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Jurassic Park.

It was in the mid-1970s that ethicists first began trying to capture public attention concerning moral questions involved in the then still-young field of bioengineering. The U.S. bishops were among the early probers. In 1977 they issued a statement entitled "The Implication of Recombinant DNA," writing that "our actions must not only point to or produce future goods. They must also respect the range of human goods in the process." In other words, the pursuit of worthy scientific goals can unjustifiably violate other human values.

Discussions concerning the vast potential for abuse in altering billions of years of genetic evolution have been taking place on the edges of U.S. consciousness, but nowhere near the center. And none has had the effect of slowing the forward movement, largely unsupervised, of genetic manipulation in laboratories throughout the nation.

Even today only a relatively few seem to realize the enormous scope -- including benefits and hazards -- of the current revolution in genetic engineering. Fewer yet seem to know it is a field driven more often by venture capital than sound wisdom.

However, this may now be changing. Thanks to Michael Crichton's 1990 best-seller, Jurassic Park, out in paperback and hovering near the top of The New York Times paperback best-seller list. The novel is about to become a movie, and if early indications are right, it will be the blockbuster of the summer, rivaled perhaps only by the June release of "The Firm," based on a novel by the omnipresent author, John Grisham. The movie will star Tom Cruise.

Books, of course, are important means of spreading ideas, but it is Hollywood, it seems, that stirs the U.S. imagination. And a stirring is what we are likely to get as young and old pour into movie theaters to see Steven Spielberg's $56 million Crichton adaptation.

Writes Crichton at the outset: "The late 20th century has witnessed a scientific gold rush of astonishing proportions: the headlong and furious haste to commercialize genetic engineering. This enterprise has proceeded so rapidly -- with so little outside commentary -- that its dimensions and implications are hardly understood at all.

"Biotechnology promises the greatest revolution in human history."

Crichton notes that this revolution "differs in three important respects from past scientific transformations": one, it is broad-based; two much of the research is thoughtless or frivolous; and three, the work is uncontrolled. "No one supervises it. No federal laws regulate it. There is no coherent government policy, in America or anywhere else in the world. ... Most disturbing is the fact that no watchdogs are found among scientists themselves."

Adds Crichton: "The commercialization of molecular biology is the most stunning ethical event in the history of science, and it is happening with astonishing speed."

And with what potential consequences? Threats? Enter Jurassic Park, the technothriller with the wake-up plot.

Scientists are already calling foul. Some are saying Crichton has an "anti-scientific" bias, which, incidentally, he admits recently in a New York Times interview:

"I'm surprised more people haven't noticed it more than they have. I'm enthusiastic about science, but there is a growing tendency toward scientism -- unthinking acceptance of scientific ideas and a tendency to discount ideas that science can't address."

Echoes here of the thoughts of a new generation of environmentalists who warn that human technology has far exceeded the reach of human wisdom.

Crichton was educated at Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School and in 1969 studied as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Author of The Andromeda Strain, he is not new to the realm of science fiction.

The plot of Jurassic Park is based on the premise that insects in the Mesozoic era (230 million to 65 million years ago) must have frequently drawn blood from bolder creatures, like dinosaurs, for example. And some must have became stuck in fresh resin, ultimately becoming fossilized. After the resin hardened into amber, the insects, including mosquitoes and flies -- their last meals still within them -- became preserved, perhaps perfectly.

Only a short jump of imagination here to the notion that dinosaur DNA still remains intact upon the planet and in the bellies of amberized mosquitoes. That some scientists today collect amber in search of fossilized insects, no doubt, helped trigger Crichton's imagination.

In a California biotechnology laboratory, one of hundreds experimenting with recombinant DNA, in search of profit and amusement, an elderly entrepreneur directs a scientific project to recover and clone dinosaur DNA. His dream is to build an amusement park unlike any other on earth, one that would draw from the world over. And his dream is about to be fulfilled on a mist-filled island just off the coast of Costa Rica. Jurassic Park will be home to some 292 dinosaurs. Or are there more?

Only months from its opening, the park is controlled entirely by a master computer system that, of course, has been built to be foolproof. Local guardians of the public order are unaware of the plan. All appears ready to share the stunning news with the world. And then some strange events begin to occur. A bird, or was it a lizardlike creature, attacks a young child on a Costa Rican beach. Similar attacks begin to be reported further inland.

Word spreads among a few scientists. A team is assembled to investigate, and it ends up including an odd array of scientists and park investigators, as well as two young children, thrown in to stir the brew.

The team arrives on the perpetually cloud-covered island and begins a tour, and we slowly learn that all is not as it should be or is believed to be on the island. Tension turns to terror as the uncontrollable nature of nature emerges.

One of the scientists, a mathematician and expert on the chaos theory, explains why Jurassic Park could never escape a catastrophic fate. Nature, he says, is inherently unpredictable. Yet to mix dinosaurs with humans, absolute predictability is required. It is, he says, only a matter of time until Jurassic Park to runs amok.

His warnings, of course, were not heeded, not when profits and ambitions were at stake. The eventual result is dinosaur rampage, complete with a Tyrannosaurus rex, acid spitters and others that hunt in packs with only one intent: to kill. The rest is best left to the imagination, to the book or to the movie.

Perhaps the talk of the summer just might stimulate interest in a wider conversation on the wisdom, ethics and control of genetic engineering, a subject that has received scant public attention, to our peril, in the last 15 years.
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Author:Fox, Tom
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 28, 1993
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