“The Pirates Don’t Eat the People”: An Imagined Conversation with Dr. Ian Malcolm
[Explanatory note: Ashley and I have been planning a “Jurassic Park” marathon for weeks, and last weekend we finally re-watched the first installment of the trilogy (and re-loved it, yo!) If you have a good memory (or if you were one of the three people who checked out the other copies of JP from the Draper Blockbuster on Saturday night), you may recall that Jeff Goldblum plays the eccentrically appealing character of Dr. Ian Malcolm. If I were to interview Ian Malcolm, this is how I like to imagine it would go (hint: cheesily). All the Ian Malcolm quotes in this blogpost are from the movie.]
Me: Good morning, Dr. Malcolm.
Me: I see you’ve unbuttoned the top several buttons of your shirt for this interview. That’s a good look for you.
IM: Oh, hell yeah.
Me: Well, thank you for joining me. I am looking forward to discussing bioethics and some contemporary scientific issues with such a prominent scientist—
IM: I’m a chaotician.
Me: –chaotician, such as yourself. I’d like to talk about a few stories that have caught my attention lately and hear your opinions. First up: I live in Utah, and I’ve been reading about tracts of land in the Uintah Mountains being sold for tar sands mining.
IM: Anything at all can and does happen!
Me: Uh-huh. Anyway, this is attracting some attention because tar sands mining is among the most environmentally destructive forms of energy production that humans have discovered.
IM: What is so great about discovery? It is a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.
Me: Well, tar sands mining really does leave scars. If you look up photographs of areas in Canada, for instance, where tar sands mining has taken place, you will see that it completely decimates the land, leaving toxic ponds in its wake, polluting the groundwater, and consuming an enormous amount of energy just to conduct the mining operations. And now an Alberta-based company has already acquired 7,800 acres of land in the Uintahs, and plans to acquire more, to begin tar sands mining here.
IM: The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh… staggers me.
Me: I agree.
IM: Inevitably, underlying instabilities begin to appear.
Me: OK, next story. Last month I read an article about a Monsanto product that was recently approved for use in the U.S. Monsanto created this genetically-modified “Bt” corn that contains a gene that produces a particular toxin. This toxin is designed to rupture the stomachs of insects who eat it, acting as a pesticide. Of course, the toxin is embedded in the genetic structure of the corn and cannot be washed off—
IM: God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers.
Me: Of course Monsanto said that the toxin would kill insects but have no effect on humans. But new studies coming out are finding otherwise. One study in Quebec found the toxin present in 93% of the pregnant women they sampled, and in umbilical cord blood in their babies.
IM: That is one big pile of shit.
Me: Right?! Anyway, these particular toxins are associated with allergies, infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. In India, farm workers who have been exposed to Bt-toxin are reporting extreme allergic reactions, and reportedly thousands of animals have died after grazing (some after only one day of access) on Bt corn and cotton plants.
IM: I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility… for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now… you’re selling it!
Me: Exactly. So this genetically-modified Bt corn has been approved to be distributed in the United States, along with all of the other genetically-modified crops whose effects on humans and animals are uncertain and unproven.
IM: Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever witnessed, yet you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.
Me: My name’s actually not John, but yes, I get what you’re saying here.
IM: Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Me: Yup. You are very intelligent, Dr. Malcolm.
IM: She’s, uh, tenacious.
Me: I am?
Me: I see that you’ve repositioned yourself into a semi-reclining position. Do you often do this during interviews?
IM: I’m always on the lookout for the future ex-Mrs. Malcolm.
Me: I see.
IM: Please, chance it.
Me: Well, I’m flattered, Dr. Malcolm, but I have a few more questions to get through.
IM: Must go faster.
Me: OK, then just one more question. I have been reading about the decimation of the oceans. Studies are saying that since 1950, we have managed to kill off 90% of the large fish in the ocean.
IM: God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs…
Me: I actually don’t have any clue what this has to do with dinosaurs, although it is clever. I’m talking about fish. Let me quote Dr. Ransom Myers, one of the researchers involved in a recent study: “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.”
IM: I’m fairly alarmed here.
Me: Yes, I think you should be. We are literally destroying all the life in the ocean, which does not bode well for the rest of the food chain.
IM: Boy, do I hate being right all the time!
Me: I’ll be honest with you. When I take these stories—and many other like them—together, they don’t paint a very optimistic picture. Many people are becoming increasingly convinced that human populations are taxing the earth so severely that future generations will suffer a total environmental collapse.
IM: Don’t you mean extinct?
Me: Humans? I don’t know. I’d like to think we still have time to make some big changes, that our trajectory is not yet irreversible.
Me: System recovery may prove impossible.
Me: So you’re not optimistic either?
IM: Increasingly, the mathematics will demand the courage to face its implications.
Me: OK, so what are you saying? That you think we will make the changes? That you think we won’t?
IM: No, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.
IM: If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously.
Me: Well, Dr. Ian Malcolm, I hope you’re right. Thank you for joining me today, and I hope to see you again sometime.
IM: When you gotta go, you gotta go.