If you find yourself at a loss for a Christmas present for a like-minded adult, might I suggest that you consider the new Planet of the Apes film, released last week on DVD and Blue Ray?
A strange idea you might think, but interestingly enough the film addresses many of the issues that we have debated this year on the Bassetti Foundation website, and asks some difficult ethical questions.
The opening half hour of the film is set around a drug company testing laboratory, where apes are given a medicine that may prove to be a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The two main characters have differing viewpoints on how the trails should be run, one (management) interested in money, the other (researcher) in protocol, but the strain of this relationship eventually leads to the researcher being subordinate to the profit making needs of the company.
In a recent review on this site of a book entitled Deadly Monopolies, Bioethicist Harriet Washington looks at what she sees as the inherent bias towards profit making in the pharmaceutical industry, and the ethical issues that arise from the strained marriage of two competing ideologies, and although presented in Hollywood style, this film does the same. Another article on this website entitled ‘Drugs for People and not for Profit’ also addresses these issues.
Another event that occurs in the film is the contamination of one of the researchers with a virus produced in the lab, who then goes on to spread the virus to others before dying of it. This issue has also been recently raised on this website both in a posting about recent biodefense cuts in the US and in our conversation with Congressman Capuano, talking about the public’s attitudes to placing a biodefense lab in the centre of the city of Boston, and its ensuing political controvercy.
Margerita Fronte’s latest article (in Italian) addresses the problem of deliberately mutating viruses in order to make them more virulent in labs for research purposes, mirroring the film’s plot almost perfectly. In the film a more virulent strain is required to overcome the body’s natural immune fighting capacity, in order to maintain the drug’s efficiency, but with disastrous results.
As the film unfolds the human and subjective nature of decision-making comes to the fore, the role of emotions in what should be scientific and ethical decision making, and the unforeseen, be that the product of subversive action or lack of best practices. Here I would argue lies the entire argument of responsibility.
Related materials on the site also include various articles written by Jeff Ubois on his blog about the ethics of human enhancement, a topic also touched upon in the film. It is in fact this possibility that leads to the disaster that unfolds as the film runs.
The topic of human enhancement is also touched upon in a recent article by Virginia Sanchini entitled ‘Ethics, Human Enhancement and Genetics”, and in the film genetics is all important. The ape in question was enhanced through genetics, a second generation from the initial experiment.
An article about the work of Richard Epstein posted a couple of years ago addresses the idea of using different communicative means to educate the population, and this film certainly brings several controversial ethical points into play. Epstein uses plays to teach ethics to University students with the aim of promoting discussion. We should add that the Planet of the Apes film is one of the biggest box office takers of this year, and so millions of people were exposed to these issues via cinema and now DVD.
A blockbuster that takes an interesting ethical standpoint.
(Photo: part of Dr Zeus, SciFi Museum, Seattle — EFF Pioneer Awards at CFP 2005 by gruntzooki from Flickr)