Jurassic World revisits science anxieties
The new film in the Jurassic Park series, released on Friday, is in a long tradition of stories about humans destroyed by their creations. But is science making this prospect more plausible?
‘Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the world has ever seen but you wield it like a toddler that’s found his dad’s gun.’
So says the maverick mathematician Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) in the 1993 film Jurassic Park. He is warning a group of scientists and entrepreneurs against their plan to open a safari park for the dinosaurs they have managed to clone, and his warning proves wise: the predators escape from their enclosures and carnage ensues.
Now, 22 years later, those meddling scientists are at it again. Jurassic World begins with the theme park recovered from its gory teething problems and flourishing once again. But the scientists have grown complacent. No longer content with resurrecting extinct animals, they have gone a step further and used genetic modification to create a dinosaur more huge, intelligent and ferocious than any the world has ever seen before. The results are predictable.
Jurassic World is not the only film this year to tell a cautionary tale about doomed scientific hubris. In Ex Machina, for instance, an arrogant tech entrepreneur is outwitted and finally destroyed by the artificial intelligence he has created. Killer robots will strike again with the latest instalment of the Terminator series next month. And with Tomorrowland, whose engineer villain aims to replace ineffectual humanity with a race of super-efficient robots, even Disney is in on the act.
Anxieties about the apocalyptic potential of science is nothing new. The fear that our creations might destroy us can be traced back at least as far as the Ancient Greek myth of Icarus: the wax in his wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein struck such a chord that its man-made monster ranks alongside horror staples like Dracula. And robots have been associated with disaster ever since the word was invented in the Czech play R.U.R, which ends with the destruction of the human race.
We’ve always been drawn to stories of out-of-control inventions, and many critics think they say more about human nature than they do about the state of science. At most these monsters are metaphors for fears about contemporary society; more often they are simply light entertainment.
But the writer Lev Grossman argues that this time it’s different: ‘the robots aren’t metaphors any more’, he says in Time Magazine, and neither are cloning and genetic modification — this is real, contemporary science and nobody knows where it might lead. Frankenstein’s monster was never anything more than a fantasy. The same cannot be said for the horrors in this year’s blockbusters.
- Are we right to fear that our own creations will destroy us?
- How much can popular films tell us about a culture’s preoccupations?
- Choose one of the films mentioned in this article. In groups, research the science behind it and discuss how likely it is to happen in real life.
- Think of a scenario in which humans invent something that goes on to threaten our existence.
Some People Say...
“Humanity will someday destroy itself.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Surely there’s no way we could actually resurrect dinosaurs?
- It’s not quite as far-fetched as you might think. Last month, scientists managed to create living woolly mammoth genes, and there is an entire movement of scientists devoted to the so-called ‘de-extinction’ of animals that died out long ago. The science still has some way to go, however, and dinosaurs may be a bit of a stretch: there is no known instance of dinosaur DNA surviving to the present day intact.
- What about the robot apocalypse?
- That’s a different matter. Computers are increasingly powerful and robots get more sophisticated every year. From physicist Stephen Hawking to the inventor Elon Musk, some of the world’s most respected thinkers have recently warned that artificial intelligence could soon pose a serious threat.
- Earth’s long-term history is divided into geological eons, which are in turn divided into eras and then periods. Each one is defined by shifting conditions in the temperature and the chemical makeup of the planet. Dinosaurs ruled the world during the Mesozoic era, which is divided into Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic periods.
- Extreme self-confidence. In Ancient Greece, this was seen as an affront to the gods, who invariably punished it viciously; in tragedy it often causes the catastrophe.
- The title does not in fact refer to the monster, but the scientist who gave it life. What’s more, Shelley in fact portrays Frankenstein’s monster as a gentle and generous soul who only becomes dangerous after he is shunned by humanity — including his own creator.
- Rossum’s Universal Robots was a 1923 play by Karel Čapek. Although it is most famous for introducing the word ‘robot’ (from ‘robota’, meaning ‘forced labour’), the beings the word refers to were in fact closer to the modern idea of androids or cyborgs — partly biological and easy to mistake for humans.