WHEN: 9:00am EST, September 27th, 2013
WHERE: In my apartment in Portland, ME
FORMAT: DVD on a 19” AOC LED computer monitor
MENTAL STATE: Mildly groggy.
IAN MALCOLM’S VAGUE, CONFUSING, STANCE ON EVOLUTION:
Last week, we took a look at Ian Malcolm’s lack of expertise in chaos theory. Unfortunately, his inadequacies as a scientist don’t end there. During a couple of memorable scenes, he demonstrates a misunderstanding of natural selection that should be embarrassing for any high school graduate, much less a mathematician tasked with analyzing a park full of extinct animals.
LIFE FINDS A WAY:
It’s iconic. It’s the quintessential Ian Malcolm quote. But what the hell does “life finds a way” really mean?
Malcolm coins the phrase shortly after Wu outlines Jurassic Park’s “no boys allowed” population control strategy. Considering the fact that the last dinosaur with a big old dino-wang died 65 million years ago, this seems like one of InGen’s more competent decisions. Yet, Malcolm balks:
“John, the kind of control you’re attempting is… it’s not possible. Listen, if there’s 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. It crashes through barriers. Painfully, maybe even dangerously, but ah… well, there it is.”
Noting the absurdity of this statement, Dr. Wu calls Malcolm out, “You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will breed?” To which, our chaotician famously replies:
“No, I’m simply saying that life… finds a way.”
Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that Malcolm is, despite his protestations, suggesting that a group comprised solely of female animals will find a way to reproduce, his assumptions about evolution seem a bit… off.
Saying that the most important lesson to take away from evolution is that “life will not be contained” is vague at best. On what scale will life not be contained? To the best of our knowledge, life hasn’t managed to break every barrier. Life hasn’t, with the exception of a handful of brief human visits, made it from the earth to the moon, or to Mars, or beyond. It’s true that on the earth itself, many forms of life have spread greatly, but most have, in one way or another, been limited in their range. It is the very fact that populations are divided, and each confined to different areas with different conditions, that has allowed for such diversity of life to arise. So, yes Malcolm, life will, in fact, sometimes be contained.
Did Malcolm mean that life could not be contained by humans? Perhaps. Again, scale is important. With widespread species, no, life can’t always be constrained by the powers of man. No matter what insecticides we throw at them, insect populations quickly adapt and develop immunities. But when the species over which humanity is trying to exert power is a little smaller, slower to adapt… sometimes life doesn’t find a way.
Oh, hey, speaking of a small number of flightless animals on an island…
Just because life in general has kept on keepin’ on all across the globe doesn’t mean that a small, isolated group of animals is destined to throw off any and all fetters. To demonstrate this point, allow me to present the following:
Jurassic Park Kitten Pit
In this film, eccentric
billionaire man of average means John Hammond has created found on Craigslist genetically engineered dinosaurs a bunch of kittens. To delight the children of the world neighborhood, he has placed them on a remote Pacific island in a 25′ stone pit in his basement.
“The most phenomenal discovery of our time… becomes the greatest adventure of all time.”
In addition to the
remoteness of the island depth of the pit, he has ensured that they are all females spayed and neutered. After the death of a worker, he asks chaotician Ian Malcolm to assess the safety of the park pit. “John,” scoffs Malcolm, “the kind of control you’re attempting is not possible. Evolution has taught us that life will not be contained. Life finds a way.”
In the case of the kitten pit, Malcolm’s assertion seems completely ridiculous. Does he think the kittens will evolve their way out of the pit? Is that how this whole evolution thing works? Maybe evolution has given them boundary-crashing superpowers?
How is Malcolm’s claim any less ridiculous if the kittens are dinosaurs, and the pit is an inescapable island?
My point is, good or bad, wise or not, it is possible to contain a limited group of non-breeding animals, for a limited amount of time. Evolution shouldn’t really be entering into this particular discussion, and I’m baffled as to why Malcolm decided to even bring it up. Perhaps if he gives us a clearer idea of how he thinks evolution works, this will all make more sense…
“NATURE SELECTED THEM FOR EXTINCTION”:
Or maybe not. When Hammond asks how dinosaur de-extinction would be any different than cloning endangered condors, Malcolm’s shaky grasp of evolution becomes painfully clear.
“This isn’t some species that was obliterated by deforestation, or the building of a dam.
Dinosaurs had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.”
From the above quote we can make two deductions. One, Malcolm has heard of natural selection. Two, he has no idea what that term means.
Natural selection is, of course, the slow process by which beneficial traits are passed on, and harmful ones weeded out, through the respective reproductive success or failure of those organisms that possess them. It is not, as Malcolm’s wording implies, anything close to a conscious decision on the part of nature.
“Fuck dinosaurs, mammals are where it’s at.”
There are plenty of reasons why it might be a bad idea to clone dinosaurs, but arguing that it goes against nature’s course is kind of a crock. Such an argument completely ignores that humans are part of nature, and are ourselves a product of evolution. From this perspective, nothing we end up doing can be considered “unnatural.” We did it, we’re part of nature, therefore it’s natural.
This does not, of course, give us carte blanche to kill Steve down the street, nuke Canada, or build a dinosaur-filled amusement park. None of these actions are by any means a good idea. They will all have serious negative ramifications for us, and are ethically sketchy. But none of them are unnatural.
Any suspicions we might have that Malcolm doesn’t consider humans part of nature are confirmed when, a few sentences later, he states, “What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” Whoa now, Malcolm. Is the chimpanzee who’s discovered how to fish for termites with a stick raping the natural world too? Or does that statement just apply to human discovery? If so, what separates humans from nature? Divine intervention? Is it part of nature’s plan? Malcolm, you’re just saying these things without explanation, or any evidence to back them up.
Ian Malcolm is a mess. He appears to lack even a cursory understanding of natural selection. He makes wild, unsupportable claims about the implications of evolution on the behavior of small groups of animals. His phrasing highly suggests that he considers human beings to be somehow removed from the natural world.
Evolution is a fascinating natural process. It is wonderful to trace the way in which it has shaped this world we live in and to observe it as it continues to unfold around us. It is not, however, a magical totem which can be invoked to back up spurious claims.
Malcolm’s is not a world of slow gradual processes affecting change. His is the realm of dinosaur virgin-births and capricious consciousnesses wiping animals off the face of the earth, because “they had their shot.” In short, Malcolm is by no means an expert in real-life evolution; he lives in an odd world of science fantasy.