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Dinomania

Jurassic Park

directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Michael Crichton, by David Koepp
Universal city studios

The Making of Jurassic Park

by Don Shay, by Jody Duncan
Ballantine, 195 pp., $18.00 (paper)

Jurassic Park

by Michael Crichton
Ballantine, 399 pp., $6.99 (paper)

1.

Macbeth’s soliloquy on his intended murder of King Duncan provides our canonical quotation for the vital theme that deeds spawn unintended consequences in distant futures. “If it were done when ‘tis done,” Macbeth muses, “then ‘twere well it were done quickly.” The act must be swift but, even more importantly, the sequelae must be contained, as Macbeth hopes to

trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here.

Yet Macbeth fears that big events must unleash all the genies of unknowable futures—for “bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague th’ inventor.”

I doubt that Henry Fairfield Osborn considered these lines, or imagined any popular future for his new discoveries, when he published a conventionally dull, descriptive paper in 1924 on three genera of dinosaurs recently found in Mongolia on the famous Gobi Desert expedition. In this paper, entitled “Three New Theropoda, Protoceratops Zone, Central Mongolia,”1 Osborn named, and described for the first time, the “skull and jaws, one front claw and adjoining phalanges” of a small, but apparently lithe and skillful carnivore. He called his new creature Velociraptor mongoliensis to honor these inferred skills, for Velociraptor, means “quick seizer.” Velociraptor, Osborn wrote, “seems to have been an alert, swift-moving carnivorous dinosaur.” He then describes the teeth as “perfectly adapted to the sudden seizure of…swift-moving prey…. The long rostrum and wide gape of the jaws indicate that the prey was not only living but of considerable size.”

Osborn was America’s greatest vertebrate paleontologist, but he was also the politically conservative, socially prominent, imperious president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He would, I think, have been quite surprised, and not at all amused, to learn that, nearly seventy years later, his creature would win a new, and vastly extended, status as the primary dinosaur hero (or villain, depending on your modes of rooting) in Jurassic Park, the biggest blockbuster film of all time.

Public fascination has always followed these prehistoric beasts. Just ten years after Richard Owen coined the word dinosaur in 1840, sculptor Waterhouse Hawkins was hard at work on a series of full-scale models to display in the Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851. (The Palace burned down in 1936, but Hawkin’s dinosaurs, recently spruced up with a coat of paint, can still be seen in Sydenham, south of London.)

But the popular acclaim of dinosaurs has been fitful and episodic. We saw them in King Kong (thanks to Willis O’Brien and his brilliant technique of stop-motion filming using models, later magnified). We filled our cars under the sign of the jolly green giant Brontosaurus, the logo of Sinclair Oil (who also provided a fine exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York). But dinosaurs never became a big or truly pervasive cultural icon, and some decades largely ignored them. I was a “dinosaur nut” as a kid growing up in New York during the late Forties and early Fifties. Hardly anyone knew or cared about them, and I was viewed as a nerd and misfit on that ultimate field of vocational decision—the school playground at recess. I was called “fossil face”; the only other like-minded kid in the school became “dino” (I am pleased to report that he also became a professional natural historian). The names weren’t funny, and they hurt.

During the last twenty years, however, dinosaurs have vaulted to a steady level of culturally pervasive popularity—from gentle Barney, who teaches proper values to young children on a PBS television series, to ferocious monsters who can promote films from G to R ratings. This dinosaurian flooding of popular consciousness guarantees that no paleontologist can ever face a journalist and avoid what seems to be the most pressing question of the Nineties: Why are children so fascinated with dinosaurs?

The question may be commonplace, but it remains poorly formulated by conflating two quite separate issues. The first—call it the Jungian or archetypal theme—seeks the universal reason that stirs the soul of childhood (invariably fatuous and speculative, hence my dislike of the question). To this inquiry, I know no better response than the epitome proposed by a psychologist colleague: “big, fierce, and extinct”—in other words, alluringly scary, but basically safe.

Most inquirers stop here, supposing the question resolved when they feel satisfied about archetypal fascination. But this theme cannot touch the heart of current dinomania, culminating in the extraordinary response to Jurassic Park, for an obvious, but oddly disregarded, reason: dinosaurs were just as big, as fierce, and as extinct forty years ago, but only a few nerdy kids, and even fewer professional paleontologists, gave a damn about them. We must therefore pose the second question: Why now and not before?

We might propose two solutions to this less general, but more resolvable, question—one that I wish were true (but almost cannot be), and one that I deeply regret (but must surely be correct). As a practicing paleontologist, I would love to believe that current dinomania arose as a direct product of our research, and of all the fascinating new ideas that our profession has generated about dinosaurs. The slow, lumbering, stupid, robotic, virtually behaviorless behemoths of my childhood have been replaced by lithe, agile, potentially warm-blooded, adequately smart, and behaviorally complex creatures. The giant sauropods were mired in ponds during my youth, for many paleontologists regarded them as too heavy to hold up their own bodies on land. Now they stride across the plains, necks and tails outstretched. In some reconstructions, they even rear up on their hind legs to reach high vegetation, or to scare off predators (they are so depicted in the first Brachiosaurus scene of Jurassic Park, and in the full-scale fiberglass model of Barosaurus in the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History—though most of my colleagues consider such a posture ridiculously unlikely).

When I was a child, ornithopods laid their eggs and then walked away forever. Today, these same creatures are the very models of maternal, caring, politically correct dinosaurs. They watch over their nests, care for their nests, young, form cooperative herds, and bear such lovely peaceful names as Maiasauria, the earth mother lizard (in contrast with such earlier monikers as Pachycephalosaurus, the thick bonehead). Even their extinction now appears in a much more interesting light. They succumbed to vaguely speculative types of “climatic change” in my youth; now we have firm evidence for extraterrestrial impact as the trigger for their final removal.

But how can this greening of dinosaurs be the major reason for present faddishness—for if we credit the Jungian theme at all, then the substrate for fascination has always been present, even in the bad old days of dumb and lumbering dinosaurs (who were still big, fierce, and extinct). What promotes this substrate to overt and pervasive dinomania? To such questions about momentary or periodic fads, one quintessentially American source usually supplies a solution—recognition and exploitation of commerical possibilities.

When I was growing up on the streets of New York City, yo-yo crazes would sweep through kiddie culture every year or two, usually lasting for a month or so. These crazes were not provoked by any technological improvement in the design of yo-yos (just as more competent dinosaurs do not engender dinomania). Similarly, a Jungian substrate rooted in control over contained circular motion will not explain why every kid needed a yo-yo in July 1951, but not in June 1950 (just as dinosaurs are always available, but only sometimes exploited).

The answer, in short, must lie in commercialization. Every few years, someone figured out how to make yo-yos sell. At some point about twenty years ago, some set of forces discovered how to turn the Jungian substrate into profits from a plethora of products. You just need a little push to kick the positive feedback machine of human herding and copying behavior into its upward spiral (especially powerful in kids with disposable income).

I’d love to know the source of the initial push (a good theme for cultural historians). Should we look to the great expansion of museum gift shops from holes-in-the-wall run by volunteers to glitzy operations crucial to the financial health of their increasingly commercialized parent institutions? Or did some particular product, or character, grip enough youthful imaginations at some point? Should we be looking for an evil genius, or just for an initial chaotic fluctuation, then amplified by cultural loops of positive feedback?

2.

Contemporary culture presents no more powerful symbol, or palpable product, of pervasive, coordinated commercialization than the annual release of “blockbuster” films for the summer viewing season. The movies themselves are sufficiently awesome, but when you consider the accompanying publicity machines, and the flood of commercial tie-ins from lunch pails to coffee mugs to T-shirts, the effort looks more like a military blitzkrieg than an offer of entertainment. Therefore every American who is not mired in some Paleozoic pit surely knows that dinomania has reached its apogee with the release of Steven Spielberg’s film version of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. As a paleontologist, I could not possibly feel more ambivalent about the result—marveling and cursing, laughing and moaning. One can hardly pay greater tribute to the importance of an event than to proclaim the impossibility of neutrality before it.

John Hammond (an entrepreneur with more than a touch of evil in the book, but kindly and merely overenthusiastic in the film) has built the ultimate theme park (for greedy profits in the book, for mixed but largely honorable motives in the film) by remaking living dinosaurs out of DNA extracted from dinosaur blood preserved within mosquitoes and other biting insects entombed in fossil Mesozoic amber. Crichton deserves high praise for developing the most clever and realistic of all scenarios for such an impossible event, for such plausibility is the essence of science fiction at its best. (The idea, as Crichton acknowledged, had been kicking around paleontological labs for quite some time.)

Until a few months ago, the record for oldest extracted DNA belonged to a twenty-million-year-old magnolia leaf from Idaho.2 A group of my colleagues managed to recover nearly the entire sequence—1320 of 1431 base pairs—of a chloroplast gene prominently involved in photosynthesis. (Most DNA lies in chromosomes of the nucleus, but mitochondria—energy factories—and chloroplasts—sites of photosynthesis in plants—also contain small DNA programs.)

But amber has also been yielding results during the past year. In the September 25, 1991, issue of Science a group of colleagues reported the successful extraction of several DNA fragments (fewer than two hundred base pairs each) from a 25–30-million-year-old termite encased in amber.3 Then, in a publishing event tied to the opening of Jurassic Park, the June 10, 1993, issue of the leading British journal Nature—same week as the film’s premiere—reported results of another group of colleagues on the extraction of two slightly larger fragments (315 and 226 base pairs) from a fossil weevil.4 The amber enclosing this insect is 120–135 million years old—not quite as ancient as Jurassic, but from the next geological period, called Cretaceous, when dinosaurs were also dominant creatures of the land (most of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs are Cretaceous in any case).5

  1. 1

    American Museum Novitates, No. 144 (November 7, 1924).

  2. 2

    S.J. Gould, “Magnolias from Moscow,” Natural History, September 1992; P.S. Soltis, D. E. Soltis, and C. J. Smiley, “An rbcL sequence from a Miocene Taxodium,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 1992, pp. 449–451.

  3. 3

    R. De Salle, J. Gatesy, W. Wheeler, and D. Grimaldi, “DNA sequences from a fossil termite in Oligo-Miocene amber and their phylogenetic implications,” Science, Volume 257 (September 25, 1992), pp. 1933–1936.

  4. 4

    R. J. Cano, H. N. Poinar, N. J. Pieniazek, A. Acra, and G. O. Poinar, “Amplification and sequencing of DNA from a 120–135 million year old weevil,” Nature, Volume 363 (June 10, 1993), pp. 536–538.

  5. 5

    Pardon some trivial professional carping, but only two of the dinosaurs featured in the film version of Jurassic Park actually lived during the Jurassic period—the giant sauropod Brachiosaurus, and the small Dilophosaurus. All the others come from the subsequent Cretaceous period—a perfectly acceptable mixing given the film’s premise that amber of any appropriate age might be scanned for dinosaur blood. Still, the majority might rule in matters of naming, though I suppose that Cretaceous Park just doesn’t have the same ring. When I met Michael Crichton (long before the film’s completion), I had to ask him the small-minded professional’s question: “Why did you place a Cretaceous dinosaur on the cover of Jurassic Park?” (for the book’s dust jacket—and now the film’s logo—features a Cretaceous Tyrannosaurus rex). I was delighted with his genuine response: “Oh, my God, I never thought of that. We were just fooling around with different cover designs, and this one looked best.” Fair enough; he took the issue seriously, and I would ask no more.

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