Zen and the Art of Genetic Manipulation

September 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

All parents want the best for their children. They want them to be safe, happy, and healthy. What if you were able to ensure all of these things for your child through genetic manipulation? The scary part about altering one’s genes, as explored in Gattaca, is not in the prevention of future disease and illness. Because of racially motivated political movements, eugenics has been historically tied to cruel notions about the superiority of certain ethnic groups. This fear of the misappropriation of genetic alteration is reflected often in science fiction, in films like Gattaca and short stories such as Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain.

As a parent, contemplating the birth of your child, a malleable, fragile being that you are responsible for shaping, would you elect to give your child the gene for altruism? Often people seem inherently selfish – we make decisions based on sudden self-involved impulse, without considering the larger ramifications of our actions on others. It is easy for us, the few who were lucky enough to be born into a relatively affluent and secure society, to neglect and ignore the needs of the larger community. What if you had the ability to give your child the gift of giving?

When a rabbi wrote to Albert Einstein, asking for advice on what to tell his daughter about God after the death of her sister, Einstein wrote the following in response:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

American society is based on the foundation of selfishness. Capitalism is a competition – it functions on the basis of individuals fighting to advance their own personal desires. Communism in its purest form is unselfish and altruistic; it is the imposition of human selfishness and greed that corrupts the system and leads to its failure. If it were possible to free ourselves from the fetters of self-obsession, maybe we could elevate ourselves as the human species and work together to eliminate social injustices.

However, if it was me faced with the decision of altering my own baby’s basic makeup and forcing this altruism into them, I would probably balk. On an evading-the-point-of-the-question level, the gene would probably just expose them to abuse by other children who had no such physiological compunctions to avoid selfishness. On another level, Einstein concludes his statements by writing that nobody is perfectly able to eliminate self-interest, but that it is “the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.” I think that this kind of genetic manipulation is too much like playing God – attempting to alter basic human nature. Maybe some things have to be left to chance. Maybe we need to trust in the basic good intentions of people, and aim for improvement.


To alter, or not to alter, that is the question

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Through advancements in modern science, the possibility of ‘designer babies’ who have had their genetic makeup artificially selected to ensure certain characteristics or genes is becoming more realistic. Specifically, genetic modification could affect a child’s susceptibility to disease, allow parents to choose a specific gender, determine personality traits, or even establish appearance and IQ. But if you had the choice to pre-determine everything from the color of your child’s eyes to the score he or she will achieve on the SAT, would you?

Gene altering is an extreme ethical dilemma. What if you could ensure that your child wouldn’t die from or contract any disease that can be determined by an individual’s genetic makeup? Selecting against these genes seems like a very attractive option, because you would help your child, hopefully, live a long life with. However, these genetic alterations have implications for the children of parents who decide not to tamper with genes. In the movie GATTACA, parents can ensure that their children won’t have certain diseases or characteristics through gene alteration, providing them with the best start possible. However, this leads to discrimination against natural birth children. If doctors, as in GATTACA, can alter genes to reduce or eliminate the risk of heart disease for an individual, that person would most likely to be hired over an individual who could possibly die from a heart disease. Also, opportunities may be closed off to natural birth children because companies wouldn’t want to take the risk of an individual dying young when they could be relatively well-assured that the genetically altered individual will live a longer life. In my opinion, if genetic altering were used to reduce the risks of contracting certain diseases, individuals who do not have their genes altered would get stuck with extremely high health care premiums and extra costs, such as the mental toll of discrimination, solely because they choose to allow nature run its course. Selectively altering genes for diseases, when not applied to the entire population, does not seem like an ethical action because it would most likely produce a divide between those who have had genetic modification and those who haven’t.

If selecting against genes for diseases is an ethical dilemma, what about providing your child with genes that make him or her more altruistic to other people? How would this affect their life? I believe that pre-determining a child’s personality traits is unethical, and that personality and characteristics should be allowed to develop naturally for an individual. Parents shouldn’t be able to ‘design’ their child like a toy – for if anything turns out different than what they tried to design or change, then they are likely to be dismissive toward the child and possibly see him or her as an ‘experiment gone wrong’ if they act against altruistic behavior. Furthermore, although children provided with altruistic genes would be disposed to help others and be caring, individuals without these genes would be likely to take advantage of the genetically altered individuals with the knowledge that they are pre-disposed to help others.

Overall, I believe that gene altering is unethical and in most situations could lead towards discrimination. However, if technology is developed that can alter the genes of an entire population to reduce the risk of certain diseases (and there wouldn’t be a divide between individuals with the genes who won’t get sick and individuals without the genes who have a higher probability of getting sick), then I think that this instance would provide the right setting for ethical gene alteration because it would make everyone better off.

-Lexi Zarecky, Blog 4

Reflections: Gattaca (1997)

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

“There is no gene for the human spirit.”

This was my first time watching the film Gattaca, and I have to say that I was thoroughly engrossed for all 100 or so minutes.  There were a number of specific things that I enjoyed, including the death and rebirth end scene that strongly reminded me of the opening credits to Ghost in the Shell, the film that I touched upon in my first blog post, Self and Cyborg.  I loved the cinematography of Gattaca as well.  For example there were some great shots that shaped the film’s commentary on discrimination.  My personal favorites included the rather grim images of the Gattaca workplace (see below).

The simple, professional wardrobe that all the workers wear remind me of the manufactured parts of a machine.  The production of each part is reduced down to an exact formula or protocol, resulting in pieces that are virtually free of any visible imperfections.  When Vincent’s parents were talking to the geneticist, I felt as if they were custom designing a piece of furniture, not welcoming a child into the world.  Everything had to be perfect.  The doctor expressed this sentiment pretty well: “We want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already.”

Although I enjoyed thinking about whittling down discrimination to a science, I greatly appreciated the overall feeling I got from the film.  As my opening quote suggests, I felt comforted by the fact that there is some “spirit” or simply some motivation that is beyond the reach of human manipulation.  When I was in high school, I remember having a rather pessimistic view on life.  I thought there would always be a glass ceiling, and that there are some dreams that some of us simply cannot achieve.  Perhaps this is true to some degree.  However, there is so much value in challenging our limits.  If we get too bogged down in what we can’t achieve, we start to only see ourselves for our flaws.  As Vincent put it, there is no reason why we should “save any for the swim back.”

-Angela L.

Genetic Engineering and the Breakdown of the Family

September 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Both Gattaca and Beggars in Spain take place in futuristic societies in which advanced genetic engineering allows for a person’s characteristics to be controlled simply by altering the person’s genes while they are still an embryo. However, the unfortunate result of this is that in both stories, children are generally seen not as a gift to be nurtured and brought forth into a world, but as an asset to be controlled and manipulated.  In fact, in both stories the prevalence of genetic engineering is accompanied by an increase in selfishness and a catastrophic breakdown of the family as a loving community in which a child is raised.

In the “ordinary” state of affairs (aka without genetic engineering or in vitro fertilization), a child is not an artificial creation, but rather a natural result of an act of selfless love made between a husband and wife, giving themselves and their bodies totally to each other (hence, it is called love-making).   The child, being the fruit of love, is then naturally loved for his own sake, not because of whatever usefulness it may have later on in life.  The child, being the fruit of this love, grows up immersed in this family and atmosphere of selflessness and learns how to value human beings for their own sake rather than for their usefulness.  With the presence of a good father and mother, the child not only learns the value of love and self-sacrifice, but also learns how men and women are meant to interact with each other through the example of his parents.

However, in Gattaca, Vincent is raised in a household largely devoid of this love.  The society they live in puts the ultimate value of a human being in his usefulness rather than in any inherent dignity he has as a human being.  This is evidenced by the fact that the genetically inferior “invalids” who were conceived by natural means were treated as almost less than human.  When rights and dignity are dependent on usefulness, then only the strong are afforded these rights.  In addition, Vincent never really learned how to form a relationship with a woman, and his relationship with his male companion was filled with much more ease and humanity.  While this could be seen as evidence for homosexual tendencies in Vincent, I think the more plausible explanation is that he simply never had a good example of how men and women relate to each other romantically (an example which usually would have been provided by the parents).

Similarly, in Beggars in Spain, children are not valued as new life and as gifts, but rather as commodities to be manipulated and controlled in pursuit of some false ideal of perfection.  Leisha and Alice’s parents love and value them not for their human dignity, but for their respective statuses, whether as “Sleeper” or “Sleepless.”  This is why their father values Leisha the most and their mother values Alice the most.  The love they receive is not the unconditional love that a family should provide, but rather a conditional and imperfect love.

In this story, unlike in Gattaca, the manipulation of life leads to a loss of dignity for the “genetically superior” rather than the “genetically inferior.”  It is the “Sleepless” who are treated as un-human and undeserving of respect and dignity.  The emphasis on controlling life and valuing human beings only for their usefulness is directly contrary to the idea that humans have inherent dignity and worth, and as a result, respect for human dignity is lost across the board.

Additionally, the love that their father, Roger Camden, had for his first and second wives was a conditional rather than unconditional love.  He valued them not for their inherent dignity or worth but because of the convenience and happiness they offered him, or rather, how useful they were.  Once this usefulness fades, he divorces them, and his love is shown to be purely conditional.

As a result of this breakdown of the family, children in each of these stories are deprived of the love and human formation that is usually provided by a family.  They are seen not as human life, but as a commodity to be modified genetically to be the most useful and “perfect.”

These stories serve as excellent examples of the dangers of genetic manipulation and the importance of accepting and affirming life rather than exerting complete control over it.  And it is a lesson we would do well to learn before we ourselves become one of these societies from “the not too distant future.”

-PJ Jedlovec (pjjed)

The Circle of Life

September 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

First, I have to preface this post by saying that the film Gattaca was probably one of my all-time favorites. I could not put a number to where it would fall on any kind of list of mine, but I do know that the more time I spend thinking about it, the more I like it. It legitimately upsets me that the movie was not more of a commercial success in 1997. In fact, I kind of want to go back in time to change that, but all that business about collapsing wormholes kind of freaks me out — one reason that I am writing about the movie. Being the science-fiction nerd that I am (as we all are, truthfully), I acknowledge that normally SF of any kind does not even have to be that good for me to like it. However, Gattaca’s many levels of meaning have an appeal that I think make it a quality film from a more objective standpoint. Digging deeper into the film offers up a treasure trove of insights that are not obvious on an initial viewing; for instance, I was looking at an image of the movie’s theatrical release poster, which depicts the spiral staircase in Jerome’s apartment on it. It looks exactly like a strand of DNA! I did not even realize that before. To me, a movie is well put together if little details as insignificant as that relate to its overall meaning. I applaud Andrew Niccol for such skillful directing.

Many of the film’s overarching themes have been discussed: the near-future society’s eerie similarities to Nazi Germany, the dangers of a eugenics movement in an effort to perfect our “imperfections,” and the subtle role that homosexuality might play in the film. I want to focus on the closing scene of Gattaca, something that we touched on briefly but never really explored in depth. The ending is especially effective because it uses womb-like symbolism to convey a sort of “rebirth” for both Vincent and Jerome. After Vincent reveals his true identity to the doctor, he enters the belly of the spaceship through a tunnel that is oddly similar to an umbilical cord. The doctor does nothing to impede his progress, a sign that Vincent has ultimately defeated the system and has been accepted into the elite of Gattaca even though he does not have the genome for it. There is a sense that when he returns from his mission to Titan, his quality as a person will no longer be questioned. In this way he is being reborn into the genetic upper class, from where he might use his new status to fight the eugenic system on a larger scale. Similarly, Jerome also experiences a type of rebirth, although in quite a different way. For him, his rebirth is his escape from the half-life that he has only lived vicariously through Vincent all this time. He curls up into a fetal position, just like he was in the womb, in the incinerator simply to be reborn into whatever comes next. For both characters, the closing scene of Gattaca serves as an escape from their previous lives and a rebirth into a new existence.

Hadley Wilson, B3

Designer Babies Are All the Rage

September 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

(yes, this is for B3. I just posted early!)

A/N: Mild spoilers for “Gattaca” below!

I went into Gattaca knowing absolutely nothing about the movie other than the fact that it starred Jude Law and Uma Thurman (if one is going to star in a futuristic Sci-Fi movie, what better name than “Uma Thurman,” am I right?). But within the first ten minutes, I was hooked.

I happen to also be taking a screenwriting class this semester, and in that class, we’ve been taught that the first ten minutes of any movie are enough for most movie-goers to decide whether or not they’re interested in continuing. By the time ten minutes are up, you ought to have an idea of where the movie is going, the main characters, the setting, etc.

I have a habit of watching all movies in a vaguely analytical manner now, so I know that at ten minutes in, Vincent has just been born: a “Godchild,” imperfect, with a high chance of heart disease, and already a reduced measure of his father’s love. At ten minutes in, I was still thinking this was some kind of “sabotage” movie, where Vincent had taken on Jerome’s persona (after, I guessed, killing or otherwise incapacitating Jerome) in order to do some evil at Gattaca. (think of all the “heist” movies that involve faking someone’s retinal scan or fingerprint)

It’s not until about twenty to twenty-five minutes into the movie that we realize what’s really going on, and it is, I think, after this realization that I came to really enjoy this movie rather than simply be intrigued by it.

“Gattaca” is an example of one of my favorite kinds of science fiction. (Before taking this class, I would have just said it IS my favorite kind of science fiction, but I’ve come to realize my taste for sci-fi is broader than I thought). It’s sci-fi that’s light on the science and heavy on the social effects of said science. We get little explanation on how this genetic engineering works, or how the doctors can tell a baby’s likelihood for heart disease—and life expectancy!—from a single drop of blood. We aren’t asked to question why all this has been made possible, yet computers and cars still look much the same, and society apparently went from “little to no genetic engineering” to “if you weren’t genetically engineered, you’re doomed to a life as a hobo or a janitor” in one generation.

(Let’s not even mention the weirdly bulky hand-scanners they’ve got going on, in addition to the oddly 60s hair/clothing styles, and the fact that Pluto is apparently still a planet. As my friend said when I mentioned the last bit— “I like to think they realized the error of their ways.”)

“Gattaca” is sci-fi in which the actual science is painted in broad strokes, and we are treated, instead, to the details of human life in the face of such science. Vincent faces a specific, vaguely fantastical problem that no one watching the movie (especially in 1997) faces. But his struggle—that of the underdog, the man fighting to prove himself in the face of all odds—is so very connected to the soul of the human experience.

In the end, I love science-fiction like “Gattaca” so much because while it makes us wonder for the future, marveling at some new-fangled idea, it roots us in the problems and heroics of the present.

-Kat Zhang

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