The original Jurassic Park film from 25 years ago rather inventively explored a theme that has been prominent in Western culture from the time of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment – namely, the dangers of an aggressive and arrogant rationalism.
Beginning in the late 18th century, poets and thinkers such as Rousseau, Goethe, Herder, Blake and Keats warned contemporaries that the lust to understand and control nature would result in disaster both for the human soul and the physical world.
Goethe, for instance, railed against the Newtonian scientific practice, which involved the intrusive questioning of nature rather than the patient and respectful contemplation of it. And Blake memorably complained of the “Satanic mills”, the forges and factories that had begun to blight the English countryside with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
But the most famous and influential meditation on this theme was undoubtedly Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. It is hardly accidental, of course, that the author in question was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest of the Romantic poets. As readers of Shelley’s book or viewers of the Boris Karloff movie can testify, Dr Frankenstein’s successful attempt to create life artificially spectacularly backfired, producing misery on all sides. Shelley’s point was that seizing godlike authority over nature, although it perhaps satisfies our pride and our desire to dominate the world, in fact unleashes powers that we cannot, even in principle, control.
John Hammond, the character played so genially by Richard Attenborough in the original Jurassic Park, was an updated and friendlier version of Dr Frankenstein. Blithely turning back the momentum of evolution and placing ferocious life forms in a combination zoo/amusement park, he perfectly embodied the modern, rationalistic attitude that sees everything as an object of manipulation.
That he was backed up by greedy financiers and lawyers only made him more dangerous. Jeff Goldblum’s character, the quirky chaos theory specialist, gave voice, wisely, to the standard Romantic critique: “John, the kind of control you’re attempting here is, ah, it’s not possible.” That the chaos theorist had it right was bloodily proven in the original movie and in pretty much every iteration of Jurassic Park since.
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