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Dinomania

But let me not carp. The dinosaur scenes are spectacular. Intellectuals too often either pay no attention to such technical wizardry or, even worse, actually disdain special effects with such dismissive epithets as “merely mechanical.” I find such small-minded parochialism outrageous. Nothing can be more complex than a living organism, with all the fractal geometry of its form and behavior (compared with the almost childishly simple lines of our buildings, and of almost anything else in the realm of human construction).6 The use of technology to render accurate and believable animals therefore becomes one of the greatest all-time challenges to human ingenuity.

The field has a long and honorable history of continually improving techniques—and who would dare deny this story a place in the annals of human intellectual achievement. An old debate among historians of science asks whether most key technological inventions arise from practical need (more often in war than in any other activity), or from opportunities to fool around during periods of maximal freedom from practical pressures. My friend Cyril Smith, the wisest scientist-humanist I ever knew, strongly advocated the centrality of “play domains” as the major field for innovations with immense practical utility down the road. (He argued that block-and-tackle was invented, or at least substantially improved, in order to lift animals from underground storage pits to the game floor of the Roman Colosseum.) Yes, Jurassic Park is “just” a movie—but for this very reason, it had freedom (and money) to develop techniques of reconstruction, particularly computer generation or CG, to new heights of astonishing realism. And yes, it matters—for immediately aesthetic reasons, and for all manner of practical possibilities in the future.

Spielberg originally felt that computer generation had not yet progressed far enough, and that he would have to do all his dinosaur scenes with the fascinating array of modeling techniques long used, but constantly improving, in Hollywood—stop-motion with small models, people dressed in dinosaur suits, puppetry of various sorts, robotics with hydraulic apparatus moved by people sitting at consoles. (All this is described clearly, if uncritically, in The Making of Jurassic Park, the formula-book by Don Shay and Jody Duncan—just one of the innumerable commercial tie-ins generated by all blockbusters, but a worthy effort in this case.)

But computer generation improved spectacularly during the two-year gestation of Jurassic Park, and dinosaurs are entirely machine-constructed in some of the most spectacular scenes—meaning, of course, that performers interacted with empty space during the actual shooting. (Cartoons have been computer-generated for many years, but remember the entirely different problem that Spielberg faced. Roger Rabbit was supposed to be a “toon”; the computer-generated dinosaurs of Jurassic Park must be indistinguishable from real beasts.) I learned, after watching the film, that my two favorite dinosaur scenes—the fleeing herd of Gallimimus, and the final attack of Tyrannosaurus upon the last two Velociraptors—were entirely computer-generated.

The effect does not always work. The very first dinosaur scene—when paleontologist Grant hops out of his vehicle to encounter a computer-generated Brachiosaurus—is the film’s worst flop. Grant is clearly not in the same space as the dinosaur, and I could only think of Victor Mature, similarly out of synch with his beasts, in One Million Years B.C.

The dinosaurs are wonderful, but they aren’t on the set enough of the time (yes, I know how much more they cost than human actors). Unfortunately, the plot line for the human actors reduces to pap and romantic drivel of the worst kind, the very antithesis of the book’s grappling with serious themes. It is so ironic, but I fear that mammon and the perception (false I hope) of the need to dumbdown for mass audiences have brought us to this impasse of utter inconsistency. How cruel, how perverse, that we invest the most awesome expertise (and millions of bucks) in the dinosaurs, sparing no knowledge or expense to render every detail, every possible nuance, in the most accurate and realistic way. I have nothing but praise for the thought and care, the months and years that went into each dinosaur model, the pushing of computer generation to a new world of utility, the concern for rendering every detail with consummate care, even the tiny bits that few will see and the little sounds that fewer will hear. I think of medieval sculptors who lavished all their skills upon invisible statues on the parapets, for God’s view is best (internal satisfaction based on personal excellence in modern translation). How perverse that we permit a movie to do all this so superbly well, and then throw away the story because we think that the public will reject, or fail to comprehend, any complexity beyond a Neanderthal “duh” or a brontosaurian bellow. I just don’t believe it.

We feel this loss most in the reconstruction of the mathematician Ian Malcolm as the antithesis of his character in the book. He still presents himself as a devotee of chaos theory (“a chaotician”), but he no longer uses its argument (as previously documented in this article) to formulate his criticism of the park. Instead, he is given the oldest diatribe, the most hackneyed and predictable staple of every Hollywood monster film since Frankenstein: man (again I prefer the old gender-biased term for such an archaic line) must not disturb the proper and given course of nature; man must not tinker in God’s realm. What dullness and disappointment (and Malcolm, in the film, is a frightful and tendentious bore, obviously so recognized by Spielberg, for he effectively puts Malcolm out of action with a broken leg about halfway through).

Not only have we heard this silly argument a hundred times before (can Spielberg really believe that his public could comprehend no other reason for criticizing a dinosaur park?), but its formulation by Malcolm utterly negates his proclaimed persona as a theoretician of chaos. In the film’s irony of ironies, Malcolm’s argument becomes the precise antithesis of chaos and also relies on whopping inconsistency to boot. Consider these two flubs that make the story line completely incoherent.

  1. As Malcolm rails against genetic reconstruction of lost organisms, Hammond asks him if he would really hesitate to bring the California condor back to life (from preserved DNA) should the last actual bird die. Malcolm answers that he would not object, and would view such an act as benevolent, because the condor’s death would have been an accident based on human malfeasance, not an expression of nature’s proper course. But we must not bring back dinosaurs because they disappeared along a natural and intended route: “Dinosaurs,” he says, “had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.” But such an implied scenario of groups emerging, flourishing, and dying, one after the other in an intended and predictable course, is the antithesis of chaos theory and its crucial emphasis on the great accumulating effect of apparently insignificant perturbations, and on the basic unpredictability of long historical sequences. How can a chaotician talk about nature’s proper course at all?

  2. If “nature selected them for extinction,” and if later mammals therefore represent such an improvement, why can the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park beat any mammal in the place, including the most arrogant primate of them all. You can’t have it both ways. If you take dinosaur revisionism seriously, and portray them as smart and capable creatures able to hold their own with mammals, then you can’t argue against reviving them by claiming that their extinction was both predictable and appointed as life ratcheted onward to greater complexity.

Since Malcolm actually preaches the opposite of chaos theory, but presents himself as a chaotician and must therefore talk about it, the film’s material on chaos is reduced to an irrelevant caricature in the most embarrassing of all scenes—Malcolm’s half-hearted courting of the female paleontologist (before he learns of her partnership with the male paleontologist), by grasping her hand, dripping water on the top and using chaos theory to explain why we can’t tell which side the drop will run down! How are the mighty fallen.

4.

In the film, John Hammond flies his helicopter to a site in Montana, under excavation by Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant, the two paleontologists chosen to “sign off” on his park and satisfy his investors. They say at first that they cannot come, for they are hard at work on the crucial phase of collecting a fossil Velociraptor. Hammond promises to support their research for three years if they will spend one weekend at his site. Grant and Sattler suddenly realize that they would rather be no place else on earth; the Velociraptor can wait (little do they know…).

This scene epitomizes the ambivalence that I feel about the Jurassic Park phenomenon, and about dinomania in general. Natural history is, and has always been, a beggar’s game. Our work as natural historians has never been funded by or for itself. We have always depended upon patrons, and upon other people’s perceptions of the utility of our data. We sucked up to princes who wanted to stock their baroque Wunderkammern with the most exotic specimens. We sailed on colonial vessels for nations that viewed the cataloguing of faunas and floras as one aspect of control (we helped Bligh bring breadfruit from Tahiti to feed slaves in the West Indies). Many, but not all, of these partnerships, have been honorable from our point of view, but we have never had the upper hand. Quite the contrary, our hand has always been out.

Few positions are more precarious than that of the little guy in associations based on such unequal sizes and distributions of might. The power brokers need our expertise, but we are so little in comparison, so quickly bedazzled, and often silenced, by promises (three years as a lifetime’s dream for the paleontologists and an insignificant tax write-off for Hammond), so easily swallowed up—if we do not insist on maintaining our island of intact values and concerns in the midst of such a different, and giant, operation. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

I do not blame the prince, the captain, or his modern counterparts: the government grantor, the commercial licenser, or the blockbuster filmmaker. These folks know what they want, and they are usually upfront about their needs and bargains. It is our job to stay whole, not be swallowed in compromise, not to execute a pact of silence, or endorsement, for proffered payoff. The issue is more structural than ethical: we are small, though our ideas may be powerful. If we merge, we are lost.

Mass commercial culture is engulfing, vastly bigger than we can ever be. Mass culture forces compromises, even for the likes of Steven Spielberg. He is given the resources to prepare and film his magnificent special effects; but I cannot believe that he feels comfortable about ballyhooing all the ridiculous kitsch now for sale under the coordinated marketing program of movie tie-ins (from fries in a dinosaur’s mouth at McDonald’s—sold to kids too young for the movie’s scary scenes—to a rush on amber rings at fancy jewelry stores); and I cannot imagine that either he or Michael Crichton is truly satisfied with their gutless and incoherent script as an enjoined substitute for an interesting book. Imagine, then, what compromises the same commercial world forces upon the tiny principality of paleontological research?

As a symbol of our dilemma, consider the plight of natural history museums in the light of commercial dinomania. In the past decade, nearly every major or minor natural history museum has succumbed (not always unwisely) to two great commercial temptations: to sell many scientifically worthless, and often frivolous, or even degrading, dinosaur products in their gift shops; and to mount, at high and separate admissions charges, special exhibits of colorful robotic dinosaurs that move and growl but (so far as I have ever been able to judge) teach nothing of scientific value about these animals. Such exhibits could be wonderful educational aids, if properly labeled and integrated with more traditional material; but I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects (the two aspects of dinosaurs that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation).

If you ask my colleagues in museum administration why they have permitted such incursions into their precious and limited spaces, they will reply that these robotic displays bring large crowds into the museum, mostly of people who otherwise would never come. These folks can then be led or cajoled into viewing the regular exhibits, and the museum’s primary mission of science education receives a giant boost.

I cannot fault the logic of this argument, but I fear that my colleagues are expressing a wish or a hope, not an actual result, and not even an outcome actively pursued by most museums. If the glitzy displays were dispersed among teaching exhibits, if they were used as a springboard for educational programs (sometimes they are), then a proper balance of mammon and learning might be reached. But, too often, the glitz occupies a separate wing (where the higher admission charges can be monitored), and the real result gets measured in increased body counts and profits.

One major museum geared all its fancy fund-raising apparatus for years to the endowment of a new wing—and then filled it with a huge gift shop, a fancy restaurant, and an Omnimax theater, thus relegating the regular exhibits to neglect and disrepair. Another museum intended the dinosaur robots as a come-on to guide visitors to the permanent exhibits. But they found that the robots wouldn’t fit into the regular museum. Did they cancel the show? Not at all. They moved it to another building on the extreme opposite end of campus—and even fewer people visited the regular museum as a result.

I may epitomize my argument in the following way: institutions have central purposes that define their integrity and being. Dinomania dramatizes a conflict between institutions with disparate purposes—museums and theme parks. Museums exist to display authentic objects of nature and culture—yes, they must teach; and yes, they may certainly include all manner of computer graphics and other virtual displays to aid in this worthy effort; but they must remain wed to authenticity. Theme parks are gala places of entertainment, committed to using the best displays and devices from the increasingly sophisticated arsenals of virtual reality to titillate, to scare, to thrill, even to teach.

I happen to love theme parks, so I do not speak from a rarefied academic post in a dusty museum office. But theme parks are, in many ways, the antithesis of museums. If each institution respects the other’s essence and place, this opposition poses no problem. But theme parks belong to the realm of commerce, museums to the world of education—and the first is so much bigger than the second. Commerce will swallow museums if educators try to copy the norms of business for immediate financial reward.

Speaking about the economics of major sporting events, Mr. Steinbrenner once opined that “it’s all about getting the fannies into the seats.” If we have no other aim than to stuff more bodies in, and to extract more dollars per fanny, then we might as well convert our museums to theme parks and fill the gift shops with coffee mugs. But then we will be truly lost—necessarily smaller and not as oomphy as Disneyland or Jurassic Park, but endowed with no defining integrity of our own.

Our task is hopeless if museums, in following their essences and respecting authenticity, condemn themselves to marginality, insolvency, and empty corridors. But, fortunately, this need not and should not be our fate. We have an absolutely wonderful product to flog—real objects of nature. We may never get as many fannies as Jurassic Park, but we can and do attract multitudes for the right reasons. Luckily, and I do not pretend to understand why, authenticity stirs the human soul (and attracts fannies aplenty). The appeal is cerebral and entirely conceptual, not at all visual.

Casts and replicas are now sufficiently like the originals that no one but the most seasoned expert can possibly tell the difference. But a cast of the Rosetta stone is plaster (however intriguing and informative), while the object itself, on display in the British Museum, is magic. A fiberglass Tyrannosaurus merits a good look; the real bones send shivers down my spine as I think of the animal that bore them some 70 million years ago. Even the wily John Hammond knew this principle and awarded museums their garland of ultimate respect. He wanted to build the greatest theme park in the history of the world—but he could do so only by abandoning the virtual reality of most models, and stocking his own park with real, living dinosaurs, reconstructed from authentic dinosaur DNA. (The conscious ironies and recursions embedded in Jurassic Park’s own reality are clear enough—for the best dinosaurs are computer-generated within a movie based on a novel.)

For paleontologists, Jurassic Park is both our greatest opportunity and our most oppressive incubus—a spur for unparalleled general interest in our subject, and the source of a commercial flood that may truly extinguish dinosaurs by turning them from sources of awe into clichés and commodities. Will we have strength to stand up in this deluge? Preliminary signs are not encouraging.

New York’s Museum of Natural History—where Osborn once presided; where he first described Velociraptor; where his bust still proclaims, “For him the dry bones came to life and giant forms of ages past rejoined the pageant of the living”—has just mounted a special exhibit (June 11—September 12, 1993) called “The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park,” commanding an additional entrance fee of $5.00 for adults and $2.50 for children. In its advertisement (The New York Times, June 13), the museum proclaims: “This one-of-a-kind exhibition features spectacular life-size dinosaurs, realistic special effects, and props from the movie, alongside actual dinosaur fossils from the Museum.” Do they not see that they have inverted the proper order—and that we will ultimately lose if authentic fossils are not primary, and cultural artifacts derivative?

But we do have one powerful advantage, if we cleave to our purpose as purveyors of authenticity. Commercial dinosaurs may dominate the moment, but must be ephemeral, for they have no support beyond their immediate profitability. Macbeth, in his soliloquy, recognized a special problem facing his plans, for he could formulate no justification beyond personal advantage:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’er- leaps itself.

This too shall pass, and nothing of human manufacture can possibly challenge the staying power of real dinosaur bones—sixty-five million years (at least) in the making.

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    My colleague Rhonda Shearer pointed out to me that Jurassic Park can be interpreted in the context of socially changing views about geometry. On the contrast between complex nature and Euclidian geometry, see Rhonda Roland Shearer, “Chaos theory and fractal geometry: their potential impact on the future of art,” Leonardo, Volume 25 (1992), pp. 143–152.

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