August 10, 2011

The Atlantic on the science of 'Planet of the Apes'

Very cool article in The Atlanic: The Science of 'Planet of the Apes': Could Simians Get Scary Smart? Excerpt:
...there's some eerie validity to the on-screen science. The technique used to treat Alzheimer’s in Rise, for example, has been tried in labs. Scientists can engineer what amounts to a genetic delivery system—a virus sent out to the brain that infects neurons with desired genetic material. Once the transfer is made, those genes can change or improve cognitive functioning.

This has been done experimentally, says Dr. Lary Walker of Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. But usually on mice; never on apes. And the results aren’t quite as extraordinary (or quick) as those seen in the movie. “The idea that the next day, they’re going to be Einsteins—or that at any point they’re going to be Einsteins—is not going to happen,” he says.

Like Franco’s character in the film, Walker is an Alzheimer’s researcher. He spent a portion of his 25-year career in the pharmaceutical industry before returning to academia. While he brushes off any comparisons between him and the movie's protagonist, he gives the Rise filmmakers some credit for their nods to reality. "They did their homework," he says. "But when you take it in aggregate, it all tends to fall apart. It had elements of good science, but in the end, it was science fiction with the accent on fiction."
And this:
Nature magazine published a report last year suggesting that non-human primates with sections of human DNA implanted into their genomes at the embryonic stage—through a process called transgenics—might develop enough self-awareness “to appreciate the ways their lives are circumscribed, and to suffer, albeit immeasurably, in the full psychological sense of that term.”

“That’s the ethical concern: that we would produce a creature,” says bioethicist Dr. Marilyn Coors, one of the authors of the Nature report. “If it were cognitively aware, you wouldn’t want to put it in a zoo. What kind of cruelty would that be? You wouldn’t be able to measure the cruelty—or maybe it could tell you. I don’t know.”

Although Walker doesn’t know of anyone doing research to enhance cognitive function in apes, and Coors knows of no transgenic apes, Coors points out that scientists theoretically have the technical capability to produce them.

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