Jurassic Park and the Responsibility of Good Scientists

This post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. Day 1 is all about good scientists, day 2 is for mad scientists, and day 3 covers lonely scientists. 

What makes a scientist “good”? Some scientists cure diseases, other scientists research new technologies that help people, while others fight to protect the planet, and we’d probably call all of these “good” scientists. But what makes a movie scientist “good”? In many films about scientists, they’re often using science to overcome impossible odds, or trying to uncover the truth when those in power would rather keep it quiet, but for me the defining “goodness” of a movie scientist is measured by their devotion to scientific ethics, to using science for the betterment of society rather than for personal gain or glory, and to understanding the consequences of science. And in my book, there’s no better example (outside of Star Trek, of course) than the scientists in Jurassic Park. And the qualities that make them good scientists are all on display in one key scene in the film.

For those who somehow don’t know, Jurassic Park tells the story of three scientists brought to an island theme park populated with cloned dinosaurs in the hopes that the scientists would “sign off” on the park in order to reassure the insurance companies of the park’s viability. Dr. Malcolm, a mathematician (“chaotician”), Dr. Grant, a paleontologist, and Dr. Sattler, a paleobotonist, are given a tour of the labs where the dinosaurs are created and hatched, and watch the dangerous Velociraptors being fed, and they sit down to lunch with the park’s creator, John Hammond, and his lawyer, Gennaro. It’s this quiet scene that makes Jurassic Park more than simply an impressive monster movie, but it’s also where we learn that Malcolm, Grant, and Sattler are most definitely “good” scientists, especially when contrasted against the scientists working for Hammond. Take a look:

There are so many juicy bits in here, let’s take a look at them. First up is Dr. Malcolm, who points out everything that was wrong with the approach of the Jurassic Park scientists. He argues that their incredible achievements were accomplished by flying in the face of the purpose of science. Rather than trying to improve the world, they were only interested in creating a product. He points out that they just capitalized on the work others had done and exploited it, showing irresponsibility in their every move. They were excited by the prospect of the money they could make and the glory destined to come their way that they never stopped to consider the consequences of their actions. True science means considering the ethics of your actions and their effects on the wider world. The Jurassic Park scientists showed no restraint in their research, and they aren’t prepared for what might come next.

Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun… I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunch box and now you’re selling it… Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Dr. Sattler takes up the debate next, hitting on two major themes. Firstly she takes up Malcolm’s refrain that Hammond’s scientists are unprepared, arguing that not only have they not done the proper research before jumping to full-scale production, but that they haven’t done the necessary testing to allow them to know what to expect. They created countless cloned dinosaurs and filled a theme park designed for tourists with them. They have no idea what kind of effect captivity will have on these species, because there’s been no way to study them until now. Any animal park worth its salt goes out of its way to create environments for its animals designed to cater to the lifestyles of its residents, from replicating their original habitat to filling those enclosures with the right kind of food and enrichment activities. There’s no way Jurassic Park would be able to properly care for these animals, since they know basically nothing about the animals’ lives. Everything was simply designed to maximize its appeal to tourists. She then ties this view into her second point about respecting nature (a point she makes more strongly later in the film), not only its intrinsic value but it’s unpredictability, as there’s no way to truly know how these animals will behave.

Well, the question is, how can you know anything about an extinct ecosystem? And therefore, how could you ever assume that you can control it? I mean, you have plants in this building that are poisonous, you picked them because they look good. But these are aggressive living things that have no idea what century they’re in, and they’ll defend themselves, violently if necessary.

Then there’s Dr. Grant. Grant is clearly excited by Jurassic Park, but the fact that they cloned Raptors left him seriously troubled. Grant tries to strike a balance, especially after Hammond pleads with him to defend Jurassic Park. But Grant offers perhaps the most important part of being a good scientist, both in his response and his message: caution. Grant clearly wishes that more caution in their approach, taking a slower path that wouldn’t leave the rest of the scientific community behind. Science should be a collaborative effort, and it’s only by having others involved that it’s possible to have any expectations. But science should always be cautious even as it pushes along the path of progress, because when things move too quickly the results become impossible to predict, and there’s no way to be prepared for what might happen.

The world has changed so radically and we’re all running to catch up. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions but look – dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?

Jurassic Park, despite being a pulse-pounding thrill ride, is a film full of science. On the one hand you have a group of brilliant minds who created something no one has ever seen before. But those scientists did their work in a vacuum, without any regard for consequences, chasing money, fame, and glory instead of more noble pursuits. And while John Hammond may have pure intentions, his burning desire to astound the world outweighed any of the restraint that must always go hand-in-hand with any advancements. He’s very much in the vein of a “mad” scientist, not one with nefarious motives but simply so blinded by their pursuits that they can’t see the bigger picture. What Jurassic Park really needed was a group of “good” scientists like Drs. Malcolm, Sattler, and Grant, who are willing to sit and debate the ethics of the endeavor. The best science comes not from rushing ahead but from careful consideration, from research, from respect for the natural order, and from collaboration. Good scientists aren’t always the ones making groundbreaking discoveries, pushing the boundaries of technology, or taking us on new exciting journeys, but they’re the ones who care about doing the right thing.

19 thoughts on “Jurassic Park and the Responsibility of Good Scientists

  1. This struck me…

    “They have no idea what kind of effect captivity will have on these species, because there’s been no way to study them until now. Any animal park worth its salt goes out of its way to create environments for its animals designed to cater to the lifestyles of its residents, from replicating their original habitat to filling those enclosures with the right kind of food and enrichment activities. There’s no way Jurassic Park would be able to properly care for these animals, since they know basically nothing about the animals’ lives. ”

    I’ve worked with wildlife rehabbers and unreleasable wildlife (raptors…ah, the little ones with feathers… otters, beaver, vultures, a porcupine, deer, herons, and one very small tiger) as well as training a few legit wild mustangs. Whether small facilities or large zoos, there is, indeed, an attempt to put the animals in an environment that suits them. Even wildlife rehabbers put raptors in flight cages with things like natural branch or rope wrapped perched (a smooth perch would create, essentially, bedsores on their feet), barnwood sides but with airspace between boards, and wire ceilings for open sky but no escape (until healed). they are fed something akin to their natural prey (generally already dead, yes, hawks and owls will eat dead stuff).

    Point is, a hundred years ago menageries were little more than steel cages because humans were clueless about what those animals really needed. Also we had domestic animals living in stalls and other limited spaces (city horses would go out to work then come back to a stall, which required fairly intensive care from the horseman), so it must not have seemed too odd to have a tiger in a “stall”.

    It took a long time for zoos to become intelligent habitats.

    Jurassic Park is suffering the same fate in a slightly different way. They have what appears to be habitat, but they have little idea how the dinosaurs are going to relate to the habitat, to each other, or what precisely their behaviors and needs are. They are as clueless as Victorian zookeepers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, awesome analysis of what makes a scientist good, in a film that can be sometimes taken for granted. I’ve seen so many sequels and films inspired by it that I’d forgotten how thoughtful the original one is.

    That is an interesting point how Jurassic Park was sort of constructed in secret, not letting the entire scientific community in on their work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’ve always felt like people overlooked Jurassic Park as great sci-fi, focusing just on the fun dinosaurs and missing the deeper parts of it. The Lost World has some good messages/debates on environmentalism, but things went downhill after that and bottomed out with Jurassic World. Thanks for hosting the Blogathon! Looking forward to tomorrow!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Honestly, I think this is the best piece I’ve ever read on Jurassic Park. I’m serious! Because you chose the philosophical angle and laid out the arguments for ethics & careful reasoning, you make a good case for scientific research in general.

    Also I agree that Hammond does have “mad scientist” leanings but, as you said, it’s not malicious. He’s just blinded by opportunity, profits and, to an extent, ego.

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon with this excellent review!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aww, thank you so much. That’s very nice of you to say! I’d definitely put Hammond in the mad scientist category if only he were a scientist. But I’ve got more interesting mad scientists lined up for tomorrow.
      Thanks for hosting the Blogathon! It’s been a lot of fun so far!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow. What a profound and insightful piece. Sorta makes my entry in the blogathon seem more of a folly than I really intended. And I must admit I missed most of that when I first saw it in the theater all those years ago. But it stands to reason considering Crichton’s background that there was more to it than just a dinosaur theme park.

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. What a great post! You’re right, though I hadn’t considered it before – it’s the discussion of ethics that raises Jurassic Park above being just a great monster movie. (That, and the fact that Jeff Goldblum is so gorgeous – but I won’t mention that… 😉 ) And I appreciated your mention of Star Trek too – if only all scientists were as ethical as they are! Just off to track down Jurassic Park for a re-watch now… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! And you’re welcome to mention Jeff Goldblum’s attractiveness. The filmmakers clearly agreed, what with all of the gratuitous bare-cheated shots of him in the movie. I’ve always felt like we’re so familiar with Jurassic Park because we’ve all seen it so many times that we forget that it’s far more interesting than it appears at first. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who appreciates the ethics of Star Trek! Enjoy your rewatch! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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