Jurassic July: Look, Don’t Touch

Poster for 1931 Frankenstein movie

Universal Pictures has a long history of record-breaking monster movies that take a dim view of laboratory science. (Public domain)

The final post in a series on the Jurassic Park films, mainly Jurassic Park and Jurassic World. We will be discussing the films in detail, so spoilers are possible but will be kept to a minimum.

I don’t believe anyone actually invokes the name Frankenstein in any of the Jurassic Park films, but the specter of the mad doctor and his monster loom large. The main lesson we seem to have learned from Mary Shelley’s story is that you don’t mix and match when it comes to nature. (As with Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker, the prominence of patchwork quality of the monster likely has more to do with cinematic adaptations than the original text; we are such visual creatures.) A number of problems at Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are explicitly traced back to the incorporation of DNA from other species into the dinosaur genomes — as if everything would have been hunky-dory with “natural” dinosaurs.

There are all manner of scientists in these films with a variety of functions and motivations. In general, the hero scientists are the ones who advocate a hands-off approach to nature, while those who manipulate nature are at best morally ambiguous and at worst villainous. Perhaps because of the current conversations about GMO crops, this theme is most heightened in Jurassic World. A genetically modified organism, the Indominus rex, rampages through the park, and it can only be stopped when the (relatively) naturally-bred dinosaurs reassert their proper place in the ecosystem.

There is one difficulty with this reading. The main hero of the film, Owen Grady, does more than observe nature. He’s training velociraptors to be… plot devices, apparently. This is unnatural in its own way, but it’s a familiar sort of unnatural. Plenty of us know a dog that can sit or fetch on command. We’ve grown accustomed to this sort of deviation from the natural order, and crucially it doesn’t involve the taboo of mixing and matching.

In the world Mary Shelley knew, and even the world in which James Whale’s film adaptation premiered, there were few if any examples of biological frankensteining accomplishing anything worthwhile. Indeed, it was probably hard to imagine what good could come of such activity, so fears of chimeras were understandable. Yet think about how many people today walk around with organs transplanted from someone else, not via some ghoulish back alley nightmare surgery but carefully regulated procedures performed by highly regarded professionals. Do our cultural attitudes need to catch up with our scientific reality?

For those of us familiar with modern biology, organ transplantation only scratches the surface. Diabetics are treated with insulin made by bacteria modified with a human gene, enabling cost-effective mass production of a life-saving protein. Mice with human cells grafts are an increasingly valuable tool for understanding a variety of diseases and identifying treatments for them. Every day, in laboratories all over the world, the bioluminescence gene from jellyfish is used to see inside the cells of all manner of organisms (including a rather tastefully named monkey). For some of us, this kind of activity is just as familiar as telling Rover to roll over.

Painting of Prometheus

How many of our reservations about science are thanks to this guy? (Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind by Heinrich Fueger)

Should we be so comfortable with splicing genes or otherwise meddling with biology? Shelley dubbed Victor Frankenstein the modern Prometheus. Are we still concerned that the gods will punish us for taking fire from the heavens, demonstrating a level of control over nature reserved for the divine?

As a Christian, I’m more concerned about offending the God of the Bible than Zeus or Athena. And it’s not at all clear to me that the Promethean moral is a Biblical one. To the contrary, I see God inviting us to participate in the ongoing process of creation with him. Obviously, genetic engineering isn’t mentioned specifically, but there is very little indication that we are meant to merely observe other living things. There is the Genesis commandment to subdue the Earth, although that is admittedly broad. Agriculture and shepherding feature prominently and are openly practiced without condemnation by many of God’s people. Perhaps closest to the engineering of dino DNA, Paul talks about the practice of grafting branches onto olive trees. Granted, Paul is making an illustration and not endorsing the technique itself, but another illustration could have been chosen if the practice itself were objectionable.

Is the Tower of Babel the Bible’s version of a Promethean tale? I’ve certainly heard it interpreted along those lines, but that reading isn’t all that clear to me. Most significantly, the tower builders aren’t depicted usurping a function that God reserves for himself. Nowhere in the Bible does God take sole responsibility for construction, while on multiple occasions he specifically commissions his followers to undertake building projects. Instead, their sin seems to be isolationism and consolidation of power and resources. God’s response is to scatter and diversify, which is hardly an endorsement of purity of lineage.

That’s not to say that any and all activities are permissible in the name of science, just that science is permitted to be active. If we are to exercise dominion over the earth in the name of God, we surely need to follow his example of servant leadership. We need to take into account how our actions affect the least of these, and to endeavor to spread whatever benefits we accrue as widely as possible instead of consolidating them for the few. I think it possible to practice modern, molecular biology in a way that is consistent with these principles.

Given the prevalence of the Prometheus story and all of its thematic children in our world, I can see where the attitudes of the Greek gods would get conflated with the God of the Bible. Still, I think that the God of the Bible actually gives us a much more sophisticated way to understand our relationship with his creation, one which provides many fruitful opportunities for science, and for that I am grateful.

Which stories frame your thinking about science? What narratives about your field could benefit from fresh perspectives?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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