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"That looks like human DNA!"

21-May-2000

When I heard that line from the Mission to Mars trailer, I thought: Here we go again. I figured this was another case of Hollywood ignoring biological principles for the sake of minor plot-points, or worse, out of apparent ignorance. OK, maybe the stranded NASA crew has encountered a mysterious structure on the red planet, and even signs of life, but who takes a quick look at a double helix and IDs the species that produced it?

I'm not weird about this subject, mind you. I don't have a morbid fascination with either the operational specifications or the locations of the toilets on the starship Enterprise. And I don't lose sleep wondering exactly what species the elaborate reproduction cycle of Sigourney Weaver's Aliens evolved to exploit in the millennia that passed before they encountered their first humans...

But what the hell were the creators of that Natasha Henstridge fiasco Species thinking when they conceived of an alien/human hybrid that sprouts tentacles from her breasts?! I have a passing acquaintance with how natural selection works and I am here to tell you that it does not manufacture appendages out of fat and glands, the sweaty imaginings of intellectually-adolescent screenwriter-wannabee's notwithstanding.

And I suppose it's just nitpicking to go after Disney's CGI extravaganza Dinosaur, which I saw this afternoon. I mean, it was cute, I admit, I have something of a soft spot for some of this stuff - I imprinted on it young, OK? They gave the "Circle of Life" it's due in The Lion King, after all, even though I just do not recall seeing any bloody feline lips smacking over one of their dance-partner zebras. And I'm not even going to touch the subject of weapons-grade anthropomorphism. Suffice it to say that if you don't think that's an OK thing to do, you don't like Disney.

But I am here to rant!

The opening scene follows a hapless dinosaur egg (a young Aladar) that survives a fall from the grasp of squabbling predators only to drop from the bill of a harried pterodactyl even as it's squawking offspring gape hungrily. I know it's good drama, but I couldn't help thinking: Well this is why animals gulp down a meal when it's found and regurgitate it later for the kids. None of this carrying it a half mile like a football only to lose it in the end.

And what's the story with these so-called "Carnotaurs" (that mostly resemble T-Rexes with Jaws-style dental appliances in a world without morning coffee)? Never mind that even when their mouths are closed their teeth are all visible. Never mind that they seem to put all their energy into growling and making menacing faces at the entire supply of rapidly escaping meal-candidates. No, what really frosts me about these critters is that the animators in charge of them must have never watched a lizard eat so much as a cricket, because one thing you can always count on from a hungry lizard: he goes for the prey with his mouth - his mouth. And once he's got a piece, he is NOT letting go.

That's actually one of the cooler things about many reptiles. If one grabs ahold of somebody's finger you can usually count on a lot of screaming and hopping around that won't come near dislodging the scaly little character. A less amusing, but nevertheless illustrative data point is my observation from years in the pet industry that a mouse being fed to a monitor lizard faces a death not unlike being killed by a pair of pliers. The aggressive lizard makes an open-mouthed frontal attack. The defensive lizard generally adopts a sideways posture to appear larger, slaps the target with his tail and gapes his mouth. At this point he's either cornered or buying time for a retreat.

What a preying lizard does not do, as in ever, is pummel his target with the side of his head and neck. That is, unless he's a Disney-o-saurus! When he's not engaged in needless posturing the "carnotaur" sheaths his toothy grin and slaps his prey around to make time for the advancing reinforcements to save the victim. There are always advancing reinforcements...

Egg-toting herps and head-slapping combat might be irritating enough, but this movie's most serious violation is that it actively demonizes the biological principle of differential survival based upon adaptive fitness... survival of the fittest as it's commonly known. The venerable dinosaur leader in this story, Kron, portrayed as an intellectual as well as literal dinosaur antagonizes forward-thinking Aladar by stubbornly insisting that in meager times, the weak will be left behind to perish. Old Kron doesn't merely deliver this hard message, he advocates it.

When a migration in draught seems beyond endurance, what is his answer to the comment that half the herd will die? Not that there is no alternative, not that life is tough, his answer is "the half of the herd that deserves to live" will do so. So now you know. Adaptation to a biological niche is irrelevant; according to Uncle Walt, natural selection is a value judgment, meted out, of course, by the unenlightened.

In Aladar's world, where getting the old, sick and weak through a drastic climactic upheaval is mainly about shoving your shoulder into their arses when they stumble and fall, maybe environmental fitness is passé. In the natural world I know, half the herd sticking around expressing sympathy for the dying half is an invitation to lose the whole damned thing. But that's probably dinosaur thinking.

Look, fantasy is fantasy. I don't care that Stuart Little wears clothes, drives a car and has eyebrows and a furry tail. No one's going to mistake him for a science lesson. Dinosaur, on the other hand, is realistic-looking and weaves enough dinosaur lore into its story that it can be a job sorting the scientific principles from the editorializing and misrepresentation going on. I'm dreaming to imagine that any but a few cranks like me even cares, of course. Hell, in more than a few places they think the Bible is a science text.

But I'll cut Mission to Mars some slack anyway. When I actually saw the anticipated (and dreaded) DNA scene I was placated by the fact that the identification of the strands' human-ness came after some examination of the base pairs, anyway. Assuming the presence of someone with sufficient training in genetics (and I'll just give them that!) the comment is plausible. After all, it's just a movie.

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