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You Don’t Have to Watch ‘Jurassic World’ to See Bioengineered Animal Weapons

This summer's sci-fi blockbuster imagines a world where scientists genetically engineer animals for war. It's already here.

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Hollywood tends to favor lively narrative intrigue over accurate scientific particulars, and the Jurassic Park franchise is no exception. The latest installment, Jurassic World, revisits the series’ core plot points: Dinosaurs, brought back into existence through science, wreak havoc in a jungle setting, leaving dead bodies and lessons about hubris in their wake. As with the original, released in 1993, many have taken issue with the science of the movie. The film’s dinosaurs are moored in 1980s paleontology: None of the on-screen species have feathers (scientists now think most dinosaurs sported plumage). The mosasaur and velociraptors are bigger than is historically accurate (some mosasaurs may have reached lengths of up to 50 feet in real life, but the one in the film is the size of a jumbo jet). And the mosasaur is depicted with frills running down its back — a laughably outdated idea in the paleontology world.

But there is one arena in which the film comes remarkably close to reality. As in Jurassic World, scientists in real life are already well on their way toward genetically modifying animals for military use.

In Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, an effort to open a park in which people can view dinosaurs — cloned using DNA extracted from blood preserved within ancient mosquitoes locked in amber — goes horribly wrong when a saboteur breaches the dinosaur containment system during an embryo robbery attempt. The second and third films, set on a fictional island — Isla Sorna — off the coast of Coast Rica, follow small bands of people who end up there for contrived reasons and must fight to elude consumption by Cretaceous Period predators.

Jurassic World, the fourth installment, takes place on the same island — Isla Nublar — as the first movie, 22 years after the original, in a world wherein dinosaurs have been back from extinction for decades and have become little more than ordinary zoo animals for the wealthy guests who pour into the dinosaur park, now fully operational. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, scientists try to engineer ways to make the dinosaurs even more spectacular for tourists — and also to make money off them. Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation, Guardians of the Galaxy) stars as Owen Grady, a loveable ex-military Renaissance man tasked with training intelligent, pack-hunting velociraptors to stage special operations-style raids in concert with humans.

The Jurassic storyline involved impressive feats of genetic engineering from the outset. In the original film, scientists bring dinosaurs back to life by filling in the gaps in recovered dinosaur DNA with genetic material from frogs. But in Jurassic World, scientists take these experiments a step further, when they realize they can create dinosaurs more to their liking through genetic manipulation — and that the newly engineered dinosaurs might be put to use by the military-industrial complex. 

Whether Grady’s pack of raptor warriors have been genetically modified to be better weapons isn’t quite clear. But they are put to the test when they are pitted against the escaped Indominus rex, a Frankenstein-osaur born of genes from various killer dinosaurs, chameleons, and other animals. Indominus rex was built as part of an effort to genetically engineer the ultimate dino-weapon — but also to drive flagging attendance at the titular Jurassic World ecological park. The slaughter and chaos that ensues amounts to a field test for trained dinosaurs in combat, orchestrated by a trigger-happy security contractor named Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio). “Just imagine if we had these puppies in Tora Bora!” he says upon seeing the raptors in action. But when they (*spoiler alert*) abandon the humans and accept Indominus Rex as their leader, the tables are turned: Hoskins dies brutally, the park is brought to ruin, and the island returns to a state of nature that preceded human evolution. Grady’s bond with the animals wavers but remains intact until the end.

In the real world, in 2015, no one is close to bringing dinosaurs back — yet. But the film is not far off in its assumptions about the militarization of genetic science. As the limitations of robotics become increasingly apparent, the United States’ military — in a high-tech extension of a tradition that stretches from George Washington’s cavalry to the dogs, dolphins, and rats of the modern battlefield — has already set off down the road toward genetically engineering animals for war.

In 2006, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency asked scientists “to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs” capable of carrying surveillance equipment or weapons, journalist Emily Anthes wrote in her 2013 book, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. The agency quickly realized that tiny flying machines were impossible to build well — but that insects, already abundant in nature, were better than whatever humans might make. So DARPA changed its approach: In the past decade, the agency has encouraged and funded research into methods that can let humans control insects and mammals through electronic impulses to the brain, and through genetic modifications to the nervous systems of insects to make them easier to manipulate, with surprising success. Researchers are already able to hijack the brains of beetles and order them to stop, start, and turn, with more fine-tuned control in the works. Insects created by humans, loaded with spy technology and controlled by drone operators, are on the horizon. Scientists in Korea over the past decade have used viruses to deliver payloads of jellyfish genes to felines, thereby creating glow-in-the-dark cats, Scientific American reported — much like the chameleon-born camouflage genes scientists give Indominus rex in Jurassic World.

“Future generations are going to grow up tinkering not with computers, but with life itself,” Anthes wrote. “There is a growing community of ‘biohackers,’ science enthusiasts who are experimenting with genes, brains, and bodies outside the confines of traditional laboratories, working on shoestring budgets in their garages and attics, or joining the community labs that are springing up around the globe.” Given the possibilities, it’s not hard to imagine private companies using these breakthroughs for their own dubious purposes — on an island off Costa Rica, say, far from government scrutiny.

Jurassic World may be off base about what reincarnated dinosaur species would look like, but it’s right about where biotech is going. We already live in a world of unfolding genetic engineering possibilities, and militarization — already underway — seems inevitable. And science fiction has a long history of predicting (and influencing) the future of technology, from the tablet computers in 2001: A Space Odyssey to William Gibson’s “cyberspace” in Neuromancer and surveillance drones in Robert Sheckley’s Watchbird.

The film raises ethical questions about the whole endeavor that seem applicable to real life. Just like building a dinosaur theme park in the first place, the film seems to argue, genetically modifying previously extinct dinosaur species, or creating new ones, is a bad idea, using them as weapons is worse, and we will get our comeuppance if we try it. By the end of Jurassic World, everyone — from Grady, the trainer, to Hoskins, the contractor, to the park’s administrators, managers, and owners — is guilty of using dinosaurs to achieve their own ends, manipulating them for money or power. For some critics, this leaves no human heroes — only dinosaur ones.

“Both the villains and the hero appear to have the same exploitative philosophy,” Professor Judy K. C. Bentley, co-editor of Animals and War: Confronting the Military-Animal Industrial Complex, told Foreign Policy. “The villains are corporate moguls who want to engineer and weaponize the dinos to be more warlike. Confounding that, the hero is a ‘trainer’ of dinos, who manipulates them to comply with the commands of nonhuman animals, and also forces them to be more warlike.”

“I don’t plan to see the film,” she said.

But plenty of others, it seems, have a taste for weaponized, formerly-extinct creatures. Jurassic World’s Friday opening marked the highest grossing opening day in film history.

Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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