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High Noon at Jurassic Park: Technofantasies Confront Complexity

"Living systems are not like mechanical systems. Living systems are never in equilibrium. They are inherently unstable. They may seem stable, but they're not. Everything is moving and changing. In a sense, everything is on the edge of collapse." Arnold, in Jurassic Park

"In a world where the artifactual and the natural have imploded, nature itself, both ideologically and materially, has been patently reconstructed. Structural adjustment demands no less of bacteria and trees as well as of people, business, and nations." Donna Haraway

"The biotech ride has just begun." Business Week


Unlike some academic and ideological versions of the new sciences, the critical and ecological import of chaos, complexity, and self-organization theories is vividly manifest in numerous popular texts. Science fiction and media culture frequently dramatize the fact that there are limits of nature that science and technology ought not to transcend and, if they do, horrible unforeseen consequences and monstrosities will result. In countless novels, films, and television series of the last few decades, one sees key recurrent themes -- the "revenge" of nature and the "rebellion" of technology -- as both natural and technological systems follow the dynamics of their own complexity rather than the mandates of human will. With rare exceptions like Star Trek and the Star Wars films, media culture tends to demonize science and typically depicts technology as a destructive force thwarting simplistic human attempts at control as it wreaks havoc on human life and the environment.

More specifically, in the biocybernetic era that synthesizes computers and genetic engineering, there are numerous warnings against altering the DNA blueprints of life. In David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986), a scientist engaged in dangerous experiments with genetic fusion accidentally mixes the DNA of a fly with his own, creating increasingly grotesque mutations. In Species (1995), genetic information received from outer space is recklessly fused with human genes, thereby creating a new organism that rapidly evolves, destroys human life, and breeds uncontrollably. Godzilla (1998) underscores the issue of genetic mutations that result from radioactive fallout from nuclear tests, such as caused countless deaths and mutations since the 1940s. Deep Blue Sea (1999) dramatizes what can go awry in gene therapy with even the best intentions (to cure Alzheimer's disease) when scientists who engineer huge sharks find to their horror that their advanced brains enable them to destroy the underwater research station in an effort to be free.

Recurrent images of mutant species in numerous SF films and shows like The X-Files underscore anxieties that we are now confronting a "fifth discontinuity" involving the frightening mutation of existing life forms or the creation or discovery of altogether new species. This notion builds on the framework of Bruce Mazlish's book The Fourth Discontinuity, who sees the multiple adventures of modern identity construction and deconstruction to involve the dramas and conflicts of crossing four "discontinuities." Beginning with Copernicus, human beings had to bridge the gulf between the earth and the universe to accept the fact that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our solar system. Darwin compelled humanity to examine its evolutionary past and rethink the alleged great divide between itself and animals. Freud showed that reason is not even master of its own domain, its operations being determined by the will, instincts, affects, and unconscious. And as technology advances to the point of creating human-like computers and robots, and we become ever more like cyborgs, humanity is forced to question its self-proclaimed ontological divide from machines.

Since the opening of modernity, then, human beings have had to confront four major discontinuities which they created in order to establish their alleged radical uniqueness and special status. In each case, "rational man" had to rethink its identity to overcome false dichotomies and illusions of separation from the cosmos, the animal world, the unconscious, and the machines it invented. Yet, against what Mazlish suggests, the process of identity construction prompted by science and technological innovations is not over: I envision yet another yawning gulf -- a fifth discontinuity -- that poses still more challenges to human identity and, perhaps, to our very survival.

The fifth discontinuity opens with the possibility of discovering other forms of life in the cosmos, and the actuality of species implosion, the creation of new life forms through genetic engineering, and widespread cloning. As of yet no signs of life in the cosmos have been detected but our own, and "contact," to the best of our knowledge, is still the stuff of science fiction. But we have already begun to tear down species boundaries by transplanting the blood and organs of baboons, pigs, and other animals into human bodies (xenotransplantation), thereby raising the specter of deadly transmissible diseases like AIDS. Corporate capital has also created hundreds of transgenic plant and animal species through biotechnology and "pharming" by mixing the DNA of two different species to create an altogether new species, such as when human genes are spliced into those of a pig to make the animal grow larger and faster. Another frightening discontinuity, however, involves the production of new intelligent machines that might prove themselves superior to humans and displace the supremacy and centrality of homo sapiens in the "great chain of being".

At the turn of the twentieth century, H.G. Well's novels The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and The Food of the Gods (1904) anticipated disasters wrought by the manipulation of life (see Chapter 4). More recently, Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park (1990) and its film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg (1993), described the debacles awaiting the world of genetic engineering. Both The Island of Dr. Moreau and Jurassic Park are set on distant islands, symbolic of the isolation of science from the public and critical scrutiny. Yet where Dr. Moreau conducts his experiments in secrecy, John Hammond, the financial backer of Jurassic Park, has constructed a theme park and, once the furtive stage of his research is completed, hopes to allure millions to see the main attraction -- genetically reconstructed dinosaurs. On both islands, scientists engineer transgenic species, but their schemes are colossal failures as the chimeras they create rebel, rampage, and kill humans. Whereas Wells only imagines a time when science could genetically engineer new species, Crichton writes as the process is well underway, and he uses literary mappings to criticize the problems inherent in the biotechnology.

Monsanto, Novartis, Du Pont, and other corporations have already created and patented hundreds of transgenic bacteria, viruses, plants, animals, and human tissues, as they have cloned animals such as mice, frogs, pigs, sheep, and bulls. Appealing to a Lockean definition of property, a 1980 Supreme court law declared that genetically altered lifeforms are legitimate inventions that can be patented and owned, thereby opening the floodgates for the commodification of DNA. The precautionary principle has been thrown to the wind: little or no testing is done to ensure the safety of people or ecosystems with the release of transgenic organisms, the legal system freely grants patent rights and denies the public the right to know if their food is genetically modified, and Congress and the Clinton administration have aggressively pursued U.S. global dominance in biotechnology, as the Food and Drug Administration suppress warnings from their own top scientists that genetically modified foods are unsafe and lie routinely. In this context, Crichton's preface to Jurassic Park decries a genetic revolution whose research is "done in secret, and in haste, and for profit." Crichton moves seamlessly from scientific fact to fiction, as he proceeds to tell of secret experiments with the genetic engineering and cloning of animals on a remote island near Costa Rica, suggesting today's surreality may be tomorrow's reality.

The fictional Hammond represents the way life science industries and all too many scientists actually think. A mouthpiece for capitalist values and commodified science, Hammond insists, "We can never forget the ultimate object of the project in Costa Rica -- to make money ... lots of money." Animals, nature, and science are mere means to his end and life is reduced to sequences of DNA codes. Rather than consider the staggering implications of bioengineering, such as tampering with intricately evolved ecosystems and genomes, Hammond states, "We didn't want to wait. We have investors to consider." In fact, there is now a mad "gene rush" underway, comparable to the untrammeled greed of the gold rush over a century ago, as scientists, universities, and corporations scramble to patent the DNA, cells, seeds, blood, and tissues of life. The imperialism that drove European colonialists into the Americas for slaves and booty is paralleled today by the rapacious "biopiracy" and "bioprospecting" of corporations who plunder the seeds and crops of Southern nations, making slight enough genetic modifications to call them their own, and sell back what was once free and available to all. Even hospitals and the blood of people around the world are raided for rare genes that could be patented, giving new meaning to Marx's excoriation of capitalists as "vampires."

Hammond is not only a quintessential capitalist, he is also an unrepentant modernist, avowing that "There's absolutely no problem with the island," a gospel of certainty and control shared by his technical crew. Clearly, Jurassic Park is less an attack on genetic engineering per se, than an all-out assault on the modern scientific paradigm which Crichton believes is moribund and dangerous. But Crichton also establishes that a new paradigm is emerging, one rooted for him in the ideas of Heisenberg, Godel, and chaos theory, and is voiced by the mathematician, Ian Malcolm (obviously Crichton's mouthpiece). With Nietzchean grandeur, Malcolm announces that (modern) science is dead: "the dream of total control -- has died, in our century ... We are witnessing the end of the [modern] scientific era." Malcolm rarely misses a chance to discuss the new, emerging paradigm rooted in chaos theory, nonlinear mathematics, and the concept of unpredictability, to warn that the concept of the park is completely unworkable. Before even arriving at the park, Malcolm states, "There is a problem with that island. It is an accident waiting to happen." The project is impossible, he knows, because Jurassic Park technicians are trying to engineer complexity with the mentality of simplicity. But "What we call `nature' is in fact a complex system of far greater subtlety than we are willing to accept."

Thus, the technological and biological systems at Jurassic Park break down catastrophically. The computers collapse, having over 130 "glitches" in their programming. The dinosaurs -- genetic pastiches of dinosaur and frog DNA -- are designed to reproduce under controlled conditions, but they spontaneously switch genders, breed at will, and rampage through the park. Malcolm impugns Hammond and his scientists for their ecological ignorance: "You create new life forms, about which you know nothing. Your Dr. Wu [the chief genetic engineer] does not even know that names of the things he is creating ... [Y]ou expect them to do your bidding, because you made them and you therefore think you own them; you forget that they are alive, that they have an intelligence of their own." This jeremiad applies equally as well to bioengineers throughout the world who do not know the basic genetic preconditions of life, the function of some genes, how they interact, and what the long-term consequences may be of tampering with the DNA of plants, bacteria, animals, and human beings. But in a situation with economics and politics overwhelms proper science, genetic experiments advance rapidly and unimpeded, for billions of dollars and control of global markets are at stake.

The Cartesian engineers at Jurassic Park are oblivious to a central lesson of self-organization which, as Malcolm states, is that "life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands into new territories. Painfully, even dangerously." In the annals of biological history, there are thousands of examples of plant and animal species escaping or being transplanted to non-native ecosystems which they rapidly undermine or destroy, with the African "killer bee" as a dramatic example. In the form of "genetic pollution" today, transgenic crops such as rapeseed (canola) and Bt corn contaminate neighboring non-engineered fields, spread their traits to their weedy relatives, expand the use of herbicides and pesticides, increase weed and pest resistance to chemicals (creating superweeds and superpests immune to the strongest chemicals), deplete the soils, and contribute to species extinction by promoting monocultures. Similarly, just as transgenic AIDS mice could breed out of control to create a super-AIDS mouse that might pass the virus onto human beings, genetically modified fish could easily breed or out-compete with wild fish populations, genetically altered trees could crowd out natural forests and undermine food webs and ecosystems, and "miracle foods" engineered to have extra vitamins or edible vaccines could transfer their genes to other plants and disrupt the environment.

Decontextualized from ethics, ecology, and social responsibility, today's genetic sciences all too often involve what Malcolm terms "thintelligence," a dangerous one-dimensional, reductionist mindset that is blind to the social and historical context of science, and the ethical and ecological implications of radical interventions into natural processes. Still, despite Crichton's preface which emphasizes the commercialization of science and the implosion of science and industry, he tends to blame science alone for problems that ultimately stem from capital, global competition, and the profit imperative.

Jurassic Park both exploits and advances the current "dinomania," while creating potent symbols of global capitalism out of control. As W.J.T. Mitchell notes in his fascinating cultural study, The Last Dinosaur, dinosaurs are richly overdetermined and multivalent in meaning. Like Stephen Jay Gould, Mitchell seeks to explain dinomania, but he rejects what he claims is Gould's ahistorical appeal to archetypes and he roots different images and perceptions of dinosaurs in commercial imperatives and changing social conditions. Just as the dragon dominated the medieval imagination, Mitchell sees the dinosaur as the quintessential "totem animal of modernity," since their remains were discovered only in the nineteenth century, they continue to capture the imagination of scientists and the public alike, and they eloquently symbolize current capitalist dynamics. The enormous size and monstrous nature of dinosaurs are convenient emblems of global capitalism. As rapacious eaters, moreover, dinosaurs are fitting icons of an energy intensive social system and glutinous consumers whose lifestyles exact a heavy ecological price. Dinomania also might relate to human anxieties over extinction. The fact that powerful dinosaurs dominated the earth for 170 million years, and suddenly became extinct, underscores the contingency of homo sapiens, whose evolution into the next 170 years looks problematic, let alone the next 170 million. Noting changing images in the structure and behavior of the dinosaur that, a la Frederic Jameson, Mitchell relates to different cultural stages in the history of capitalism, he distinguishes between the huge, slow, slumbering dinosaur of the modern age of mechanical reproduction, such as the Brontosaurus, and the fast, agile, multicolored, teamwork-oriented dinosaur of the postmodern era of biocybernetic reproduction, such as the velociraptor, representing a more flexible, downsized, and multicultural capitalism.

Jurassic Park itself is emblematic of the megaspectacles in demand today, from the billion dollar extravaganzas of Universal Studios and Disney World to the wildlife parks in San Diego and Florida where tourists behold animals in simulated conditions. In the new social constructions of the "wild," nature, science, technology, capital, consumerism, entertainment, and education implode in a theme park setting. As Hammond says, Jurassic Park is "the most advanced amusement park in the world," a transgenic Disneyland for the whole family. In response to Hammond's worries that the dinosaurs are not fully "real," Wu reminds him, indeed, that "they're not real" and that "there isn't any reality here." Wu engineers the dinosaurs not according to the best scientific knowledge about how they really behaved, but rather how tourists would expect them to behave. Thus, the dinosaurs are at least second order simulations, and are unwitting actors in a commodified "tourist performance" such as is enacted by "primitive" cultures in Southern nations who feign the mode of dance and behavior that matches tourist stereotypes.

In the age of genetic replication, Jurassic Park portends real things to come as the wildlife parks of the future may feature cloned animals (replicated from storage tanks in "frozen zoos") and transgenic species. No longer purely biological, but rather technological designs and creations, animals are becoming simulations of the real, hyperreal cyborgs, either mass reproductions of a model or transgenic pastiches of DNA. Science has already created a surreal zoo of transgenic mutations that include tobacco plants with firefly genes, mice and pigs with human genes, potatoes with chicken genes, fish and tomatoes with antifreeze genes, and dozens of different genetically modified foods spliced with bacteria, viruses, antibiotic-resistant marker genes, and insect genes.

Thus, as the postmodern adventure in science unfolds, boundaries are collapsing everywhere, in both the natural and social worlds, creating implosions among species (bacteria, plant, insect, animal, and human) and between biology and technology, transgressing the limits of what previously was declared improbable or impossible.

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