My ambivalence to Jurassic Park

By Dave Hone

Following a recent chat with a couple of journalists I have been reflecting on the impact and influence of Jurassic Park (the movie more specifically, though the book had similar if rather less widely felt effects). From the point of a view of a palaeontologist it’s an interesting one as it had a major effect on how the public perceived dinosaurs and palaeontologists and these were both good and bad.

First off, the good. Obviously it’s hard to argue too much with anything that promotes your field of research as being cool (even if Alan Grant is about as much a palaeontologist as Indiana Jones is an archaeologist), although sadly Ross from friends later undid much of the limed kudos gained from JP.

Second, it did bring a lot of general interest into palaeontology and dinosaurs more specifically. Lots of people started going to museums, reading books and getting interested and involved in the science, and it certainly helped drive the creation of various dinosaur documentaries. Perhaps most importantly, it helped usher in a new image of dinosaurs to the general public – they were quick, active, agile animals, not stupid, tail-dragging, swamp-dwellers. Finally, probably little known, it helped fund the Jurassic Foundation which provided research grants to palaeontology projects and especially work by students – one of the rare examples of the movie industry really giving back to the community.

All of this is really is rather good and one might think that it would be hard to come up with too much to counter that list of benefits. Allow me to try. First off and most obviously, despite the accuracy of much of the aspects of the dinosaurs on show, there was plenty that wasn’t right and would you believe it, people lapped this up. Moreover, some of the inaccuracies either became quite well known, or looked suspicious to the average and intelligent punter. Perversely that means that you have both lots of nonsense being considered accurate because it was in the film and they got everything right, and lots that was accurate being assumed to be wrong because it was in the film and they got everything wrong. A lesser effect, but still significant to me is that this heralded CGI to such a degree that it has become both overused and badly used by anyone wanting to try and recreate dinosaurs on screen or in books.

This has led to the rise of increasingly bad material being used which can hinder rather than help accurately communicate ideas about dinosaurs.

On balance I’d have to admit that I probably think that Jurassic Park has done more good than harm. Normally I don’t get much of a rise out bad science in movies and the like – it’s fiction and you need drama, so there’s no great harm in making Tyrannosaurus twice as fast as it really was or Velociraptors many times more intelligent than they likely really were. However, when the film came out I do recall them pushing the scientific accuracy of their dinosaur renditions and the trouble they had gone to in order to get them right. If you’re pushing something as accurate then it should be accurate or, as happened, people will accept the falsehoods and exaggerations as reasonable and right when they shouldn’t.

As someone who does a lot of science communication on dinosaurs and has an interest in how my field is portrayed, it does hang as rather an albatross. I get more questions about Jurassic park than almost anything else which does demonstrate just how fast and how deep it sank into the collective consciousness. So while it has certainly brought dinosaurs out of the dark in terms of how they are perceived, they have stepped not so much into the light as into some kind of rather light shade with the odd darker spot. An improvement for sure, but not quite as it could have been, and certainly not what it is often perceived to be.

Dino enthusiasts will want to catch up with the 21st Floor’s Dinosaur 101 here and you can catch up with Dave Hones Archosaur Musings here.

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0 Responses to My ambivalence to Jurassic Park

  1. Ed Yongs says:

    I’m a massive fan of Jurassic Park. I put to you that many of the inaccuracies that you have rightly mentioned are relatively easy to correct – you can lay out the reality in a sentence or under – and that conversely, attracting the interest of people who don’t give a stuff about the subject is far harder.

    I don’t always feel this way. When the Ida kerfuffle broke, many people made the same argument to me – isn’t it great that people are talking about human evolution at all? Well, no, I thought, because they’re talking about it from a fundamentally flawed viewpoint.

    You could (and have) made the same argument for Jurassic Park, but I think that for everything it gets wrong, it also does something right. The idea that some dinosaurs were fast and agile, and more importantly that some of them evolved into birds, are big ticks in the plus column. They’re big shifts in perception.

  2. Dave Hone says:

    I don’t think many of the inaccuracies are *that* easy to correct. Or at least to explain in detail why they are wrong can be a challenge.

    More importantly, literally millions of people have seen Jurassic Park. I think it reasonable to think a lot of people saw the movie and some of the PR surrounding the movie (which included saying how accurate it was) and little else. It might be relatively easy to correct the misconceptions and inaccuracies to those people who question them, but far more people would have walked out of the theater and never given it a second thought, but would have taken away the idea that what they saw was a reasonable reflection of the state of the science at the time.

    “The idea that some dinosaurs were fast and agile, and more importantly that some of them evolved into birds, are big ticks in the plus column. ”

    Well they ever actually *really* said very much at all about the bird issue. Tim mentions it as a hypothesis, and Grant says things like “just like a flock of birds” but I don’t think they ever said anything like “birds are dinosaurs” and they did also talk about frog DNA etc. So probably the biggest single thing in dinosaurs really doesn’t get much of mention let alone strong support.

  3. JP was a book, written for the general public and meant as a cautionary adventure story. JP, the movie, was written by Hollywood, with lots of great special effects, and meant to make lots of money. With potential spin-offs and lots of merchandising. Neither was meant as a scientific essay.
    Both succeeded admirably.
    Any one who relies on fictional books and Hollywood films for their education is living in a zombie paradise.

  4. Dave Hone says:

    “Any one who relies on fictional books and Hollywood films for their education is living in a zombie paradise.”

    It’s not clear if this is a general statement or aimed at my article.
    If aimed at me, then I’m not. But it is an absolute cultural touchstone for so many people and it’s endlessly recycled as a source or reference for almost all media things mentioning dinosaurs. I endlessly get questions about it from the general public and I think that was in part triggered by the movie PR advertising it as being based on good science.

    So the fact of the matter is that it is out there and unavoidable. It shouldn’t be embraced, no, but can hardly be ignored.

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