The original Jurassic Park film from 25 years ago rather inventively explored a theme that has been prominent in Western culture from the time of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment—namely, the dangers of an aggressive and arrogant rationalism. Beginning in the late 18th century, poets and philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Herder, William Blake, and John Keats warned the lust to understand and control nature would result in disaster for both the human soul and for the physical world. Goethe, for instance, railed against the Newtonian scientific practice, which involved the intrusive questioning of nature rather than the patient and respectful contemplation of it. And Blake memorably complained of the “Satanic mills,” which is to say, the forges and factories that had begun to blight the English countryside with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
But the most famous and influential meditation on this theme was undoubtedly Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. It is hardly accidental, of course, that the author in question was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest of the Romantic poets. As readers of Shelley’s book or viewers of the Boris Karlov movie can testify, Dr. Frankenstein’s successful attempt to create life artificially rather spectacularly backfired, producing misery on all sides. Shelley’s point was that seizing godlike authority over nature, though it perhaps satisfies our pride and our desire to dominate the world, in point of fact unleashes powers we cannot, even in principle, control.
John Hammond, the character played so genially by Richard Attenborough in the original Jurassic Park, was an updated and far friendlier version of Dr. Frankenstein. Blithely turning back the momentum of evolution and placing ferocious life forms in a combination zoo/amusement park, he perfectly embodied the typically modern, rationalistic attitude that sees everything as an object of manipulation. That he was backed up by greedy financiers and lawyers only made him more dangerous. Jeff Goldblum’s character, the quirky chaos theory specialist, gave voice, wisely, to the standard Romantic critique: “John, the kind of control you’re attempting here is, ah, it’s not possible.” That the chaos theorist had it right was bloodily proven in the original movie and in pretty much every iteration of Jurassic Park since.
Well, in the most recent installment of the series, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, still other Dr. Frankensteins and John Hammonds emerge. This time they are an elderly tycoon, his youthful business colleague, a ruthless wrangler, and a whole coterie of unscrupulous arms-dealers willing to pay exorbitant prices so as to acquire and weaponize the dinosaurs. And once more, the tale is told through rampaging beasts and piles of corpses: “The kind of control you’re attempting here is, ah, it’s not possible.” Please don’t get me wrong: this is a good message. Mary Shelley was right and so are the makers of the Jurassic Park movies. And if you want Catholic confirmation of this theme, take a good long look at Pope Francis’ letter Laudato si, which excoriates our arrogant attempts to master and manipulate nature.
What is bothersome in the latest film is the emergence of a new and much more problematic motif—namely, the moral equivalence of human beings and other animals. The heroes of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom want to rescue the dinosaurs from Isla Nublar, which is threatened by a catastrophic volcanic eruption—and, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, there is nothing wrong with that. However, when the dinosaurs end up on the mainland in cages and are menaced by the release of toxic chemicals (watch the movie for the plot details), one of the heroes elects to open their prisons and let them go free, which is to say, to wander out into the forests of Northern California. The final scene of the film depicts a velociraptor looking down from a ridge over a densely populated area, evidently free to hunt at will. As she presses the button, freeing the dinosaurs, the young hero says, “We can’t let them die. I had to. They’re alive like me.” The pretty clear implication is the dinosaurs have the same dignity as human beings and deserve to live as much as we do. They must be released, even if it means thousands of people will die.
Well … no. Nature should always be respected, and the arrogant attempt to manipulate nature indeed results in disaster. However, since there exists a qualitative difference between human beings and other living creatures, one must always, in a case of conflict, opt for the former over the latter. The Bible is quite insistent on the goodness of nature and how the non-human world is an ingredient in God’s great plan of salvation, but it is equally insistent that human beings are made specially in the image and likeness of God and hence have a unique dignity and inviolability. No matter how magnificent an animal might be, it is not a subject of infinite value, as is a human person, and when that distinction is blurred, another version of Frankenstein’s monster is unleashed.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.