What If? Rejects #3.2: Planet of the Apes


Randall Munroe’s What If?

Previous post in this series: Stars

Q: What sort of logistic anomalies would you encounter in trying to raise an army of apes?

Randall’s response: No response.

My response: I’m not sure what the submitter means by “anomalies”, but allow me to put on my science fiction writer’s hat. I will assume that we are not including humans among the apes. In that case, the logistical issues would be the same as in any military today. I will also exclude gibbons. Gibbons are classified as “lesser apes”, but considering they only weigh about 15 pounds each, they won’t make a very good contribution to an army. Let’s assume that the submitter is asking about the traditional “Planet of the Apes” army of apes, consisting of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.

So you want an army of apes. Well, the first logistical problem you’ll encounter is one of recruiting. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the total population of the (non-human) great apes is somewhere between 330,000 and 450,000, compared with over 7 billion humans. That’s a pretty small pool, and not all of them will be fit to fight. You’re probably going to need an intensive breeding program to boost their numbers, and since apes don’t breed that much faster than humans do, you might need a couple of centuries to put together a battle-ready army.

What about cloning, you may ask. Yes, that works too, but there are two problems. First, no one’s actually figured out how to clone apes yet, much less do it on a large scale. And second, even if you do, you need to be able to grow the baby apes somewhere. That means either using surrogate mothers, which won’t be any faster than ordinary breeding, or developing an artificial uterus, which carries with it another host of technical and scientific problems.

While you’re at it, you might want to look into selectively breeding or genetically engineering for intelligence. Apes are pretty smart. Kanzi the Bonobo can communicate using several hundred pictographic symbols, use sign language, speak a few extremely distorted words in English, make his own stone tools, play Pac-Man, light a fire with matches, and even cook an omelet. But I don’t think he’s going to be studying military strategy any time soon. It’s hard to apply an IQ score to animals, but even the smartest apes probably have an IQ below 50. The US military has a minimum IQ requirement of about 85, which has been determined to be the minimum needed to train soldiers efficiently.

So let’s say you’ve spent a lot of time and effort creating a large population of intelligent apes. Now, you need to turn them into an army. This brings back all those problems of military logistics, but multiplied. You’ll need to produce custom uniforms, equipment, vehicles, and weapons. Remember, apes don’t have opposable thumbs (unless they’re genetically engineered to), so ease of use will be a problem. To communicate via radio, you’ll probably need to develop a spoken language for them that they will be able to speak across species without a human vocal tract. Also, the apes will eat a different diet from humans, and they’ll need to get their food and other supplies from somewhere.

This will probably involve expanding gradually to take over more territory and build ape-run farms and factories in parallel with the rising ape population. That’s going to attract a lot of attention. The world’s major powers have a two hundred year head start on you, and now you have to worry that they might shut your project down in the early stages.

Considering all of this, it’s probably easier just to give up on the apes and try to take over an existing country of humans. For advice on that, crack open any history book.


About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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