The short, easy answer is that (as we humans are, biologically, part of the ape family) we already have! But that wasn’t really the question; readers want to know if any of the situations portrayed in the “Planet of the Apes” movies could become reality!
In the original movie from 1968, starring Charlton Heston, the “planet of the apes” turns out to be Earth in the far future; the idea is (aptly enough for a Cold War-era movie) that human civilization was destroyed by war, allowing apes to take our place. Whether the war was nuclear, and whether the “civilized” apes were a product of mutation from radioactive fallout, is not directly addressed, although it would make sense in the context.
The 2001 remake of the movie (with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role) takes a different tack. In this version, the planet is not Earth but really a new planet; the humans and apes living there are survivors of a space station crash. The apes had rebelled against their human handlers after the crash and developed an ape civilization over the next 5000 years, while the humans became primitive.
The newest installation (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, 2011) takes place on Earth, where a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s accidentally gives a chimpanzee the intelligence of a human genius. The chimp suffers prejudice and mistreatment by humans, and ends up escaping to the redwood forest with a tribe of apes after dosing them with the same drug that boosted his own intelligence. Thus, it can not be a prequel to the 2001 movie but could rather be a prequel to the original 1968 version.
Most movie buffs – at least those as old as I am – will have seen all three movies; each has its fans who declare it superior to the rest. My purpose here is not to take a side in that dispute! The relevant point for us here is that each movie gives a different explanation for how the apes took over. So far, we have humans destroying themselves by warfare; ape revolt; and medical science gone awry. But there is another scenario, less familiar to the average “Planet of the Apes” aficionado.
The 1968 movie was itself an adaptation of a French sci-fi novel written five years earlier by Pierre Boulle. In the book, the planet of the apes is not Earth but a distant planet similar to Earth, populated by both humans and apes. The humans enslaved the apes, but grew lazy and dependent upon their slaves. Over millennia, the apes grew smarter and stronger, learning to use the humans’ technology and language; the humans degenerated until they lost both intelligence and the faculty of speech.
And that brings us back around to the question: could it happen?
Fact: Most people today do not know how to read a map, light a fire by striking flint and steel, navigate by the stars, recognize wild edible plants, or even sharpen a knife. We have robots that sweep the floor and cars that drive themselves. Functional illiteracy is on the rise; compare a handwritten letter from 100 years ago to the average text message on a cellphone. The former will be eloquent, thoughtful, and personal; the latter, a mass of inarticulate, garbled nonsense.
Fact: Koko the gorilla understands 1,000 signed words and 2,000 words of spoken English; she has demonstrated ability to form coherent sentences and has used known words to form a new compound word to describe a new object (source: Koko.org). Koko’s vocabulary is equal to that of a large portion of the human population.
Fact: Researchers have documented at least 22 cases of wild chimpanzees sharpening sticks into spears which they use to hunt and kill smaller primates (source: National Geographic).
While it is true that large numbers of humans are becoming illiterate, inarticulate, and helplessly dependent upon technology, there are very many who do not fall into that category. Technology can be a powerful tool as well as a crutch. Apes are learning new skills (some of them from us humans); did we expect them not to? We are learning too. We have learned how to change our environment to the point of destroying it; as long as we can learn to heal the harm we have done to each other and to our planet, we need not worry about our simian cousins overthrowing us. An ape takeover might be a possibility in some distant future where most things have gone wrong for humanity, but the odds are against it.
I still like the movies!