The complete Chapter 2 of Films From the Future: The Technology and Morality of Science Fiction Movies
“God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers!”
—Dr. Ian Malcolm
When Dinosaurs Ruled the World
I was a newly minted PhD when I first saw Jurassic Park. It was June 1993, and my wife and I were beginning to enjoy our newfound freedom, after years of too much study and too little money. I must confess that we weren’t dinosaur geeks. But there was something about the hype surrounding the movie that hooked us. Plus, we fancied a night out.
That summer, dinosaurs ruled the world. Wherever you looked, there were dinosaurs. Dinosaur books, dinosaur parks, dinosaurs on TV, dinosaur-obsessed kids. Jurassic Park seemingly tapped into a dinosaur-obsessed seam buried deep within the human psyche. This was helped along, of course, by the groundbreaking special effects the movie pioneered. Even now, there’s a visceral realism to the blended physical models and computer-generated images that brings these near-mythical creatures to life in the movie.
This is a large part of the appeal of Jurassic Park. There’s something awe-inspiring—awe-full in the true sense of the word—about
these “terrible lizards” that lived millions of years ago, and that are utterly alien to today’s world. This sense of awe runs deep through the movie. Listening to John Williams’ triumphant theme music, it doesn’t take much to realize that under the gloss of danger and horror, Jurassic Park is at heart a celebration of the might and majesty of the natural world. “God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers!”
Jurassic Park is unabashedly a movie about dinosaurs. But it’s also a movie about greed, ambition, genetic engineering, and human folly—all rich pickings for thinking about the future, and what could possibly go wrong.
Jurassic Park opens at a scientific dig in Montana, where paleontologists Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are leading a team excavating dinosaur fossils. Just as the team discovers the fossilized skeleton of a velociraptor, a dinosaur that Grant is particularly enamored with, the dig is interrupted by the charming, mega-rich, and, as it turns out, rather manipulative John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). As well as being founder of International Genetic Technologies Incorporated (InGen for short), Hammond has also been backstopping Grant and Sattler’s digs. On arriving, he wastes no time offering them further funding in exchange for a quick weekend mini-break to his latest and greatest masterpiece, just off the coast of Costa Rica.
We quickly learn that, beneath the charm, Hammond is fighting for the future of his company and his dream of building the ultimate tourist attraction. There’s been an unfortunate incident between a worker and one of his park’s exhibits, and his investors are getting cold feet. What he needs is a couple of respected scientists to give him their full and unqualified stamp of approval, which he’s sure they will, once they see the wonders of his “Jurassic Park.”
Grant and Sattler agree to the jaunt, in part because their curiosity has been piqued. They join Hammond, along with self-styled “chaotician” Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), on what turns out to be a rather gruesome roller-coaster ride of a weekend.
From the get-go, we know that this is not going to end well. Malcolm, apart from having all the best lines in the movie, is rather enamored with his theories about chaos. These draw heavily on ideas that were gaining popularity in the 1980s, when Crichton was writing the novel the movie’s based on. Malcolm’s big idea—and the one he was riding the celebrity-scientist fame train on—is that in highly complex systems, things inevitably go wrong. And just as predicted, Hammond’s Jurassic Park undergoes a magnificently catastrophic failure.
The secret behind Hammond’s park is InGen’s technology for “resurrecting” long-extinct dinosaurs. Using cutting-edge gene-editing techniques, his scientists are able to reconstruct dinosaurs from recovered “dino DNA.” His source for the dino DNA is the remnants of prehistoric blood that was sucked up by mosquitoes before they were caught in tree resin and preserved in the resulting amber as the resin was fossilized. And his grand plan is to turn the fictitious island of Isla Nublar into the world’s first living dinosaur theme park.
Unfortunately, there were a few holes in the genetic sequences that InGen was able to extract from the preserved blood, so Hammond’s enterprising scientists filled them with bits and pieces of DNA from living species. They also engineered their dinosaurs to be all females to prevent them from breeding. And just to be on the safe side, the de-extinct dinosaurs were designed to slip into a coma and die if they weren’t fed a regular supply of the essential amino acid lysine.
The result is a bunch of enterprising scientists reengineering nature to create the ultimate theme park and thinking they’ve put all the safeguards they need in place to prevent something bad happening. Yet, despite their best efforts, the dinosaurs start breeding and multiplying, a compromised security system (and security specialist) allows them to escape, and they start eating the guests.
Even before the team of experts get to Jurassic Park, a disgruntled employee (Dennis Nedry, played by Wayne Knight) has planned to steal and sell a number of dinosaur embryos to a competitor. Nedry is the brains behind the park’s software control systems and believes he’s owed way more respect and money than he gets. At an opportune moment, he disrupts the park with what he intends to be a temporary glitch that will allow him to steal the embryos, get them off the island, and return to his station before anyone notices. Unfortunately, an incoming hurricane7 interferes with his plans, resulting in catastrophic failure of the park’s security systems and a bunch of hungry dinosaurs roaming free. To make things worse, two of the guests are Hammond’s young nephew and niece, who find their trip to the theme park transformed into a life-and-death race against a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex and a pack of vengeful velociraptors.
Fortunately, Sattler and Grant come into their own as paleontologists-cum-action-heroes. They help save a handful of remaining survivors, including Hammond, Malcolm, and his nephew and niece, but not before a number of less fortunate characters have given their lives in the name of science gone badly wrong. And as they leave the island, we are left in no doubt that nature, in all its majesty, has truly trounced the ambitions of Hammond and his team of genetic engineers.
Jurassic Park is a wonderful Hollywood tale of derring-do. In fact, it stands the test of time remarkably well as an adventure movie. It also touches on themes that are, if anything, more important today than they were back when it was made.
In 1993, when Jurassic Park was released, the idea of bringing extinct species back from the dead was pure science fiction. Back then, advances in understanding DNA were fueling the fantasy that, one day, we might be able to recode genetic sequences to replicate species that are no longer around, but but, by any stretch of the imagination, this was beyond the wildest dreams of scientists in the early 1990s. Yet, since the movie was made, there have been incredible strides in genetic engineering, so much so that scientists are now actively working on bringing back extinct species from the dead. The field even has its own name: de-extinction.
More than the technology, though, Jurassic Park foreshadows the growing complexities of using powerful new technologies in an increasingly crowded and demanding world. In 1993, chaos theory was still an emerging field. Since then, it’s evolved and expanded to include whole areas of study around complex systems, especially where mixing people and technology together leads to unpredictable results.
What really stands out with Jurassic Park, over twenty-five years later, is how it reveals a very human side of science and technology. This comes out in questions around when we should tinker with technology and when we should leave well enough alone. But there is also a narrative here that appears time and time again with the movies in this book, and that is how we get our heads around the sometimes oversized roles mega-entrepreneurs play in dictating how new tech is used, and possibly abused.
These are all issues that are just as relevant now as they were in 1993, and are front and center of ensuring that the technology- enabled future we’re building is one where we want to live, and not one where we’re constantly fighting for our lives.
In a far corner of Siberia, two Russians—Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita—are attempting to recreate the Ice Age. More precisely, their vision is to reconstruct the landscape and ecosystem of northern Siberia in the Pleistocene, a period in Earth’s history that stretches from around two and a half million years ago to eleven thousand years ago. This was a time when the environment was much colder than now, with huge glaciers and ice sheets flowing over much of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It was also a time when humans coexisted with animals that are long extinct, including saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and woolly mammoths.
The Zimovs’ ambitions are an extreme example of “Pleistocene rewilding,” a movement to reintroduce relatively recently extinct large animals, or their close modern-day equivalents, to regions where they were once common. In the case of the Zimovs, the father-and-son team believe that, by reconstructing the Pleistocene ecosystem in the Siberian steppes and elsewhere, they can slow down the impacts of climate change on these regions. These areas are dominated by permafrost, ground that never thaws through the year. Permafrost ecosystems have developed and survived over millennia, but a warming global climate (a theme we’ll come back to in chapter twelve and the movie The Day After Tomorrow) threatens to catastrophically disrupt them, and as this happens, the impacts
on biodiversity could be devastating. But what gets climate scientists even more worried is potentially massive releases of trapped methane as the permafrost disappears.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—some eighty times more effective at exacerbating global warming than carbon dioxide— and large-scale releases from warming permafrost could trigger catastrophic changes in climate. As a result, finding ways to keep it in the ground is important. And here the Zimovs came up with a rather unusual idea: maintaining the stability of the environment by reintroducing long-extinct species that could help prevent its destruction, even in a warmer world. It’s a wild idea, but one that has some merit.8 As a proof of concept, though, the Zimovs needed somewhere to start. And so they set out to create a park for de- extinct Siberian animals: Pleistocene Park.
Pleistocene Park is by no stretch of the imagination a modern-day Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs in Hammond’s park date back to the Mesozoic period, from around 250 million years ago to sixty-five million years ago. By comparison, the Pleistocene is relatively modern history, ending a mere eleven and a half thousand years ago. And the vision behind Pleistocene Park is not thrills, spills, and profit, but the serious use of science and technology to stabilize an increasingly unstable environment. Yet there is one thread that ties them together, and that’s using genetic engineering to reintroduce extinct species. In this case, the species in question is warm-blooded and furry: the woolly mammoth.
The idea of de-extinction, or bringing back species from extinction (it’s even called “resurrection biology” in some circles), has been around for a while. It’s a controversial idea, and it raises a lot of tough ethical questions. But proponents of de-extinction argue that we’re losing species and ecosystems at such a rate that we can’t afford not to explore technological interventions to help stem the flow.
Early approaches to bringing species back from the dead have involved selective breeding. The idea was simple—if you have modern ancestors of a recently extinct species, selectively breeding specimens that have a higher genetic similarity to their forebears can potentially help reconstruct their genome in living animals. This approach is being used in attempts to bring back the aurochs, an ancestor of modern cattle.10 But it’s slow, and it depends on the fragmented genome of the extinct species still surviving in its modern-day equivalents.
An alternative to selective breeding is cloning. This involves finding a viable cell, or cell nucleus, in an extinct but well-preserved animal and growing a new living clone from it. It’s definitely a more appealing route for impatient resurrection biologists, but it does mean getting your hands on intact cells from long-dead animals and 33 devising ways to “resurrect” these, which is no mean feat. Cloning has potential when it comes to recently extinct species whose cells have been well preserved—for instance, where the whole animal has become frozen in ice. But it’s still a slow and extremely limited option.
Which is where advances in genetic engineering come in.
The technological premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists can reconstruct the genome of long-dead animals from preserved DNA fragments. It’s a compelling idea, if you think of DNA as a massively long and complex instruction set that tells a group of biological molecules how to build an animal. In principle, if we could reconstruct the genome of an extinct species, we would have the basic instruction set—the biological software—to reconstruct individual members of it.
The bad news is that DNA-reconstruction-based de-extinction is far more complex than this. First you need intact fragments of DNA, which is not easy, as DNA degrades easily (and is pretty much impossible to obtain, as far as we know, for dinosaurs). Then you need to be able to stitch all of your fragments together, which is akin to completing a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture looks like. This is a Herculean task, although with breakthroughs in data manipulation and machine learning, scientists are getting better at it. But even when you have your reconstructed genome, you need the biological “wetware”—all the stuff that’s needed to create, incubate, and nurture a new living thing, like eggs, nutrients, a safe space to grow and mature, and so on. Within all this complexity, it turns out that getting your DNA sequence right is just the beginning of translating that genetic code into a living, breathing entity. But in some cases, it might be possible.
In 2013, Sergey Zimov was introduced to the geneticist George Church at a conference on de-extinction. Church is an accomplished scientist in the field of DNA analysis and reconstruction, and a thought leader in the field of synthetic biology (which we’ll come back to in chapter nine). It was a match made in resurrection biology heaven. Zimov wanted to populate his Pleistocene Park with mammoths, and Church thought he could see a way of achieving this.
What resulted was an ambitious project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth. Church and others who are working on this have faced plenty of hurdles. But the technology has been advancing so fast that, as of 2017, scientists were predicting they would be able to reproduce the woolly mammoth within the next two years.
One of those hurdles was the lack of solid DNA sequences to work from. Frustratingly, although there are many instances of well- preserved woolly mammoths, their DNA rarely survives being frozen for tens of thousands of years. To overcome this, Church and others have taken a different tack: Take a modern, living relative of the mammoth, and engineer into it traits that would allow it to live on the Siberian tundra, just like its woolly ancestors.
Church’s team’s starting point has been the Asian elephant. This is their source of base DNA for their “woolly mammoth 2.0”—their starting source code, if you like. So far, they’ve identified fifty- plus gene sequences they think they can play with to give their modern-day woolly mammoth the traits it would need to thrive
in Pleistocene Park, including a coat of hair, smaller ears, and a constitution adapted to cold.
The next hurdle they face is how to translate the code embedded in their new woolly mammoth genome into a living, breathing animal. The most obvious route would be to impregnate a female Asian elephant with a fertilized egg containing the new code. But Asian elephants are endangered, and no one’s likely to allow such cutting- edge experimentation on the precious few that are still around, so scientists are working on an artificial womb for their reinvented woolly mammoth. They’re making progress with mice and hope to crack the motherless mammoth challenge relatively soon.
It’s perhaps a stretch to call this creative approach to recreating a species (or “reanimation” as Church refers to it) “de-extinction,” as what is being formed is a new species. Just as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park weren’t quite the same as their ancestors, Church’s woolly mammoths wouldn’t be the same as their forebears. But they would be designed to function within a specific ecological niche, albeit one that’s the result of human-influenced climate change. And this raises an interesting question around de-extinction: If the genetic tools we are now developing give us the ability to improve on nature, why recreate the past, when we could reimagine the future? Why stick to the DNA code that led to animals being weeded out because they couldn’t survive in a changing environment, when
we could make them better, stronger, and more likely to survive and thrive in the modern world?
This idea doesn’t sit so well with some people, who argue that we should be dialing down human interference in the environment and turning the clock back on human destruction. And they have a point, especially when we consider the genetic diversity we are hemorrhaging away with the current rate of biodiversity loss. Yet we cannot ignore the possibilities that modern genetic engineering is opening up. These include the ability to rapidly and cheaply read genetic sequences and translate them to digital code, to virtually manipulate them and recode them, and then to download them back into the real world. These are heady capabilities, and for some there is an almost irresistible pull toward using them, so much so that some would argue that not to use them would be verging on the irresponsible.
These tools take us far beyond de-extinction. The reimagining of species like the woolly mammoth is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to genetic design and engineering. Why stop at recreating old species when you could redesign current ones? Why just redesign existing species when you could create brand-new ones? And why stick to the genetic language of all earth-bound living creatures, when you could invent a new language—a new DNA? In fact, why not go all the way, and create alien life here on earth?
These are all conversations that scientists are having now, spurred on by breakthroughs in DNA sequencing, analysis, and synthesis. Scientists are already developing artificial forms of DNA that contain more than the four DNA building blocks found in nature. And some are working on creating completely novel artificial cells that not only are constructed from off-the-shelf chemicals, but also have a genetic heritage that traces back to computer programs, not evolutionary life. In 2016, for instance, scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter announced that his team had produced a completely artificial living cell. Venter’s cell—tagged “JCVI-syn3.0”—is paving the way for designing and creating completely artificial life forms, and the work being done here by many different groups is signaling a possible transition from biological evolution to biology by design.
One of the interesting twists to come out of this research is that scientists are developing the ability to “watermark” their creations by embedding genetic identity codes. As research here progresses, future generations may be able to pinpoint precisely who designed the plants and animals around them, and even parts of their own bodies, including when and where they were designed. This does, of course, raise some rather knotty ethical questions around ownership. If you one day have a JCVI-tagged dog, or a JCVI- watermarked replacement kidney, for instance, who owns them?
This research is pushing us into ethical questions that we’ve never had to face before. But it’s being justified by the tremendous benefits it could bring for current and future generations. These touch on everything from bio-based chemicals production to new medical treatments and ways to stay healthier longer, and even designer organs and body-part replacements at some point. It’s also being driven by our near-insatiable curiosity and our drive to better understand the world we live in and gain mastery over it. And here, just like the scientists in Jurassic Park, we’re deeply caught up in what we can do as we learn to code and recode life.
But, just because we can now resurrect and redesign species, should we?
Could We, Should We?
Perhaps one of the most famous lines from Jurassic Park—at least for people obsessed with the dark side of science—is when Ian Malcolm berates Hammond, saying, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Ethics and responsibility in science are complicated. I’ve met remarkably few scientists and engineers who would consider themselves to be unethical or irresponsible. That said, I know plenty of scientists who are so engaged with their work and the amazing things they believe it’ll lead to that they sometimes struggle to appreciate the broader context within which they operate.
The challenges surrounding ethical and responsible research are deeply pertinent to de-extinction. A couple of decades ago, they were largely academic. The imaginations of scientists, back when Jurassic Park hit the screen, far outstripped the techniques they had access to at the time. Things are very different now, though, as research on woolly mammoths and other extinct species is showing. In a very real way, we’re entering a world that very much echoes
the “can-do” culture of Hammond’s Jurassic Park, where scientists are increasingly able to do what was once unimaginable. In such a world, where do the lines between “could” and “should” lie, and how do scientists, engineers, and others develop the understanding and ability to do what is socially responsible, while avoiding what is not?
Of course, this is not a new question. The tensions between technological advances and social impacts were glaringly apparent through the Industrial Revolution, as mechanization led to job losses and hardship for some. And the invention of the atomic bomb, followed by its use on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the second World War, took us into deeply uncharted territory when it came to balancing what we can and should do with powerful technologies. Yet, in some ways, the challenges we’ve faced in the past over the responsible development and use of science and technology were just a rehearsal for what’s coming down the pike, as we enter a new age of technological innovation.
For all its scientific inaccuracies and fantastical scenarios, Jurassic Park does a good job of illuminating the challenges of unintended consequences arising from somewhat naïve and myopic science. Take InGen’s scientists, for instance. They’re portrayed as being so enamored with what they’ve achieved that they lack the ability to see beyond their own brilliance to what they might have missed. Of course, they’re not fools. They know that they’re breaking new ground by bringing dinosaurs back to life, and that there are going to be risks. It would be problematic, for instance, if any of the dinosaurs escaped the island and survived, and they recognize this. So the scientists design them to be dependent on a substance it was thought they couldn’t get enough of naturally, the essential amino acid lysine. This was the so-called “lysine contingency,” and, as it turns out, it isn’t too dissimilar from techniques real-world genetic engineers use to control their progeny.
Even though it’s essential to life, lysine isn’t synthesized naturally by animals. As a result, it has to be ingested, either in its raw form or by eating foods that contain it, including plants or bacteria (and their products) that produce it naturally, for instance, or other animals. In their wisdom, InGen’s scientists assume that they can engineer lysine dependency into their dinosaurs, then keep them alive with a diet rich in the substance, thinking that they wouldn’t be able to get enough lysine if they escaped. The trouble is, this contingency turns out to be about as useful as trying to starve someone by locking them in a grocery store.
There’s a pretty high chance that the movie’s scriptwriters didn’t know that this safety feature wouldn’t work, or that they didn’t care. Either way, it’s a salutary tale of scientists who are trying to be responsible—at least their version of “responsible”—but are tripped up by what they don’t know, and what they don’t care to find out.
In the movie, not much is made of the lysine contingency, unlike in Michael Crichton’s book that the movie’s based on, where this basic oversight leads to the eventual escape of the dinosaurs from the island and onto the mainland. There is another oversight, though, that features strongly in the movie, and is a second strike against the short-sightedness of the scientists involved. This is the assumption that InGen’s dinosaurs couldn’t breed.
This is another part of the storyline where scientific plausibility isn’t allowed to stand in the way of a good story. But, as with the lysine, it flags the dangers of thinking you’re smart enough to have every eventuality covered. In the movie, InGen’s scientists design all of their dinosaurs to be females. Their thinking: no males, no breeding, no babies, no problem. Apart from one small issue: When stitching together their fragments of dinosaur DNA with that of living species, they filled some of the holes with frog DNA.
This is where we need to suspend scientific skepticism somewhat, as designing a functional genome isn’t as straightforward as cutting and pasting from one animal to another. In fact, this is so far from how things work that it would be like an architect, on losing a few pages from the plans of a multi-million dollar skyscraper, slipping in a few random pages from a cookie-cutter duplex and hoping for the best. The result would be a disaster. But stick with the story for the moment, because in the world of Jurassic Park, this naïve mistake led to a tipping point that the scientists didn’t anticipate. Just as some species of frog can switch from female to male with the right environmental stimuli, the DNA borrowed from frogs inadvertently 39 gave the dinosaurs the same ability. And this brings us back to the real world, or at least the near-real world, of de-extinction. As scientists and others begin to recreate extinct species, or redesign animals based on long-gone relatives, how do we ensure that, in their cleverness, they’re not missing something important?
Some of this comes down to what responsible science means, which, as we’ll discover in later chapters, is about more than just having good intentions. It also means having the humility to recognize your limitations, and the willingness to listen to and work with others who bring different types of expertise and knowledge to the table.
This possibility of unanticipated outcomes shines a bright spotlight on the question of whether some lines of research or technological development should be pursued, even if they could. Jurassic Park explores this through genetic engineering and de-extinction, but the same questions apply to many other areas of technological advancement, where new knowledge has the potential to have a substantial impact on society. And the more complex the science and technology we begin to play with is, the more pressing this distinction between “could” and “should” becomes.
Unfortunately, there are no easy guidelines or rules of thumb that help decide what is probably okay and what is probably not, although much of this book is devoted to ways of thinking that reduce the chances of making a mess of things. Even when we do have a sense of how to decide between great ideas and really bad ones, though, there’s one aspect of reality we can’t escape from: Complex systems behave in unpredictable ways.
The Butterfly Effect
Michael Crichton started playing with the ideas behind Jurassic Park in the 1980s, when “chaos” was becoming trendy. I was an undergraduate at the time, studying physics, and it was nearly impossible to avoid the world of “strange attractors” and “fractals.” These were the years of the “Mandelbrot Set” and computers that were powerful enough to calculate the numbers it contained and display them as stunningly psychedelic images. The recursive complexity in the resulting fractals became the poster child for a growing field of mathematics that grappled with systems where, beyond certain limits, their behavior was impossible to predict. The field came to be known informally as chaos theory.
Chaos theory grew out of the work of the American meteorologist Edward Lorenz. When he started his career, it was assumed that the solution to more accurate weather prediction was better data and better models. But in the 1950s, Lorenz began to challenge this idea. What he found was that, in some cases, minute changes in atmospheric conditions could lead to dramatically different outcomes down the line, so much so that, in sufficiently complex systems, it was impossible to predict the results of seemingly insignificant changes.
In 1963, when he published the paper that established chaos theory, it was a revolutionary idea—at least to scientists who still hung onto the assumption that we live in a predictable world. Much as quantum physics challenged scientists’ ideas of how predictable physical processes are in the invisible world of atoms and subatomic particles, chaos theory challenged their belief that, if we have enough information, we can predict the outcomes of our actions in our everyday lives.
At the core of Lorenz’s ideas was the observation that, in a sufficiently complex system, the smallest variation could lead to profound differences in outcomes. In 1969, he coined the term “the Butterfly Effect,” suggesting that the world’s weather systems are so complex and interconnected that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world could initiate a chain of events that ultimately led to a tornado on the other.
Lorenz wasn’t the first to suggest that small changes in complex systems can have large and unpredictable effects. But he was perhaps the first to pull the idea into mainstream science. And this is where chaos theory might have stayed, were it not for the discovery of the “Mandelbrot Set” by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot.
In 1979, Mandelbrot demonstrated how a seemingly simple equation could lead to images of infinite complexity. The more you zoomed in to the images his equation produced, the more detail became visible. As with Lorentz’s work, Mandelbrot’s research showed that very simple beginnings could lead to complex, unpredictable, and chaotic outcomes. But Lorentz, Mandelbrot, and others also revealed another intriguing aspect of chaos theory, and this was that complex systems can lead to predictable chaos. This may seem counterintuitive, but what their work showed was that, even where chaotic unpredictability reigns, there are always limits to what the outcomes might be.
Mandelbrot fractals became all the rage in the 1980s. As a new generation of computer geeks got their hands on the latest personal computers, kids began to replicate the Mandelbrot fractal and revel in its complexity. Reproducing it became a test of one’s coding expertise and the power of one’s hardware. In one memorable guest lecture on parallel processing I attended, the lecturer even demonstrated the power of a new chip by showing how fast it could produce Mandelbrot fractals.
This growing excitement around chaos theory and the idea that the world is ultimately unpredictable was admirably captured in James Gleick’s 1987 book Chaos: Making a New Science. Gleick pulled chaos theory out of the realm of scientists and computer geeks and placed it firmly in the public domain, and also into the hands of novelists and moviemakers. In Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm captures the essence of the chaos zeitgeist, and uses this to drive along a narrative of naïve human arrogance versus the triumphal dominance of chaotic, unpredictable nature. Naturally, there’s a lot of hokum here, including the rather silly idea that chaos theory means being able to predict when chaos will occur (it doesn’t). But the concept that we cannot wield perfect control over complex technologies within a complex world is nevertheless an important one.
Chaos theory suggests that, in a complex system, immeasurably small actions or events can profoundly affect what happens over the course of time, making accurate predictions of the future well-nigh impossible. This is important as we develop and deploy highly complex technologies. However, it also suggests that there are boundaries to what might happen and what will not as we do this. And these boundaries become highly relevant in separating out plausible futures from sheer fantasy.
Chaos theory also indicates that, within complex systems, there are points of stability. In the context of technological innovation, this suggests that there are some futures that are more likely to occur if we take the appropriate courses of action. But these are also futures that can be squandered if we don’t think ahead about our actions and their consequences.
Jurassic Park focuses on the latter of these possibilities, and it does so to great effect. What we see unfolding is a catastrophic confluence of poorly understood technology, the ability of natural systems to adapt and evolve, unpredictable weather, and human foibles. The result is a park in chaos and dinosaurs dining on people. This is a godsend for a blockbuster movie designed to scare and thrill its audiences. But how realistic is this chaotic confluence of unpredictability?
As it turns out, it’s pretty realistic—up to a point. Chaos theory isn’t as trendy today as it was back when Jurassic Park was made. But the realization that complex systems are vulnerable to big (and sometimes catastrophic) shifts in behavior stemming from small changes is a critical area of research. And we know that technological innovation has the capacity to trigger events and outcomes within the complex social and environmental systems we live in that are hard to predict and manage.
As if to press the point home here, as I’m writing this, Hurricane Harvey has just swept through Houston, causing unprecedented devastation. The broad strokes of what occurred were predictable to an extent—the massive flooding exacerbated by poor urban planning, the likelihood of people and animals being stranded and killed, even the political rhetoric around who was responsible and what could have been done better. In the midst of all of this, though, a chemical plant owned by the French company Arkema underwent an unprecedented catastrophic failure.
The plant produced organic peroxides. These are unstable, volatile chemicals that need to be kept cool to keep them safe, but they are also important in the production of many products we use on a daily basis. As Harvey led to widespread flooding, the plant’s electric power supplies that powered the cooling systems failed one by one—first the main supply, then the backups. In the end, all the company could do was to remove the chemicals to remote parts of the plant, and wait for them to vent, ignite, and explode.
On its own, this would seem like an unfortunate but predictable outcome. But there’s evidence of a cascade of events that exacerbated the failure, many of them seemingly insignificant, but all part of a web of interactions that resulted in the unintended ignition of stored chemicals and the release of toxic materials into the environment. The news and commentary site Buzzfeed obtained a logbook from the plant that paints a picture of cascading incidents, including “overflowing wastewater tanks, failing power systems, toilets that stopped working, and even a snake, washed in by rising waters. Then finally: ‘extraction’ of the crew by boat. And days later, blasts and foul, frightening smoke.”
Contingencies were no doubt in place for flooding and power failures. Overflowing toilets and snakes? Probably not. Yet so often it’s these seemingly small events that help trigger larger and seemingly chaotic ones in complex systems.
Such cascades of events leading to unexpected outcomes are more common than we sometimes realize. For instance, few people expect industrial accidents to occur, but they nevertheless do. In fact, they happen so regularly that the academic Charles Perrow coined the term “normal accidents,” together with the theory that, in any sufficiently complex technological system, unanticipated events are inevitable.
Of course, if Hammond had read his Perrow, he might have had a better understanding of just how precarious his new Jurassic Park was. Sadly, he didn’t. But even if Hammond and his team had been aware of the challenges of managing complex systems, there’s another factor that led to the chaos in the movie that reflects real life, and that’s the way that power plays an oversized role in determining the trajectory of a new technology, along with any fallout that accompanies it.
Visions of Power
Beyond the genetic engineering, the de-extinction, and the homage to chaos theory, Jurassic Park is a movie about power: not only the power to create and destroy life, but the power to control others, to dominate them, and to win.
Power, and the advantages and rewards it brings, is deeply rooted in human nature, together with the systems we build that reflect and amplify this nature. But this nature in turn reflects the evolutionary processes that we are a product of. Jurassic Park cleverly taps into this with the dinosaur-power theme. And in fact, one of the movie’s more compelling narrative threads is the power and dominance of the dinosaurs and the natural world over their human creators, who merely have delusions of power. Yet this is also a movie about human power dynamics, and how these influence the development, use, and ultimately in this case the abuse, of new technologies.
There are some interesting side stories about power here, for instance, the power Ian Malcolm draws from his “excess of personality.” But it’s the power dynamic between Hammond, the lawyer Donald Gennaro, and InGen’s investors that particularly intrigues me. Here, we get a glimpse of the ability of visions of power to deeply influence actions.
At a very simple level, Jurassic Park is a movie about corporate greed. Hammond’s investors want a return on their investment, and they are threatening to exert their considerable power to get it. Gennaro is their proxy, but this in turn places him in a position of power. He’s the linchpin who can make or break the park, and he knows it.
Then there’s Hammond himself, who revels in his power over people as an entertainer, charmer, and entrepreneur.
These competing visions of power create a dynamic tension that ultimately leads to disaster, as the pursuit of personal and corporate gain leads to sacrificed lives and morals. In this sense, Jurassic Park is something of a morality tale, a cautionary warning against placing power and profit over what is right and good. Yet this is too simplistic a takeaway from the perspective of developing new technologies responsibly.
In reality, there will always be power differentials and power struggles. Not only will many of these be legitimate—including the fiduciary responsibility of innovators to investors—but they are also an essential driving force that prevents society from stagnating. The challenge we face is not to abdicate power, but to develop ways of understanding and using it in ways that are socially responsible.
This does not happen in Jurassic Park, clearly. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot have responsible innovation, or corporate social responsibility, that works, or even ethical entrepreneurs. It’s easy to see the downsides of powerful organizations and individuals pushing through technological innovation at the expense of others. And there are many downsides; you just need to look at the past two hundred years of environmental harm and human disease tied to technological innovation to appreciate this. Yet innovation that has been driven by profit and the desire to amass and wield power has also created a lot of good. The challenge we face is how we harness the realities of who we are and the world we live in to build a better future for as many people as we can, without sacrificing the
health and well-being of communities and individuals along the way.
In large part, this is about learning how we develop and wield power appropriately—not eschewing it, but understanding and accepting the sometimes-complex responsibilities that come with it. And this isn’t limited to commercial or fiscal power. Scientists wield power with the knowledge they generate. Activists wield power in the methods they use and the rhetoric they employ. Legislators have the power to establish law. And citizens collectively have considerable power over who does what and how. Understanding these different facets of power and its responsible use is critical to the safe and beneficial development and use of new technologies— not just genetic engineering, but every other technology that touches our lives as well, including the technology that’s at the center of our next movie: Never Let Me Go.