Cuba, Race, Revolution, and Revisionism

 | 

When Cuba’s serial and multiple African military interventions began in 1963 with Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from Portugal, Fidel Castro selected black Cuban soldiers and conscripts to man his liberation regiments. Dead black bodies in Africa were less likely to be identified as Cuban, according to Norberto Fuentes, Castro’s resident writer and — at the time — official biographer, confidant, and a participant in the later Angolan wars.

Cuba’s African — and Latin American — adventures were made possible by agreements reached among the USSR, Cuba, and the United States to end the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. One of those protocols was a promise from the US that it would respect Cuban sovereignty and refrain from invading the island. To Castro, this was a green light to build Cuba’s armed forces for the liberation of the world’s downtrodden instead of having to concentrate his resources for the defense of the island.

Ochoa was the only subordinate who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, the humorless, haughty, and overbearing Fidel Castro.

However, when it came to deploying his black brigades, Castro found himself short of black commanders. Enter Arnaldo (“Negro”) T. Ochoa Sánchez.

Ochoa had been part of Castro's 26th of July Movement ever since its creation, and by March 1957 he had joined Castro's guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra, fighting against the Batista dictatorship. It was then that Ochoa and Raúl Castro forged a close friendship, one that also led to a certain intimacy with Raúl’s brother, Fidel. According to Fuentes, in his book Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, Ochoa was the only subordinate he knew who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, Fidel Castro — a humorless, haughty, and overbearing caudillo.

Ochoa, of humble Oriente peasant origins, had distinguished himself in the Revolution and during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, subsequently attending the Matanzas War College and Frunze Military Academy in the Soviet Union and rising to the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee. But he really distinguished himself in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict. Cuba aided Ethiopia in this USSR vs. China proxy war, since both boasted Marxist regimes. Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

The problem was that Ochoa wasn’t really “black,” a racial classification that could apply to almost anyone in Cuba, especially if one uses the rule of thumb once common in the United States: that anyone with any black ancestry, no matter how distant or dilute, is black. (This author’s DNA test reveals a 1–3% West African ancestry, a detail not noticeable in his phenotype.) Ochoa is very swarthy, in a Mediterranean sort of way; yet his phenotype fails to show any classic “Negroid” features. It was Raúl Castro who nicknamed him Negro (black) by bestowing on him a promotion to “Black” General. The Armed Forces Minister wanted a black commander for the black troops he sent to Africa because he lacked a qualified, real black general who would realize both his political and his military objectives.

Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

Now, Cuba’s armed forces actually did include black commanders, among them General Víctor Schueg Colás (see below) and Juan Almeida Bosque. Almeida was a veteran of the assault on the Moncada Army barracks that launched the 26th of July Movement. Along with the Castros, Almeida was caught, imprisoned, amnestied, and exiled to Mexico after that defeat. He was on the Granma yacht as it landed survivors in Cuba, and he fought against Batista in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Later he was promoted to head of the Santiago Column of the Revolutionary Army. Wikipedia, without any sense of irony, says that “he served as a symbol for Afro-Cubans of the rebellion's break with Cuba's discriminatory past.” In his book Como Llegó la Noche, Huber Matos, third in command of the Revolutionary armies after Fidel and Raúl — though later to be purged — describes Almeida as unsuited for military command, a “yes” man. He says that Fidel kept him purely for his loyalty and as a symbol of the Revolution’s inclusiveness of Afro-Cubans. Almeida was the only black commander during the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s token black.

Ochoa took the nickname Negro in stride and probably even affectionately, fully understanding the political rationale behind the dubbing. In this author’s opinion, his attitude towards race (and by extension, Fuentes’ attitude) is pretty representative of one general streak of Cuban racial attitudes. Here is my translation of Norberto Fuentes’ description of Ochoa’s reaction to the moniker:

Ochoa, besides being mestizo, was very obstinate. When anyone alluded to Raúl’s reason for the nickname — that the Minister didn’t have any competent, real black generals — Ochoa would begin to vigorously shake his head. And he would continue this stubbornness even when reminded of General Víctor Schueg Colás — el Negro Chué — as he was generally known: a black Cuban general.

Ochoa responded that “el Negro Chué was not a negro who was a general.”

“And what kind of BS is that, Arnaldo?” asked a member of the group.

“He is a general who is black, and that’s not the same thing as a black who is a general.”

For a second I [Fuentes] thought Ochoa was about to write a second volume to Alex Haley’s Roots. My mind reviewed the list of black Cuban generals.

“And what about Kindelán? And Silvano Colás? And Moracén? And Calixto García? And Francis?” I challenged him.

“None of those are either generals or black,” he declared.

“But then what the fuck are they, Arnaldo?”

“Fictions, my friend. Nothing more than nonsense,” he blithely answered.

If you, dear reader, can’t make sense of that, don’t worry. It’s Ochoa’s way of saying that race doesn’t matter, that race is irrelevant, that concerns about race are nonsense. One Cuban-American academic, quoted in Guarione Diaz’ The Cuban American Experience: Issues, Perceptions and Realities, averring that humor is an essential trait of the Cuban personality, describes the archetypal Cuban as “one who jokes about serious matters while taking jokes seriously.” In that vein, there is a deeper intent in Ochoa’s flippancy that Fuentes, in a stream of consciousness rant, then goes on to elaborate.

The Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

His idea is that Ochoa, in his own irreverent way, was seeking redemption for the tragedy of Cuba’s “stoical, forced, brave, sweet and immense blacks” who had to carry — since 1965 — the full brunt of the Revolutionary Armed Forces’ guerrilla campaigns in Africa, because the Castros believed that dead black bodies in Africa couldn’t really be traced back to Cuba. They didn’t contemplate any POWs.

In Fuentes’ view, the Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: two centuries ago, in physical chains across the Atlantic to the Americas; in the late 20th century, shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

To Ochoa, race was a trivial issue; to the Castros it was an essential component of their revolutionary tool kit in their struggle for universal social justice. When, according to Diaz, Cubans began leaving the island in droves to escape the repressive regime, “the revolutionary government denied exit visas to Blacks more than to Whites to show the international community that Cuban Blacks supported the revolution and did not flee Cuba.”

Castro himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated the black prisoners — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race.

The Castros’ revisionist racial attitude reared its ugly head again during the Bay of Pigs fiasco when the invading members of Brigade 2506 surrendered or were captured. Black prisoners were singled out for extra abuse. They were perceived as traitors since, in the Castro calculus, the Revolution had been fought — in part — for them. Haynes Johnson, in his book, The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story, adds that “of all prisoners, Negroes received the worst treatment.” They didn’t fit Castro’s Revolutionary narrative, and their presence on the invasion force infuriated him. He himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated them — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race. Osmany Cienfuegos, a Minister in Castro’s government and brother of Revolutionary Commander Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, lined them up against a wall and told them: “We’re going to shoot you now, niggers, then we’re going to make soap out of you.”

One notable exchange during the prisoners’ trial was with Tomás Cruz, a paratrooper of the 1st Battalion. “You, negro, what are you doing here?” Castro asked, reminding Cruz that the Revolution had been fought for people like him, and of the swimming restrictions at some tourist resort hotels before the Revolution (a pathetic concession to attract American tourists).

Cruz, with all the dignity he could muster, responded, “I don’t have any complex about my color or my race. I have always been among the white people, and I have always been as a brother to them. And I did not come here to go swimming.”

Black is White and White is Black

Broadly speaking, in Cuba, race — in this context meaning skin color — is a relatively unimportant issue, on par with other physical traits such as weight, height, pulchritude, hair color, and even disposition. Unlike in the US, where large proportions of black people distinguish themselves from the broader population with distinctive clothing, hair styles, music, linguistic flourishes, political attitudes, and other traits, all kinds of Cubans share cultural values, patois, styles of dress, music, etc. Even religious affiliation, which in the Unites States often makes a visible difference between the races, tends toward a high degree of syncretism, with ancestral roots and beliefs to the fore instead of any racial overtones — a theme that the Castro regime has falsely exploited by preferential treatment of Santeria over other religions, treating it as compensation to a previously “oppressed” race (in Castro’s revisionist ideology). American hypersensitivity to race is unknown in Cuba.

In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses.

But how did race virtually disappear as a contentious issue in Cuba, while persisting until modern times in the United States — especially considering that the former eliminated slavery 21 years after the latter?

In spite of the awful conditions of the sugarcane fields, slavery under Spanish colonial rule was nothing like what it had become in the United States by the eve of the Civil War. According to historian Jaime Suchlicki in Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond, “Spanish law, the Catholic religion, the economic condition of the island, and the Spanish attitude toward the blacks all contributed to aid the blacks’ integration into Cuban society.” After all, the Spanish had lived for centuries under the comparatively tolerant rule of Moors.

In the American south, negritude — to any degree, i.e., the notorious “one drop rule” enacted in several states — equated skin color with a deprivation of rights. In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses. One 18th-century observer noted that many had become skilled craftsmen, “not only in the lowest [trades] such as shoemakers, tailors, masons and carpenters, but also in those which require more ability and genius, such as silversmith’s craft, sculpture, painting and carving.”

Joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South.

Additionally, Spain’s liberal manumission policy “resulted in almost 40% of African-Cubans being free in 1792,” reports Andro Linklater in his book on the evolution of private property, Owning the Earth. The diverging legal and social attitudes toward race in Cuba and in the US presaged future developments in each country. The paradoxical contrasts are striking. Whereas Reconstruction in the US institutionalized policies that had grown more nakedly racist since Independence — equating skin color with the presence or absence of rights and talents — the opposite was true in Cuba. Under the influence of the Catholic Church, the fundamental humanity of Africans was uncontroversially established early on; slavery and skin color were philosophically separated. In the time of Cuba’s Wars of Independence, Antonio Maceo, an Afro-Cuban, became second-in-command of the rebel armies.

At about the time of these wars, a notable segment of Cuban intellectuals favored the Texas model: declare independence from the colonial power and petition the US Congress for admission to the Union. The idea was so popular that the proposed Cuban flag was modeled on the Texas flag: a single star on the left, stripes on the right, and the whole rendered in red, white, and blue. However, joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South. It wasn’t just the exploitation of slaves (which also happened in Cuba), but rather the contempt for dark skin color that denied a person’s humanity.

Cuba has always had an amorphous racial climate, one mostly misunderstood or puzzling to Americans. Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown. Skin color was never an impediment to respect. But skin tone snobbery (rarely surpassing trivial tut-tutting or even semi-serious priggishness) was not uncommon. Color gradations, like degrees of body mass index ranging from the skeletal to the morbidly obese, extended into categories of people Americans would consider “white,” with the too-pale also looked at askance, as if they were anemic and rickety.

Fulgencio Batista, while president, was denied membership in the Havana Yacht Club: he was considered too swarthy; although his son, Jorge Luis, was admitted. That he didn’t take the rejection personally and, as a dictator, did not take reprisals, is inconceivable to an American. Instead, the president donated a marina to the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club, as swanky a venue if not more, and, voila! he and his family became members of that club.

Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown in Cuba. Skin color was never an impediment to respect.

This nonchalant — politically-correct Americans might say insensitive — attitude is related to Cubans’ tendency to nickname everyone, even strangers. A person with epicanthic folds will be called Chino, a very black man Negro, a fat person Gordo (my own nickname after immigration), a starkly white-skinned person Bolita de Nieve (Snowball), a skinny woman Flaca, a large-nosed man Ñato, a full-lipped person Bembo (hence, Negro Bembón for a full-lipped black man), a pug-nosed man Chato . . . You get the picture.

But the irreverence also gets manifested post-ironically, in the same vein as Ochoa’s nonchalant whimsy: a very black man might be nicknamed Blanco or Bolita de Nieve, a fat woman Flaca (skinny), and so on.

My favorite example of this is Luis Posada Carriles’ nickname. Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile militant, is considered a terrorist by the FBI. He is generally thought to be responsible for the bombing of Cubana flight 455 in 1976, which killed 73, including 24 members of Cuba’s National Fencing Team. In addition, Posada Carriles is said to have been involved in the planning of six bombings at Havana hotels and restaurants during 1997. His rap sheet is much too long repeat here. Posada Carriles’ nickname? Bambi.

But I digress. Overtones of Americans’ racial (a term I hesitate to use, as you’ll see below) attitudes are making inroads into the Cuban-American experience. One white Cuban-American informant admitted to being fearful of and avoiding groups of black men after dark in the US, a behavior that had never crossed his mind back in Cuba. Would one call his reaction in the US “racism”? I wouldn’t. I’d call it adaptability based on experience, a phenomenon that black economist Thomas Sowell has explicitly addressed in his writings.

The Color of Culture

Americans, both black and white, are quick to cry racism in any untoward exchange between people of different hues when someone is being a boor or a snob or experiencing a misunderstanding or, more often than not, when mild ethnocentricity is at work. Ethnocentricity . . . a big word that simply means the tendency of most people to exercise a preference for congregating with like-minded, like-speaking, like-dressing and like-looking people — people they can easily “relate to.” Expressed hierarchically, people’s instinctive loyalty is first to their family, then to their clan (extended family), town, state, religion, in-group, political party, culture, nation, etc. One can see this in the popular slogans “buy local” and “buy American.”

Imagine you’re a small business owner looking for a sales rep. You interview two applicants, one black and one white. The white applicant is sloppily dressed, needs a shower, doesn’t speak clearly, and seems distracted. The black applicant, on the other hand, is fully engaged, is dressed smartly, and seems keen to join your operation. It’s a no-brainer — the black applicant has more in common with you; skin color is not a factor.

We all share a tendency to look at other cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own values, evaluating people according to preconceptions originating in our own standards and customs.

Now imagine the opposite scenario: The black applicant displays plumber’s crack, reeks, and is unintelligible; while the white wears a coat and tie, speaks in your local accent and displays overwhelming enthusiasm. Again, a no-brainer, with skin color again not a factor; instead of that, it is shared values that determine your choice.

Ethnocentrism does, however, have its extremes, the ones you’ll most often come across in a dictionary, without the nuances of an Anthropology 101 course. The first — and one that we all share to some degree — is a tendency to look at other people and cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own culture and values, evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of our own milieu. More extreme is the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture — an attitude that, taken to an absurd limit, can breed intolerance, chauvinism, and violence.

The Origin of Races

What is race? One doesn’t need to understand race in order to be a racist or accuse someone of racism. Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race. H. Bentley Glass and Ching Chun Li were able to calculate from blood group data that North American Negroes have about 31% white ancestry (cited in Stanley M. Garn and Charles C. Thomas, Readings on Race [1968]). For practical or political reasons, biologists and physical anthropologists are divided as to the validity of the concept.

First, the more practical biologists. In biology, race is equivalent to variety, breed, or sub-species. In a nutshell, it is incipient speciation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, race is “a group of living things connected by common descent or origin” — as uncontroversial and far from the whole-picture definition as one can dream up. But to understand race one first has to understand species.

Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race.

A species is a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, just below genus — yet even this is by no means a simple or clear-cut concept. Think of horses, donkeys, mules, Jennies, zebras and zorses (a horse-zebra hybrid); or dogs, wolves and coyotes. These animals can interbreed, with various rates of fertility success, but do not normally interbreed in the wild. To account for this, the classic definition of species was amended by the addition of a qualifier, that the group of organisms in question must not only be able to interbreed but must also do so regularly and not under extraordinary or artificial circumstances.

To further complicate things (or was it to simplify?), Ernst Mayr, one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists and taxonomists, formulated the theory of ring species (aka formenkreis) in 1942 to explain a natural anomaly in the distribution of closely related populations. According to Wikipedia, “a ring species is a connected series of neighboring populations, each of which can interbreed with closely sited related populations, but for which there exist at least two ‘end’ populations in the series, which are too distantly related to interbreed, though there is a potential gene flow between each ‘linked’ population.”

The term ‘ring species’ is a vestigial remnant of some of the first ring species identified, but the populations need not be in a ring shape. Examples include the circumpolar Larus herring gull complex, Ensatina salamanders, the house mouse, trumpet fish, drosophila flies, deer mice, and many other bird, slugs, butterflies, and others. Most natural populations are bedeviled by such complexities, including our closest relative, Pan troglodytes, among whom the East African subspecies shweinfurthii is separated by the Congo River and half a continent from the West African variant verus.

Gould believed that the concept of "race" had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated.

So that brings us back to race, or incipient speciation. Charles Darwin, in Origin of Species, identified the speciation process as occurring when a subpopulation of organisms gets separated from the larger group, fails to interbreed with them, and interbreeds strictly with itself. This process increases the smaller group’s genetic complement while reducing — again, within the smaller group — the larger group’s greater genetic diversity. The eventual result may be that the smaller group becomes distinct enough to form a new species. This part of the process is labeled “genetic drift.”

Two other factors usually contribute to speciation: genetic mutation and adaptation (through natural selection) to a new environment or way of life. Here “adaptation” does not carry the sense of individuals “getting accustomed to” a new situation but rather the sense of individuals carrying genes that are detrimental in that situation dying before they procreate — in time deleting those genes from the smaller group. This is called “natural selection.” After a subgroup separates from the main population and before it becomes a new species…this is when the term “race” properly applies.

But Darwin understood the limitations:

Certainly no clear line of demarcations has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species — that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between sub-species and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.

Of course, a race may never become a new species; it may well, for any number of reasons, reintegrate back into the main population — which brings us back to human races and the more political anthropological concepts.

Some experts, the late Marxist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to the fore, believed that race, as applied to humans, was unhelpful, even invalid. He believed that the concept had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated. And forget “variety” (humans aren’t flowers) and “breed” (they aren’t dogs) and “subspecies” (the Nazis’ use of unter ruined that prefix).

On the other side stand the Physical Anthropologists (Stanley Garn, Paul T. Baker, Bentley Glass, Joseph S. Weiner, et al.) with the late physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, who pioneered the scientific study of human races under the Darwinian paradigm of adaptive and evolutionary processes.

Coon divided Homo sapiens into five races with origins in some distant past, distant enough that genetic and phenotypical differences appeared: the Caucasoid, Congoid, Capoid, Mongoloid and Australoid races. These had diverged not only because of genetic drift, but also as adaptations to their local conditions. The oldest races were the darkest: African Blacks, Australoids and Papuans; while whites, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians diverged later. Skin color varied according to sun exposure. For example, northern European climates favored fair skin to improve Vitamin D synthesis, while dark skin was a shield from Vitamin D overdose. However, in extremely hot and sunny climes such as the Sahel, too-black a skin would tend to heat a body too much, favoring a more swarthy tone. Along the lands of the upper Nile, tall, lanky bodies helped radiate accumulated heat.

When sickle-cell anemia was discovered in white populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of adaptations such as skin color

On the other hand, the Inuit were physically well adapted to extreme cold: compact bodies to conserve heat; little facial hair to prevent frozen breath condensation that might freeze the face; lightly protruding noses to protect it from freezing; epicanthic eye folds to reduce the area of the eyes to the elements and yellow or yellow-brown skin. The yellow skin likely evolved as an adaptation to cold temperatures in northern Asia. The yellow color resulted from a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, visible through translucent outer layers of skin.

A more recent adaptation was lactose tolerance, which apparently evolved in whites, permitting adult consumption of milk following the domestication of cattle about 6,000 B.C. But one of the most curious adaptations was sickle cell anemia, a debilitating genetic disease that nonetheless provided partial immunity to malaria to the carrier of one allele. First discovered in black African populations, it was first considered a Negroid feature. However, when it was discovered in white circum-Mediterranean populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of other adaptations such as skin color — a curious vestigial association from more unenlightened times.

Coon’s classifications — mostly unbeknownst to him because the later fine points post-dated him — were already a mélange built on a vast diversity of prehistoric Homo: neanderthalensis, sapiens, denisovans, floriensis, erectus, habilis, etc. Some scholars define these as separate species, others as separate races. I would argue that it is impossible to define an extinct species within a genus from bone remains alone. (Conversely, albeit ironically, modern skeletal remains often yield their race.) DNA researcher Svante Päävo, one of the founders of paleogenetics and a Neanderthal gene expert, has opined that the ongoing “taxonomic wars” over whether Neanderthals were a separate species or subspecies as the type of debate that cannot be resolved, “since there is no definition of species perfectly describing the case.”

Human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us.

Luckily, some Neanderthal DNA has been sequenced and it was discovered that Sapiens includes some of those brutes’ genetic material — about 2% — in northern European populations. In our history, studies suggest there may have been three episodes of interbreeding. The first would have occurred soon after modern humans left Africa. The second would have occurred after the ancestral Melanesians had branched off — these people seem to have thereafter bred with Denisovans, 90% of whose genetic material is extant in modern Sapiens. The third would have involved Neanderthals and the ancestors of East Asians only, whose percentage of Neanderthal genetic material nears 20%.

One difficulty with Coon was his overly distinct racial categories. To some degree he realized this, even while recognizing many subraces, racial mixtures, and incipient formenkreis (before the phenomenon had a name). The problem was that these incipient races kept interbreeding at their verges (and even farther afield; consider Vikings, Mongols, and Polynesians), and accelerating racial mixture after 1500, when human populations began interbreeding willy-nilly, because of globalization.

And that, dear reader, is why Gould and others eschew human racial classifications.

Meanwhile, human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us. The April 21 issue of The Economist reports the discovery of a new human racial variant in the Malay Archipelago. The Bajau people spend almost all of their lives at sea. “They survive on a diet composed almost entirely of seafood. And . . . spend 60% of their working day underwater . . . They sometimes descend more than 70 meters (240 feet) and can stay submerged for up to five minutes . . . They have lived like this for at least 1,000 years.” The evidence suggests strongly that these astonishing abilities are genetic, the result of mutations and natural selection.

The Bajau spleen, an organ that acts as an emergency reserve of oxygenated red blood cells, is 50% larger than those of neighboring populations — “a difference unconnected with whether an individual was a prolific diver or one who spent most of his time working above the waves on a boat. This suggests that it is the Bajau lineage rather than the actual activity of diving, which is responsible for a larger spleen,” continues The Economist.

There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

DNA analysis tells a similar story: a series of Bajau genetic mutations controls blood flow preferentially to oxygen-starved vital organs; another that slows the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and one that controls muscle contractions around the spleen.

What to make of all this? Human racial differences, both behavioral and phenotypic, exist and are worth studying: for medicine, forensic science, DNA studies and just for basic scientific knowledge. Genes are not destiny; they encode broad parameters for modification, in the uterine environment, through nurturing, and now through technology (for better or worse). There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

Will Americans in general ever achieve Arnaldo Ochoa’s insouciance about race? We can only hope. After a Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, segregation, and Civil Rights, we’re now experiencing a heightened sensitivity in the finer details of race relations — probably a good indication of the tremendous progress that has been made in the fundamentals.




Share This


Pandora’s Book

 | 

What would you do if you were told that something you believe is not true? It would depend on who was telling you, I guess. It would also depend on how important the belief was to you, and on the strength of the evidence offered, wouldn’t it?

Suppose the belief in question had shaped your career and your view of how the world works. What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?

Would you look at it?

In his 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Nicholas Wade takes the position that “human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.” Put that way, it sounds rather harmless, doesn’t it? In fact, the book has caused quite a ruckus.

What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?

The following is not a review of Wade’s book. It is, instead, more a look at how the book was received and why. There are six parts: a story about Galileo, a summary of what I was taught about evolution in college, a sharper-edged rendering of the book’s hypothesis, an overview of some of the reviews, an irreverent comment on the controversy over Wade’s choice of a word, and, finally, an upbeat suggestion to those engaged in the ongoing nurture vs. nature debate.

1. It is the winter of 1609. In a courtyard of the University of Padua, Galileo Galilei closes one eye and peers at the moon through his recently improved telescope. As he observes the play of light and shadow on its surface, there comes a moment when he realizes that he is looking at the rising and setting of the sun across the mountains and valleys of another world. He is stunned.

Galileo hurries to tell his friend and colleague, Cesare Cremonini, then drags him to the courtyard, urging him to view this wonder. Cesare puts his eye to the scope for just a moment, then pulls his head back, pauses, frowns, and says, “I do not wish to approve of claims about which I do not have any knowledge, and about things which I have not seen . . . and then to observe through those glasses gives me a headache. Enough! I do not want to hear anything more about this.”

What a thing to say.

A little context might help. Cesare taught the philosophy of Aristotle at Padua. Aristotle held that the moon was not a world but a perfect sphere: no mountains, no valleys. Furthermore, the Inquisition was underway, and a tenured professor of philosophy who started rhapsodizing about “another world” would have been well advised to restrict his comments to the Celestial Kingdom. The Pope, you see, agreed with Aristotle. To him, and, therefore, to the Roman Catholic Church, the only “world” was the earth, the immobile center of the universe around which everything else moved. Any other view was taboo. Poor Cesare! Not only did he not want to look through the telescope; he did not want there to be mountains on the moon at all.

The question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?

It would get worse. Soon Galileo would point his scope at Jupiter and discover its moons, heavenly bodies that clearly weren’t orbiting the earth. Then he would observe and record the astonishing fact that Venus went through phases as it orbited not the earth but the sun. So: Ptolemy was wrong, Copernicus was right, and Cesare Cremonini would go down in history as the epitome of willful ignorance. Galileo, of course, fell into the clutches of the Inquisition and became a hero of the Renaissance.

To be fair to Cesare, the story has been retrospectively streamlined into a sort of scientific morality tale. While the part about Galileo’s discovery is probably more or less right, Cremonini’s remark wasn’t made directly to Galileo. It was reported to him later in a letter from a mutual friend, Paolo Gualdo. The text of that letter is included in Galileo’s work, Opere II. And while those jagged borders of light and dark on the moon, imperfectly magnified, were certainly thought-provoking, to say that the case against Ptolemy was closed on the spot, that night in Padua, would be too neat.

It makes a good story, though, and a nice lens for viewing reactions to scientific breakthroughs. Changing our focus now from the moons of Jupiter to the molecular Rubik’s cube we call the human genome, the question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?

2. In an undergraduate course, taken decades ago, I was taught that human evolution had more or less stopped when the glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago. Evolution had been driven primarily by natural selection in response to a changing environment; and, as such changes had, for the time being at least, halted, so too had the evolution of man.

I was taught that races exist only as social constructs, not as meaningful biological categories, and that these constructs are only skin deep. They told me that the social behavior of an individual is not genetic, that behavioral and cognitive propensities just aren’t in our genes.

I was taught that the differences among social organizations are unrelated to the genetic differences of the populations that comprise those various organizations, and that social environments have no influence on human evolution.

3. To show how Wade’s book stirred things up, I will present his central hypothesis with an emphasis on the controversial parts. I’ll avoid scientific jargon, in an effort to make the meaning clearer to my fellow nonscientists.

Wade believes that humanity has been evolving rapidly during the past 30,000 years and continues to evolve rapidly today. It is not just our physical characteristics that continue to evolve. The genes that influence our behavior also evolve. (Yes, that’s what the book says, that our behavior is influenced by our genes.)

is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer is “yes.”

He also believes that humanity has evolved differently in different locations, most markedly on the different continents, where the major races evolved. (Yes, the book calls them races.)

These separately evolved genetic differences include those that influence behavior. (Yes, the book says that race is deeper than the skin.)

Furthermore, these genetic differences in behavioral propensities have contributed to the diversity of civilizations. The characteristics of any given civilization, in turn, influence the direction of evolution of the humans who compose it.

Oh, my.

We now know that the earth goes around the sun. But is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Does the particular set of alleles in an individual’s genome influence how that person behaves? Does the particular frequency of alleles in the collective genetic material of the people who compose a civilization influence the characteristics of that civilization? Do the characteristics of a civilization influence the direction of the evolution of the humans that compose it? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer to all these questions is “yes.” While he does not claim that all of this has been proven, he is saying, in effect, that what I learned in college is not true. Am I now to be cast as Cremonini?

4. There are those who disagree with Wade.

In fact, lots of people didn’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all. I’ve read about 20 reviews, few of them favorable. Even Charles Murray, writing in theWall Street Journal, seemed skeptical of some of Wade’s arguments.Most of the others were simply unfavorable, among them reviews in the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, Scientific American, the New York Times, The New Republic, and even Reason. Slate and The Huffington Post piled on. While Brian Bethune’s review in MacLean’s was gentler than most, it was gently dismissive.

The reactions run from disdain to anger to mockery. Nathaniel Comfort’s satirical review Hail Britannia!,in his blog Genotopia, is the funniest. Donning the persona of a beef-fed, red-faced, pukka sahib at the height of the Raj, he praises Wade’s book as a self-evident explanation of the superiority of the West in general and the British in particular. (I once saw a retired British officer of the Indian Army being told by an Indian government official that he had to move his trailer to a remote area of a tiger preserve to ensure the security of a visiting head of state. He expressed his reluctance with the words, “I’m trying to be reasonable, damn it, but I’m not a reasonable man!”)

There’s some pretty heated language in these reviews, too. That the reviewers are upset is understandable. After all, they have been told that what they believe is not true. And the fellow doing the telling isn’t even a scientist.Sure, Nicholas Wade was a science writer and editor for the New York Times for three decades, but that doesn’t makehim a scientist. Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.

Of course they’re angry. Some of these guys are professors who teach, do research, and write books on the very subject areas that Wade rampages through. If he’s right, then they’re wrong, and their life’s work has been, if not wasted, at the very least misguided.

The consensus is that Wade has made a complete hash of the scientific evidence that he cites to make his case: cherry-picking, mischaracterizing, over-generalizing, quoting out of context, that kind of thing.

Another common complaint is that, wittingly or not, Wade is providing aid and comfort to racists. In fact, the animosity conveyed in some of the reviews may spring primarily from this accusation. In his review in the New York Times, David Dobbs called the book “dangerous.” Whoa. As I said, they don’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all.

So, is Nicholas Wade just plain wrong, or are his learned critics just so many Cremoninis?

5. While the intricacies of most of the disagreements between Wade and his critics are over my head, one of the criticisms is fairly clear. It is that Wade uses the term “race” inappropriately.

The nub of the race question is that biologists want the word “race” as it applies to humans to be the equivalent of the word “subspecies” as it applies to animals. As the genetic differences among individual humans and the different populations of humans are so few, and the boundaries between the populations so indistinct, biologists conclude that there are no races. We are all homo sapiens sapiens. We are one.

Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.

Just south of Flathead Lake in Montana is an 8,000-acre buffalo preserve. One summer day in the mid-’70s, I walked into its visitors center with my wife and father-in-law and asked the woman behind the counter, “Where are the buffalo?” She did not hesitate before hissing, “They’re bison.” Ah, yes: the bison-headed nickel, Bison Bill Cody, and, “Oh, give me a home where the bison roam . . .” You know the critter.

Put it this way: to a National Park Ranger, a buffalo is a bison; to a biological anthropologist, race is a social construct. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a buffalo.

I don’t mean to make light of it. I’ve read the explanations. I’ve studied the printouts that graph and color-code populations according to genetic variation. I’ve studied the maps and charts that show the differences in allele frequencies among the groups. I’ve squinted at the blurry edges of the clusters. I get all that, but this much is clear: the great clusters of genetic variation that correspond to the thousands of years of relative isolation on the various continents that followed the trek out of Africa are real, and because they are genetic, they are biological. In any case, we are not in a biology class; we are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.” To criticize Wade’s use of the term “race” seems pedantic. Whether to call the clusters “races” or “populations” or “groups” is a semantic dispute.

Put it another way: If you put on your “there is no such thing as race” costume for Halloween, you’ll be out trick-or-treating in your birthday suit, unless you stay on campus.

Besides, use any word you want, it won’t affect the reality that the symbol represents. The various “populations” either have slightly different genetic mixes that nudge behavior differently, or they don’t. I mean, are we seeking the truth here or just trying to win an argument?

6. While Wade offers no conclusive proof that genes create behavioral predispositions, he does examine some gene-behavior associations that point in that direction and seem particularly open to further testing. Among them are the MAOA gene and its influence on aggression and violence, and the OXTR gene and its influence on empathy and sensitivity. (The symbols link to recent research results.)

What these have in common is that the biochemical chain from the variation of the gene to the behavior is at least partly understood. The chemical agents of the genes in question are L-monoamine oxidase and oxytocin, respectively. Because of this, testing would not be restricted to a simple correlation of alleles to overt behaviors in millions of people, though that is a sound way to proceed as well. The thing about the intermediate chemical triggers is that they could probably be measured, manipulated, and controlled for.

We are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.”

The difficult task of controlling for epigenetic, developmental, and environmental variables would also be required but, in the end, it should be possible to determine whether the alleles in question actually influence behavior.

If they do, the next step would be to determine the frequency of the relevant allele patterns in various populations. If the frequency varies significantly, then the discussion about how these genetic differences in behavioral propensities may have contributed to the diverse characteristics of civilizations could be conducted on firmer ground.

If the alleles are proven not to influence behavior, then Wade’s hypothesis would remain unproven, and lots of textbooks wouldn’t have to be tossed out.

Of course, it’s not so simple. The dance between the genome and the environment has been going on since life began. At this point, it might be said that everything in the environment potentially influences the evolution of man, making it very difficult to identify which parts of human behavior, if any, are influenced by our genes. Like Cremonini, I have no wish to approve of claims about which I do not have knowledge.

But the hypothesis that Wade lays out will surely be tested and retested. The technology that makes the testing possible is relatively new, but improving all the time. We can crunch huge numbers now, and measure genetic differences one molecule at a time. It is inevitable that possible links between genes and behavior will be examined more and more closely as the technology improves. Associations among groups of alleles, for example, and predispositions of trust, cooperation, conformity, and obedience will be examined, as will the even more controversial possible associations with intelligence. That is to say, the telescope will become more powerful. And then, one evening, we will be able to peer through the newly improved instrument, and we shall see.

That is, of course, if we choose to look.




Share This


Apes Unlimited

 | 

In 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, a film emerged reflecting on the necessity for both. Although it was nominated for two Academy Awards (and won an honorary Oscar for Special Achievement in Makeup Design, which did not become an official category until 1981), the original Planet of the Apes is often dismissed as a campy sci-fi costume flick. Yet it addressed important issues about war, technology, and what it means to be human.

Most people know the plot: after being cryogenically frozen and suspended for centuries, three astronauts crashland on a planet that is remarkably compatible with human life; it has the right atmosphere, temperature, water, and food. The big difference is that on this planet the apes are civilized scientists while the humans are, like Jonathan Swift’s “yahoos” in the fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels, uncivilized brutes. No one who has seen the film can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene. The message was clear: this will be our future if we do not change our course.

POTA was followed by four sequels in rapid succession (1970, ’71, ’72, ’73, and a TV series in 1974). Now, nearly 50 years later, the message is just as timely: wars erupt as cultures clash around the globe. An African-American is in the White House, but government-promoted racism continues to flourish. Laboratory experiments change our food into something not-quite-natural, while genetically changed strains of viruses and biowarfare threaten our DNA. It’s not surprising that a new set of cautionary prequels should emerge that imagine a prelude to the 1968 POTA and offer a similarlycautionary message about war and civil rights. The newest film is not only just as timely, but even more sinister.

No one who has seen the original Planet of the Apes can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene.

As Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) ends, an experimental cure for Alzheimer’s disease has mutated into a deadly virus that has led to the near demise of the human race while causing the apes (on whom the drugs were experimented) to develop language and technological skills. (See my review in Liberty.) Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it is a surprisingly satisfying addition to the franchise, despite being a bit slow in the first half.

As Dawn opens, apes now populate the woodland north of San Francisco, and they use weapons, ride horses, and plan strategies as they hunt deer (yes, these apes apparently have become carnivorous). The opening shot, looking up from the floor of the forest at dozens of apes swinging from treetop to treetop, is both eerie and beautiful. But the humans have not become extinct. A few were able to survive the “simian flu” and are now living in isolated camps in San Francisco (and possibly in other pockets around the world). Inevitably, the world of the apes and the world of the humans collide when the humans enter the forest to look for a way to repair a dam that could provide hydroelectric power to the city.

The film makes a strong case for the idea that reactions to actions, not the actions themselves, lead to war, and that appropriate reactions can avert it. Refreshingly, the film does not imply, as one might expect, that humans (especially white humans) are always bad, and animals (especially black animals) are always good. Instead, there are good and bad characters in both groups. Carver (Kirk Acevedo) is a trigger-happy human who shoots when scared. His foolish action could lead to either retaliation (war) or conciliation (patrolled borders) from the apes. Koba (Toby Kebbell) is a bitter ape who fears humans and wants war. He seems to have read Saul Alinsky’s playbook about how to use deception to influence public opinion. Under Koba’s leadership, the apes lock up the humans and their own peaceful dissenters, and steal weapons from the human arsenal. In a subtle nod to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, apes can be seen in the background painting a list of rules on the wall of their dwelling, a list that begins with “Apes do not kill apes” — after Koba usurps Caesar’s role as leader.

On the other hand, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) try to lead the apes and humans, respectively, toward a negotiated peace. Caesar calms his followers by reminding them, “If we go to war, we could lose all we’ve built — Home. Family. Future.” He then turns to a solution reminiscent of Robert Frost’s response to the Cold War (“good fences make good neighbors”) by delineating boundaries between the two groups. Cross this line, and we fight. Malcolm recommends similar restraint with the humans. I like this suggestion that we judge others by their actions, not by their pedigree. Of course, Koba prevails, and the second half of the film is a tense, action-packed battle between humans and apes as Caesar and Malcolm try to restore détente.

The original POTA introduced a then-groundbreaking prosthetic technique that allowed actors playing apes to move their cheeks and lips and show emotion on their faces. It was so innovative that designer John Chambers won the Oscar for his achievement. Now the apes are made to move and talk in a completely different way. That’s Andy Serkis, king of the motion-capture creatures (Smeagol-Gollum, King Kong, the previous Caesar) playing Caesar the Ape, but he isn’t wearing a hairy body suit or a prosthetic mask; he’s wearing a tight-fitting body suit with computerized balls attached to record his movements. Those are his expressive eyes we see on the screen, but his ape’s body is drawn through computer-generated “motion capture” techniques using the patterns created by the electrodes attached to his body. The ape is then drawn over the movements, complete with fur, scars, and expressions.

Man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth.

Consider that there might be dozens of apes or other CG animals in each scene, that each ape has to be drawn individually on each frame, that there are 24 frames per second in this 130-minute film, that for much of the film the apes are communicating in an intricate form of sign language, and that it all looks so real that you forget it’s animation, and you begin to appreciate what a work of art this film is.

Film uses a language of its own to create metaphors. In this one, a fiery backdrop during a battle scene reminds us visually that “war is hell.” Similarly, as the film ends a man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth. In this version, the apes use sign language when communicating with one another; I expect that in the next, the humans will have devolved to the yahoos that Taylor (Charlton Heston) found when he “crashlanded to earth” nearly 50 years ago. If that film is anything like this one, it will be well worth watching.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," directed by Matt Reeves. 20th Century Fox, 2014, 130 minutes.



Share This


They Shoot Owls, Don’t They?

 | 

Some years ago, I wrote a piece in these pages about the infamous spotted owl. Under the misguided Endangered Species Act of 1990, the spotted owl was declared "endangered" (meaning, of course, "endangered by man"). As a result, the logging industry in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California was severely curtailed to “save” the bird. Tens of thousands of jobs were killed off, rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide spiked in the logging communities where formerly productive and proud loggers were reduced to living off the dole. Communities died.

But it turned out that the primary reason the spotted owl was dying was that another owl — the barred owl! — was moving in and taking over the wimpy spotted owl’s niche.

In short, it was natural biological evolution at work. As I noted then, 90% of all species that ever existed on this planet went extinct before hominids ever existed.

You would have expected hearings on this. You would have expected Congress investigate the bureaucrats who made a cold-blooded decision to terminate the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of victims. You would have expected that Congress would then grill the biologists who decided that it was the timber industry and not ordinary evolution that was to blame for the spotted owl’s plight. You would have expected panels of economists to testify about the cost to society of this stupid mistake.

But government almost never investigates its own mistakes and frauds. It prefers to investigate mistakes and frauds by private industry.

Indeed, when government makes a policy mistake, not only doesn’t it investigate itself, it just keeps pushing the policy further. A recent dispatch illustrates this with complete clarity.

The AP reports that even after shutting down much of the logging industry, the spotted owl continues its die-off. Its population in the Continental US has fallen by 40% in 25 years. The more aggressive barred owl just keeps taking over.

So the Obama administration, led by hardcore environmentalist Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, has taken the next “scientific” step.

It has ordered the shooting of barred owls!

Yes, in the name of wildlife preservation, the Interior Department will start slaughtering wildlife! I mean, Kafka couldn’t have dreamt up this daffiness.

So the hard-ass, kick-ass barred owls are facing execution for daring to win the evolutionary race with the sensitive, limp-taloned spotted owls. No doubt Darwin is spinning in his grave.

Since these damned rodent-munchers are spread over 24 million acres of forest, we are talking about a hell of a lot of shooting.

What is even more absurd is that this administration — which intends to gun down the gangsta owl — is totally anti-gun.

Maybe Obama and Salazar could contact the Mexican drug lords whom Ken Holder's Justice Department helped to arm, and have them do the killings. It might be enough for Salazar to spread the rumor that the barred owls are importing drugs, thus challenging the hoodlums in their own ecological niche.

Just a thought.




Share This


Playing the Race Card

 | 

Whenever President Obama gets in trouble the leftists love to play the race card and accuse his enemies of hating him because he is black. Jimmy Carter, among others, is guilty of this, and other leftists regularly accuse Tea Party patriots of being racists. So let’s see whether this theory withstands logical scrutiny.

People say that racism is about “hate” and “bigotry.” These, however, are mere empty slogans. If you look at history, you can discern a central motive that generally explains racism. Here I will draw upon the theory of social biology, which seeks to explain human social structures, e.g. marriage, by reference to each organism’s drive to maximize the spread of its genetic material. A race is a collection of humans who evolved in roughly the same geographic area and are therefore related to one another more closely than to members of other races. Members of racial groups use racism to promote the survival of their DNA at the expense of other genetic blends.

If this theory of racism is correct, then the solution to racism is for humans to stop thinking like animals, who only care about the survival of their DNA, if that, and to start thinking like human beings, who care about individual happiness and fulfilling one’s potential as a reasoning mind. If people were to do this, then interracial marriage would become far more common, and 500 years from now everyone would be a member of the same global race, which would end racism for good.

Now let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the ideas in a person’s mind come from his or her thoughts and decisions and not from DNA. Then, if we concede that a “culture” consists not only of art, music, and food, but also (and most importantly) of ideas and concepts and the style of thinking that they embody, it will become evident that culture has no direct relationship to DNA. If that is so, then a race and a culture can be associated only by accident, and there is no causal relationship such that, for instance, black DNA causes black culture.

A racial culture is chosen by the members of a race, and it is not an expression of their DNA, although the culture that parents teach to their children can have a strong impact on the culture of the next generation. These observations underscore Thomas Sowell’s brilliant argument that members of oppressed racial minority groups might best be served by reforming their culture on the model of, say, Jewish culture, which has shown itself capable of overcoming oppression and achieving affluence.

So at last we come to the great fraud of racial leftism: the argument that if you oppose an idea that is thought to be implicit in, for instance, black culture, you are therefore a racist. From here all the modern-liberals need to do is argue that leftism and Marxism are intrinsically tied to black culture, and they can make an argument, quite logical within the context of their faulty premises, that everyone who opposes the Obama agenda is an anti-black racist.  This is the trick that Obama, whom some regard as the Ace of Hearts, has up his sleeve.  You can expect him to lay it on thick by accusing the Tea Party and Republicans of being white supremacists during the 2012 election campaign.

But as Ayn Rand said, “Check your premises.” Yes, there may be groups of bigoted whites in the deep South who vote Republican and also like white DNA more than black DNA (although even to suggest this is to engage in discriminatory stereotyping). Nobody knows how Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry really feels about blacks, although I am confident that Ron Paul is not a racist. But what in the world do white racists in the South have to do with economic theory? If you do not accept any causal link between racial DNA and cultural ideas, and if you reject the absurd and insulting notion that socialism favors dark-skinned people (see my essay on racism in Liberty, August 2010), then this racist argument is nonsense. Pull out the premises that form the foundation of the argument, and Obama’s house of cards collapses.




Share This


The Missing Link

 | 

Alien creatures threaten civilization as we know it, and humans must band together to defend themselves. Is this another review of Cowboys & Aliens? No — it's a review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the iconic 1968 film Planet of the Apes that is earning praise from critics, moviegoers, and even PETA, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, who sent picketers out to show support for the film when it opened. Now there's a switch!

The original Planet of the Apes was sort of a space age Gulliver's Travels: an American space crew, headed by Charlton Heston as the Gulliver character, discovered a planet populated by intelligent apes instead of Jonathan Swift's horsey Houyhnhnms. In both cases, humans in the strange new land have no language skills by which to prove their intelligence, and are used as breeders and beasts of burden. Interestingly, Jonathan Swift coined the word "yahoos" to describe the morally bestial humans in his fantasy world.

No one who has seen Planet of the Apes can forget the gasp of horrified realization that happens when Heston, trying to escape the topsy-turvy planet and return to Earth (he's riding a horse, in a deliberate nod to Swift's story), discovers the top of the Statue of Liberty submerged in sand.  This scene has been immortalized through allusion and satire for nearly half a century. The message is clear: we cannot escape the future we create for ourselves on this earth.

The new film has its own gaspworthy instant, although it occurs midway through, not at the end. I won't tell you what causes the audible gasp in the audience, but I will tell you that I've asked everyone I know who has seen the movie if that gasp happened during their screening too, and all have said yes. It is a powerful moment, made more powerful by the astounding acting of Andy Serkis, an unsung hero of CGI technology. Serkis is the body behind Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002); the ape in King Kong (2005); and now the chimp, Caesar, in Rise. His movements, especially the expression in his face and his eyes, bring sensitivity, pathos, and life to what could have been flat computer generated characters.

Don't you just get so tired of the predictability of Hollywood movies blaming greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers for all our problems?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes creates a possible backstory for how the apes became the cultured, speaking, master race, while humans devolved into brutish creatures. I say "possible," because I'm not convinced that the film's premise works. The idea is that scientists, experimenting with chimps to discover a cure for Alzheimer's disease, inadvertently create the master race of apes and destroy the humans at the same time. The story is smart and engaging and ties up all the loose ends satisfactorily. But it blames the mutation on a single manmade event, completely changing the premise of the first film, which suggested that evolution and devolution will lead to the rise of apes and the fall of humankind.  The sand-covered Statue of Liberty at the end of the 1968 film suggests that the transformation happened over the course of many centuries, not in one generation.

Not surprisingly, capitalism (rather than science itself) is portrayed as the ultimate enemy to mankind. While research scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is motivated by a desire to cure Alzheimer's, the company he works for is owned and directed by the obligatory greedy capitalist who uses and abuses the chimps in his quest for profits. (Don't you just get so tired of the predictability of Hollywood movies blaming greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers for all our problems?) This film goes a step further, however. For some reason I shudder to contemplate, the casting agent chose Nigerian David Oyelowo to play the brutish bad guy with a British accent. Not sure what the message of this decision might be, but it's hard to believe that the casting was accidental. Enough said about that.

Ironically, despite the filmmakers' obvious distaste for profits, they inadvertently acknowledge the power of money as a motivator when Caesar, the chimp who has been transformed by the chemical trials, wants the other primates to follow him: he buys their loyalty with Chips Ahoy cookies instead of fighting each one of them into submission. And it works! Now there's a message worth sharing.

A message that does not work, however, is the one that PETA especially liked — the portrayal of chimps as misunderstood neighbors who should not be feared. When Caesar makes his way outside to play with a neighbor child, the little girl's father picks up a baseball bat to protect her. He is portrayed throughout the film as a man with a bad temper (although he's an airline pilot; have you ever known an airplane pilot to be anything but calm and comforting?), and we are supposed to take the side of the chimp. However, the memory of the Connecticut woman whose face and hands were torn off by one of these animals two years ago makes it hard to sympathize with the man-sized creature and its lion-sized canines. Even if he does wear pants and a sweatshirt.

Several subtle moments add to the classy styling of this film. At one point, for example, Caesar sadly observes Will kissing his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), creating a poignant allusion to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the creature's longing for a woman like himself. Caesar is like Frankenstein's "monster" — too smart to be an ape, but too much an animal to be a human. Where does he belong? Another example: the primate house where Caesar and dozens of other apes are caged overlooks San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island, where the notorious prison was located. And a third: a brilliant moment of self-parody occurs with the musical motif that begins when the apes start escaping from the primate house. We hear an undercurrent of the "Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius" melody from The Simpson's musical parody of the original Planet of the Apes. How's that for aping one's apers?

All the Planet of the Apes films can be seen as cautionary tales, warning viewers that power and authority are ephemeral. Although the specific catalysts and destructive philosophies are subject to change, the impending doom — transference of power —  does not. On a weekend when the credit rating of the United States was downgraded for the first time in a century, this film is a timely reminder that there may, indeed, be real threats to our comfortable styles of living.

The Lord of the Rings


Editor's Note: Review of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," directed by Rupert Wyatt. Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment, 2011, 105 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2018 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.