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'Jurassic Park' meets C.S. Lewis

Life, uh, finds a way.

Ian Malcom in ‘Jurassic Park’

Malcom’s aphorism is surely one of the most-quoted movie lines, the inspiration for endless memes and gifs, and it seems like a fun starting point from which to delve into the philosophical underbelly of this classic film. It’s a beautifully understated piece of dialogue that points to just some of the mind-boggling concepts referenced in ‘Jurassic Park’, from theories of science and mathematics to questions of philosophy and ethics.

Decades earlier, another much-quoted man, C.S. Lewis, said something very similar in his essay, ‘The Funeral of a Great Myth’:

"Then by some millionth, millionth chance--what tragic irony!--the conditions at one point of space and time bubble up into that tiny fermentation which we call organic life. At first everything seems to be against the infant hero of our drama; just as everything always was against the seventh son or ill-used step-daughter in a fairy tale. But life somehow wins through." [my emphasis]

In this essay, Lewis outlines with his usual persuasive eloquence the difference between ‘Popular Evolutionism’, which is the idea that evolution is inherently a process of progress and improvement, and the biological theory of evolution. The former, Lewis argues, is only a myth, a dying and inherently contradictory fiction, albeit an appealingly poetic one:

"As the weak, tiny spark of life herself began amidst the beasts that are far larger and stronger than he, there comes forth a little, naked, shivering, cowering biped… He becomes the Cave Man with his flints and his club, muttering and growling over his enemies’ bones, almost a brute and yet somehow able to invent art, pottery, language, weapons, cookery, and nearly everything else… tearing his children to pieces in fierce jealousy until they are old enough to tear him, and cowering before the terrible gods whom he has invented in his own image.

In the next act he has become true Man. He learns to master Nature. Science arises and dissipates the superstitions of his infancy. More and more he becomes the controller of his own fate…

Man has ascended his throne. Man has become God. All is a blaze of glory."

(The Funeral of a Great Myth)

According to Lewis, this mythological narrative permeates the works of many 19th and early 20th century writers, from Wagner and Keats to H. G. Wells and even Disney, but is on its way out, and it would seem that his prediction was accurate, especially when judging by the example of ‘Jurassic Park’. It’s a film that leaves us in no doubt about the powerlessness of man to control his own fate (because of chaos theory etc.), and whilst it does so through the medium of fiction, it clearly debunks the myth that man might ever reach any deified status. Malcom provides us with a scornful commentary on such dangerous idealism, with popular evolutionism becoming nothing more than a joke.

God creates dinosaurs, God destroys dinosaurs, God creates Man, Man kills God, Man brings back dinosaurs.

His amusing summary of the evolutionary process is then completed by Dr. Ellie Sattler’s memorable punchline: “Dinosaurs eat Man, Woman inherits the Earth.”

Whilst woman does not inherit the earth (unless of course that’s the plot line for the final film of the Jurassic World series…), it is no surprise that the dinosaurs do indeed end up eating man. As in the final stage of the myth, “the last scene reverses all…”

"All this time Nature, the old enemy who only seemed to be defeated, has been gnawing away, silently, unceasingly, out of the reach of human power. The Sun will cool--all suns will cool--the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness.” (The Funeral of a Great Myth)

‘Jurassic Park’ certainly ends in chaos, with the last shot of the park providing us with an epic picture of the unceasing power and victory of Nature. The Tyrannosaurus rex that has hunted the characters throughout the film is shown roaring in the midst of a crumbling park building, and with a final bow of dramatic irony, a banner falls to the ground that reads ‘When dinosaurs ruled the earth.’ It turns out that the ‘old enemy’ was never truly defeated, and surprise, surprise, Malcom’s earlier words of warning prove to be prophetic.

And yet, the ending of Jurassic Park does not provide the satisfying dramatic finality offered to us by the myth. Life is certainly not banished; the dinosaurs survive, and the remaining characters beat a hasty retreat from the island. The fall of man proves to be anything but noble. The evolved human being who seems to have mastered nature (as represented by John Hammond) is quickly revealed to be a rather pathetic, naïve old man. There’s something almost pitiful about Hammond’s catchphrase “I spared no expense”, and as we see in all the Jurassic films, the inevitable catastrophe is brought about by the capitalist greed and corruption of feeble, (often) unlikeable characters. This is a far cry from the epic heroes of Wagner or Keats.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and we find the popular imagination dominated by dystopian and apocalyptic narratives. Black Mirror, Westworld, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, Bird Box, and Years and Years are just a handful of examples of this current cultural craze. Jurassic Park might be loosely categorised as dystopia, but these more recent fictions are generally much darker than any of the Jurassic films. Gregory Claeys, author of ‘Dystopia, a Natural History’, suggests that the current dystopian trend is a consequence of “the manifest decline of the Western capitalist idea of progress, the ideological glue that has held together much of intellectual history since the mid-18th century.”(1)

Is this turn towards darker, grittier, crisis-filled fictions a sign that we are unsure how to fill the hole left by the death of the myth? Are we still wrestling with the realisation that it may not be nature that is our biggest threat, but rather it may be humanity that is its own worst enemy?

As we find ourselves in the midst of a reality that feels terrifyingly similar to our own apocalyptic fictions, we are reminded again of the frailty of mankind in the face of nature. In times of global crisis (and in pretty much any action or disaster film), the strengths and weaknesses of humanity are brought into the light. We see the best of human nature, our readiness to self-sacrifice and serve others, but we also see the greed, cowardice, and thoughtlessness of mankind.

Maybe our weird desire to “flop down on the couch…and watch our own destruction for fun”(2) has something to do with the way these narratives simulate the experience of living through horror, with the emphasis upon the word ‘live’. Yes, we may witness some terrible and upsetting events upon our TV screens, (both fictional and real events), but we are reassured by these narratives that tell us that humanity lives on in some shape or form. “Life finds a way.” This phrase applies as much to us as it applies to the scary life forces around us, whether that be velociraptors, or the far more real threat of COVID-19. Ian Malcom very nearly dies in the film, but against all the odds he lives to tell the tale (and naturally returns in a sequel).

However dark and dismal the stories we tell ourselves may be, we are forever holding onto the hope that humanity may survive, that life will find a way. It is a strange hope when we consider the scientific reality of our status as mortal beings in a dying universe. Lewis puts it rather brutally in another one of his essays where he talks about living in the age of the atomic bomb:

“Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.”(3)

These are harsh words, but they are also truthful ones, and it is only when we have accepted the hard and painful truth of our own mortality that we are able to grasp a far greater truth, the truth of the Easter story, which tells us that humanity were always made for eternity. Odd though this may sound, “Life finds a way” is actually a helpful summary of the Easter message. Death may look as though it has won, but the resurrection of Christ creates a whole new possibility, the possibility for new and infinite life.

Jesus is the uh Life that finds a way.

(At least, I reckon that would be Ian Malcom’s paraphrase of John 14:6. And if anyone wants to make that into a meme for me, please go ahead.)


(3) 'On Living in an Atomic Age', (1948), Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

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