is everything permissible when it comes to alleviating human suffering?” Can we use any means necessary? For example, some viewers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes might object to using apes at all in scientific research to find a cure for human illnesses. They would ask the question, “Is it right to make chimpanzees suffer in order to alleviate human suffering.” Do the ends justify the means? Christians face this same issue when we deal with issues such as stem cell research. We often hear that stem cell research would improve, perhaps even cure the illnesses of so many people. Should we stand in the way of such research, or are there moral and ethical concerns that give us pause to think, “We want to assuage human suffering, but there are some things that are not permissible for us to do, no matter the suffering that might be diminished.”
These are the kinds of questions that Christians must face, and we must be involved in the discussion when these issues are raised. Advances in technology almost always raise moral and ethical questions. With every advance in technology comes a new question for Christians to answer. For example, not many years ago, Christians did not have to deal with the issue of life-support systems. There were no machines that could sustain “life” the way they can now. Modern Christians face a whole new array of moral issues and decisions that our ancestors did not face, all because of advances in technology. Now we have to deal with questions such as “When is a person really dead?” Are people dead when they can no longer breathe without life support systems? Are people dead when there is no perceivable brain activity? When is it right to pull the plug? Many Christians have come to satisfactory answers to those questions, but those are issues that many people did not have to face before the modern era.
Christians need to enter into dialogue with the surrounding culture in discussion of such issues. We need to raise a generation of Christians who are capable of discussing these matters with our culture in a rational and civil manner. It is not enough for us to be standing outside the arena shouting proof-texts out of context at the rest of the world. Christians must be in the foreground of the research and the ethical questions that are raised by the research. We can no longer afford to huddle in our enclaves and wait for “the rapture” to deliver us from these difficult issues and confrontations. We must encourage Christians to be experts in scientific research and technology. We need Christians who are trained in philosophy with an emphasis in ethics to make valuable contributions to these discussions. Christians need to return to the Renaissance ideal of being godly and devoted, while at the same time, being the most brilliant minds of their generation in all fields of study. These moral questions are not going to go away. The questions are actually going to proliferate along with the increases in technological innovation. We cannot afford, by ignorance and apathy, to quit the field. If we do, this entire culture will pay the price when those with no Biblical foundation are left to determine the ethical standards of future generations.
Another important question suggested by Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, “How do we respond after certain discoveries and breakthroughs have been made, perhaps by unethical means?” One of the intriguing parts of this film is how Caesar is treated by human beings after he attains this incredible intelligence. Because he is mistreated, he rebels violently against those who have turned their backs on him. One of the key ingredients in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is how Frankenstein rejects the creature he has made, and the ensuing anger of the creature in response that rejection. In the future, scientific advances are going to be made that Christians opposed. How will they respond? Let’s take, for example, the issue of human cloning. I would venture to say that many Christians would be opposed to this procedure, but if it is done, then the Christian will have to answer the question, “How do we view these beings?” Are they human? Would it be permissible to harvest their organs as some recent science fiction films have suggested? Things like this are going to happen. If human history has proved one thing, it is that what can be done will be done. Rise of the Planet of the Apes does a great job of showing how compassion and greed almost guarantee that sooner or later, scientific discoveries will be put to practical use. Rodman is motivated by love for his father. But Stephen Jacobs (David Oyelowo), one of the top executives in Gen Sys, wants to go forward with the discoveries strictly for the sake of financial profit. We can make all the laws we like to outlaw things such as human cloning, but one day, somebody is going to do it. I am reminded of a scene from Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum’s character is describing the arrogance that was displayed in reintroducing dinosaurs to our environment. He says, “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” The Christian must be involved at both points of discussion. We must be involved in questions of whether something should be done. But if it is done, then we must also be involved in the question of what do we do now that it has been done. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very difficult, if not impossible to get it back inside. Once again, the Christian will be called upon to respond to a situation, perhaps not to his liking, but existing, nevertheless.
Are we playing God? Perhaps. Are we crossing the line? Are we crossing boundaries that we should not cross? Maybe. Now, the question is, “How do we respond to what has been done?” We must not separate ourselves from these issues and these debates. Unfortunately, Christians have often used the Gospel as an excuse to become disconnected from our culture and the issues it faces. The Gospel was never meant to isolate from our culture and what is happening in it. Instead, the Gospel enables us to approach every ethical issue in very exciting, invigorating manner. We mustn’t allow the world to think that since we base our standards of behavior on an ancient book, we have nothing relevant to say to these great scientific and technological issues. Rather, we must be equipped educationally, philosophically, scientifically, and Biblically to engage our culture in the great moral dilemmas produced by the advance of science.