'The Planet of the Apes' Is a Modern Retelling of Gause's Law


The new trailer for War for the Planet of the Apes is here and it looks like apes and humans won’t be signing a peace treaty any time soon. The third installment of the modern Planet of the Apes franchise will feature Caesar and his fellow super-smart primates going head-to-head with a human army intent on reclaiming Earth.

“The irony is we created you and nature has been punishing ever since,” says Woody Harrelson, whose character only goes by Colonel. “This is our last stand. And if we lose, it will be a planet of apes.”

In War for the Planet of the Apes, humans refuse to be the subservient species to primates. The solution to this conflict of competition — as the trailer and the not-so-subtle movie title makes out — appears to be war. To a student of biology, this should make perfect sense: The plot of the movie is just a drawn-out metaphor for Gause’s Law, the idea that two species that compete for the exact same resources cannot stably exist.

A quick recap on the franchise: In Rise of the Planet of the Apes we’re introduced to a chimp named Caesar whose mother was given an experimental retrovirus called ALZ-112, developed as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. This formula caused Caesar’s intelligence to greatly increase. However, its next iteration, ALZ-113, proved to also increase the intelligence of chimps while being incredibly lethal to humans. And by the time this third movie rolls around, 99 percent of the human population has died while Caesar and his comrades have built a civilization of their own. What happens now is a competition for survival.

Caesar is captured by the Colonel.


This is where Gause’s Law comes in, illustrating the evolutionary case for competitive exclusion. It’s generally accepted that one of two competitors will have at least a slight advantage over the other. This leads to one of two results — either the disadvantaged becomes extinct or experiences an evolutionary shift that will allow it to coexist. The primates and humans in Planet of the Apes are competing for the same resources and overall domination, an event that — as per the film’s synopsis — “will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.”

Competitive exclusion is also thought to explain a real world battle that leads to extinction. Some scientists argue that it was not climate change that led to the extinction of Neanderthals, but rather competition with Homo sapiens, anatomically modern humans.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Southwest Asia from at least 130,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago. Their “disappearance” happened around the same time as modern humans and they are thought to have migrated to Europe from Africa. In PLOS One a team of international researchers make the case that this disappearance was really extinction by means of competitive exclusion. What exactly entailed competition is debated — it’s thought that advanced brains gave them the advantage of forming better social groups and technologically superior weaponry, giving them a leg up on competition for resources.

There’s also the thought that our ancient ancestors warred with their Neanderthal neighbors — exactly what’s playing out in this iteration of Planet of the Apes. This idea is less popular among anthropologists, but in 2009, researchers from Paris’s Centre National de La Réchereche Scientifique claimed they found fossil evidence that Neanderthals had been butchered and eaten.

Of course, extinction here is a tricky word. While it’s typically said that Neanderthals are extinct — their species, exactly as they were, certainly doesn’t live today — it’s also known that Homo sapiens hooked up with them and interbred. Today it’s thought that everyone whose ancestry is from outside of Africa has a bit of Neanderthal DNA in their genes.

And that brings us to the second result of Gause’s Law: a shift that allows the lesser species to exist. Maybe it will be a bit of interspecies romance a la the 1968 Planet of the Apes that will ensure the survival of a species, rather than war?

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