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Long on Fiction, Short on Science: Deconstructing Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park  

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11/17/2019 6:32 am
Long on Fiction, Short on Science: Deconstructing Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park

I will admit at the outset: I was a big fan of Michael Crichton's original Jurassic Park book. It was a page turner and an entertaining piece of science fiction. When the movie came out later in the 90's, I was equally thrilled. As a popcorn munching, leave your brains in the parking lot piece of Hollywood sci-fi, it was a nice afternoon of entertainment. But make no mistake about it: Like all of Crichton's work, it is very long on fiction and short on science.

Some years later, Crichton wrote another piece of sci-fi entitled State of Fear, which made him the darling of radical right wing climate change deniers. In fact, it has practically become their bible on the subject, as several errant points of the book are still frequently quoted them as relevant objections. Real climate scientists addressed his numerous errors at length and thoroughly destroyed every single one. That is no small task. A comprehensive review of all the errors and the detailed refutations requires a book considerably longer than State of Fear itself. I did an abbreviated article on the matter myself, published in a different medium. If I owned the rights to the piece I would reproduce it here. Alas, I don't. Perhaps at some point I will write a different one for this venue. For now, I will entertain myself (and I dearly hope, all of you as well) addressing a different sacred cow, pointing out just how errant Crichton's work typically is. Suffice it to say, for now, that one climate scientist quipped in a review of State of Fear that no work of entertainment has been so fraught with errors since Ed Wood Jr. stopped making movies.

The work which I will address, as I have already hinted, is the much beloved book and film, Jurassic Park. It should be noted that some of the points I will make here were unique to the film and not errors Crichton made in the book. Some were common to both. I will try to differentiate errors specific to the film where my memory permits. Any errors in this regard are my own responsibility. However, it can not be forgotten that Crichton had a major role in consultation on both the script and production of the film itself, so Steven Spielberg can not be held solely responsible for the errors unique to the movie.

The best place to start might well be at the very beginning. The title of the book and movie is wildly inaccurate. Given that a huge part of the plot of both book and film centers around the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors, with a more plot point centered on a Triceratops, it can not be overlooked that all these species lived entirely in the latter or very late Cretaceous, not the Jurassic Period. The book, film and park itself might well have better been named Cretaceous Park. I suppose we can concede that Brachiosaurs, which played a rather role in the film and a dilophosaur, which was part of a more involved subplot, did live in the Jurassic. But on the weight of things, the title becomes a problem. Nitpicking? Maybe, but remember we are discussing scientific accuracy here.

Time lines present a problem frequently in both the movie and the film. We can't overlook the fact that all of the amber ever mined in the Domincan Republic, which is where it came from in the movie (the book isn't too clear on this point), isn't old enough to satisfy Crichton's requirement. The amber from Costa Rica or even the larger and more productive mines of the Dominican Republic date back to the Eocene Epoch which began about 56 million years ago. that time, all the late Cretaceous dinosaurs had been gone for most of 10 million years and the Jurassic dinosaurs had been gone for 90 million years. That is just the beginning of the problems with Crichton's method for bringing back the dinosaurs in the first place.

Crichton, who was trained as a medical doctor, seems to imagine that it is possible to extract liquid blood from the mosquitos that were trapped in amber. That simply isn't possible. The amber coating preserves the body of the insect quite well, but not only would any blood in its body completely dry out, the DNA of the victim would degenerate rather quickly. That is to assume that there would even be any DNA to recover, since red blood cells are manufactured in the bone marrow and are not the product of cellular mitosis. Therefore, any blood recovered would contain little, if any dinosaur DNA. Assuming it would be possible to extract any viable DNA the process Crichton proposed, it would most likely be the DNA of the mosquito itself, not any species of Dinosauria. Somehow, I doubt that John Hammond would have attracted many people to visit Eocene Park, where they would delight to being bitten cloned, 55 million year old mosquitos.

Of course, that isn't really the biggest problem. Even if a viable strand of DNA could be extracted from the amber encased insect, it would be impossible to know exactly kind of what you have. Is it really dino DNA or mosqutio or some virulent bacteria you are about to unleash on the world after being dormant for millions of years? Assuming it was dino DNA, the cloning process would require that you implant the DNA into the egg of a similar species. Those are just a little difficult to come these days. So, I think the entire process has to be dispatched to complete suspension of disbelief.

This brings me to mention one of the greatest mysteries of the story. At one point, paleobotanist Ellie Sadler is examining some of the revived, ancient fauna of the park and even offers the observation that some of them are poisonous. The question quickly becomes, just how did they manage to bring the Jurassic/Cretaceous plants back from extinction? Pollen preserved in amber would not be viable and Crichton never offered an alternate explanation. Perhaps John Hammond employed Harry Potter's magic wand.

Speaking of fauna, it might be useful to note a problem that was unique to the film. Most of the footage employing Brachiosaurs was shot in Hawaii where gum trees are common. The film presented the Brachiosaurs casually munching on the leaves of gum trees, which are extremely toxic to contemporary life forms and most likely wouldn't have been suitable for a Jurassic Period animal either. The film also depicts the Brachiosaurs chewing the leaves moving their jaws side to side. But their jaws were only capable of up-down mobility, so that would have been impossible.

Early in the film we also see a Brachiosaur stand on its hind legs to reach higher into a tree. This was another impossibility. The center of gravity of the animal was too far forward and its forelegs were not sufficiently strong to withstand the force of the landing. Any attempt at this action a real Brachiosaur would have resulted in a full blown, dinosaur sized catastrophe. In the book a young animal performs a similar feat, but the result would have been tragically the same. Interestingly enough, there is evidence from tracks found in Colorado a few years ago that another species of sauropods, Apatosaurs, were capable of running short distances on their hind legs much like basilisk lizards. In all likleyhood, only young the were capable of this and likely only did it when in danger.

There is also a scene, unique to the movie, in which a Brachiosaur sneezes, drenching the young girl in disgusting dino snot. It is an amusing tension breaker, but another anatomical impossibility. Mammals are the only that have evolved the proper respiratory muscles necessary for sneezing. Reptiles and, more aptly, birds are simply not capable of doing it. But I would also present a side note that is a rather difficult issue in both the book and movie. Evidently, the oldest dinosaurs in the park were about 3 years old. That makes it unlikely that any full grown of any species would have been roaming around the park. It probably took a Brachiosaur a couple of decades to reach its full adult size at the very least, and T-Rex a similar span of time.

A curious inconsistency between the book and film involves the dilophosaurs, which Crichton portrayed fairly accurately in the book, but the presentation of the animal in the film was wildly fanciful. First of all, the film understated the size of the animal considerably. The real animal grew to about 20 feet from the nose to the tip of the tail and there is no evidence of the head flaps presented in the film. Nor was it venomous. Nature has generated a host of venomous reptiles, but not a single venomous bird, so far, and there isn't much evidence of venomous dinos. The only dinosaur for which there is a hint of venomous characteristics is the sinornithosaurus and while the evidence is interesting, the matter is still hotly debated among paleontologists. Dilophosaurs were sufficiently frightening in their own right, given their awesome size and capability to run impressively fast. You wouldn't want to run into one with anything less than armored support to protect you.

The relationship between birds and dinosaurs suggests another serious problem which defines a critical plot point in both the book and the film. It was stated that in order to fill in gaps in DNA sequencing, the genetic engineers at Jurassic Park used frog DNA. This was necessary in order to give the dinosaurs sex change capabilities for purposes of the plot. But frog DNA would have been an exceptionally poor choice for this purpose. In fact, from a taxonomical standpoint, the Jurassic Park scientists would have been better off using human DNA, given that dinosaurs were more closely related to mammals than amphibians.

But if they really wanted to get things right, avian DNA would have been ideal. We now know that birds are the very direct descendants of dinosaurs and a rather unsettling fact that has been teased from what little T-Rex DNA that has been recovered suggests that the long gone T Rex's closest living relatives are, and this kind of sucks, common chickens. So next time you sit down to a Sunday afternoon roast chicken dinner, take comfort that you are exacting revenge for the humans that gave their lives to the ferocious predator in the Jurassic Park movies. Since there are no birds with sex change capabilities, Crichton resorted to a bit of story telling slight of hand that very probably would have resulted in a ridiculous, Frankenstein hybrid of a creature that probably wouldn't have looked much like a dinosaur and wouldn't have lived more than a few minutes.

Speaking of T Rex, the film depicts ground shaking as the creature approached. I believe the book mentioned something similar. If you are a large predator, this is a pretty good way to end up starving to death. A predator needs to be able to maintain a degree of stealth in its approach, then strike quickly. An animal that reveals its presence well in advance of its attack is going to be a very one.

There was also a suggestion in the book and movie that T Rex's vision was based on movement and it couldn't see you if you remained still. There are reptiles with motion based vision, but they typically don't rely on sight to detect prey. Usually, they are more keyed sense of smell and or heat detection capabilities. There are no birds with similar vision limitations, but even if this were true of the Rex, if it was close enough to you to get your scent, your new name is "lunch." This whole matter was a huge fail on Crichton's part.

One of the amusing passages in the movie which was lifted directly from a similar scenario in the book involved an ailing Triceratops. Ian Malcom made a snide joke about the large pile of Triceratops droppings. In the book, the size of the pile is left to the reader's imagination, but the movie portrays a pile way too large, probably even for an enormous sauropod. The Triceratops was ill and the reason was a mystery to the examining scientists. For anyone in the real world, the matter was pretty obvious.

Ellie Sadler and the Jurassic Park resident veteranarian needed to look no further than the native, contemporary grasses upon which the ailing Triceratops was feeding. Grasses and most other vegetation in our time has considerably more cellulose and silica than a Cretaceous animal would have encountered. Since its digestive system would not have been evolved to deal with the chemical differences, it would be little wonder that the animal would suffer a tummy ache that would probably prove fatal in the near term. So Jurassic Park would quickly be littered with the bodies of Gum Tree poisoned Brachiosaurs and Tricertops that would die from whatever they ate.

Digestive issues aren't the only challenge our Jurassic Park dinosaurs would face in attempting to adapt to a world where 65 million years (or considerably more in the case of the actual Jurassic dinos) would have passed. Earth's atmosphere in the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods was somewhat poorer in nitrogen and considerably richer in both CO2 and oxygen. The higher levels of CO2 naturally led to considerably warmer temperatures and higher sea levels, a condition we have been recklessly attempting to recreate on the planet for the last century and a half with little regard for the consequences.

Oxygen concentrations in Earth's atmosphere rose steadily through the Jurassic and peaked at a level about 50% higher than present in the Cretaceous. It was this abundance of O2 in the atmosphere that permitted to grow to such enormous sizes. Our poor revived dinosaurs would experience a state of apoxia considerably more serious than sea level dwelling travelers experience when they fly to Denver, then drive to the top of ,000 ft. Mt. Evans. In fact, it is only slightly less of a problem than a sea level resident would experience if suddenly being transported to the top of Mt. Everest without benefit of an oxygen tank. Most of our poor dinosaurs would probably drop dead from oxygen deprivation moments after they were born.

Since Velociraptors were the stars of both the book and movie, I would be remiss not to point out a of serious errors in the portrayal of the principle dinosaur antagonist. The first problem is that the size of the creature is wildly overstated in both the book and the movie. True velociraptors were about the size of modern turkeys and it would probably require several of them to even pose a serious threat to a small .

The Velociraptor was covered with<b> feathers </font></b>like a bird, as very probably, was the T-Rex. The raptors hands were not pronated as they were portrayed in the movie and book, but rather were virtually indistinquishable from wings. The Velociraptor almost certainly couldn't fly, but its physical form was very similar to modern birds. They weren't anywhere near as intelligent as Crichton portrayed them either. If you wanted to make a bet on what was the smartest of all known dinosaurs, the Trodon is a much better bet than any of the raptor line. It had far the most impressive brain size to body size ratio of any member of the dinosaur clade. That includes the Utahraptor, which was about the size of the animal Crichton describes and was discovered while the film was in production. However, even its brain to body ration was considerably inferior to Troodon.

There are literally dozens of other mistakes we can point out from the book, some common to both book and movie. However, the point should be sufficiently addressed. Despite Crichton's scientific training, he made no special efforts in any of his books to portray scientific knowledge faithfully or even accurately. That said, I could very well write a piece equally long on matters that Jurassic Park (book and movie) got right. But that really isn't the issue. It is easy enough to make a small and even lazy level of research that will make a science fiction story plausible enough to credulous readers who typically demand less accuracy than nitpicking scientists. But one should never confuse an enjoyable story with slavish adherence to the facts. In reality, the 2 are almost never bedmates and in the case of Crichton's works, fun as some of them are, we can drop the word "almost" from the sentence.

ADDENDUM: Oxygen levels reached a very peak at the end of the Permian, then crashed very suddenly. This correlates very directly to mass extinction that wiped out about 90% of all species on the planet, including about 95% of all sea life. Only about a third of large land species survived. Geologists note a "coal gap" at this boundry, a clear marker that plant life was very nearly wiped out entirely. The mass extinction had a variety of causes, but the sudden decline of plants, especially trees and animal life radically altered the composition of the atmosphere. One of the causes of the extinction was a dramatic rise in CO2 late in the Permian which led to a rise in ocean acidification, which had a devastating effect on a of critical microorganisms and plankton. This is a cautionary note for those who believe that 7 billion humans don't have much effect on the planet.

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