26 October 2010

Geological Frightfest: Jurassic Park

Posted by Jessica Ball


Okay, given the super-gory, blood-soaked grossness that today’s monster movies seem to be embracing, Jurassic Park is pretty tame. Tasteful, even, when people get eaten by dinosaurs. But let me tell you, when it came out in 1993, that was a pretty darn scary movie. (I remember seeing it as an eight-year-old, and I can’t remember a movie since that’s actually frightened me out of my seat and two or three feet vertically above it.) I’d been on the Dinosaur ride at Disney World, and these were certainly far beyond the jerky, obviously mechanical critters on display there. 

But aside from freaking out an eight-year-old who then dragged her parents to the National Museum of Natural History’s Dinosaur Hall a whole lot more often, Jurassic Park opened up a whole can of exciting – and frightening! – possibilities about paleontology to the general public. Were dinosaurs really that vicious? What if we could recreate them using DNA recovered from fossils? Were paleontologists already trying to do that? And if it was possible, could we control our creations – before they decided to eat us, that is? (Frankly, I always thought that they could have solved that problem by not creating carnivores in the first place, but that would have made for a much less exciting plot. Nobody wants to see a movie where the main danger from the monster is accidentally getting stepped on.)

There was a lot of discussion of the question of recovering viable, ancient DNA (although not necessarily from amber) in the 90s, but it seems pretty clear that even if there was DNA preserved, it wasn’t likely to be complete and undamaged. Even the ‘mummified’ hadrosaur discovered in 2007, which was extremely well-preserved, didn’t net anyone a full genome. (For a discussion of why it would be tough to make a dinosaur even if we did have all the DNA we needed, have a look at the University of California Museum of Paleontology’s Dinobuzz page – it’s lacking some references, but I suspect it’s not meant to read like a journal article.)

But questions of ability aside, which dinosaur would we make if we actually could – and what would we do with it? Assuming that we could adjust its immune system to deal with today’s diseases and find it something to eat, there’s no telling how it would react to its environment or its creators. (If we made an herbivore, which tended to be large, would it just act like a big cow? Would a carnivore try to eat people, or would it be happy with goat?) Like the scene in The Lost World where the t. rex gets loose in San Diego, a recreated dinosaur could cause considerable problems were it to escape from its handlers. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought of this long before Michael Crichton ever did, by the way – although a pterosaur is a flying reptile and not a dinosaur.) And what about the dinosaur? Assuming that we were somehow able to allow it to grow up free of human influences, wouldn’t it be pretty scary for the dinosaur to have to deal with a modern world?

I think the scientific, ethical, and societal tangles that could be involved in recreating a dinosaur are plenty frightening – before you even get to the toothy, clawed, wants-to-eat-you part. (And no, I was not traumatized by seeing Jurassic Park when I was eight – if anything, it helped get me to the point where I could blog about it!)