Are Movies Science?


No, of course not — you know that from the definitions of science. Movies are pure fantasy as we all know, and although many movies featuring dinosaurs attempt to integrate art with science, they are ultimately not science, and so should be taken as fiction. A prime example would be the movies and novels Jurassic Park, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III by the eminent author Michael Crichton and movie director Steven Spielberg. To their credit, these works of fiction solicited the input of some paleontologists such as Robert T. Bakker and Jack Horner to create more believable dinosaurs using contemporary paleontological ideas. However, remember when indulging in these wonderful productions that although they are really the only way we can see dinosaurs (except birds), the "contemporary ideas" used to illustrate them aren't always established scientific fact. Examples from the movie Jurassic Park include the T.rex supposedly running at about 50 mph (we don't know that, as our dinosaur speeds site will tell you); or the Velociraptors in the movie opening doors (and generally being smarter than the movie actors), having elaborate hunting tactics, or tapping their toes when impatient (all of which are more likely false than feasible).

Try looking through our science-based exhibits on dinosaurs and using the information there to form your own opinions. Test the ideas used in the movies and literature, and see for yourself what is science and what is fiction. And read the answers to two frequently asked questions below for a start.

The raptors of Jurassic Park III

Did the raptors in Jurassic Park III actually exist, and if so when? Also, were they as intelligent as the movie suggests? Were there "raptors"? Yes, there was a group of animals called dromaeosaurs which included animals such as Velociraptor. Velociraptor was actually much smaller than the "velociraptors" in the movie; it was about the size of a medium-sized dog (75 lbs. or so). But there were big dromaeosaurs roughly the size of the movie "raptors."

The dromaeosaurs lived from the Late Jurassic (150 million years ago) to the end of the Cretaceous (65 million years ago). They are thought to be one of the dinosaur groups that is very closely related to birds, because they have long arms and large brains (as well as feathers, we now know) like birds.

We don't really think that dromaeosaurs were "smarter than dolphins, smarter than primates" as a paleontologist in Jurassic Park III claims. They had modestly large brains but those brains were nowhere near as elaborate as the brains of mammals or even most modern birds. If relative brain size is any measure of intelligence, dromaeosaurs were just a little smarter than typical dinosaurs. Not geniuses by mammalian standards.

Bringing dinosaurs back

Could we really bring back dinosaurs like in Jurassic Park? No, sadly not. It would make paleontologists' work so much easier, more exciting, and better funded if we could, but we can't. Why? Dinosaurs (except birds) are extinct. Extinction is permanent! Even with modern species that go extinct, we have little, if any, chance of resurrecting them. Several reasons:

  1. We must find intact DNA of the species in question. Amber is one of the better preservatives of DNA, so dinosaur DNA in amber would be good. Problem: DNA degrades over time, even in amber. After several million years, many lethal losses of pieces of the DNA would occur. These gaps in the DNA strand cannot be repaired; their information is lost forever. We cannot improvise the genetic code of an organism.
  2. We must extract the DNA from the amber. If the DNA is inside of an insect, there would be the huge problem of getting insect DNA mixed with our dino-DNA. We would be lucky to get a few pieces of intact DNA out; certainly not the whole genome of the animal.

  3. We must sequence the DNA — find out what the genetic code of the animal is. That's several billion letters strung together in a chain. One gap in the chain could possibly ruin the whole thing. In the Jurassic Park stories, frog DNA is used to plug the holes in the DNA. This is really silly! As paleontological critics have remarked, "too much frog DNA and your T. rex croaks." A reasonably intact dinosaur genome is necessary to progress further — putting together DNA is a lot harder than reconstructing a dinosaur skeleton from its bones, and that's plenty hard. The odds of correctly assembling a fragmentary genome are similar to putting a million-piece puzzle together with your eyes closed. DNA allows some room for mistakes (not all DNA is used), but it doesn't seem likely that we could get enough for any one animal.

  4. If we somehow got a whole dinosaur genome, we would somehow have to make it assemble into chromosomes, which we don't know how to do with dinosaur DNA. That might be able to be accomplished with a few decades of work.

  5. Here comes the zinger. These chromosomes now would have to be implanted into a compatible, living, intact egg. Crocodile eggs, or even eggs of the same dinosaur genus, would not work. In vertebrates, the same (or at least closely related) species' egg and cytoplasm apparently are required for the egg to develop normally. The major problem here is that we just have the DNA — we don't know what species we have (DNA doesn't come with nametags), and even if we did we don't have a living dinosaur egg of that species!

  6. Finally, this fairy tale egg would have to be raised under the optimal conditions for that species' development, which we have little chance of inferring. If we managed to hatch our dinosaur, we would then have the monumental task of keeping it alive — it would be entering a world full of germs and other dangers to which it had no resistance. Our world is empty of the food and environment that dinosaurs were used to. Even on a tropical island, dinosaurs would sicken and die eventually. Our world has changed a lot in 65 million years.

So, in summary, if we could find perfectly preserved dinosaur DNA, extract and sequence it with little error, organize it into chromosomes, place it into the living egg of the correct species (wait...that would mean we already had the egg and its own DNA!), and raise the egg successfully, then we could all have pet Triceratops. Yeah, right.

You hopefully have realized by now that dinosaurs (except birds) are almost certainly extinct forever. The only way we can see Velociraptor, then, is to watch the movie or read the book. Extinction is forever. We will never again see living trilobites, Tyrannosaurus, or maybe even dodo birds unless they are hiding somewhere today (which we're quite sure they are not). Once a species goes completely extinct, we have little or no chance of bringing it back. There's a lesson to be learned here, isn't here? Treasure what the millennia have given us.

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