If you enjoy reading too much into things (and I do), you can read Jurassic Park as Luddite, anti-science propaganda. The ethical impulse of the entire film rests on Ian Malcolm’s famous line: “You were so concerned with whether or not you could, you never stopped to think if you should.” The movie plays out as a prolonged justification of Malcolm’s ethical wisdom, culminating in several scenes in which the paleontologist heroes essentially decide, nah, screw this research opportunity, it’s too dangerous, let’s go back to digging for bones in the dirt. Much better to be ethical than to extend the bounds of knowledge.
The film is a cautionary tale about scientific hubris, but that gets me thinking about the “scientific hubris” trope more generally. Beginning with Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is a strand in Western film and literature dealing with science or technology, even straight science fiction, that can be described as one giant cautionary tale against scientific hubris. In the past, this anti-science strand was always counteracted by the celebrants of technological progress: Jules Verne comes immediately to mind, he the great anecdote to the pessimist H.G. Wells. (Verne hated being compared to Wells.) Today, however, you’ll be hard pressed to find a Jules Verne, especially in Hollywood. From the reboot of The Manchurian Candidate to the Bourne franchise, the bad guys are more and more often rogue scientists (geneticists, usually, the worst kind of rogue scientist) and the good guys are the victims of Science, always ready with moralistic lines about Humanity.
“I’m not a science experiment, doc.”
“You were so concerned with whether or not you could, you never stopped to think if you should.”
I’m glad no one had that attitude in previous centuries. We’d still be bleeding patients and traveling by stagecoach.
There aren’t many films or novels these days whose protagonists are headstrong researchers pursuing knowledge and advancement at any costs, even though the achievements of Western civilization rely on headstrong researchers pursuing knowledge and advancement at any costs.* When did you last see a film or read a book in which the bad guys warned against scientific hubris, in which the antagonist was the guy who tries to thwart the geneticist from conducting a human experiment?
Not in America. For that, you need to go to Japan:
If you haven’t seen it or read it, I highly recommend Paprika. The story follows two psychiatrists who have invented devices that allow people to watch, record, and even enter one another’s dreams. The antagonist is Dr. Inui, a wheelchair-bound purist who believes the devices are unethical and dangerous, and who will go to great lengths—even murder—to stop the devices from being used. Inui considers himself the “protector of human dreams” from the audacity of science. The book describes him as “obsessed with justice” to a “dangerous” degree. He delivers puritanical speeches against the pro-research protagonists:
You see yourselves as brave pioneers riding on the leading edge of discovery! Where’s your sense of social responsibility? You should be ashamed to call yourselves scientists!
He critiques the Western notion of scientific genius from a Marxist perspective:
You seem to think you developed the devices all by yourself, but that’s merely the product of vanity. You didn’t. What about the investors who provided all the funds, the engineers who installed the equipment, the assistants, even the cleaning ladies? You can’t claim the invention as your own.
In other words, Inui is the Cathderal. And he’s the bad guy. Don’t expect authors outside the Sinosphere to start putting words like the ones above into the mouths of anyone but their holier-than-thou, anti-scientific heroes.
*TV medical dramas are the exception to this new rule. House and Doc Martin are especially enjoyable; both characters care far more about science and medicine than they do about bedside manners or ethics committees.