If you’re like thousands of other fans, you probably made your way out to see Jurassic World this past weekend. It’s an incredibly lucrative film series, and if you’ve never read the books, they’re worth picking up.
One other thing that Jurassic World and indeed the whole franchise does well is teach variation. It may sound silly, but when the general public (myself included), can’t name all of the different dinosaurs (including the artificially-enhanced ones), the focus then shifts to concentrating on characteristics about each organism.
Even the tiniest of movie-goers can recognize that pointy-teeth generally mean meat eating, and the larger, flat-teethed dinos are probably safer company compared to those with sharp claws. Older movie-goers, like the couple in front of us that, let’s say, was overly ‘sharing’ during the film, seem to be able to focus on other traits, such as arm length. They begin to conjecture that those with shared features either are somehow related (which in the Jurassic series can mean either shared ancestry or spliced genes) or that they have characteristics that serve a common function.
Noticing similarities and differences, both within and between species, is critical for observing evolutionary change. Although some characteristics are not derived from shared ancestry, the repeated evolution along several branches of similar characteristics in similar environments (e.g., sugar gliders and flying squirrels) can be used as support for teaching evolution.
The repeated nods to bird and reptile similarity in the film help to integrate the idea of evolution across broad phyla, too. It is no wonder that people begin to see the similarities between these two groups once they are shown side-by-side.
The idea of variation (along with inheritance, selection, and time) is critical to how evolution works. Without variation, there are no differences in traits for selection or drift to act on. Simply, you can’t select from only a single option. Variation therefore allows for meaningful biological differences which can amount to evolutionary change over generations.
Although it gets a lot wrong scientifically, if we can entertain a broad swath of the population with these sci-fi blockbusters, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We’ll have to work on some of the details, but if we can get people talking about genes and variation, it’s a small step in the right direction. No, it’s not the thunderous, seat-shaking, water-rippling steps of a T-rex, but hey, we can still embrace the various media promoting the recognition of variation and its important role in evolutionary biology.