Ian Malcolm On Science, by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park as a morality tale.  A lot of his fiction is like that; he created a brilliant story to act as a frame for his statements on a logical position, usually an unpopular one.  This novel was meant as a modern Frankenstein tale, and his argument can be read in the words of Ian Malcolm.

It should be remembered that Malcolm’s words do not necessarily reflect the actual views of Mr. Crichton.  They were the thoughts of a character, and they were designed not to convince us of anything in particular so much as to make us think.

We’ve become so used to people telling us what to think that we often neglect to do so for ourselves.  The following, therefore, are several examples of unconventional yet curiously logical perspectives.

“…It’s chaos theory. But I notice nobody is willing to listen to the consequences of the mathematics. Because they imply very large consequences for human life. Much larger than Heisenberg’s principle or Godel’s theorem, which everybody rattles on about. Those are actually rather academic considerations. Philosophical considerations. But chaos theory concerns everyday life.

“Computers were built in the late 1940s because mathematicians like John von Neumann thought that if you had a computer – a machine to handle a lot of variables simultaneously – you would be able to predict the weather. Weather would finally fall to human understanding. And men believed that dream for the next forty years. They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That’s been a cherished scientific belief since Newton.

“Chaos theory throws it right out the window. It says that you can never predict certain phenomena at all. You can never predict the weather more than a few days away. All the money that has been spent on long-range forecasting – about half a billion dollars in the last few decades – is money wasted. It’s a fool’s errand. It’s as pointless as trying to turn lead into gold. We look back at the alchemists and laugh at what they were trying to do, but future generations will laugh at us the same way. We’ve tried the impossible – and spent a lot of money doing it. Because in fact there are great categories of phenomena that are inherently unpredictable.”

—-

“But we have soothed ourselves into imagining sudden change as something that happens outside the normal order of things. An accident, like a car crash. Or beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We do not conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as built into the very fabric of existence. Yet it is.

“And chaos theory teaches us that straight linearity, which we have come to take for granted in everything from physics to fiction, simply does not exist. Linearity is an artificial way of viewing the world. Real life isn’t a series of interconnected events occurring one after another like beads strung on a necklace. Life is actually a series of encounters in which one event may change those that follow in a wholly unpredictable, even devastating way.

“That’s a deep truth about the structure of our universe. But, for some reason, we insist on behaving as if it were not true.”

—-

“I’ll tell you the problem with engineers and scientists. Scientists have an elaborate line of bullshit about how they are seeking to know the truth about nature. Which is true, but that’s not what drives them. Nobody is driven by abstractions like ‘seeking truth.’

“Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something. They conveniently define such considerations as pointless. If they don’t do it, someone else will. Discovery, they believe, is inevitable. So they just try to do it first. That’s the game in science. Even pure scientific discovery is an aggressive, penetrative act. It takes big equipment, and it literally changes the world afterward. Particle accelerators sear the land, and leave radioactive byproducts. Astronauts leave trash on the moon. There is always some proof that scientists were there, making their discoveries. Discovery is always a rape of the natural world. Always.

“The scientists want it that way. They have to stick their instruments in. They have to leave their mark. They can’t just watch. They can’t just appreciate. They can’t just fit into the natural order. They have to make something unnatural happen. That is the scientist’s job, and now we have whole societies that try to be scientific.”

—-

“…You create new life forms, about which you know nothing at all. Your Dr. Wu does not even know the names of the things he is creating. He cannot be bothered with such details as what the thing is called, let alone what it is. You create many of them in a very short time, you never learn anything about them, yet you expect them to do your bidding, because you made them and you therefore think you own them; you forget that they are alive, they have an intelligence of their own, and they may not do your bidding, and you forget how little you know about them, how incompetent you are to do the things that you so frivolously call simple…. Dear God . . .”

“You know what’s wrong with scientific power?” Malcolm said. “It’s a form of inherited wealth. And you know what assholes congenitally rich people are. It never fails.”

“Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it is your power. It can’t be given away: it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.

“Now, what is interesting about this process is that, by the time someone has acquired the ability to kill with his bare hands, he has also matured to the point where he won’t use it unwisely. So that kind of power has a built-in control. The discipline of getting the power changes you so that you won’t abuse it.

“But scientific power is like inherited wealth: attained without discipline. You read what others have done, and you take the next step. You can do it very young. You can make progress very fast. There is no discipline lasting many decades. There is no mastery: old scientists are ignored. There is no humility before nature. There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy. Cheat, lie, falsify-it doesn’t matter. Not to you, or to your colleagues. No one will criticize you. No one has any standards. They are all trying to do the same thing: to do something big, and do it fast.

“And because you can stand on the shoulders of giants, you can accomplish something quickly. You don’t even know exactly what you have done, but already you have reported it, patented it, and sold it. And the buyer will have even less discipline than you. The buyer simply purchases the power, like any commodity. The buyer doesn’t even conceive that any discipline might be necessary.

“A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands. He does not lose his temper and kill his wife. The person who kills is the person who has no discipline, no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special. And that is the kind of power that science fosters, and permits. And that is why you think that to build a place like this is simple.”

“It was simple,” Hammond insisted.

“Then why did it go wrong?”

—-

“…We are talking about Western attitudes that are five hundred years old.  They began at the time when Florence, Italy, was the most important city in the world.  The basic idea of science – that there was a new way to look at reality, that it was objective, that it did not depend on your beliefs or your nationality, that it was rational – that idea was fresh and exciting back then.  It offered promise and hope for the future, and it swept away the old medieval system, which was hundreds of years old.  The medieval world of feudal politics and religious dogma and hateful superstitions fell before science.  But, in truth, this was because the medieval world didn’t really work any more.  It didn’t work economically, it didn’t work intellectually, and it didn’t fit the new world that was emerging.

“But now, science is the belief system that is hundreds of years old.  And, like the medieval system before it, science is starting not to fit the world any more.  Science has attained so much power that its practical limits begin to be apparent.  Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating.  But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live.  Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it.  Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it.  And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways – air, and water, and land – because of ungovernable science.  This much is obvious to everyone.

“At the same time, the great intellectual justification of science has vanished.  Ever since Newton and Descartes, science has explicitly offered us the vision of total control.  Science has claimed the power to eventually control everything, through its understanding of natural laws.  But in the twentieth century, that claim has been shattered beyond repair.  First, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle set limits on what we could know about the subatomic world.  Oh well, we say. None of us lives in a subatomic world.  It doesn’t make any practical difference as we go through our lives.  Then Godel’s theorem set similar limits to mathematics, the formal language of science.  Mathematicians used to think that their language had some special inherent trueness that derived from the laws of logic.  Now we know that what we call ‘reason’ is just an arbitrary game.  It’s not special, in the way we thought it was.

“And now chaos theory proves that unpredictability is built into our daily lives.  It is as mundane as the rainstorm we cannot predict.  And so the grand vision of science, hundreds of years old – the dream of total control – has died, in our century.  And with it much of the justification, the rationale for science to do what it does.  And for us to listen to it.  Science has always said that it may not know everything now but it will know, eventually.  But now we see that isn’t true.  It is an idle boast.  As foolish, and as misguided, as the child who jumps off a building because he believes he can fly.

“We are witnessing the end of the scientific era.  Science, like other outmoded systems, is destroying itself.  As it gains in power, it proves itself incapable of handling the power.  Because things are going very fast now.  Fifty years ago, everyone was gaga over the atomic bomb.  That was power.  No one could imagine anything more.  Yet, a bare decade after the bomb, we began to have genetic power.  And genetic power is far more potent than atomic power.  And it will be in everyone’s hands.  It will be in kits for backyard gardeners.  Experiments for schoolchildren.  Cheap labs for terrorists and dictators.  And that will force everyone to ask the same question – What should I do with my power? – which is the very question science says it cannot answer.”

“So what will happen?”

Malcolm shrugged.  “A change.”

“What kind of change?”

“All major changes are like death,” he said.  “You can’t see to the other side until you are there.”

—-

“But then we’d lose all the advances–”

“What advances? The number of hours women devote to housework has not changed since 1930, despite all the advances. All the vacuum cleaners, washer-dryers, trash compactors, garbage disposals, wash-and-wear fabrics… Why does it still take as long to clean the house as it did in 1930?

“Because there haven’t been any advances,” Malcolm said. “Not really. Thirty thousand years ago, when men were doing cave paintings at Lascaux, they worked twenty hours a week to provide themselves with food and shelter and clothing. The rest of the time, they could play, or sleep, or do whatever they wanted. And they lived in a natural world, with clean air, clean water, beautiful trees and sunsets. Think about it. Twenty hours a week. Thirty thousand years ago.

“I want people to wake up. We’ve had four hundred years of modern science, and we ought to know by now what it’s good for, and what it’s not good for. It’s time for a change.”

“Before we destroy the planet?”

“That’s the last thing I would worry about.”

—-

“You can’t destroy this planet. You can’t even come close.”

“Most people believe that the planet is in jeopardy.”

“Well, it’s not.”

“Our planet is four and a half billion years old. There has been life on this planet for nearly that long. Three point eight billion years. The first bacteria. And, later, the first multicellular animals, then the first complex creatures, in the sea, on the land. Then the great sweeping ages of animals-the amphibians, the dinosaurs, the mammals, each lasting millions upon millions of years. Great dynasties of creatures arising, flourishing, dying away. All this happening against a background of continuous and violent upheaval, mountain ranges thrust up and eroded away, cometary impacts, volcanic eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving… Endless constant and violent change… Even today, the greatest geographical feature on the planet comes from two great continents colliding, buckling to make the Himalayan mountain range over millions of years. The planet has survived everything, in its time. It will certainly survive us.”

“Just because it lasted a long time doesn’t mean it is permanent. If there was a radiation accident…”

“Suppose there was. Let’s say we had a bad one, and all the plants and animals died, and the earth was clicking hot for a hundred thousand years. Life would survive somewhere – under the soil, or perhaps frozen in Arctic ice. And after all those years, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would again spread over the planet. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. And of course it would be very different from what it is now. But the earth would survive our folly. Life would survive our folly. Only we think it wouldn’t.”

“Well, if the ozone layer gets thinner–”

“There will be more ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface. So what?”

“Well. It’ll cause skin cancer.”

Malcolm shook his head. “Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It’s powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation.”

“And many others will die out,” Hammond said.

Malcolm sighed. “You think this is the first time such a thing has happened? Don’t you know about oxygen?”

“I know it’s necessary for life.”

“It is now, ” Malcolm said. “But oxygen is actually a metabolic poison. It’s a corrosive gas, like fluorine, which is used to etch glass. And when oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells – say, around three billion years ago – it created a crisis for all other life on our planet. Those plant cells were polluting the environment with a deadly poison. They were exhaling a lethal gas, and building up its concentration. A planet like Venus has less than one percent oxygen. On earth, the concentration of oxygen was going up rapidly – five, ten, eventually twenty one percent! Earth had an atmosphere of pure poison! Incompatible with life!

“…Life on earth can take care of itself. In the thinking of a human being, a hundred years is a long time. A hundred years ago, we didn’t have cars and airplanes and computers and vaccines… It was a whole different world. But to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We have been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we are gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.”

“Let’s be clear. The planet is not in jeopardy. We are in jeopardy. We haven’t got the power to destroy the planet – or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves.”

The preceding is a series of excerpts from Crichton’s book “Jurassic Park”.  Punctuation and conversational interjections have been modified to improve clarity.  Read the original for full content; it’s worth the time.

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