EVERY-SO-OFTEN the internet gets inexplicably fixated on a celebrity.
Betty White. George Takei. Chuck Norris. Rick Astley…
Lately, for reasons only the internet understands, the internet’s celebrity fixation is on Jeff Goldblum.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I think I understand why Jeff Goldblum is the current internet thing. He’s the same perfect mix of weird and oddly attractive that made cats the internet’s spirit animal.
Watch enough cable TV and you’re bound to spend a weekend binge watching your favorite (or in the case of Twilight, my least favorite) film franchise.
They’re all there in heavy rotation: Star Wars. The Harry Potter flicks. The Twilight saga. Fifty Shades of Whatever. The Jurassic Park films.
Cable TV operates on repeat, not shuffle.
I’m never not going to be a Star Wars fan, but if I had to watch a film series that is not Star Wars, I’d choose Jurassic Park.
Why? Because Freaking dinosaurs, that’s why.
Did I mention that Jeff Goldblum is in the Jurassic Park movies?
It’s all connected, folks.
The Jurassic Park film series, based on the 1990 book Jurassic Park (written by Michael Crichton), is a modern version of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, the 1818 novel written by Mary Shelley (1797–1851). Shelley’s novel is a retelling of the story of Prometheus, the Greek hero whose relentless quest for pursuit for (scientific) knowledge ends in tragedy.
In a nutshell, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young doctor whose quest to harness the power of creation ultimately leads to his own destruction.
In a nutshell, Jurassic Park is pretty much the same cautionary tale.
Except with dinosaurs.
These days, all one needs to do is mention the name “Frankenstein” to conjure images of the mad scientist who defies the laws of God and nature and is ultimately destroyed by his own creation.
Or, if you’re in a Jurassic Park flick, the mad scientist’s creation ultimately destroys the city of San Diego… and an amusement park.
…but I digress.
The motion picture adaptation of Jurassic Park was released in 1993 and was followed by its sequels The Lost World: Jurassic Park II, Jurassic Park III, and Jurassic World.
…because destroying San Diego wasn’t enough; they HAD to build an amusement park.
In the original (and arguably most philosophical) film, Jurassic Park, billionaire entrepreneur John Hammond creates JURASSIC PARK, the ultimate amusement park experience, where guests literally can walk with the dinosaurs. In addition to providing totally immersive entertainment, courtesy of the resurrected pre-historic beasts, Hammond boasts that park provides the best amenities for guests, including gourmet ice cream.
“We spared no expense”, Hammond declares.
While Hammond marvels at his creation, one of the park’s guests, mathematician (and chaos theorist) Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by current internet darling Jeff Goldblum), asks the question that is central to the theme of the film.
It happens during this exchange between Dr. Malcolm and John Hammond:
Dr. Ian Malcolm: If I may… Um, 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 lunchbox, and now
Dr. Ian Malcolm: you’re selling it, you wanna sell it. Well…
John Hammond: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Did you spot it?
If you didn’t, it might be because it was more of a statement than a question.
Here it is: Dr. Malcolm tells John Hammond “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Dr. Malcolm said the words “could” and “should”.
…and when you say words like “could” and “should”, philosopher’s ears perk up.
because words like “could” and “should” are words philosophers use when they’re doing ethics.
…a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct… Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. As a field of intellectual enquiry, moral philosophy also is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory. (definition courtesy of Wikipedia)
At the heart of the story of Jurassic Park is a morality tale.
Dr. Malcolm’s challenge to John Hammond is moral – should we do something because we can do it?
Or, if you’re the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), you’d say Ought Implies Can.*
Ought Implies Can (OIC), the ethical principle attributed to Immanuel Kant, states that people have a moral obligation to perform an act only if it is possible for him carry out the act.
For instance, if I borrow money from my uncle (with the intention of paying him back), and I have the means to pay him back, I am morally obligated to pay my uncle the money I borrowed from him.
- I ought to pay my uncle because I promised to pay him back (We are morally obligated to keep our promises).
- I ought to pay my uncle because we are morally obligated to pay off our debts.
- I ought to pay my uncle because I have the means to (can) pay him back.
In the film (and book) Jurassic Park, human scientists discover the means of creating living dinosaurs from long-extinct dinosaur DNA − CAN
Hammond and his scientists conclude if man possesses the ability – if people can recreate extinct animals using modern technology, then we OUGHT to bring them back. Jurassic Park flips Kant’s moral principle − Can Implies Ought.
That is, the film Jurassic Park asks Kant’s question backwards: We can, ought we?
John Hammond believes that the technological ability to create long-extinct dinosaurs implies (perhaps even demands) that the dinosaurs be recreated at Jurassic Park.
If we can do it, shouldn’t we do it?
Not just for the entertainment, but also for the scientific knowledge we would gain through the observation of dinosaurs?
After all, can recreating dead dinosaurs be any worse than blasting a Tesla into outer space?
Of course, Dr. Malcolm’s challenge to John Hammond isn’t deontological – it’s utilitarian.
For those who might have forgotten, utilitarianism is:
the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct. (definition courtesy of Bing)
What Malcolm is asking is what is the value of bringing back the dinosaurs?
Malcolm tells Hammond that the dinosaurs had their chance and they failed – the dinosaurs went extinct.
Recreating an extinct species in an environment in which they do not belong, Malcolm believes, can only bring about bad results.
Is the enjoyment from walking with dinosaurs worth the risk to human life?
Given what happens in the film the answer seems no.
You see, no matter how careful you may think you are, carnivorous prehistoric beasts will eat things, including people.
Let’s not forget that a T-Rex ate San Diego.
Rampaging dinosaurs are responsible for several dozen human deaths throughout the film series.
The millions of dollars in possible property damage (not to mention the cost of insurance) would make recreating potentially man-eating dinosaurs a cost-prohibitive venture.
But, if a utilitarian can argue why we shouldn’t do something, rest assured that a utilitarian will also argue exactly why we should do something as dumb as lab engineering a ferocious dinosaur like the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
We can imagine the (well meaning) utilitarian saying that the dinosaurs posed no significant danger to humans at all. Many of the dinosaurs are not inherently dangerous to people and dogs. Any fatalities associated with the dinosaurs were due mostly to human error, sabotage or just people doing dumb shit. We can remedy that. So long as people obey the rules and don’t do anything sinister or stupid (and with better genetic manipulation of dinosaur DNA), the utilitarian reasons we can create visitor-friendly dinosaurs without major loss of life.
Scientists benefit from the ability to study real-life dinosaurs and park guests can enjoy unparalleled world- class entertainment.
…including some bomb-ass ice cream.
That’s because Jurassic Park SPARES NO EXPENSE.
So… so long as Jurassic Park implements better safety measures (and perhaps including a better background check for employees), we should be good to go, right?
According to utilitarianism so long as everybody’s happy an act is morally permissible.
More than that, it’s morally obligatory.
Therefore, we ought to create dinosaurs.
You know that’s not the right answer, don’t you?
Dr. Malcolm says to John Hammond, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Malcolm isn’t just concerned with the utilitarian consequences of Hammond’s scientists’ actions, he’s also bothered by Hammond’s defiance of nature.
We see Dr. Malcolm’s (nature-based) uneasiness with resurrecting dinosaurs in this conversation with one of Hammond’s scientists:
Dr. Ian Malcolm: John, the kind of control you’re attempting simply is… it’s not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.
Dr. Wu: You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will… breed?
Dr. Ian Malcolm: No. I’m, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.
Malcolm frames his concern as a question of defying nature, but the question: just because we can do something, should we do it? is also a biblical question.
Got something to do with who defying the will of God.
if we’re being specific, the question, Who gets to play God?
In the Old testament, Adam and Eve are cast from the Garden of Eden for taking from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.
Coz there are things that man ain’t supposed to know.
… and things people ain’t supposed to do.
In the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve (and humanity in general) ends tragically.
The punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is death.
You die if you try to do what God do.
And that is exactly what leads to the tragic end of Dr. Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s cautionary tale of the modern Prometheus – Frankenstein tries to play God.
In Shelley’s novel, man (Victor Frankenstein) attempts to harness the power of creation – a power that belongs solely to God. Frankenstein’s monster is his Tower of Babel, a monument of man’s conceit. And like the Tower of Babel, Victor Frankenstein and his monster are destroyed.
Likewise, Dr. Malcolm sees John Hammond’s Jurassic Park as a monument of Hammond’s conceit. According to Malcolm, the (technological) attempt to control nature plants the seeds of our own destruction. Nature finds a way, Malcolm warns, meaning once man attempts to control the power of nature, nature, or God (or Nature’s God, if you’re Thomas Jefferson) inevitably will conquer man.
Jurassic Park, like the Tower of Babel and Victor Frankenstein, are doomed to fail.
What Dr. Malcolm knew (that John Hammond and Victor Frankenstein didn’t know) is just because you can do something, it doesn’t always mean that you ought to do it.
Especially if the thing that you ought not do eats San Diego.
* Kant’s Ought Implies Can should not be confused with Hume’s Is-Ought problem. The Is-Ought Fallacy postulates what ought to be based on what is. For example, if nature does not make it, we shouldn’t have it. Well, nature doesn’t make clothes or houses, but very few people would say that we shouldn’t have clothes or houses simply because clothes and houses do not occur naturally.
Jurassic Park. Screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1993. Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures.