It's hard to have missed the explosive launching of Jurassic World, the new dinosaurs vs. humans bout in Steven Spielberg's venerable series. (This time he is executive producer, while Colin Trevorrow directs.) The movie made history already by being the highest grossing film ever in its first weekend, taking in more than $500 million worldwide.
It is, by now, nearing — or may have already passed — the $1 billion mark. Some 22 years since the first Jurassic Park, the public's fascination with killer dinosaurs continues unabated.
(Spoiler Alert: If you haven't watched the movie — really? — the following will reveal some of the plot.)
The idea is the same: It takes place at an isolated park (the by-now famous Isla Nublar), a mix of Disney World and SeaWorld, where people can have close contact with animals that have been extinct for more than 65 million years. Scientists re-create life's past using mosquitoes that were trapped in bits of amber since the Cretaceous — using the dinosaur blood they sucked before dying (these bugs must have had some serious stings to perforate the thick carapaces). From the blood, scientists can extract chunks of dinosaur genes, which they splice with genes of more recent beasts to create a variety of genomes.
This is an important point: It's impossible to clone an extinct animal. To clone something, we need living cells and a complete genome. What scientists at Jurassic World were doing — taking in the huge suspension of disbelief needed in a fictional setting — is what is known as de-extinction science, the idea that it is possible, in principle, to mix genes of extinct animals with those of a living relative to create a hybrid creature. The best example is the mammoth-elephant hybrid, as evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro explains in her book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.
The big news in Jurassic World comes not from cloning, but from genetically engineering a new creature. To increase revenue, the fear factor needs to grow. (In this, the new movie mirrors its own screenplay.) So, the park owner, an Indian billionaire, hires a Chinese geneticist to create an irresistible new attraction.
Without questioning the moral consequences of his research, the scientist creates a mutant — a horrendous killing machine that mixes the best and the worst of the T. rex, velociraptor and even the cuttlefish.
The movie's most obvious message is that we don't learn from past mistakes. Man remains morally in the caves, with the aggravating problem of having access to increasingly more powerful technologies.
A parallel can be made between the abuses of genetics in the movie and the invention of the atomic fission bomb in 1945 and, then, its extension to a hydrogen fusion bomb in 1952. Some scientists working on the Manhattan Project from 1942 to 1945 questioned the moral right of inventing a weapon with such destructive power and, even more, its use over a civilian population. The bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved the viability of the technology (although tests would have done that, too) and ended the war in the Pacific. But with the advent of the Cold War, and with the Soviets in control of fission bombs as well, more had to be done. The H-bomb was the answer. It took the Soviets less than a year to detonate their own — and the race was on for bigger and more destructive killing machines.
It is telling that one of the major plot tensions in Jurassic World comes from an opportunist who wants to use the dinosaurs as weapons. To paraphrase one of his examples: Imagine releasing a few velociraptors in the tunnels of Tora Bora ...
The hybrid monster in the movie is no Godzilla, but an intentionally designed beast from hell. As often happens in sci-fi, the story turns cautionary tale. How far are we prepared to push our technologies without, at the same time, weighing their moral consequences? Where do we find the balance between the insatiable appetite consumers have for the new, the insatiable greed from investors and the danger that we end up creating something we can't control?
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.