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American Literature 74.4 (2002) 887-909



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Jurassic Park Technology in the Bioinformatics Economy:
How Cloning Narratives Negotiate the Telos of DNA

Stephanie S. Turner

The problem was that all known dinosaurs were fossils, and the fossilization [had] destroyed most DNA. . . . So cloning was therefore impossible. There was nothing to clone from. All the modern genetic technology was useless. It was like having a Xerox copier but nothing to copy with it.—Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

In her book How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles argues that "a defining characteristic of the present cultural moment is the belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates," which she alternately describes as the "condition of virtuality" and the "computational universe." 1 The material substrates Hayles considers range from research in artificial life to science fiction novels. Her examples have in common the contemporary concern with bringing explanations of organic processes into alignment with theories about complex systems or, to be more specific, with treating living things as information-processing systems. The historical precedent for this view of living things can be traced to twentieth-century physicists' perplexity over how to account for self-organization in life given the second law of thermodynamics, entropy. Some historians of science have pinpointed the precise arrival of this new issue in biology to Erwin Schr–dinger's question, which became the title of his 1943 lecture series, "What is Life?" 2 On the one hand, Schr–dinger was simply asking a physicist's question: Why don't living systems succumb to dissipation, as do nonliving systems? On the other hand, Schr–dinger's question cued scientists in [End Page 887] the emerging field of molecular biology to treat the concerns of biology more like those of physics. In doing so, they established a conceptualization of the DNA molecule as autotelic, that is, as an entity working toward its own self-contained end, through the use of such information metaphors as data, code, and program. More broadly, they laid the foundation for our present bioinformatics economy, in which the marriage of biology and information technology in postcapitalism has transformed the life sciences into a global network of commodity biological information.

The result of this metaphorization of DNA is a surplus of meaning associated with the "master molecule," well illustrated in proposals for bioprospecting projects that have cloning whole organisms as an ultimate goal, such as the mining of dinosaur blood from the bodies of ancient mosquitoes trapped in amber famously depicted in Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park. The Jurassic Park narrative is instructive in showing how the surplus of meaning surrounding DNA is contested and how cloning serves as a fulcrum in the negotiation process. The premise of the novel is that cloning the DNA of ancient Tyrannosaurus Rex "should" replicate the dinosaur, much as a photocopy machine reproduces an image. Yet at the same time, it is a foregone conclusion in the novel that this formula is inherently flawed; having something to clone from is not enough to resurrect dinosaurs. The Jurassic Park narrative raises two important questions about the information metaphor of DNA: what is the cultural significance of the conceptualization that DNA has agency, and what do cloning narratives reveal about DNA's presumed telos? Although much has been written about Jurassic Park's failed capitalist critique of cloned, genetically modified dinosaurs running amok, rather than turning a profit for their creators, the central role that cloning itself plays in this turn of events has been largely overlooked. 3 A closer look at how information metaphors of DNA operate in the Jurassic Park narrative will show how genetic engineering works both with and against the telos of DNA and, more crucially, how cloning scenarios negotiate this ideological traffic.

To return to the historical context of the metaphoricity of DNA for a moment, Shr–dinger's speculation that chromosomes must contain "some kind of code-script" 4 is a fusion of terms that has the effect of casting the DNA molecule as somehow the product...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2117
Print ISSN
0002-9831
Pages
pp. 887-909
Launched on MUSE
2003-01-23
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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