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Dinomania

The nearly complete blurring of pop and professional domains represents one of the most interesting by-products—a basically positive one in my view—of the Jurassic Park phenomenon. When a staid and distinguished British journal uses the premiere of an American film to set the sequencing of its own articles, then we have reached an ultimate integration. Museum shops sell the most revolting dinosaur kitsch. Movies employ the best paleontologists as advisers to heighten the realism of their creatures. Orwell’s pigs have become human surrogates walking on two legs—and “already it was impossible to say which was which” (nor do I know anymore who was the pig, and who the person, at the outset—that is, if either category be appropriate).

If all this welcome scientific activity gives people the idea that dinosaurs might actually be re-created by Crichton’s narrative, I hasten (with regret) to pour frigid water upon this greatest reverie of any aficionado of past life. Aristotle wisely taught us that one swallow doesn’t make a summer—nor, his modern acolytes might add, does one gene (or just a fragment thereof) make an organism. Only the most prominent, easily extracted, or multiply copied bits of fossil DNA have sequenced—and we have no reason to believe that anything approaching the complete genetic program of an organism has been preserved in such ancient rocks. (The magnolia study, for example, found no nuclear DNA at all, while the recovered chloroplast gene occurs in numerous copies per cell, with a correspondingly better chance of preservation. More than 90 percent of the attempts yielded no DNA at all. The amber DNA is nuclear, but represents fragments of coding for the socalled 16S and 18S ribosomal RNA genes—among the most commonly and easily recovered segments of the genetic program.)

DNA is not a geological stable compound. We may recover fragments, or even a whole gene, here and there, but to wizardry can make an organism from just a few percent of its codes. Jurassic Park honorably acknowledged this limitation by having their genetic engineers use modern frog DNA to fill in the missing spaces in their dinosaur programs. But in so doing, they commit their worst scientific blunder—the only one that merits censure as a deep philosophical error, rather than a studied superficial mistake consciously permitted to bolster the drama of science fiction.

An amalgamated code of, say, 50 percent dinosaur DNA and 50 percent frog DNA would never foster the embryological development of a functioning organism. This form of reductionism is simply silly. An animal is an integrated entity, not the summation of its genes, one by one. Fifty percent of your genetic code doesn’t make a perfectly good half of you; it makes no functioning organism at all. Genetic engineers might get by with a missing dab or two, but large holes cannot be plugged with DNA from a different zoological class (frogs are amphibians, dinosaurs are reptiles, and their lines diverged in the Carboniferous Period, more than 100 million years before the origin of dinosaurs). The embryological decoding of a DNA program into an organism represents nature’s most complex orchestration. You need all the proper instruments and conductors of an evolutionarily unique symphony. You cannot throw in half a rock band playing its own tunes by its own rules and hope for harmony.

When a scientist soberly states that something cannot be done, the public has every right to express doubts based on numerous historical precedents for results proclaimed impossible, but later both achieved and far surpassed. But the implausibility of reconstructing dinosaurs by the amber scenario resides in a different category of stronger argument.

Most proclamations of impossibility only illustrate a scientist’s lack of imagination about future discovery—impossible to see the moon’s backside because you can’t fly there, impossible to see an atom because light microscopy cannot resolve such dimensions. The object was always there: atoms and the moon’s far side. We only lacked a technology that was possible in principle to attain, but unimagined in practice.

But when we say that a particular historical item—like a dinosaur species—can’t be recovered, we are invoking a different and truly ineluctable brand of impossibility. If all information about a historical event has been lost, then it just isn’t there anymore and the event cannot be reconstructed. We are not lacking a technology to see something that actually exists; rather, we have lost all information about the thing itself, and no technology can recover an item from the void. Suppose I want to know the name of every soldier who fought in the Battle of Marathon. The records, I suspect, simply don’t exist—never, nowhere, and nohow. No future technology, no matter how sophisticated, can recover events with crucially missing information. So it is, I fear, with dinosaur DNA. We may make gene machines more powerful by orders of magnitude than anything we can now even conceive. But if full programs of dinosaur DNA exist nowhere—and we can find only the scrap of a gene here and there—then we have permanently lost these particular items of history.

3.

I liked the book version of Jurassic Park. In addition to using the best possible scenario for making dinosaurs, Crichton based the book’s plot upon an interesting invocation of currently fashionable chaos theory. To allay the fears of his creditors, John Hammond brings a set of experts to Jurassic Park, hoping to win their endorsement. His blue ribbon panel includes two paleontologists and a preachy iconoclast of a mathematician named Ian Malcolm—the novel’s intellectual and philosophical center. Malcolm urges—often, colorfully, and at length—a single devastating critique based on his knowledge of chaos and fractals: the park’s safety system must collapse because it is too precariously complex in its coordination of so many, and so intricate, fail-safe devices. Moreover, the park must fail both unpredictably and spectacularly—and does it ever! Malcolm explains,

It’s chaos theory. But I notice nobody is willing to listen to the consequences of the mathematics. Because they imply very large consequences for human life. Much larger than Heisenberg’s principle or Gödel’s theorem, which everybody rattles on about…. But chaos theory concerns everyday life…. I gave all this information to Hammond long before he broke ground on this place. You’re going to engineer a bunch of prehistoric animals and set them on an island? Fine. A lovely dream. Charming. But it won’t go as planned. It is inherently unpredictable.

We have soothed ourselves into imagining sudden change as something that happens outside the normal order of things. An accident, like a car crash. Or beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We do not conceive a sudden, radical, irrational change as built into the very fabric of existence. Yet it is. And chaos theory teaches us….

Moreover, Malcolm uses this argument—not the usual and romantic pap about “man treading where God never intended” (to invoke the old language as well as the old cliché)—to urge our self-restraint before such scientific power:

And now chaos theory proves that unpredictability is built into our daily lives. It is as mundane as the rainstorm we cannot predict. And so the grand vision of science, hundreds of years old—the dream of total control—had died, in our century.

This reliance on chaos as a central theme did, however, throw the book’s entire story line into a theoretically fatal inconsistency—one that, to my surprise, no reviewer seemed to catch at the time. The book’s second half is, basically, a grand old, rip-roaring chase novel, with survivors managing (and with nary a scratch to boot) to prevail through a long sequence of independent and excruciatingly dangerous encounters with dinosaurs. By the same argument that complex sequences cannot proceed as planned—that is, in this case, toward the novelistic necessity of at least some characters surviving—not a human soul in the park should have stood a chance of proceeding harmless through such a sequence. Malcolm even says so: “Do you have any idea how unlikely it is that you, or any of us, will get off this island alive?” But I’m willing to accept the literary convention for bending nature’s laws in this case.

I expected to like the film even more. The boy dinosaur nut still dwells within me, and I have seen them all, from King Kong to One Million Years B.C., to Godzilla. The combination of a better story line, with such vast improvement in monster-making technology, and all done by the most masterly hands in the world, seemed to guarantee success at a spectacular new level of achievement. I did not feel that I wasted my two hours or my seven bucks (plus another two for the indigestible “raptor bites” candy tie-in), but I was deeply disappointed by much about the movie.

The dinosaurs themselves certainly delivered. As a practicing paleontologist, I confess to wry amusement at the roman-à-cleffery embedded in the reconstructions. I could recognize nearly every provocative or outré idea of my colleagues, every social tie-in now exploited by dinosaurs in their commanding role as cultural icons. The herbivores are so sweet and idyllic. The giant brachiosaurs low to each other like cattle in the peaceable kingdom. They rear up on their hind legs to find the juiciest leaves. The smaller species care for and help each other—down to such subtle details as experienced elders keeping young Gallimimus in the safer center of the fleeing herd.

Even the carnivores are postmodernists of another type. The big old fearsome standard, Tyrannosaurus rex, presides over Jurassic Park in all her glory (and in her currently fashionable posture, with head down, tail up, and vertebral column nearly parallel to the ground). But the mantle of carnivorous heroism has clearly passed to the much smaller Velociraptor, Henry Fairfield Osborn’s Mongolian jewel. Downsizing and diversity are in; constrained hugeness has become a tragic flaw. Velociraptor is everything that modern corporate life values in a tough competitor—mean, lean, lithe, and intelligent. They hunt in packs, using a fine military technique of feinting by one beast in front, followed by attack from the side by a co-conspirator. In the film’s best moment of wry parody of its own inventions, the wonderfully stereotyped stiff-upper-lip-British-hunter Muldoon gets the center beast in his gun’s sight, only to realize too late that the side-hunting companion is a few inches from his head. He looks at the side beast, says “Clever girl” in a tone of true admiration (all of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs are engineered to be female in another ultimately failed attempt to control their reproduction), and then gets gobbled to death.

Even so, Spielberg didn’t choose to challenge pop culture’s canonical dinosaurs in all details of accuracy and professional speculation; blockbusters must, to some extent, play upon familiarity. Ironically, he found the true size of Velociraptor—some six feet in length—too small for the scary effects desired, and enlarged them to nearly ten feet, thus moving partway back toward the old stereotype, otherwise so effectively challenged. He experimented, in early plans and models, with bright colors favored by some of my colleagues on the argument that bird-like behavior (and closeness to bird ancestry) might imply avian styles of coloration for the smaller dinosaurs (the original Velociraptor models were tiger striped). But he eventually opted for conventional reptilian dullness (“Your same old, ordinary, dinosaur shit-green,” lamented one of my graduate students).

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