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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Lost World - Michael Crichton

Crichton’s views on evolution and extinction masquerading as a Dinosaur-scary novel.

Simple-wordy, Nail-Biting,

Sci-Fi, Thriller

No bad words.

Favorite Quote:
…It’s just theories. Human beings can’t help making them and the fact is, that theories are just fantasies. And they change.

There may be very few people left in this world who haven’t seen the classic nail-biters “Jurrasic park” and its sequel “The Lost world”. After more than ten years, I can easily bring up the picture of a T-Rex (tyrannosaurs) from memory. The vibrating ground, the puddle of water etc had resulted in many a sleepless nights in my childhood, and still gives me occasional shivers.
The book was recommended to be “scarier than the movie”. So, after a day of non-stop reading, I feel sad that I cannot assent to that. There were some nail biting moments in this for sure, but they didn’t match up to the movie, not by a long mile. Of course, the fact that the book story is drastically different than the movie didn’t help much.

That said, it richly deserves the title of one of Crichton’s finest books. While the movie was meant to be spooky, giving an image to our wildest of imaginations, the book is much more than that. In fact, it is safe to say that the dinosaurs are a backdrop to a very enlightening take on the theory of evolution and extinction of species.

The story is about a very rich, stubborn and focused scientist, Richard Leving, who, on learning that there have been some sightings in an island near Costa Rica, Isla Sorna, goes there for further investigation. On landing there, he views different herds of dinosaurs and sensing an opportunity, starts studying them.
Meanwhile his colleague, Ian Malcolm, his equipment developer, Thorn and Eddie, and his students Kelly and Arby, concerned about Leving, come over to the island. While the majority of the book is about Malcolm and Leving’s contradictory observations on dinosaur behaviour, the book picks up pace in the end when some researchers from a bigger biotechnological corporation try to steal some eggs and use the dinosaurs for drug testing.

There are some flaws in the story-line of course. The easy availability of confidential computers and the ridiculously simple hacking job by Arby were laughable. The narrow escapes and the obvious clues (The only piece of skin Leving sends to Malcolm actually has a tag of ‘site B’ attached to it!) made it sound more like a Dan Brown novel than a Crichton. But I think its all forgivable considering the amount of messages he wanted to impart through this book.

The book started like a zoology text-book – interesting and slightly preachy. I was so engrossed in absorbing the details that I didn’t realise that the non-fiction part of it had ended, and the fictional story had begun. There was, for example, the initial hypothesis for extinction – the edge of chaos, where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy. So, in effect extinction can be caused by too much of change or too little. There are of course the numbers, which being an analyst, are of particular interest to me. Our diverse planet has a current count of fifteen million species of plants and animals (phew!), which is nothing compared to the species found when life began – fifty billion. To put it in perspective, of every thousand species that existed, only one remains today. Thus, 99.9% of all species are extinct – a humbling realisation.

Later on in the book, Crichton admits that he believes that cyberspace could lead to our extinction. He theorizes that since in humans, evolution occurs mainly through our behaviour, mass media hinders innovation and thus, intellectual diversity. “It makes every place the same. Bangkok or Tokyo or London. There’s a McDonald’s on one corner, a Benetton on another and a Gap across the street. Regional differences vanish. All differences vanish… it’ll freeze the entire species. Everything will stop dead in its tracks.”
That’s a point of view an average human wouldn’t have thought of. It’s a common observation that the new generation is a step above the current or previous one. But are we becoming stagnant because of all the sharing and communicating? Is that why inventions and discoveries are harder to come by now (and not because everything significant has already been invented or discovered.)?

We’ve been taught that extinction is a direct result of evolution and survival of the fittest. Crichton doesn’t use the typical example of the oppositional thumb for explaining evolution. He mentions how, due to the inability of the human brain to pass through the birth canal, humans are born pre-mature, compared to other animals’ infants, who are fully formed. That also explains why humans are unable to walk for a year, as compared to other animals, which start walking or flying within a couple of days.

In the end, Crichton plays it safe and notes that are just theories which are nothing more than human fantasies. This is as well, since, with more of a scientific ( or theoretical scientific) content, some of them are sure to raise even more questions – behavioural reasons for extinction can be only conceptual and there is no factual way of proving it. Even the theory of evolution is derivative, without any factual way of backing it.

The book does not live up to the expectations of being a scary book. There are very few cheap thrills and none creates an everlasting impression. But it ought to be read by any one who has been intrigued by Darwin’s theories. Though it does not provide any clarifications in our understanding of the world, it raises a lot of very important questions.

1 comment:

antbrain said...

This review has made me damn curious about evolution and extinction, topics I haven't given a damn about until I read this damn review today! Damn! :D

Well written da! Need to grab the book sometime soon!