Gattaca, genetic glass ceilings and borrowed ladders: Is genoism inevitable?

Gautham Shenoy February 3, 2017 10 min

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There is an alternate ending to the 1997 SF film Gattaca that wasn’t shown in public screenings. It shows achievers from various fields who would never have been born if the technology shown in the movie existed in their time: Abraham Lincoln, Vincent Van Gogh, Albert Einstein, Ray Charles and Stephen Hawking. Why? Because they were all ‘genetically deficient’, suffering, respectively, from Marfan syndrome, epilepsy, dyslexia, primary glaucoma and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But actually, this wasn’t the line that offended people in advanced screenings and focus groups. It was the line that followed this list: “Of course, the other birth that may never have taken place is your own.” When it came to themselves, people found the idea to be a personal attack, essentially calling them genetically deficient, and thus it was dropped from the movie — perhaps because it cut a little too close to the bone. Because in the world of Gattaca, there would no place for you and me if we wore glasses, or could go prematurely bald, or had a tendency to obsess over things, or, even perhaps, if we were left-handed.

Frederik Pohl, one of the world’s leading modern science fiction editors and the co-author of The Space Merchants, once said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not just the automobile, but the traffic jam.” To imagine a technology-enabled future is great, but only if you can also predict its societal implications and its impact on the human condition. This is something that the Andrew Niccol-directed Gattaca does in spades, and then some.

Gattaca – named after the 4 nucleobases in human DNA: guanine (G), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and adenine (A) — is a movie set in a future where human genetic engineering – or rather germline engineering – is as common as night and day. And those privileged enough to afford it, choose to get what you would call ‘designer babies’ — where babies are ‘designed’ to give them the best possible advantages in life; unburdened by the “genetic defects” that plague natural, un-engineered births. Simply put, this is what is called Eugenics, the science of improving the hereditary qualities of a race or breed with direct genetic manipulation. Contrast this with dysgenics, where only the “undesirable traits” are perpetuated.

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The cover of the Gattaca special edition. 

Eugenics lays a stress on perpetuating what society deems to be “desirable traits.” Like athleticism, stature, skin colour, gender, etc. After all, if we can eliminate life-threatening diseases at the embryonic level with genetic engineering, it is but a small step to making a few more manipulations to ensure not just the removal of the ‘bad’, but to retain only the ‘best’. This in turn plays straight into the school of thought that believes in bio-determinism or genetic essentialism: a reductionist ideology that believes that all human behaviour – and an individual’s personality – is determined by genetic makeup. Given that nowadays everything seems to be either blamed on genes or credited to them, coupled with the abysmal standard of science reporting in mainstream media (the classic example being the Time Magazine headline, “Smelling farts can cure cancer”), we may have already moved to being a society that believes in genetic essentialism — disregarding a person’s environment and life experiences (Nature vs Nurture anyone?).

It is this world that believes in genetic essentialism that Gattaca is set in. In a world of designer babies, our hero Vincent Freeman – played by Ethan Hawke – unfortunately isn’t one. Conceived “in utero”, he is genetically un-enhanced. He is an “in-valid”, and a few seconds after he is born, genetically prophesied to die at age 30. That’s how Gattaca brings in the bioethical dilemmas surrounding gene therapy and genetic engineering, starting with the first of its warnings for society if we believe in biological determinism. When all the potential of a person is measured only in terms of his genetic makeup – as the Mission Director of Gattaca states, ‘no one exceeds their potential’ – will there be room and opportunity anymore for people to be given a chance to rise above their genetic predispositions? Or are they to be condemned forever to be prisoners of their cells? No wonder then, that Vincent is unloved from birth, especially by his father, only because he’s not ‘valid’ and has no potential and is doomed to (probably) an early death. As Vincent, the in-valid, muses, “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands, rather than those of her local geneticist.”

As he grows, Vincent realises that he is the new underclass — one that is no longer determined by social status, colour of skin, or caste, but genetic makeup. “We now have discrimination down to a science,” muses Vincent. The second of the bioethical dilemmas is about the discrimination based on genetic profiling. It is but natural that the ones with the ‘better genes’ and without the ‘undesirable genes’ will be considered inferior and discriminated against. Or is it?

Vincent is more intelligent, more driven and more knowledgeable than the ‘valids’, but the best test score in the world isn’t going to make any difference unless he has the blood test to go with it

Because while discrimination is illegal – ‘genoism’ it is called – no one takes the law seriously in Gattaca. Not when you have friendly neighbourhood labs that will tell you all about anyone’s genome in a convenient printout for next to nothing. Vincent dreams of getting into Gattaca Aerospace and being an astronaut, to fulfil his dream of visiting other worlds. Vincent is more intelligent, more driven and more knowledgeable than the ‘valids’, but knowing that the best test score in the world isn’t going to make any difference unless he has the blood test to go with it, he decides to resort to more extreme measures. He decides to become a ‘borrowed ladder’, a de-gene-erate, someone who, to escape genoism, takes on the identity of a ‘valid’.

This person is Jerome Morrow (played by Jude Law), a ‘valid’, a ‘vitro’, a ‘made-man’ who has never had to face discrimination but is now physically challenged and fallen on bad times. In return for his urine and hair samples and skin flakes, which Vincent uses to pass off as Jerome, he is taken care of by Vincent. Vincent, meanwhile, takes great care every day to brush off any loose skin and hair and to clean anything he comes in contact with so as not to leave any trace of his “defective” genetic material lying around lest it be caught up in a routine sweep and his secret exposed.

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In the foreground and on the ground, Vincent Freeman, the ‘in-valid’ undergoing the last of the physical changes that help him take on the identity of the ‘valid’ Jerome Morrow (confined to the wheelchair after an accident).

Vincent – posing as Jerome – is successful in getting employed at Gattaca, with the interview being nothing more than a DNA test to check if he is valid. Gattaca Aerospace is a world in itself; impersonal, sterile, with everybody, all obviously genetically-engineered ‘valids’, looking the same, dressing the same way, un-identical from one another.

The third bioethical dilemma – will designer babies lead to a homogenous society?

I would be surprised if there were any science fiction fans and/or movie buffs who haven’t seen Gattaca, a film NASA called the most accurate and plausible science fiction film ever made

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Vincent, intelligent as he is, cleverly rises through the ranks at Gattaca to become Navigator, First Class and is on track to be on the manned mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s satellites. With only a week to take-off, a high-ranking official is brutally murdered. And to his bad luck, heading the murder investigation is none other than his own younger brother, Anton (a valid, because after Vincent, his parents didn’t want to leave anything to chance with their next child). And to compound it, a stray eyelash belonging to him is found, which leads Anton to suspect that Vincent could be the murderer (he’s an in-valid after all) and to go in search of him. And somewhere in between is a nice sub-plot involving Vincent and a colleague Irene, played by Uma Thurman (you can surely guess the nature of this sub-plot!).

To say anything more than this about the plot of the movie would be to give away spoilers. Though I would be surprised if there were any science fiction fans and/or movie buffs who haven’t seen Gattaca yet, a movie that in 2011 NASA called the most accurate and plausible science fiction film ever made.

Apart from being tightly scripted, well-shot and brilliantly directed, there are nice touches that aren’t obvious at first, but become apparent once you think about them. About why Jerome Morrow’s middle name is ‘Eugene’. Eu-gene. Eugenics. See what Andrew Niccol did there? Or the spiral staircase in Jerome’s house, that invokes the double-helix structure of the DNA. And the fact that it is in Jerome’s house, but is used only by Vincent — making it a “borrowed ladder” just as Vincent himself is. These are just some finer points and exquisite detailing as far as filmcraft goes, but Gattaca remains at its heart a sci-fi story that does justice to the letter, and spirit, of Fredrick Pohl’s quote about what makes a science fiction story a good story.

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A scene from Gattaca that metaphorically shows the heights to which Vincent the ‘in-valid’ – albeit as a borrowed ladder – while the engineered Jerome can’t, for lack of spirit – something for which there is no gene in the DNA (whose shape is evoked in the spiral staircase).

Gattaca raises some very valid questions about the societal implications of creating children through genetic engineering and of believing that genes are all there is to us. Can there be equality when people are being engineered and bred to be superior? What about the have-nots who cannot afford this? Where do we draw the line, and who decides what is defective and what is undesirable? BTW, in Gattaca, even premature baldness is considered a genetic defect (no wonder people were offended by the alternate ending). If designer babies are inevitable, will ‘genoism’ be far behind? Will genetic engineering take away all the diversity and heterogeneity we see in the present day? What good will it usher in an age where the only thing standing between people and their dreams is their genetic makeup?

What good will it usher in an age where the only thing standing between people and their dreams is their genetic makeup?

There’s a nice poignant scene in the film in which Vincent – as his in-valid self and working as a janitor at Gattaca Corp before he becomes Jerome Morrow – looks up in awe at the spaceships taking off, through a glass roof; a metaphor for the genetic glass ceiling that prevents him from living his dream. But as the tagline for the movie goes, ‘There is no gene for the human spirit.’ And there’s no gene for fate either. It is perhaps the lack of these genes that works to Vincent’s advantage. To actually see how – and to know who the murderer is – watch the movie. It’s got perhaps one of the most poetic, more poignant endings as far as science fiction films go. It’s definitely worth ~106 minutes of your time.

If you’ve already seen the movie, then you know it’s worth a re-watch. If you disagree, do let us know why. And if you have any other comments to make, or have a thought to share about this edition of New Worlds Weekly or want to ask us anything about science fiction – which hopefully we will have the answer to! – please feel free to do so. Use the comments section below, leave a comment on the FactorDaily Facebook page, or tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD. I look forward to your comments, suggestions and questions. So until next Friday then, live long and prosper!


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