Archive | August, 2015

Loving and hating science in the Jurassic World

30 Aug

The final scene of the movie Jurassic World has received no attention in the reviews–in fact, it is not mentioned in the film’s synopses that I’ve read. For those who haven’t seen the film, or whose recollection is faded, let me set the scene: The dinosaur theme park, under the supervision of Dr. Henry Wu (of Jurassic Park fame) features genetically engineered super-dinos–“bigger, faster, crueler.” They are the next generation of dinosaur, developed from the T. Rex raptors in Jurassic Park that the good doctor cloned from prehistoric DNA that was preserved in Amber. Jurassic Park engaged in what is now called de-extinction; Jurassic World goes a step further to create a new breed of dinosaur. JPark’s dinos are “more natural,” and that’s the key to the final scene. The crueler and bigger “modern” reptiles have been vanquished by the T. Rex–that’s what the story line is all about. The movie’s final shot is of the victorious animal raising its head triumphantly above the trees.

Natural is better–that is a frequent theme in movies, even in sci-fi movies. Back in 1936, Charlie Chaplin’s classic, Modern Times, ended with Chaplin and Paulette Godard walking down the road, away from the world of technology and into a more natural future. More recently, Bladerunner (1992) portrays the conflict between natural humans and genetically engineered “replicants, who were designed to work in extraterrestrial environments that are unfriendly for humans. The replicants are superior in some respects; their grievance is that they have been engineered with a life span of only four years. The outcome of the conflict is ambiguous–two different versions of the film were released, each with a different ending.

In Gattaca (the letters are an anagram of the ACGT nucleotides of the DNA molecule), 1997, the plot focuses directly on the competition of two brothers, Vincent, a natural “love child” with a normal number of genetic defects, and Anton, who was screened at the embryo stage and found to be “perfect.” Through several contests, the natural brother surpasses his flawless sibling.

The message could not be clearer, Jurassic World being the latest installment. Dr. Wu might even be seen as a Faust figure, the mad scientist, who trades his soul for unlimited knowledge. The Faust story, which has its beginnings at least eight hundred years ago, has taken on many forms (for example, Wikipedia lists more than twenty-five films based on the Faust story. It has been intertwined with Frankenstein and the figure of the Mad Scientist, perhaps most vividly in recent decades as Dr. Strangelove, in the 1964 film. The very old story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (think of more recent portrayals in Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 and its 2000 sequel) focuses on the technological dimension of knowledge. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who created highly influential versions of both Faust and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was himself an important scientist.

Jurassic World draws upon these deep roots of popular culture as it combines the mad scientist with the horrific hybrid dinosaurs and adds a scheming capitalist who owns the Dino park and controls Dr. Wu. The film ends with the mad scientist and his capitalist patron escaping to live another day, while the “most natural” dinosaur wins a temporary victory over the scientist’s evil creations. The dinos have already killed the security guard who planned to steal embryos, to breed dinos as weapons of war.

What interests me especially are the attitudes towards science and technology expressed in this film. Jurassic World is sci-fi, as are several of the films I’ve mentioned. Sci-fi in which there is embedded a deep ambivalence about science, a not-so-hidden critique of science. This is not unusual–although the common view of sci-if is that it glorifies science and technology, in fact it expresses ambivalence–awe, to be sure, but also uncertainty and deep doubt about science. The Faust stream adds the fear that awesome knowledge has come by suppressing an essential side of life, whose loss we grieve–ambivalence that was given classic expression in the 1933 sci-fi film, Invisible Man, where H.G. Wells’ mad scientist hero says on his death bed, “I have tampered with things man should never touch.”

What are are we to make of this sci-fi expression of doubt about science? Occurring in the most highly advanced science-based society in history? It is not of recent origin, it is an enduring thread in the tapestry of America’s soul. Sometimes critics seem to think that ambivalence about science is a matter of poor education, or they link it to conservative Christianity. I’ve heard the epithet, “stupid and ignorant” used–as if that explained anything. Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has argued that creationists are responsible for congress de-funding the supercollider. But it goes much deeper, and it crosses lines of religion, social class, and education. Well-educated upper middle-class parents are defying medical advice to inoculate their children against childhood diseases. Ivy League-educated members of congress are reluctant to acknowledge the scientific theory of evolution.

Several questions come to mind in connection with the popular culture of ambivalence about science and technology:

1–Is it possible to counteract deep-lying cultural dimensions, such as the ambivalence to science? Or will they endure forever, even below the threshold of our awareness, waiting to capture our public life at any moment?

2–Is this culture of ambivalence in any way responsible for the scientific illiteracy that bedevils our society?

3–How do religion and science figure in the culture of ambivalence. Although has been popular to speak of a “warfare” between science and religion, today historians mainly debunk the idea. On the one hand, many scientists are actively religious, while on the other hand, the culture of science itself harbors ambivalence. It was the Father of the Atom Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who questioned physics itself, saying after Hiroshima, “We have known Original Sin.” The filmmakers who gave us Bladerunner and the Jurassic Park franchise are not necessarily anti-science. But they do have their fingers on the pulse of popular culture. After all, the Faust and Mad Scientist traditions have lasted at least 800 years.

4–Is there a kernel of truth carried by popular culture–that unbridled scientific and technological advance can lead to destructive consequences, alongside the blessings they bring? A truth that calls for deeper reflection and nuance?

I’ll elaborate on these themes in my next blog.

Phil Hefner 8/29/2015