The whites of their eyes

How Hollywood makes apes look human


First published: 21 August 2014; Updated 16 February 2023

Twentieth Century Fox Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Note how the poster for the Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie (above) focuses on the eyes, which have bigger ‘whites’ to give a more human look but see (below) that an ape does not have big ‘whites’ in its eyes.

“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” is a phrase that has its origin in military conflicts and is sometimes used in a comedic way in movies.

Eyesight is an integral part of being human, not just because of the obvious issue of sight but also to convey a whole range of emotions.

Having large ‘whites’ (sclera) in our eyes is predominantly a human characteristic but this has been used in mischievous ways to make apes appear more human-like.

Hollywood used this not-so-subtle technique in the Planet of the Apes films starting with the first version in 1968.1 Illustrators do likewise to portray ‘evolutionarily transitional’ ape-like creatures in scientific publications. In an interview2 with Creation magazine, medical illustrator Ronald J. Ervin talked about how he was asked to illustrate ancient humans and ‘prehistoric’ animals—and to make them better fit the evolutionary view.

Wikicommons Chimpanzee eyes

As well, artist John Gurche, speaking on the role of evolutionary preconceptions in the artist’s human-like depiction of Australopithecus afarensis (‘Lucy’s’ kind) in National Geographic, including showing it with white sclera, said:

‘I wanted to get a human soul into this ape like face, to indicate something about where he was headed.’3

And because of the extraordinary advancement of digital technology, Hollywood’s apes now are much more convincing than when human actors ran around in costumes. In so many ways, the eyes have it—as the saying goes—hence the rush to add larger whites to apes’ eyes to convey human emotion.

Dan Lemmon, one of the digital experts who worked on the 2011 movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was asked: “The eyes of monkeys are very successful. How did you get this result?”

He answered:

“We had the assistance of an eye doctor and we used some of his equipment to study a number of different human eyes at a very fine level of detail. We used what we learned to add additional anatomical detail into our eye model, and we also put a lot of care and attention into the surrounding musculature of the eyelids and the orbital cavity to try to improve the realism of the way our eyes moved. We also studied a lot of photo and video reference of ape eyes. We did cheat in a few places—the sclera, or “whites,” of most of our apes’ eyes are whiter and more human-like than they would be on real apes. We cheated them whiter—as we did on King Kong—in order to make it more clear which way the apes were looking, which in turn makes it easier for the audience to read their facial expressions.”4

It’s clear that these movie-makers understand, just as evolutionary-science illustrators do, how crucial the eyes are to making apes look more human.

But it actually runs counter to what biologists have observed about apes’ eyes. For a start, in apes eyes, usually only a dark sclera (brown or black) is visible. A minority have a white sclera visible, and this is mainly when they look to the side, not straight ahead. A white sclera is more common in juveniles than adults. For most apes without large white areas visible, it is hard to tell from their eyes alone which direction they’re looking.5

When reflecting on the differences his research team had observed between human and ape perceptions of eye movements, Michael Tomasello, then co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, wrote:

“Our nearest primate relatives, the African great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) showed precisely the opposite pattern of gaze following.”6

Locked in to his evolutionary worldview, Tomasello wrestled with why human eyes worked so differently to apes:

“Of course, it’s possible that having large whites of the eyes serves some other purpose, like enabling me to advertise my good health to potential mates. But such an advantage would apply to other primates as well.”6

Another observation was:

“In a recent experiment, our research team has shown that even infants—at around their first birthdays, before language acquisition has begun—tend to follow the direction of another person’s eyes, not their heads. Thus, when an adult looked to the ceiling with her eyes only, head remaining straight ahead, infants looked to the ceiling in turn. However, when the adult closed her eyes and pointed her head to the ceiling, infants did not very often follow.”6

He explained why this was so significant:

“It has been repeatedly demonstrated that all great apes, including humans, follow the gaze direction of others. But in previous studies the head and eyes were always pointed in the same direction. Only when we made the head and eyes point in different directions did we find a species difference: humans are sensitive to the direction of the eyes specifically in a way that our nearest primate relatives are not. This is the first demonstration of an actual behavioral function for humans’ uniquely visible eyes.”6

Tomasello reveals much about why the eye is such a puzzle to evolutionists and, arguably, a sense of frustration to him:

“We are still a long way from figuring out why humans evolved to do so many complicated things together—from building houses to creating universities to fighting wars. But the simple fact that we have evolved highly visible eyes, to which infants attune even before language, supplies at least one small piece of the puzzle of how.”7

Such contrasting abilities of humans and apes—even though apes have perfectly designed eyes as well—reinforce our unique creation in the image of God and speak against evolution.

Windows of the soul

There is the saying that eyes are the windows of the soul. Who hasn’t seen ‘laughter’ in another person’s eyes? Eyes can show disapproval. You can stare blankly at nothing in particular when lost in thought. People who have taken drugs may have a ‘vacant’ look about them.

Human eye

Jesus spoke of eyes in Matthew 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

There can be no doubt about how crucial our eyes are to convey various emotions. Leonardo da Vinci captured emotion perfectly with the Mona Lisa, a portrait immediately recognised worldwide today. Without that expression in the woman’s eyes, would the Mona Lisa be so captivating?

Our eyes and our expressions give us a ‘look’ which can change with happiness, sadness, anger, etc. There’s an apocryphal story told about America’s third president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) who agreed to take a stranded person across a flooded river on his horse. When questioned on why he asked the president and not other people in the party, the man replied that he had no idea of Jefferson’s identity but approached him because he had a ‘yes’ face. The stranded person could see ‘yes’ in Jefferson’s eyes.

Evolutionary researchers have made many observations which speak of the Master Designer and not the blind chance of their ideology; so when a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology discovered that dogs can ‘read’ human eye cues but chimpanzees can’t, he said he was surprised.6 The voiceover to a video showing some of the researchers conducting experiments states that “because chimps didn’t develop [read evolve] to be dependent on humans, they had no reason to develop that part of their brain that comprehends our gestures”.7 Such statements are typical of the storytelling that goes on in evolutionary indoctrination!


So, the next time you see a movie in which an ape (or any other animal) has digitally altered ‘human’ eyes, you’ll see it for what it is—storytelling—and be alert for any evolutionary overtones. (Of course the real world is not, nor has ever been, anything like that.)

Then take a look into another person’s eyes, and marvel at the perfect design of the Perfect Designer.

Published: 21 August 2014

References and notes

  1. See the trailer at imdb.com and note the evolutionary overtones. Return to text.
  2. Doolan, R., Wieland, C., Filling in the blanks, Creation 17(2):16–18, Mar 1995; creation.com/ervin. Return to text.
  3. Johanson, D.C., The Dawn of Humans: Face-to-Face with Lucy’s Family, National Geographic (Mar 1996), p.109. Return to text.
  4. Frei, V., Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Dan Lemmon—VFX Supervisor—Weta Digital, 23 Sep 2011, artofvfx.com. Return to text.
  5. “In a large population of wild chimpanzees at Ngogo in Kibale National Park, Uganda, we found considerable variation in eye color (Fig. 1). Fifteen percent of chimpanzees exhibited white sclera, representing 34 of 230 individuals. For five of these 34 individuals, white sclera was visible when they looked directly forward [i.e. 5 of the 230—Ed.]. For the other 29 chimpanzees, white sclera was visible only when not looking directly forward, exposing more sclera at the periphery of the eyes.” Clark. I.R. and 7 others, White sclera is present in chimpanzees and other mammals, J. Human Evolution 176:103322, Mar 2023 | doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2022.103322. Return to text.
  6. Tomasello, M., For Human Eyes Only, 13 January 2007, nytimes.com. Return to text.
  7. Dog intelligence science, youtube.com, 2008. Return to text.

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