"Jurassic Park" As Allegory: The Bargain of Scientism



God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.

- Jurassic Park

When I was seven, I became obsessed with Jurassic Park. Not a harmless obsession mind you, but a full-blown, night-and-day, dinosaur obsession. Every toy and every game became about the t-rex and the velociraptor. My friends and I kept track of how many times we watched the film; I won't say how high the count got over the years (it was more than years I've been alive). It all came back to Spielberg's work; through the magic of cinema, I had peered into an alternate universe where monsters roam the earth. There's really no other way to put it: Jurassic Park was crack, and I was hooked.

Now, as Jurassic Park hits the theater in 3D twenty year later, all of these memories come flooding back: the horror, excitement, and occasional eye-shielding of my first viewing; memorizing favorite lines and re-enacting favorite scenes; that beautiful soundtrack by John Williams blaring out in my imagination.

But now, the film means something else to me. I still consider it a masterpiece, and as far as special effects, thrilling moments, and edge-of-your-seat entertainment, I still think it's unmatched. But I find myself thinking more about those scenes where, at ten or twelve years old, I would've been day-dreaming - scenes about science and the Faustian pursuit of knowledge and power.

The film - based on the book by Michael Crichton - revolves around John Hammond, played brilliantly by actor and director Richard Attenborough. Hammond is a CEO and visionary who hires a team of scientists to create dinosaurs with DNA extracted from ancient mosquitoes buried in ossified amber. The motivation is scientific, but also practical: Hammond has a vision of a theme park, where he can share this nascent discovery with families and tourists, and yes, to rake in unfathomable amounts of money. His vision is cutting-edge, secretive, and highly volatile: but Hammond and his team take extreme precautions to ensure that the dinosaurs are harmless, and don't reproduce. Jurassic Park will be a place of control, ingenuity, and ecstatic excitement - a place where science makes the impossible possible.

In an early scene - just the kind of scene I tuned out back when I was eight - Hammond meets with mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, lawyer Donald Gennaro, and a team of paleontologists. The following conversation unfolds:

Dr. Ian Malcolm: Gee, the lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, uh... staggers me.
Donald Gennaro: Well thank you, Dr. Malcolm, but I think things are a little bit different then you and I had feared...
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, I know. They're a lot worse.
Donald Gennaro: Now, wait a second now, we haven't even seen the park...
John Hammond: No, no, Donald, Donald, Donald... let him talk. There's no reason... I want to hear every viewpoint, I really do.
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Don't you see the danger, John, inherent in what you're doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun.
Donald Gennaro: It's hardly appropriate to start hurling generalizations...
Dr. Ian Malcolm: If I may... Um, I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here, it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you wanna sell it. Well...
John Hammond: I don't think you're giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody's ever done before...
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should...this isn't some species that was obliterated by deforestation, or the building of a dam. Dinosaurs had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.
John Hammond: I simply don't understand this Luddite attitude, especially from a scientist. I mean, how can we stand in the light of discovery, and not act?
Dr. Ian Malcolm: What's so great about discovery? It's a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.

The paleontologists also express their hesitation - not as much from a philosophical standpoint, but from a scientific one. Do we have adequate knowledge of this to be doing it? Who's to say what these creatures will do? What exactly are we tampering with, and what could be the long-term repercussions?

Of course, we all know what happens.


Dr. Malcolm and the paleontologists were right: all hell breaks loose. The dinosaurs, despite being the same sex, reproduce; they break out of their pens and cages and begin hunting the very human beings who created them and controlled them just days before; and the island rages on, uncontrolled...opening the door to several sequels, of course.

In one of the last scenes, a paleontologist hops into a jeep driven by Hammond to escape a dramatic encounter between the t-rex and velociraptors. He says: "Mr. Hammond, after careful consideration, I've decided not to endorse your park." In what might be one of the funniest one-liners of all time, Mr. Hammond purses his lips and says simply: "So have I."

We've just been through an incredible, mind-bending, eye-popping, heart-pumping adventure - without a doubt. But we shouldn't lose sight of the prologue and finale; the story starts with winsome optimism and ends in exhausted defeat. With these scenes in mind, Jurassic Park becomes a kind of commentary or allegory: but about what?

I think Crichton's story warns us against the dangers of an unwieldy, misapplied confidence in science - what's often called "scientism."

Novelist and essayist Walker Percy explained scientism this way:

The distinction which must be kept in mind is that between science and what can only be called 'scientism'...[Scientism] can be considered only as an ideology, a kind of quasi-religion––not as a valid method of investigating and theorizing which comprises science proper––a cast of mind all the more pervasive for not being recognized as such and, accordingly, one of the most potent forces which inform, almost automatically and unconsciously, the minds of most denizens of modern industrial societies like the United States.

Scientism is characterized first by a radical rupture and hostility between what psychoanalyst Karl Stern termed "scientific knowledge" and "poetic knowledge" - two modes once in harmony in the middle ages. This rupture is at least as old as Descartes, who strove to establish clear and distinct ideas - first and foremost his cogito - to ground modern science and make human beings "masters and possessors of nature." This revolution didn't come without its difficulties; for example, Cartesian dualism made the human mind a kind of ghost haunting the machinery of its own body (a philosophical problem that still haunts us today). But the practical upshot of this thinking was control and clarity: the use of technology to subjugate objects, and the use of the scientific method to drive out obscurity.


What started as a method for better understanding the material world expanded into a metaphysical and cultural climate, one increasingly prevalent in the West. In fact, de Tocqueville said that in America, philosophy is least studied, and the precepts of Descartes best applied. We are all Cartesians without even bothering to read Descartes. Dazzled by the successes of science and technology, we apply cold, discursive thinking to everything: ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, man, and God himself become potential scientific problems, or else obscure opinions or nonsensical riddles. Science and logic, we assume, are the only real pathways to knowledge. (But on what basis is the previous statement true?)

Jurassic Park shows us the Faustian nature of this "cast of mind." In the legend of Faust, a successful but dissatisfied scholar makes a pact with Mephistopheles, the Devil's agent, to exchange his soul for unlimited knowledge and power. He gets exactly what he bargained for; and there is a price to pay. Likewise, Hammond and his team suddenly clasp tremendous scientific knowledge and power; and when faced with the question of resurrecting an ancient beast and shoving it into a theme park, the question they are most concerned with isn't why, but how? As the mathematician puts it: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." But it's not just a mathematical question of probability, as Dr. Malcolm might have framed it - it's a question of science's proper domain and inherent limits. What do we forfeit or risk when we make science absolute?

This is even more pressing today. We already face overwhelming questions about the value of weaving the Internet and digital technology into the very fabric of human existence; and we're on the brink of an age filled with transhumanist fantasies and bioethical nightmares, including nanotechnology, robotics, genetic manipulation, cloning - not to mention the impact of all of this on politics and warfare.

CS Lewis wrote a harrowing passage about the possibility of the "abolition of man" through scientism and the untrammeled conquest of nature - which, paradoxically, ends up being nature's conquest of our own human nature:

Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature's apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever...Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness.

This is what we see in Jurassic Park, on a less theoretical level: nature turns around and devours man just when he thinks he is most in control.

But Hammond doesn't give up so easily. Even in the middle of the film, after several people have died, Hammond is still devoted to his original idea, and goes on calculating: "Hiring Nedry was a mistake, that's obvious," he reasons. "We're over-dependent on automation, I can see that now. Now, the next time everything's correctable. Creation is an act of sheer will. Next time it'll be flawless...when we have control..." "You never had control!" the paleontologist fires back. "That's the illusion! Now I was overwhelmed by the power of this place. But I made a mistake, too. I didn't have enough respect for that power and it's out now. The only thing that matters now are the people we love."

The dinosaurs continue to make Hammond and his crew pay for their hubris, and it's only after his own grandchildren almost die that he sees the error of his ways. As they load into a chopper to flee, Hammond looks back at the island, pallid and broken; the whole enterprise was a disaster, a dreadful mistake, one which they will pay for forever (or for at least as long as they keep making sequels).

But none of this was fated; this gigantic mistake wasn't inevitable. It involved free, deliberate choices. Hammond could've kept his hands off, or at least approached the project with humility and wisdom; but he chose not to. He was too curious, too inebriated with the godly power at his disposal, too dazzled by his dreams.


Philosopher Hans Jonas, in writing about the advent of genetics technology that would let us to tamper with human genetic code, had this to say: "Most seem to expect its eventual arrival…but no one can contend that we must use it…we could desist. But, judging by the rhetoric of its prophets, the idea of taking our evolution into our own hands is intoxicating even to men of science." In other words, we always have the choice to subject our technology to external tests of value. This choice is especially important when humanity itself is thrust under the microscope; making science absolute in the human domain may be the most regressive advance of all. As Jonas puts it: "imagination boggles at what this Pandora’s box might release. Speaking for myself, I fear not the abuses of power interests: I fear the well-wishers of mankind with their dreams of a glorious improvement of the race." 

Wasn't John Hammond a well-wisher of mankind, overlooking a team of happy scientists?

I hope that when when you go see Jurassic Park in 3D, your ten year old self shrieks at all of Spielberg's handiwork - but I also hope these deeper questions loom large in your mind. When you were a kid, you may have wondered (like I did) what you would do if a t-rex appeared around the corner. Now, I wonder whether monsters appearing just around the corner was such a fantastical idea after all. Welcome....to Jurassic Park.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. I always love when a new post appears from By Way of Beauty in my inbox, and this reflection came at the perfect time. I am teaching my students about the differences between transhumanism and true Christian humanism; using the vision of Ray Kurzweil (in the documentary film Transcendent Man) in juxtaposition with Blessed John Paul II's vision of Eschatological Man in his epic antidote for our age, the Theology of the Body. Thank you for this, an additional reading for my students to ponder!

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    1. Bill, you and your students might find this article interesting as well! http://www.bywayofbeauty.com/2011/09/transcendent-man-us-robots.html

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    2. Thanks so much. I missed this one! It's perfect. By the way, I have a few info graphics up unpacking theological themes (I call them "Theography"). I just put up a piece on Transhumanism vs Christian Humanism. Here's the blog: http://theography101.blogspot.com

      Peace!
      Bill

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    3. Those are really impressive and unique! I saved the site to my favorites for use in the future. Thanks Bill!

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  2. I enjoyed them too, Bill! Great work!

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