I’m currently reliving my childhood love of dinosaurs via (a) my son, who asks thrice daily when we can go to our local natural history museum, and (b) Universal Studios’ marketing. I last read Jurassic Park when the movie was released and The Lost World when it first hit the nice mall’s Waldenbooks. I had fond memories of both, so I revisited both books via Audible late last year. I was shocked, amazed, and disgusted throughout both books.

Blah blah blah, the movies aren’t as good as the books, you might say mockingly. The difference, though, is not in missing characters but rather the whole tone and thrust of Michael Crichton’s novels. Though all of the films in the series are cautionary tales, they are all shot and scored for maximum grandeur. We see the movies and want, desperately, to visit Jurassic Park. If we were swayed by Crichton rather than Spielberg, though, we might actively search out secret labs to expose their scandalous ideas. Ari N. Schuman captured the movie’s slight corruption of Crichton’s vision masterfully:

The notion that Jurassic Park would enkindle a generation’s enthusiasm for science might have surprised and frustrated Michael Crichton, the author of the 1990 book on which the film was based (Steven Spielberg purchased the movie rights before it was even published). For Crichton, the story was meant not as an ode to Science but as a warning about today’s scientific enterprise: the terror of T. rex on the loose was a parable less about the majesty of nature and the miracle of human creation than about the foolishness of our aspirations for technocratic control. This theme, of course, is still present in the movie, albeit largely as a way to get the dinos out of their pens so they can dispense munchy poetic justice to their creators. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the film is how well the Science-Is-Cool factor coexists with the themes of peril. We see human beings devoured by ill-conceived monsters and yet still somehow find ourselves sympathizing, at least up to a point, with the monsters’ makers. The film is somehow simultaneously a cultural touchstone for both the awesomeness of science and nature and for our anxieties about the hubris of the scientific enterprise.

Crichton’s main aim, stated at the front in a fictional introduction like the publisher’s note in Gulliver’s Travels, is to speculate the worst-case scenario of the rise of biotechnology. Crichton points out that entertainment using biotechnology can be produced in secret, unlike the regulated pharmaceutical industry. Hard-science types like the paleontologist Allen Grant can be supported by shadowy groups (e.g., John Hammond’s InGen) without any oversight. John Hammond, a kindly but foolish Santa Claus in the films, was originally devised as a ruthless billionaire who lies to potential investors about his technology’s sophistication. He puts his grandchildren in harm’s way to prove a point to the investors’ lawyer (not to give them the thrill of dinosaurs, like parents hitting up the natural history museum every quarter).

Many of Crichton’s lessons are dumbed down to macabre but cartoonish horror. We all cheered in mid-nineties delight when–in the movie–the cowardly lawyer is devoured and Hammond is rescued with the other main characters. In Crichton’s original text, the lawyer is the voice of reason, and we are relieved that Hammond is eaten alive by tiny compys. At least no one else has to die for him to prove a point.

Jurassic-Park-Still-Shots-2More than Swiftian introduction and cackling capitalist villains, though, Ian Malcolm’s long arguments with everyone else in the book express Crichton’s viewpoint. You could pull that old chance-is-really-the-Holy-Spirit approach of flipping to a random Bible verse for inspiration to find an argument between Malcolm and someone else. It would take you three times, maximum. I got the distinct impression that Crichton was frustrated and annoyed by the scientist-as-hero depiction of Grant in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, so he retconned Malcolm back from the dead to be the main character in the sequel, The Lost World.

Indeed, the latter book is even more stuffed with long, long conversations, and the main scientist Richard Levine is insufferable (even more than Malcolm), foolish, and short-sighted. He is the opposite of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones/Jack Horner chimera in the first movie. Levine maintains until the very end that the island they visit–where the dinosaurs were manufactured–is a printine lost world, even though the whole island is a hellhole of genetic experimentation errors. Crichton/Malcolm annoyingly withhold to the end of the novel that the dinosaurs were made deranged by a mistake as simple as using sheep meat (thus infecting them with prions). The point here is that the hubris creating dinosaurs will eventually fail in stupid ways. The wonders of genetics may de-extinct dinosaurs, but failing to check a veterinary textbook will turn them into true monsters.

Even when the genetic engineering is more successful, in the first novel, the sensory experience that Crichton creates constitutes a strong, visceral argument against the de-extinction effort. In the first movie, one’s stomach might turn briefly at the gore but recover after the scene is over. The wonder that Spielberg creates makes up for any initial squeamishness. In both novels, Crichton portrays every encounter with predatory dinosaurs as nauseating and frightening. Up close, Crichton’s predators reek of the rotting meat on their jaws, skin, breath, and nest. You smell them as you hear their approach. And many of the deaths are described in such terrible and terrifying description that I found it hard to continue listening.

Young Howard King in The Lost World is thrown to his stomach while a misnamed velociraptor uses its large claw to lacerate him. His boss Lewis Dodgson is brought gently by a T. rex to a nest, where he is fed to the juveniles growing there. We might say “Hello… Newman” when we see Dennis Nedry is the first film and resolve that he got his comeuppance when killed by dilophosaurs after betraying Jurassic Park. We feel no such self-righteousness when Crichton relays Nedry’s last thought, that he was being eaten alive. The intensity of the violence serves as its own argument against ever bringing back terrible lizards.

I found Crichton’s dark vision to be both captivating and frustrating. When we dive headfirst into a technological paradigm shift, we often try to ignore the obvious downsides thereof. This is as true in the real world of Internet immersion as it is in the fantasy world that Crichton made. At the same time, though, Crichton often sounds like a crank, barraging the reader with Hammond-Malcolm debates and nauseating gore in the hope that we’ll draft restrictive legislation soon, like this evening. I have a rock-solid conflict of interest here: I work for a pharmaceutical company that includes biotechnology in its portfolio. I see myself as working for the fruits, not the poison, of biotechnology. Crichton sounds paranoid and alarmist to me now that I understand his major purpose in writing Jurassic Park.

I honestly don’t know whether I should be concerned with the objections that Crichton raises concerning unregulated biotechnology. I’m skeptical, and you are free to take the disclosure above into account. More than being pro-biotechnology, though, I feel like Crichton doesn’t take into account the fact that science is, well, difficult.

Those who are spectators or participants in scientific discourse are being barraged by scandals of various kinds. Psychology is suffering from a crisis of confidence related to whether its most cited results can be replicated. Medical science continues to correct the publication bias uncovered in the last few decades by evidence-based medicine nerds (of which I am one). More generally, the reliability of statistical methods used across all of science is being actively reassessed, e.g., p-value hacking, which is messing around with the analysis until one finds a statistically significant result (i.e., a p-value less than .05). A brilliant article on p-hacking by Christie Aschwanden concludes, contrary to what Crichton might insist, that this is not a sign that science itself is broken:

Taken together, headlines [about scandals in scientific research and publishing] might suggest that science is a shady enterprise that spits out a bunch of dressed-up nonsense. But I’ve spent months investigating the problems hounding science, and I’ve learned that the headline-grabbing cases of misconduct and fraud are mere distractions. The state of our science is strong, but it’s plagued by a universal problem: Science is hard — really… hard. If we’re going to rely on science as a means for reaching the truth — and it’s still the best tool we have — it’s important that we understand and respect just how difficult it is to get a rigorous result.

Writing as someone enthusiastic about (and beholden to)  science, I value Crichton’s skepticism but disavow his fear-mongering. Crichton conveys an anti-science ideology that is no different from that of his two-dimensional characters. Aschwanden, quoted above, wants us to understand that science is difficult and subject to human fallibility. That seems much more reasonable than Crichton’s scorched-earth ideas expressed in both novels.

Personally, though, I am a bit embarrassed at how I read both books without any skepticism all those years ago. I am giving myself grace for my lack of insight then and wondering what current thoughts or ideas I will need to reconsider in the years to come. After all, I’m only human.