Genetic Engineering and the movie Gattaca

Gattaca & Bioethics | The Hypertextual Lounge
Vincent’s identification card that is seen in the movie, which deems him “in-valid” based on his genetic composition.
Image from The Hypertextual Lounge

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the applications of CRISPR-Cas gene editing, and how this has both advantageous and disadvantageous applications in the future of genetic modification. Specifically with regards to humans, I argued that the genetic modification, particularly with purposes relating to appearances, could be detrimental to society because it would establish social hierarchies based on genetic composition (eugenics). The film Gattaca shows what this type of division would look like in a society where genetic modification is used. 

The first example of how genetic modification for image purposes is detrimental that I’ll discuss is about Jerome. Jerome was genetically altered with the intent of enhancing his athletic abilities to be the best swimmer possible. However, as the movie progresses, the audience learns that Jerome’s accident that led to his paralyzation was, unfortunately, self-inflicted because he was distraught that he did not win a swim meet. A great deal of confidence and trust in his genetics had been instilled in Jerome which allowed him to believe that he was superior, as his genetic composition told him so. Consequently, when he fell short of achieving what was expected of him, it was difficult for him to grasp and ultimately affected how he perceived his self worth. I think that the concept of placing so much faith in genetics is detrimental because genetics are not the only factor that can determine your outcome in life. While one’s DNA certainly influences the type of person that someone is, I believe that there is so much more to human identity than genes. The society in Gattaca over-emphasizes genetic makeup, and when individuals fail to meet what is expected of them based on their genes, this results in sentiments of inadequacy.

Another reason why this technology would be detrimental if used on humans is because genes can certainly help and hurt your prospect, but they are not total determinants for determining where you go in life. For instance, the ‘nurture vs. nature’ argument, which has been studied and debated by many scientists, shows that behavior can be influenced by both genes and the environment. In the case of Jerome, there’s no such thing as a ‘fast swimmer’ gene, and even though genes that code for muscle and bone structure can be selected for, merely having these genes is not sufficient for making a successful swimmer. 

In an older blog post, I predicted that the genetic engineering of humans would be problematic if introduced into society because it would just serve to create more divisions in our society that is already especially divided. This division and elitism is evident in this film, as only people with ‘valid’ genotypes are allowed to hold prestigious jobs, meanwhile those who haven’t been genetically altered or who have genetic predispositions are restricted in the employment opportunities that they can pursue. Aside from being discriminated against in the workforce, there is also a stigma held by Vincent’s parents, as they choose not to name him after his father, and instead elect to name Vincent’s younger brother, who was conceived using genetic selection, after their father. I believe that the way that Vincent and Anton’s parents show favoritism towards Anton is extremely detrimental, as this treatment creates self-fulfilling prophecies for both children, that Vincent is inferior because he has genetic predispositions for diseases and that Anton is elite and entitled to more in life because of his better genetic profile. Our society is already so divided based on factors such as class, race, gender, ethnicity, etc., and the possibility of adding genetic discrimination to this list just creates another opportunity to divide humanity rather than to unite it. Especially since an estimated 0.1% genetic difference exists among humans on average, there is no need to focus so much on what makes us different from one another when we can and should instead focus on what we have in common.  

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