Don't be spooked by by Jurassic fears

Arthur Caplan

June 18, 1993|By Arthur Caplan

JURASSIC Park" has arrived, and when Hollywood and science mix, watch out. Those who make movies like their scientists mad, bad and more than a tad morally corrupt. From Dr. Frankenstein and his goofing around with corpses and electricity to the folks in white coats whose nuclear shenanigans brought you Godzilla and Mothra, the silver screen has had few kind words for nerds with advanced degrees in science and technology.

"Jurassic Park" falls smack in the cinematic tradition that holds that science ain't no friend of yours or mine. Forget about the fact that the movie itself, loaded as it is with special effects and 20-foot-tall robots, is a pure paean to technology. The driving message of the book and the movie is that the price of progress in science and technology is too high in terms of the cost to human dignity and morality.

Many within the scientific community are simply battening down the hatches until the hype blows over. They figure a single summer blockbuster is not going to have the townsfolk organizing themselves into a vigilante party to set fire to the local gene therapy institute. Others are not so sure.

A couple of biologist friends have confided to me that they are already tired of explaining at every picnic, barbecue or cocktail party why they would not be tempted, even if they knew how, to try to recreate a dinosaur from an ancient DNA sample. They say they are not sure what to say when a back-yard philosopher asks if they think it is OK to fool with Mother Nature's secrets when everything from their dog to their salad represents the results of humankind's manipulating nature.

I think those in the scientific community who argue for either ignoring or simply blowing off the "Jurassic Park" phenomenon as just so much Mad Scientist nonsense are missing a great opportunity. Every kid I know under the age of 14 can't wait to see the movie. A lot of adults are curious, too. While the themes of science out of control and a science indifferent to human values do not accurately describe what is taking place in genetics today, "Jurassic Park" does accurately reflect anxieties about genetic engineering that have deep roots in our culture.

People are worried about what the "experts" are up to with respect to genetic engineering. They are concerned that they are going to find some unhealthy adulterated product on their grocery shelf that represents a large company's best effort to make a buck by genetically engineering milk, fruit or meat. They worry when they learn that researchers have already bred a goat-sheep hybrid, a "geep" in the jargon of genetics, without seeming to have needed permission or authorization from any agency or review board.

Genetic engineering does require more debate and discussion than it has received to date. But our key institutions are not well positioned to instigate that discussion. Most legislators and public officials cannot tell a chromosome from a chrome bumper. Our churches and schools are not adequately preparing the next generation for the choices they will face about how to use our rapidly expanding knowledge of heredity. And those who work in the media and the arts are frighteningly ignorant about genetics and biology.

The proof of our ignorance is right up there on the screen. We and our kids are not really sure what these gene jockeys are up to in their laboratories. We have no idea what sorts of regulations or rules govern their research, what motives or visions inspire their work.

Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that it is fear rather than hope that dominates "Jurassic Park." For while there are reasons for concern about where we are headed with genetic engineering and gene therapy, there are more reasons for excitement. As science slowly unravels the mysteries of heredity, medicine, agriculture and veterinary science will change for the better.

Molecular engineering will allow us to prevent diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and muscular dystrophy. We will be able to create animals that don't require massive amounts of antibiotics to fend off diseases. And we should be able to engineer plants that can grow in hot, arid climates -- making famine nothing more than a horrid memory.

When you and your kids are driving back from "Jurassic Park" and they are full of questions about dinosaurs and mad scientists, tell them there are reasons for concern about how well humanity will handle the secrets of heredity. But warn them too that they need to be concerned that our fear of genetic engineering not blind us to its potential enormous benefits.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota.

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