In December of last year, NBC asked several scientists why there’s been so many (and so many big) dinosaur discoveries lately. To a person, they all mentioned the same factor: Jurassic Park came out in theaters 20 years ago.
It wasn’t the only factor, but Jurassic Park got big crowds back into natural history museums, which increased paleontology budgets at museums and schools, which expanded work in existing fossil locales and kickstarted new research in China and South America, where many of the exciting new discoveries are happening now.
Jurassic Park also filled a generation of children with awe and fascination while exposing them to modern scientific discoveries and ideas. (The movie opens with a lecture about bird evolution.) Twenty years later, those bright young dinosaur fans are now adults with careers in paleontology—in record numbers—and growing our scientific understanding of the prehistoric world by leaps and bounds.
I don’t think that anybody in 1993 thought that a summer monster movie would have much long-lasting scientific impact. They felt it might revolutionize filmmaking with its realistic CGI (and it did), they hoped it was going to make fistfuls of cash (and it did) but create a generation of paleontologists and expand scientific research around the globe?
Top image from Jurassic Park, copyright Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment.
Where Jurassic Park had plenty of scenes treating dinosaurs as more than scary monsters (e.g. a sick Triceratops, a sneezing Brachiosaurus, even a cute baby Velociraptor), its predecessor Jaws paid no such attention to the quiet private lives of great white sharks. The shark in Jaws was the ultimate predator, the most dangerous animal alive: driven, unyielding, vengeful, unstoppable, and hungry. No mere human being was safe as long as that shark was still alive.
Is it any surprise, then, that people responded by killing sharks?
Following Jaws, shark fishing skyrocketed as a recreational activity, especially in the Eastern United States where coastal fishing towns (like the one in Jaws) were equipped and ready to hunt the king of all fish. Shark-fishing charters took people out to face the ultimate predator mano-a-aleta, and regional shark-fishing tournaments got whole towns into the shark-killing mood. And why not? Why chase a boring bass when you could be the person that killed “Jaws”?!
The impact on sharks was devastating. Estimates by NOAA only go back to 1981 (Jaws came out in 1975), but they show recreational fishing killing more sharks than commercial operations for 15 out of the next 21 years. Off the U.S. eastern seaboard, where fishing was heaviest, populations of shark species fell 50-90%.
Discovery’s Shark Week (which probably owes its own existence to Jaws and the public shark-fascination that followed) tells of a silver lining in all this: as shark populations have become more vulnerable, their crisis has inspired more research and funding for shark conservation. Which is a bit of a hollow victory, especially for the millions of dead sharks.
Jurassic Park led to more scientific research and discovery. Jaws killed millions of sharks but maybe there’s still hope. Is there a movie that did only bad things without meaning to? Oh yes, yes there is.
Did you know the Ku Klux Klan actually died out in 1872? It did! The KKK was a very short-lived group, only active for 6-7 years after the Civil War before being completely broken by Federal and local resistance.
Then, more than 40 years later, D.W. Griffith made the film Birth of a Nation.
The film was revolutionary for its filmmaking techniques, but its revisionist plot featuring a heroic Klan from days of yore (if Birth of a Nation was Braveheart, the film made the KKK out to have been William Wallace) was compelling enough that somebody went and brought the real-life Klan back.
Within 10 years, the new KKK (which used Birth of a Nation heavily in recruiting) had enlisted 4-5 million new members, with strong central organization and a drive to reshape the nation. They terrorized minority groups, burned crosses (an invention of the movie) and engineered elections from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.
Ultimately, this second-wave KKK was brought down by scandal and disillusionment . . . but it had already paved the way for the third (and still active) iteration of the KKK that carried out bombings, cross burnings, killings and harassment during the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s . . . and continued to use Birth of a Nation in their recruitment efforts.