Jurassic Park is a hi-tech, anti-science monster movie for our
modern dark age, says John Gibson
A message more dangerous than any dinosaur
Is Jurassic Park too scary for kids? That, along with whether we
could really make dinosaurs, was what everyone was talking about when Stephen
Spielberg's biggest-ever blockbuster was released in the summer. I don't
know about the kids, but I was disturbed by the film for weeks afterwards,
and then again when I read Michael Crighton's book on which the film is
loosely based. No, it wasn't T-rex or those designer killer velociraptors;
it was the underlying anti-science message of the film that gave me the
Some scientists saw Jurassic Park as a boon, that could get a new
generation excited about natural history and genetics. Scientific results
were released to coincide with the film; museums sought to cash in on the
interest generated to make some cash and hopefully educate kids about dinosaurs.
Other scientists marvelled at the scientific competence of the film. A reviewer
in the science journal Nature enthused about 'the best popular explanation
of DNA and cloning I have ever seen', and urged readers to 'Go and see it.
It's terrifying. And wonderful'.
It would seem that they have rather missed the point. The leading American
journal, Science, was a little more sussed about the message of Jurassic
Park. Its editorial put the film in the context of today's hostility
'Jurassic Park is not going to help. According to both the writer
and producer, the movie intentionally has anti-science undertones. Press
accounts say that producer Steven Spielberg believes science is "intrusive"
Jurassic Park is a film for the conservative and cautious times in
which we live. It uses scientific language and arguments to push an anti-science
message. And it uses Hollywood's hi-tech effects to convey the most conservative,
anti-technology idea of all: that humanity shouldn't tamper with nature,
because we cannot hope to understand or control it, and the consequences
of tampering are likely to be calamitous.
More than 350 years after Galileo was condemned as a heretic by the church
for defending the Copernican system, the spirit of the inquisition would
appear to be alive and well in Hollywood. And not just in Hollywood. For
such is the strength of today's cautious and conservative consensus that,
in contrast to Galileo's time, in the 1990s it is often people who are scientifically
informed who want to limit the appliance of science.
Apart from the special effects, the power of Jurassic Park lies in
the way it mixes fact and fiction and the way it connects with popular fears
and concerns. But if we were to take to heart the message of the film, what
would be the implications? That we should stop scientific experimentation?
That we should abandon the goal of modern science - to use and to change
nature for human benefit? That we should rely on a body of wise men (appointed
by whom?) to judge what can and can't be done? Or even that we shouldn't
try anything new nor take risks in general?
Fact and fiction mingle in the book and film from the beginning. Park designer
John Hammond, the cuddly Dr Frankenstein figure (played by Richard Attenborough
in the film), heads a commercial bio-tech company called InGen financed
by Japanese money which is in deadly competition with another commercial
bio-tech company called Biosyn. This is a deliberate play on the real-life
competition between Genentech, funded by venture capital, and Biogen. And
just as geneticists are cast as the villains of the piece in the story,
so they are in real life. You can't turn on the TV or open a paper these
days without finding a discussion of the ethics of genetics. And as the
Human Genome Project - a multi-billion dollar project to map the human genetic
material - gets into full swing in the 1990s, we can expect the anti-science
brigade to focus in on this issue.
Indeed, they already are doing so. As John Maddox, editor of Nature,
recently observed, 'these days, everybody seems to have an opinion on the
ethics of genetics':
'And most opinions are portentous, laden with apprehension and downright
distrust. The new genetics seems to be as widely feared as were the development
and deployment of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. It may not be long before
geneticists enjoy the popular reputation that then attached to Stanley Kubrick's
celluloid character Dr Strangelove, and when biotechnology enterprises that
have proudly chosen names including 'Gene' or 'Gen' will be scampering for
politically more correct alternatives.' (Nature, 8 July 1993).
Two arguments of a vaguely scientific character are raised by opponents
of genetic engineering. They say that nature is too complex to control or
manipulate, and that we don't know what will happen if we change things
so we had better leave things alone. Both of these arguments are irrational
and anti-scientific and should be challenged head on by the scientific community.
The prophet of the film and book, chaos mathematician Ian Malcolm (played
by Jeff Goldblum in the film) bases his objections to Jurassic Park and
the whole attitude of the scientists on the idea that nature is a complex
web which we cannot possibly understand, and which we disturb at our peril:
'What we call 'nature' is in fact a complex system of far greater subtlety
than we are willing to accept. We make a simplified image of nature and
then we botch it up. I'm no environmentalist, but you have to understand
what you don't understand.' (p93)
Because of this, says Malcolm, 'the grand vision of science, hundreds of
years old - the dream of total control - has died in our century. And with
it much of the justification, the rationale for science to do what it does'.
Any number of real-life environmentalists, conservatives, and some scientists
can be found saying the same thing today. It has become a modern truism.
And it is obviously true that nature is interconnected. But it is possible
to draw the opposite conclusion from this: that if humanity can get a better
understanding of the various interconnections, our capacity to control nature
will be increased. We can use nature to control nature.
Indeed, this is what people have been doing ever since they learned to think.
From the harnessing of energy sources, to the use of mild viral strains
as immunisation against more virulent ones, humanity has used natural forces
to develop civilised society. Genetic technology, if used properly, will
take this process a step further. That would be the realisation rather than
the refutation of the rule of modern science laid down by seventeenth-century
scientist Francis Bacon: 'Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.'
What about the argument that we don't know what will happen, so we had better
leave natural things alone? This is simply irrational. People have been
interfering with, and changing nature throughout human history. Indeed,
what is nature? Much of the 'natural world', especially the larger mammal
population, has been created through human action over the years. Different
species have either been wiped out, consciously preserved, and/or changed
by humanity through artificial selection. Genetic technology is undoubtedly
much faster than natural or artificial selection, and might therefore call
for careful scrutiny, but that is all. It is not of a different quality
to the changes which people have imposed on nature down the centuries, in
order to raise humanity above the condition of animals.
The 'let's not risk trying anything new' attitude is anti-science in the
extreme. If we hadn't tried new things in the past there would be no science
today. No advance in science is possible without trying new things, without
experimenting, without tampering with nature.
When William Harvey wanted to know about the circulation of blood in the
seventeenth century he didn't passively observe, he cut up. The most exciting
part in Jurassic Park from a scientific point of view is the way
it shows how making the dinosaurs led to a revolution in scientific understanding
of their behaviour. There's only so much you can learn from fossils! In
the twenty-first century (and back in the real world) manipulating genes
will give us a much clearer picture of the relationship between genes, the
development of proteins and whole organisms, and animal behaviour.
Of course, if you experiment, things are going to go wrong. But, as they
say, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Or, as John
Hammond puts it when all hell is breaking loose in the park: 'Let's not
get carried away. We've had a little breakdown from the storm or whatever,
and as a result we've suffered a regrettable, unfortunate accident. And
that's all that's happened. We're dealing with it.' (p227) It's only by
making mistakes - and dealing with the consequences - that progress is made.
In Jurassic Park, of course, the story dictates that the humans can't
really deal with the consequences. And to an extent, capitalist society
cannot deal with some of the consequences of its uses and mis-uses of science
and technology. But it is only in the fantasy that calamity automatically
follows attempts to change things. When Malcolm argues that people were
happier 30 000 years ago, the irrationality of the anti-progress argument
is exposed. I would rather live under any form of capitalism than be stuck
back then. Not least because there is the possibility of changing things
for the better now. Thirty thousand years ago, humanity really was a passive
victim of nature.
Fear of trying new things, fear of the unknown, fear of ourselves in the
final analysis is the ultimate point of connection between Jurassic Park
and the anti-science brigade. This is a powerful force for conservatism.
Adam and Eve
It might appear at first sight that suspicion of, say, genetic engineering,
is a reasonable response to the unscrupulous uses to which the technology
could be put, or even is being put now. After all, who knows, somewhere
off Costa Rica at this very moment....But, in fact, we do know that not
only is the recreation of dinosaurs (sadly) not possible now and probably
never will be (the interested reader is referred to V Morell, 'Dino DNA:
The Hunt and the Hype', in Science, 9 July 1993, and SJ Gould 'Dinomania'
in New York Review of Books, 12 August 1993), but also that there
are far more significant limitations on what is currently possible. Genetic
engineering is in its infancy, at best. When people get all uptight about
things that are not technically possible, when you get big ethical debates
about technologies that won't come on stream for 50 years or more, it is
clear that what we are witnessing is not a rational debate informed by science.
This is not to deny that there are legitimate concerns about the activities
of companies (and governments!) in this field, but there is little point
blaming science for any problems that arise. It would be like blaming Einstein
for the A-bomb, rather than pointing the finger at the capitalist societies
and states that harnessed nuclear science for their own militaristic purposes,
just as they have done with all other forms of science and technology.
And yet today, people who should know better do just that. It's presented
like the story of Adam and Eve; once you taste the tree of knowledge, you
are done for.
'To the geneticists' claim that with this new knowledge "ye shall be
gods", the public might well respond that we do not wish to eat of
this particular tree. Are humans really wise enough to be as gods? Can we
really cope with the power that this knowledge brings?'
No, that's not Ian Malcolm. It is in fact Tom Wilkie, science correspondent
of the Independent, after a visit to the Seventeenth International
Congress of Geneticists this year. Has Wilkie forgotten that modern science
and humanism was born when humanity stopped bowing down to God and decided
to make decisions for itself? Whose side would Wilkie have been on: Galileo's
or the church's?
All the concerns about playing God which surround genetic debates are indicative
of a crippling lack of confidence in humanity's own capacity to determine
our future. Such ideas are also a powerful force for conservatism. After
all, change is going to occur, science is going to advance, whatever Steven
Spielberg or indeed Pope John Paul says. The lack of faith in ourselves
to make rational judgements about developments doesn't mean that scientific
and social change will halt. It just means that the powers that be will
make the decisions about who benefits from the changes. Let's not forget
that the Catholic church's most fundamental objection was not to the heliocentric
theory, but to the challenge to its God-given authority which Galileo presented
when he declared that human reason and observation, and nothing more, should
decide what was right and wrong.
If any spiritual guidance is needed, it is that everybody do their bit to
resurrect the spirit of Galileo. We need to be informed, we need to be prepared
to try new things, we need to take risks, and most of all we need to have
confidence in our own capacities. Next time you are talking to somebody
about Jurassic Park or genetic engineering, put in a good word for
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 60, October 1993