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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 jeepers.

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 towards science:

'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" and "dangerous".'

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'. (p312)

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.

Harnessing energy

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.

Breaking eggs

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 John Hammond.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 60, October 1993
 
 

 

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