A Tribute to Jurassic Park on the Occasion of its 25th Anniversary


JurassicparkThis summer I re-read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I read it for the first time along with The Lost World back in 8th grade, and so reading it again was fun and brought back old memories. People typically enjoy the Jurassic Park franchise for its thrills and special effects. The idea of dinosaurs brought back to life makes for a great story. But Crichton’s novels also have a deeper philosophical point that the movies largely eviscerate (especially the sequels).

The original Jurassic Park book is a cautionary tale, akin to Frankenstein. The dinosaurs are there not just because dinosaurs are scary, but because they facilitate Crichton’s message about the dangers of the undisciplined, hubristic use of technology. The plot thrives on this incredible irony: people can literally re-create dinosaurs, but bumble from one incompetence to another in trying to manage them. It’s like they have power over everything and power over nothing at the same time. So the story is more than an exciting thriller; it’s a potent metaphor for how technology can make our lives more wobbly and precarious even as it shoots us forward into incredible feats.

Crichton opens the novel with a brief Introduction describing and lamenting the furious “gold rush” towards commercialized genetic engineering in the latter half of the 20th century. He sees the rise of biotechnology as “the greatest revolution in human history,” with more power to change our lives than the atomic bomb or the computer. Crichton was disturbed about the thoughtlessness, the lack of control and accountability, and the unethical behavior in this industry. Above all, he seems concerned about the lack of humility before nature—the effort to control the environment rather than be content to dwell harmoniously within it. His concerns go right to the heart of the nature of science, the nature of modernity, and the nature of humanity’s relationship with her world—and, in my opinion, they are just as relevant 25 years later.

The Shape of the Story

Throughout the novel, Crichton’s ideas are given voice through the character Ian Malcolm, a mathematician inspired by Heinz Pagels, the late physicist and popularizer of science. The entire novel is structured around Malcolm’s “chaos theory”—instead of traditional chapters, it is divided into 7 “iterations,” which are further divided into various “scenes” (brief, unnumbered chapters) and narrative pauses/transitions. The 7 iterations are each introduced by a quote from Ian Malcolm and accompanying graphic, describing a further increase in complexity and loss of control each time.

This structure creates a slowly-mounting sense of foreboding and doom throughout the novel. You know things will go wrong, but you don’t know how or when. The actual “chaos” is slow to emerge, and yet the book is quite fast-paced, skipping from scene to scene like a movie, making its 450 pages quick and easy to navigate. The first iteration is mild and indirect. It’s basically about the discovery of an unknown species of animal on the coast of Costa Rica (this turns out to be a Procompsognathus, a small dinosaur). In iteration 2, the main characters are introduced, the whole idea of what Jurassic Park is starts to take shape. From there, the suspense slowly builds as things begin to go wrong on the island.

Crichton kindles the suspense and narrative energy of the book in two other ways. First, several dinosaurs are seen to board the ship racing toward the mainland. So there is a danger that the nightmare they have awoken will not be contained to the island but will spread over the planet. The characters observe this and have only 19 hours to get the power back on so they can warn the ship. This creates a countdown—the characters are not just fighting to survive, they are racing against a ticking clock.

Second, the entrance of the velociraptors is delayed. They are introduced early on as dangerous, intelligent, terrifying. But they take forever to come into the action. For most of the book, its the Tyrannosaurus rex that is the real threat (and the dilophosaurus that eats Dennis Nedry). Then, at the end, as the velociraptors start rapidly eating off the characters, Crichton rapidly alternates back and forth between their grisly deaths and Malcolm in his bed, increasingly delirious from morphine because of an injury, but droning on and about chaos theory. It gives his ideas a heightened punch. It’s a great rhetorical strategy: you see his predictions coming true even as he is making them.

Science Plus Suspense

It is this combination of ideas + action, science + suspense, that makes the book sizzle with such life. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls Crichton “a master at blending edge-of-the-chair adventure and a scientific seminar.” Jurassic Park is often called a “techno-thriller” because of the presence of so much technical detail. Crichton is constantly giving asides about the animal behavior, about paleontology, about theories about dinosaurs. It’s educational, and it feels realistic (even though the reconstruction of the dinosaurs isn’t).

At the same time, its a thrilling action story, frighteningly intense, realistic, dark. Its genre is partly sci-fi, but also partly straight-up horror. The movie captures this somewhat well, but it’s not as frightening, and there is so much action that it has to leave out: the cearadactyls attacking Grant and the kids in the Aviary, the Tyrannosaurus rex swimming after the raft and licking the children through the waterfall, the baby Tyrannosaurus and all that he does (for instance, toying with Ed Regis), Muldoon getting stuck in a drainage pipe, Grant rolling poisonous eggs towards the velociraptors in the hatchery, and so forth.

Books are almost always better than the movie. But that seems especially the case with this one. In the movie, you lose some of the suspense, and most of the science.

The Danger of Knowledge Without Wisdom

What is the over-arching message of the book? You could perhaps get at it in the statement from Malcolm on p. 318 (kept over in the movie): “scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something.” The book is a warning that scientific knowledge, when unguided by larger wisdom and worldview considerations, is extremely dangerous.

Malcolm is certain about the park’s failure, even apart from observing the details (84, 149). He believes that nature is too subtle and complex to control or predict (102). To bring animals back to life from a hundred million years ago, animals that we know practically nothing about, and then expect to control their behavior and reproduction—this is a fool’s errand, in Malcolm’s view (178-79). Malcolm critiques the park engineers Wu and Arnold because, for all their intelligence, they only see the immediate situation, not the larger context and consequences. He calls their kind of intelligence “thintelligence” (317).

For Malcolm, the failure of the park illustrates the dangers of modern science. The problem with modern science, according to Malcolm, is that it always tries to control nature. “(Scientists) can’t just watch. They can’t just appreciate. They can’t just fit into the natural order. They have to make something unnatural happen. That is the scientist’s job, and now we have whole societies that try to be scientific” (318). This is resonant of C.S. Lewis’ comparison of modern science to magic in The Abolition of Man in that both try to conform nature to humanity, rather than humanity to nature. Later, Malcolm criticizes scientists for seeking to rise above nature, rather than fit within it. “You can make a boat, but you can’t make the ocean. You can make an airplane, but you can’t make the air” (392). Like Lewis, Crichton sees this grasping for control over nature as uniquely characteristic of the modern West: “it’s uniquely Western training, and much of the rest of the world is nauseated by it” (318).

Malcolm is not opposed to scientific knowledge per se. The problem is that scientific advance often leads to a kind of power that is attained without discipline or wisdom. He sees scientific technology as a form inherited wealth:

You read what others have done, and you take the next step. You can do it very young. You can make progress very fast. There is no discipline lasting many decades. There is no mastery: old scientists are ignored. There is no humility before nature. There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy…. And because you can stand on the shoulders of giants, you can accomplish something quickly. Yon don’t even know exactly what you have done, but already you have reported it; patented it, and sold it. And the buyer will have even less discipline than you. The buyer simply purchases the power, like any commodity. The buyer doesn’t even conceive that any discipline might be necessary (343).

Science is therefore in desperate need of a larger philosophy and morality to guide it, to limit it, to define it, to curb it. But science cannot generate such a philosophy by itself. Science can give you all kinds of power, but it cannot tell you what to do with that power. And thus when scientific knowledge outpaces philosophical wisdom, the power that science affords is incredibly dangerous. Malcolm believes that the scientific age is already starting to crumble.

Like the medieval system before it, science is starting not to fit the world anymore. Science has attained so much power that its practical limits begin to be apparent. Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it.  Science can make a pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it. And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways–air, water, and land–because of ungovernable science.

But contrary to what you might expect, Malcolm’s concern is not with the fragility of the planet. Crichton was a famous climate change skeptic, and at the end of the book Malcolm unpacks his view that the world has been evolving for such vast stretches of time that the idea that we can damage it is really quite hubristic (411-13). No, the danger unbridled science poses is not to the environment—but to ourselves.

A Still-Relevant Message

I believe Crichton’s ideas are very relevant to us today. For example, take the iPhone that is lying next to me right now. That phone gives me incredible power. With this tiny piece of plastic + glass + aluminum, I can buy anything I might need, communicate instantly with just about anyone across the world, look up information concerning just about anything, and so forth. And yet all that power is really a form in inherited wealth. I did not personally do anything to contribute to the processes that brought it into existence. I simply had the good fortune of being born in a wealthy society at the tale end of a long process of competitive, refining, technological advance in this area. So I have this incredible source of knowledge and power sitting next to me—but do I have the wisdom that deserves that knowledge and power?

What is sobering is not simply what answers these questions lead to, but how frequently we are even asking them. Most of us never stop to consider getting an iPhone, except perhaps for financial reasons. As Malcolm puts it, we focus so much on what we can do that we never to stop to think about what it should do. Does my phone make me happier and healthier? Does it make my life easier and more convenient, or busier and more cluttered?

Precisely because it is so powerful, our smartphones can start to control us, even consume us. I remember Derek Webb once tweeting:

“we fiddle with smartphones the way gollum fiddled with the ring”

Scary thought! But it’s true: for all the power our smartphone gives to us, it can come to hold even greater power over us. It’s like having enough power to create dinosaurs, but not enough power to stop them from eating you. Powerful metaphor!

I know that retreating from technology is not the solution. But Jurassic Park gives us a good reminder of the need for wisdom and discipline in our use of technology. And from 1990 to 2015, I think his message has only gotten more relevant.

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