Science Fiction Studies

#81 = Volume 27, Part 2 = July 2000

David A. Kirby

The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy in GATTACA

Genetic engineering represents our fondest hopes and aspirations as well as our darkest fears and misgivings. That’s why most discussions of the new technology are likely to be so heated. The technology touches the core of our self-definition. The new tools are the ultimate expression of human control—helping us shape and define the way we would like to be and the way we would like the rest of living nature to be. Biotechnologies are "dream tools," giving us the power to create a new vision of ourselves, our heirs, and our living world and the power to act on it.—Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century (xii)

A technological revolution is occurring in the biosciences that will transform humanity more profoundly in the coming decades than has occurred in the previous thousand years. As biotechnology continues its rapid expansion, American society is confronted with new and unique bioethical dilemmas. Throughout the history of cinema, science fiction films have addressed ethical issues associated with new technologies.1 In Screening Space, Vivian Sobchack discusses the relationship between science and society as represented in sf cinema. She claims that sf cinema portrays "science as social force, as an institutional aspect of contemporary civilization" (50; italics in original). As indicated in the above quotation from longtime biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin, genetic engineering represents society’s worst fears about science as "social force." It is evident from the recent boom in films that include genetic engineering as a plot element, ranging from the wildly successful Jurassic Park (1993) to the box-office flop Alien: Resurrection (1997), that sf cinema remains a forum for discourse about biotechnology’s impact on society and nature.

Commentators on science fiction sometimes have a tendency to view genetic engineering (and, indeed, scientific practices generally) as monolithic, with little or no delineation between diverse scientific procedures. Genetic engineering is essentially just a catchall phrase used to describe any technique that allows biologists to manipulate an organism’s hereditary material. Genetic engineering encompasses three distinct categories of gene manipulation: 1) recombinant DNA technology (rDNA technology), which involves combining DNA from two different species; 2) the cloning of multicellular organisms, in which a new individual is generated from a single cell, circumventing sexual reproduction by creating offspring that are genetically identical to adults; and 3) human-gene therapy, which is the direct manipulation of human genes. Although these are distinct technological procedures, their use can be combined: human genes can be inserted into the genome of another organism (rDNA technology), which can then be cloned. Though many of the ethical problems associated with one type of genetic engineering can be ascribed to the other types, all three forms present unique bioethical dilemmas as well.

Even after the advent of genetic engineering in the early 1970s, and the bioethical concerns associated with gene therapy, this form of biotechnology was incorporated into few cinematic texts. The mechanism used for creating superior humans remained no more scientifically complex than the techniques deployed in sf films of the 1930s.2 The paucity of films that deal with human-gene therapy is surprising given that this mode of genetic engineering is associated with one of the most reviled social movements in history, the eugenics movement, which itself has an extensive history in the early cinema. In his book The Black Stork, Martin Pernick found that eugenics was a popular topic in films from 1900 to 1935. The image of the eugenicist deciding who could marry based on rational science, rather than love, fueled many early comedies, such as Eugenics at the Bar "U" Ranch (1914), Snakeville’s Eugenic Marriage (1915), and Their Mutual Child (1920). In addition, there were many propagandistic fictional films produced on the subject of eugenics between 1910 and the mid-1920s, including the pro-eugenics film Heredity (1915) and the anti-eugenics film The Regeneration of Margaret (1916). Pernick found that for controversial medical topics such as eugenics, "mass culture was a battleground on which many conflicting visions competed" (127). Eugenics was considered an "unpleasant" topic, however, and films that dealt directly with the subject "virtually disappeared from commercial theaters under the assault from aesthetic censors in the 1920s" (125). Still, the narratives of sf films continued to include the eugenic goal of creating "superior" human beings. Several films of the 1940s, such as Man Made Monster (1941) and The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942), featured Nazi-like scientists creating "supermen" through scientific manipulation. This history would seem to have paved the way for a cinematic treatment of human-gene therapy in the context of popular visions of eugenics, but this has not been the case.

This is even more surprising considering how extensively science fiction literature has dealt with the use of technology to make directed changes to human evolution. One of the most famous science fiction novels of all time was written as a response to the notion of genetic manipulation of humans. The idea of direct genetic control started with the publication of evolutionary geneticist J.B.S. Haldane’s "speculative science" book Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1924), which offered the vision of a "new" eugenics that relied on technological breakthroughs and avoided selective breeding. Haldane outlined a process he called "ectogenic creation" that involved direct intervention into the human genome. Many people found the idea of directly manipulating hereditary material for the "betterment" of humanity unpalatable, and Haldane’s vision was sharply satirized in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Haldane’s ideas had many proponents, however, including Aldous Huxley’s brother Julian, as well as H.G. Wells, a former student of T.H. Huxley, Aldous’s grandfather.

Gene-altering technologies played a prominent role in several pre-1970 sf novels, such as Robert Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon (1948), James Blish’s The Seedling Stars (1957), Frank Herbert’s The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966), and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Additionally, Helen Parker, in her book Biological Themes in Modern Science Fiction, identifies Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1960) and Kobo Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4 (1959) as works that depict genetic manipulation as a means of adapting humanity to new environmental conditions. Although several of these novels are considered classics, sf critic John Clute notes that, for the most part, "earlier SF tended to ignore genetic engineering" (232). After genetic technologies became a reality in the early 1970s, gene therapy began to appear in science fiction stories. In John Varley’s The Opiuchi Hotline (1977), for example, the human genome is altered in an attempt to improve the human condition. By the mid-1980s gene technologies were regularly appearing in sf stories, such as Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985) and Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy (1987, 1988, 1989), and by the 1990s the theme of genetically-altered humans had become a staple of the literature. One notable set of stories from the 1990s, Nancy Kress’s BEGGARS trilogy (1993, 1994, 1996), tackles the bioethical issues associated specifically with gene therapy. The fact that sf cinema has remained, until quite recently, silent on the subject of genetic manipulation is curious indeed.

Briefly, eugenics may be defined as any attempt to accelerate human evolution by improving the genetic makeup of humans. An important distinction must be made between goal-directed evolution and the sort of human-directed evolution properly known as eugenics. In goal-directed evolution—which figures prominently in many sf novels about the evolution of Homo superior, including Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953)—the evolutionary process moves in a specific direction, but the movement is due to "natural" developments. This is unlike eugenics, in which evolution is impelled in a specific direction by human intervention. Francis Galton, who coined the word in 1865, envisioned a system of artificial selection whereby society would permit people with "desirable" qualities to have children (positive eugenics), while individuals with "undesirable" traits would be prevented from having children (negative eugenics). For a thirty-year span, between 1900 and 1929, the eugenics movement captured the attention of America’s leading reformers, academicians, professionals, and political leaders, including industrialist John Kellogg, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and women’s rights advocate Margaret Sanger.3 By the early 1930s, however, the climate that had been receptive to eugenics in America had broken down. Several factors led to the downfall of the American eugenics movement, including the Stock Market crash of 1929, scientific discoveries in the new field of genetics, and public mistrust of the restrictions on marriage and childrearing that selective breeding required.4 The rise of Nazism in the 1930s completely discredited the eugenics movement for the next four decades. Eugenics re-emerged as a scientific endeavor—and as a social issue—following the advent of biotechnology in the early 1970s, when bacterial DNA from two different species was combined by two researchers, Stanley Cohen of Stanford University and Herbert Boyer of the University of California.5 Although the Cohen-Boyer experiment involved rDNA technology, it demonstrated the possibility of direct gene manipulation, and scientists rapidly saw the potential use of the technique in human-gene therapy.

Human-gene therapy is a procedure in which defective (faulty) copies of a gene are replaced with non-defective (functional) copies. For example, Severe Combined Immuno-Deficiency syndrome (SCID) is a genetic disorder caused by mutations in a single gene, adenosine deaminase (ADA), which is on human chromosome 20. Individuals who possess two defective copies of this gene cannot make the protein adenosine deaminase; thus, they do not possess a functioning immune system. Gene therapy treatments for SCID involve putting non-defective copies of ADA into the DNA of an affected individual’s bone cells, allowing them to make adenosine deaminase. Gene therapy can either be used to treat individuals who already have a genetic disorder (somatic cell therapy), or to correct genes in sperm, eggs, or embryonic cells (germ-line therapy). Germ-line therapy gives scientists the ability to change an individual’s genetic makeup before they are born, or even conceived.

The treatment of highly deleterious genetic disorders does not create public anxiety about gene therapy. Cosmetic gene therapy, however, conjures up images of a new eugenics because it not only allows healthy individuals to change their physical appearance and/or behaviors through gene manipulation, but allows these changes to be passed down to future generations. Molecular biologists have already isolated the genes that code for many physical traits, such as skin color, baldness, and stature. In addition, some scientists claim to have found genes that code for complex behaviors, such as shyness and homosexuality. Although many of these arguments have been shown to be fallacious, popular press coverage has contributed to the growing public belief that behaviors are genetically determined.6 Even granting the dubious character of some of these more sweeping claims, it is almost certainly the case that within the next few decades our increasing knowledge of human genetics, combined with germ-line therapy, will enable us to produce custom-designed genetic individuals.

Bioethicists fear that attributes not desired by society as a whole, such as the aforementioned physical and behavioral traits, will be removed from humanity completely. Jeremy Rifkin has pointed out that the potential for a new eugenics is inherent in our ability to manipulate our genetic makeup, even if the technology has beneficial uses:

If diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, and cancer are to be prevented by altering the genetic makeup of individuals, why not proceed to other less serious "disorders": myopia, color blindness, dyslexia, obesity, left-handedness? Indeed, what is to preclude a society from deciding that a certain skin color is a disorder? In the end, why would we ever say no to any alteration of the genetic code that might enhance the well-being of our offspring? It is difficult to imagine parents rejecting genetic modifications that promised to improve, in some way, the opportunities for their progeny. (140)

Rifkin, among others, is concerned that the new eugenics will lead to homogenous societies, to a loss of diversity. Worse, he argues, we may create a society that discriminates against those who cannot access technologies controlled by a limited number of scientists.

Inevitably, when the bioethical issues surrounding eugenics are discussed, one of the first images conjured up is of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned "Aryan race" as envisioned during the Nazi eugenics program. The new eugenics, however, will encompass not only such physical characteristics as skin, eye, and hair color, but will potentially include genetic manipulation of behaviors and personality. Thus, anxiety over a new eugenics is predicated upon the belief that all human traits are genetically determined in the first place. Genetic determinism, which is also known as bio-determinism or genetic essentialism, is the belief that human behavior, personality, and physical appearance are determined exclusively by a person’s genetic makeup. Genetic determinism is a reductionist ideology in that it seeks to explain a complex whole (a human being) in terms of its component parts (individual genes). Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin, biologists and longtime critics of genetic determinism, summarize the basic ideology as follows:

Biological [genetic] determinists ask, in essence, Why are individuals as they are? Why do they do what they do? And they answer that human lives and actions are inevitable consequences of the biochemical properties of the cells that make up the individual; and these characteristics are in turn uniquely determined by the constituents of the genes possessed by each individual. Ultimately, all human behavior—hence all human society—is governed by a chain of determinants that runs from the gene to the individual to the sum of the behaviors of all individuals. (6)

Considering that the goal of eugenics is to improve humanity through genetic manipulation, it is clear that a eugenics program cannot succeed unless genetic determinism is accepted as the true state of the world. Gene therapy will lead to a new eugenics only if society follows to some degree a genetic-determinist ideology.

In Science in Action sociologist Bruno Latour explains that science is not immune from the forces affecting society at large. Based on his study of scientists and the scientific literature, Latour has found what he calls "black boxes," scientific theories or equipment that are taken for granted and accepted as being accurate and useful. Latour discusses the double-helical nature of DNA as an example of a concept that started out as an open, transparent box and through the process of scientific development became closed, opaque—a black box. Latour says that until a black box is closed, a scientific concept "can be disassociated, dismantled, renegotiated, reappropriated" (131). Once a concept becomes a black box, however, it is generally accepted without hesitation and "cannot and should not be opened" (4).

Many sociologists, scientists, and bioethicists feel that the concept of genetic determinism is becoming a black box in American society. Sociologists Dorothy Nelkin and Susan Lindee, for instance, believe that the American public has become more accepting of the genetic determinist ideology, attributing this growing acceptance (black-boxing) to the flood of popular press stories linking specific genes with complex human traits. According to Latour’s model, the popular press represents an "ally" for the acceptance of genetic determinism. Latour maintains that a concept becomes a black box for society when it has significantly more "allies" than other competing concepts. According to Latour allies come from all areas of society—politicians, mass media, teaching curricula, textbooks, etc.—and not just from the scientific community. Referring to the network of allies needed to construct a black box as "technoscience," Latour is careful to stress that allies external to the scientific community do not actually influence the scientific concepts themselves (175). In Latour’s model, allies either accept a concept or they do not, throwing their support instead behind other concepts. So Latour distinguishes his model for analyzing the institutional processes of science from those of other sociologists of science (see, for instance, a number of the essays gathered in Andrew Ross’s controversial anthology, Science Wars) who claim that societal forces actually shape the scientific concepts within the box.

In their book The DNA Mystique, Nelkin and Lindee have found that the creators of popular culture act as another "ally" for genetic determinism, arguing that the rising public acceptance of this ideology has translated into a "cult of the gene" increasingly visible in popular-culture narratives (3). In their view, the creators of these narratives utilize the genetic-determinist ideology because they "believe that this message will be broadly understood and widely appreciated. Popular culture is a business, and the appeal of any product—a television sitcom, advertising campaign, or newspaper story—depends on its resonance with consumer experience and popular belief" (13). Nelkin and Lindee cite numerous examples of popular-culture texts from the 1980s and 1990s that include images of the gene as omnipotent, concluding that "these popular images convey a striking picture of the gene as powerful, deterministic, and central to an understanding of both everyday behavior and the ‘secret of life’" (2).7 Based on their research, Nelkin and Lindee conclude that the black box of genetic determinism has been closed in relation to popular culture.

Genetic Determinism and Eugenics in GATTACA. Given this cultural context, Sony Pictures’ GATTACA (1997) presents a unique counter-argument. GATTACA not only deals with the bioethical issues associated with the new eugenics, it actually suggests that these issues arise from societal acceptance of the genetic-determinist ideology. In essence, GATTACA tries to break out of the black box constructed by genetic scientists who portray a world dominated by genes. GATTACA does not deny the importance of genes, nor does it fault the technology itself; rather, the film warns of the problems that arise if we believe that humans are nothing more than their genes.

GATTACA depicts a future world in which parents are encouraged to decide the genetic makeup of their offspring before birth. In this world not everyone has access to the technology, and individuals who have not been genetically enhanced encounter severe discrimination. GATTACA’s narrative focuses on Vincent Freeman, a genetically unenhanced individual, and his interactions with three characters, Eugene, Irene, and Anton, who are genetically enhanced. During the course of the film, Vincent avoids genetic discrimination by passing off Eugene Morrow’s genetic makeup as his own.8 Because everyone believes that Vincent has Eugene’s genetic profile, he is able to obtain a job at the prestigious Gattaca corporation, which arranges offworld expeditions. While at Gattaca, Vincent develops a romantic relationship with Irene, who would be genetically perfect except for a single flaw, a weak heart—ironically, the same defect suffered by Vincent himself. Early in the film an executive is murdered at Gattaca, and the subsequent investigation is conducted by Vincent’s genetically augmented younger brother, Anton. A stray eyelash provides DNA evidence, making Vincent the prime suspect in the murder. Because the DNA profile from the eyelash shows a genetically imperfect individual, nobody suspects that the eyelash really belongs to the best engineer working at Gattaca. As Irene and Anton begin to realize that Vincent is not genetically perfect, they are forced, along with Eugene, to confront the fact that the genetically unenhanced Vincent is actually a superior human being, able to excel physically and socially despite his built-in "flaws."

GATTACA is an example of an extrapolative science fiction film; it projects, from today’s limited use of gene therapy, a world where the new eugenics is a reality. Essentially, the filmmakers act as bioethicists, attempting to forecast the consequences of unrestricted human-gene therapy in a society that accepts all the implications of the genetic determinist ideology. In his recent study of robot/android/cyborg films, Replications, J.P. Telotte argues that the use of artificially created humans in cinema represents the "most effective way" to gauge the range of definitions of humanness (195). Though genetic engineering films deserve to be considered a meaningfully distinct subgenre of the field, GATTACA’s treatment of genetically enhanced persons can be considered a study of "human artifice" in Telotte’s terms, using the technology of gene therapy to question the genetic-determinist ideology as a way of defining humanness. Indeed, this sort of bioethical questioning was the explicit purpose of the filmmakers themselves. In the Production Notes for GATTACA, co-producer Stacey Sher points out that "GATTACA is a science fiction thriller about how we might come to live with the scientific powers we are currently discovering...; [it] creates a complete and believable world of the future based on the genetic testing that is becoming a reality today" (1). Screenwriter/director Andrew Niccol’s construction of GATTACA as a bioethical text focuses on three prominent concerns: 1) genetic discrimination against those who are not enhanced, 2) the cultural implications of predictive genetics (genetic prophecy), and 3) the eradication of "undesirable" traits and human imperfections.

Traditionally, bioethical concerns about gene therapy have centered around a belief that the few scientists who possessed the knowledge of human genetics would determine which traits and characteristics should be modified through cosmetic gene therapy. This is a concern that has often been reflected in sf stories focusing on human-directed evolution. In her survey of representations of the scientist in Western literature, Roslynn Haynes analyzes the stereotype of the obsessed overreacher who despotically determines the traits that are best for humanity, tracing its literary lineage back to Wells’s Dr. Moreau and concluding that the figure represents popular anxieties about the presumed "arrogance of science" (155). Bioethicists now feel, however, that the nature of genetic enhancement will not be determined solely by scientists, but will primarily be driven by societal preferences. An examination of the history of human growth hormone (hGH) usage supports this belief. Originally designed to treat dwarfism, hGH has increasingly been used by parents to increase the height of children who do not suffer from a growth hormone deficit, but are shorter than other children their age. According to Jeremy Rifkin, parents are "mindful that tall people generally do better in life—command higher salaries, attract more desirable mates, and enjoy other similar perks" (141); therefore, it is not surprising to find parents using hGH to increase their child’s growth. In the same way, bioethicists assume that the traits modified through genetic enhancement will be those that confer obvious cultural advantages.

This is exactly the scenario played out in GATTACA, where parents choose for their offspring the traits that are favored by society. An early scene shows Vincent’s parents discussing the genetics of their next baby, Anton, with a geneticist, who argues that it would be detrimental to the child not to remove traits that are likely to make him the butt of social prejudices.

GENETICIST: You have specified hazel eyes, dark hair, and fair skin. I have taken the liberty of eradicating any potentially prejudicial conditions: premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism and addictive susceptibility, propensity for violence, obesity, et cetera.

MARIA FREEMAN: We didn’t want any, I mean diseases yes, but—

ANTONIO FREEMAN: Right, we were just wondering if it would be good to leave a few things to chance.

GENETICIST: You want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn’t need any additional burdens.

The geneticist implies that individuals who lack the qualities that society finds desirable—a full head of hair, 20/20 vision, and low body weight—will face social discrimination. This scene is interesting in light of Haynes’s analysis of the Moreau stereotype, since here the figure of the scientist, rather than tyrannically enforcing his vision, merely plays upon existing popular beliefs and attitudes.

Although bioethicists assume that society will determine the direction of the new eugenics, they worry that access to genetic enhancement technologies will be limited to parents who can afford to pay for the procedures. Evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin has long believed that the major problem associated with gene therapy is that "a large fraction of human beings will be the victims of the omissions and commissions of science because they lack the material wealth and the social power to control their own lives" (799). Similarly, Lee Silver argues that limited access to gene-therapy technologies will lead to a society of genetic haves and have-nots: "That’s my fear about genetic engineering: it is so powerful, it is so good, it will only be available to those who have money" (Radford). Not everyone in GATTACA has the financial resources to have their children genetically enhanced. As was implied by Anton’s geneticist, those who are unable to be genetically enhanced before birth will face severe discrimination—based as much on the simple fact of unenhanced status as on any particular flaw or drawback. Indeed, as Vincent observes in the film, a new class structure has arisen based not on "social status or the color of your skin," but on one’s overall genetic profile; as a result, "we now have discrimination down to a science." GATTACA’s bold discussion of genetic prejudice, which makes it unique among science fiction films, links it with sf such novels as Brave New World, The Eyes of Heisenberg, and more recently, Kress’s BEGGARS trilogy, all of which feature the creation of new class structures as a result of genetic manipulation.9

Copyright 1997 by Columbia/TriStar Pictures

According to Vincent, discrimination against the genetically unenhanced is akin to contemporary racism or classism: "it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of genetics—genoism it’s called—but no one takes the laws seriously." Likewise, the genetically unenhanced are referred to by derogatory names, such as "faith births," "defectives," "God children," or the officially sanctioned term, "in-valids." In-valids who illegally use the genetic profiles of "valids"—the genetically enhanced—are called "de-gene-erates" or "borrowed ladders." Several scenes depict physical barriers that powerfully illustrate the obstacles GATTACA’s society places in the path of unenhanced individuals. The scene in which Vincent’s parents are told that he will not be allowed to go to school with other children (because the school cannot afford the skyrocketing insurance rates required to cover an in-valid child) includes a close-up of the gate shutting in Vincent’s face; the only other object visible in the shot is young Vincent’s hand clutching at the closed gate. Another scene depicts the new "glass ceiling" that exists when genetic discrimination is illegal but openly practiced. Vincent, who before his "borrowed ladder" status as Jerome could only get a job as a janitor at Gattaca, is shown with his face pressed against a window looking up at the genetically-enhanced individuals who work inside as they ascend escalators. Similarly, Vincent is often shown gazing up through a skylight as Gattaca’s offworld missions rocket skyward, leaving him forever below. These glass barriers materialize the predicament faced by Vincent, who should legally be able to work on the inside but is shut out due to the discriminatory practices of GATTACA’s society. As Vincent comments, despite the fact that he has studied hard and is intellectually prepared for the job, "the best test score in the world wasn’t going to matter unless I had the blood test to go with it."

In effect, borrowed ladders such as Vincent are similar to minority characters in other films who manage to avoid discrimination, and obtain jobs, by "passing" as members of the majority group. In GATTACA and other passing films, the assumption that minority individuals are not capable of performing as well as others is called into question when a minority character is able not only to succeed but to better the accomplishments of individuals from the majority group. Discrimination against the genetically unenhanced presupposes that genetic determinism is the true state of the world and that genetic manipulation actually improves an enhanced individual’s behavior and ability to perform a job; in this case, the genetically enhanced should always perform better than the genetically unenhanced and genetic discrimination is justified. If genetic determinism is not a valid paradigm, however, then genetic manipulation will not automatically improve an enhanced individual’s behavior or distinguish such an individual from one whose genetic material has not been manipulated. In this case, the genetically unenhanced should be able to perform as well as, or better than, genetically-enhanced individuals, and genetic discrimination is not justified. Because the genetically-unenhanced Vincent proves to be more successful than all the genetically-enhanced characters, GATTACA dismisses the practice of genetic discrimination by rejecting its underlying assumption of genetic determinism.

Extreme genetic determinists believe that a genetic readout can be used to predict a person’s future: genetic inheritance is equivalent to predestination. In Genetic Prophecy, for example, geneticist Zsolt Harsanyi and writer Richard Hutton claim that individuals’ genetic readouts are an accurate gauge of their future: "Genetics offers answers. For genes can foretell the future; and it is only a matter of time and technical skill before we understand their language" (30; italics in original). Most genetic data, however, only give information about the likelihood of, or predisposition for, developing a disorder or trait. Whether a person ultimately develops this trait or disorder is dependent on complex interactions linking heredity, environment, the individual, and society. A genetic readout provides uncertain predictive information about possible futures, not guaranteed outcomes. According to bioethicists, the danger in believing that genetic readouts are infallible is that these predictions will become self-fulfilling prophecies. Based on his research into the development of self-definition, sociologist Charlie Davison argues that the more a person knows about his or her genetic predispositions, the more influence this knowledge tends to have in the determination of self; for example, a person who knows that he or she has a genetic predisposition for heart disease will behave as if certain to develop heart disease, rather than take the chance that the disease may never develop. In an extreme genetic-determinist society (i.e., GATTACA), genetic readouts would no longer serve as tentative predictors of possible futures, but would be viewed as unalterable prophecies.

In GATTACA Vincent is ostensibly given his life story at the time of his birth based on his genetic readout: "My destiny was mapped out before me—all my flaws, predispositions, and susceptibilities, most untreatable to this day." Vincent initially accepts this destiny, saying that "from an early age I came to think of myself as others thought of me—a chronic in-valid." Eventually, Vincent realizes that his potential is not written in his genes, and he escapes the trap of genetic determinism, becoming, as his name implies, a "Freeman." Like Vincent, Irene’s potential is limited by society because her genetic profile shows a predisposition for heart problems. Since the society in GATTACA accepts extreme genetic determinism, likelihood becomes certainty for Irene. According to screenwriter/director Niccol, Irene is "somebody who would lie down and die at the allotted minute because she would feel guilty if she lived a minute longer than her [genetic] profile prescribed" (Production Notes 2). During the course of the film, Irene realizes that Vincent has overcome his genetic flaws, and that she has the ability to overcome hers. As Uma Thurman, who plays Irene, states, "her fate isn’t sealed the way she thinks it is, and the realization transforms her" (Production Notes 3).

Copyright 1997 by Columbia/TriStar Pictures

While Irene is held back by her faulty genetic makeup, Anton and Eugene are unable to live up to the expectations created by their flawless genes. According to Vincent, the expectations put upon the genetically enhanced to live up to their genetics are almost as debilitating as the discrimination against the unenhanced: "unlike the faith births, the genetically enhanced suffer under a different burden, that of perfection." Because Vincent as a "faith child" was a disappointment to his parents, their second child, the genetically-enhanced Anton, bears all the expectations of being a "son worthy of his father’s name." As with Irene, Vincent’s actions cause Anton to question his innate superiority. When Vincent saves Anton from drowning, Vincent realizes that "My brother was not as strong as he believed and I was not as weak." The burden of perfection is even greater for Eugene, whose name, "Eugene Morrow," literally means the "best gene of tomorrow." Throughout the film we are reminded that Eugene has a genetic makeup second to none. He has been engineered to be an Olympic swimmer, yet he has only won a silver medal at the games. Eugene understands that, based on his genetic makeup, he is expected to win every race, that he "was never meant to be one step down on the podium." Ultimately, Eugene comes to see that the unenhanced Vincent is better at being Eugene than Eugene himself. As was the case with genetic discrimination, the genetically-unenhanced Vincent’s ability to overcome his genetic prophecy calls into question the assumption of genetic determinism.

Copyright 1997 by Columbia/TriStar Pictures

Although GATTACA rejects an extreme genetic-determinist ideology, the film acknowledges that many physical characteristics can be enhanced through gene therapy. According to GATTACA’s production notes, however, there is a downside to a world in which all our physical imperfections have been eliminated through gene therapy: "what will be the consequences of such a world? What will happen to the glorious creative chaos of diversity?" (1). Visually, GATTACA conveys an antiseptic world that has been purged of imperfections and blemishes. The Academy Award-nominated sets, whether at the Gattaca corporation or in Eugene’s apartment, show a sterile and blemish-free world filled with smooth, stainless steel surfaces. In his review of GATTACA for The New Republic, Stanley Kaufmann discusses how set designer Jan Roelfs created an anesthetic atmosphere: "For this environment Roelfs has designed vast rooms in generally dull monochrome, which makes us feel that everything takes place within a cold, relentless machine" (26). The set designs are so successful in portraying a world devoid of imperfections that the word "Gattaca" has begun showing up as an adjective to indicate an object or place that appears sterile, flawless, or surgically pristine.10 The costuming in GATTACA also suggests homogeneity and uniformity, with all the employees of the corporation, men and women alike, wearing matching black suits.11

Other visual motifs express the overriding importance of genetic makeup in GATTACA’s society. Mimicking a DNA sequence, the title of the film itself is composed of the four DNA bases, Adenosine, Guanosine, Thymine, and Cytosine. In the same manner, the award-winning opening credits show individual names with A, G, T, and C highlighted (e.g., GORE VIDAL): after two seconds, the other letters fade away and only the highlighted ones remain.12 This highlighting technique establishes, from the outset of the film, a notion that the genetic code is more powerful than other letters and elements—more important even than the names and personalities of the actors and the characters they play. The image of DNA is also seen in the helical design of the staircase in Eugene’s apartment. Eugene, who is paralyzed after an attempted suicide, is constantly reminded that he is unable to climb the DNA staircase to the upper floors. Both the wheelchair and the DNA staircase provide visual metaphors of Eugene’s inability to live up to his perfect genetic makeup, and Vincent’s ability to transcend his. Similarly, the recurring image of Vincent removing loose skin and hair to hide his identity is a reminder of his own genetic imperfections.

Copyright 1997 by Columbia/TriStar Pictures

In GATTACA, body matter serves as a visual metaphor for a person’s genetic identity. Blood, skin, hair, eyelashes, urine, and saliva are all used in the film to collect genetic readouts on characters. At one point Irene steals a piece of hair from Vincent’s comb in order to get a readout of him; this sort of casual investigation of an individual’s genetic makeup is a common feature in GATTACA’s world, as evidenced by the busy public kiosk Irene visits to get the information. (Anticipating such nosiness, Vincent has placed one of Eugene’s hairs in his comb just in case.) A genetic readout from an eyelash, betraying his deficient genetic matter, provides the crucial piece of evidence that makes Vincent a suspect in the murder of the director. In fact, a piece of saliva in the director’s eye ultimately uncovers the real murderer. Body matter is such a measure for genetic identity that in one scene a drunken Eugene mockingly offers his vomit to Vincent.

Blood, skin, hair (including eyelashes), urine, and fingernails are all shown in extreme close-up at least four times each during the course of the film. In close-up, the camera can magnify the minuscule. The use of such shots in GATTACA is meant to show how GATTACA’s society magnifies the importance of genetic material, the smallest element of a human being. The opening shot in the film depicts in extreme close-up a slender crescent-shaped object falling to the ground in slow motion; the shot is so disorienting that it is not until later that we learn this object is a fingernail purged by Vincent during one of his bodily scourings. The shot also features a thunderous crash as the object strikes the ground, thus further emphasizing, through magnification, the weight that is placed on a person’s physical makeup. Penetrating to the core of what defines humanity in GATTACA, these extreme close-ups of body parts and waste matter are extremely alienating, suggesting that human beings are valued less than their cast-off DNA.

Copyright 1997 by Columbia/TriStar Pictures

Of all the body matter depicted in the film, blood provides the dominant metaphor for the importance of genetics in GATTACA’s society. There are eight extreme close-ups of blood droplets in the film, not including other important shots of blood in storage bags or covering the face of the murder victim. All of these close-ups show blood that is either being put into, or soon will be put into, machines designed to calculate genetic makeup. Blood is a common euphemism (e.g., "bloodline," "blood is thicker than water," "blue blood," "mixed blood," etc.) indicating a relationship based on shared genetics. Yet blood as a metaphor for individual genetic identity transcends even the use of blood to define familial relationships in the film: when Anton declines Vincent’s attempt to become his "blood brother," his rejection of Vincent’s "defective" blood indicates his selfish preference for relationships based on the quality of an individual’s genes rather than on larger bonds of kinship or affinity.

Vincent is constantly reminded that his body matter (i.e., genes) is not valued in his society. As with body matter itself, there are several extreme close-ups of Vincent chafing his skin, hair, and fingertips. These shots indicate that no matter how successful Vincent is at Gattaca, he will always be judged by his genes first and foremost. This is why he needs to replace his "defective" body matter with Eugene’s "superior" body matter—as when, each morning, he straps a vial of Eugene’s urine to his upper thigh in anticipation of random tests. Vincent’s awareness of his genetic deficiency is visually reinforced throughout the film by his need to hide his own body matter. One key scene illustrates how Vincent can never escape his genetic makeup. After Vincent and Irene spend the night together, there is a fade-in shot of Vincent waking up in bed. The camera focuses on Vincent’s face, then re-focuses to reveal what Vincent is looking at: a stray hair on the bed sheets. Vincent then proceeds to search the bed and finds his body hair all over the sheets. The next scene shows him on the beach scraping his body with a rock and sand. For Vincent, an intimate moment turns into another shameful reminder that he is seen (and sees himself) only in terms of his defective body matter.

Although Vincent is constantly reminded of his defective genes, it is precisely his defects that have provided him with a trait Eugene and the other characters in GATTACA do not possess: inner strength or "spirit." One scene illustrates how Vincent’s spirit helps him to overcome his genetic defects: while on a date with Irene, he removes his contact lenses to hide from the police, rendering himself virtually blind. In the next scene—shot from Vincent’s out-of-focus perspective—he must cross a very busy highway at night to be with Irene. In a mixture of bravery and stupidity, he plunges across the highway, somehow making it to the other side. His desire to reach Irene allows him to overcome his defective vision, making this scene a microcosm of the film as a whole. Vincent’s bold if not miraculous crossing of the street points to his fervent desire to overcome all his real and imagined defects—whether this involves beating his genetically superior brother at swimming or working at the Gattaca corporation. The tagline for the film, "there is no gene for the human spirit," indicates that this quality cannot be engineered, emerging as it does out of an individual’s motivation when confronting the challenges of a specific context or environment. An individual who has been engineered with no flaws, such as Eugene, has nothing to overcome and no apparent need to improve himself. He thus lacks the "spirit" that Vincent has developed through the need to overcome his genetic heritage. According to GATTACA, then, the price paid for a genetically perfect world is the loss of the "human spirit."

Human Geneticists’ Reactions to GATTACA. American politicians are held accountable by the public for decisions they make regarding scientific legislation and the allocation of discretionary funds for research. This accountability gives public opinion a significant role in determining science policy and funding. Vernon J. Ehlers, vice-chairman of the House Science Committee, says that it is not possible to understand Congressional science policy "without understanding the American people, and the reason for that is very simple: Like it or not, Congress is representative of the general populace" (72). Dorothy Nelkin’s research, in her book Selling Science, shows that human geneticists are very aware of the role of public opinion, and that geneticists manipulate the news media in order to sway public opinion about the importance of genetic research.

Empirical evidence suggests that fictional representations in popular-culture narratives, such as motion pictures and television, have a strong influence on public attitudes towards science. George Gerbner conducted a survey of 1631 people and found that U.S. adults who consume popular culture frequently (habitual viewers) are more likely than infrequent viewers to hold negative opinions about science, to believe that science is dangerous, to consider scientists odd and peculiar people, and to feel that a career in science is undesirable. Gerbner attributed these beliefs and opinions to the overall negative depiction of science and scientists in popular culture as he analyzed it over a ten year period, from 1973 to 1983. Other recent studies have backed up Gerbner’s conclusions, finding that the effect of popular culture on public conceptions of science is also compounded by the fact that much of the public’s exposure to science is through fictional representations. Anthropologist Rayna Rapp observed genetic-counseling sessions over a two-year period and found that many of the women who went in for genetic counseling attributed much of their knowledge of genetic disorders to popular-culture sources (155-56).

Whether or not there is a link between popular-culture portrayals and governmental science policy, many politicians and scientists have argued that decreasing federal funding of the sciences is due in some part to negative portrayals in popular-culture sources.13 The scientific community is quick to respond to films that are perceived as portraying science in a negative light. Jon Turney notes that "biomedical scientists, in particular, have become very conscious of the way their science may be seen in relation to stories of mad scientists, and the need to develop political strategies for dealing with this" (208). In discussing the debates over recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s, Turney shows that biologists developed effective strategies for keeping negative portrayals of biology from swaying public opinion (208-09).

Realizing that their film would come under the scrutiny of the genetics community, Sony Pictures took unprecedented actions to minimize negative scientific reaction prior to the film’s release in October of 1997. Human-gene-therapy researcher French Anderson was asked to serve as "volunteer science consultant" in order to "make sure the science wasn’t absurd." In June of 1997, Sony also held a test screening for the Society of Mammalian Cell Biologists, an academic society that includes a significant number of human-genetics researchers. Anderson, who was at the June screening, says he found "no major flaws" in the science of the movie. Anderson also claims that "almost all the scientists" at the screening liked the original filmed ending of GATTACA: that ending featured images of famous people, such as Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, accompanied by on-screen text indicating that if society had known about gene therapy and genetic testing earlier, these famous people would never have been allowed to be born because they suffered from dyslexia, Marfan’s Syndrome, and asthma, respectively (all afflictions which are at least partially inherited).14 The film then concluded with the statement, "Of course, the other birth that would surely never have taken place is your own." GATTACA consultant Anderson thought that the ending was "the most powerful part of the movie" and that "you make your point by creating a controversy." While Anderson may have found the ending worthwhile, it was removed from the final cut after the film was test-screened for non-scientist audiences. According to co-producer Gail Lyon, these audiences felt the ending was too heavy-handed and the last frame left them feeling "personally attacked" as presumed genetic defectives.15

Many geneticists judged it in their best interests to see the film given its subject matter. Lee Silver, for example, said that "GATTACA is a film that all geneticists should see if for no other reason than to understand the perception of our trade held by so many of the public-at-large" (260). Likewise, Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), along with sixty NHGRI researchers, attended a screening. Collins acknowledged that he went for a second viewing of the film because he felt that it was important for HGP researchers to know the "science fiction buzz" about human-gene therapy (Groer and Gerhart 3). Although scientists at the June test screening apparently had positive things to say about the film, the reaction of geneticists after GATTACA’s general release in September of 1997 was much more negative. While acknowledging the value of seeing the film, most science reviewers felt, as did Scientific American editor Philip Yam, that GATTACA was essentially "science bashing" (154). Kevin Davies, who reviewed the film for the prestigious science journal Nature, concluded that GATTACA was a "surprisingly pedestrian affair" that "has a moral in there somewhere" (33). Some scientific reviews of the film complained that, while GATTACA’s creators had produced a film critical of genetic technology, they had also utilized other technologies to make realistic special effects. Lee Silver, for example, complained that the anti-genetics viewpoint of GATTACA was "a strange message indeed to come from those able to spend more money than most on advanced technologies to provide better lives for themselves and their children" (260). Although this criticism may seem warranted, these critics are ignoring the fact that there is an inherent difference between a technology that allows scientists to manipulate the genetic makeup of future generations, and technologies that permit us to make realistic-looking dinosaurs and spaceships.

GATTACA’s attack on genetic determinism did not go unnoticed among scientific reviewers. In his review of GATTACA, Silver complained that the extreme genetic determinism portrayed in the film is "a straw man that is set up to be demolished by the [Vincent] character. It is a straw man that no geneticist I know believes in" (260). Although Silver is correct in saying that GATTACA sets up an extreme genetic-determinist society that is unpalatable to many scientists, he is incorrect in claiming that no current geneticists adhere to this ideology. One of the most well-known scientists in the field of human genetics, Dean Hamer, claims in his 1998 book Living With Our Genes that everyone’s "core personality" is "hardwired into their bodies since birth, a genetic legacy from their parents as surely as the color of their eyes" (6). Likewise, Hamer claims that environmental factors such as "rearing, education, or social status" (8) contribute almost nothing toward determining an individual’s personality. Hamer is not some rogue figure; he is Chief of Gene Structure and Regulation at the National Cancer Institute’s Laboratory of Biochemistry, and he is not alone among biologists in his acceptance of genetic determinism. James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has asserted that "we used to think our fate was in our stars. Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in our genes" (qtd. in Beckwith 330).

According to critics of the genetic-determinist ideology, the human genetics community has an interest in gaining societal acceptance of genetic determinism, whether that interest be financial, political, or professional (e.g., career advancement). In other words, closing the black box of genetic determinism is in the best interests of human geneticists. Jeremy Rifkin attributes most genetic- determinist comments on the part of scientists to a need to convince the federal government to maintain funding for human-genetics research, such as the Human Genome Project. According to Rifkin:

Much of the rhetoric is no doubt politically motivated, designed to keep public attention focused on the great potential benefits that are likely to flow from the Human Genome Project. Assuring continued congressional funding for the project is likely never far from the thoughts of its champions in the field of molecular biology and business who have much to gain financially from the genetic data being collected at the taxpayers’ expense. (154)

As I have argued in this essay, GATTACA is a bioethical text that addresses the issues associated with gene therapy and the new eugenics by questioning the ideology of genetic determinism. Given the stake that molecular biologists have in "black boxing" this ideology, it is not surprising that GATTACA received so much attention from the human genetics community.

Possibly the biggest complaint among human geneticists regarding GATTACA was not directed at the film itself, but was aimed at the advertising campaign associated with it. On September 12, 1997, full-page ads for GATTACA appeared in many major newspapers, including USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, touting a fictional company called Gattaca that offered "Children made to order." The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, among many other human genetic researchers, complained that the ads "trivialize genetic research" and "depict the science of genetics negatively" (Friedman 120). Believing that the ads were "too real," the Society asked Sony to change the ad "to make it clear that this is only a movie" (Voland 30). The notion that the world of GATTACA may soon be a reality was reinforced by the comments of many human geneticists even before the release of the film. For example, a news article in the preeminent American journal Science mentioned that the day before the ad campaign ran, scientists at the first Gene Therapy Policy Conference "concluded that the possibilities [of germ line gene therapy] aren’t entirely in the realm of science fiction" (Vogel 1753).

As if to underscore the "reality" of the GATTACA ads, a genuine advertisement appeared in the Washington Post in the Fall of 1998 promoting a prenatal genetic testing company called LabCorp; this ad is structured in a manner remarkably similar to the GATTACA spoof. The GATTACA ad features a baby crawling towards the camera with the words "Children made to order." Underneath, there is a checklist of possible traits which you could choose to "engineer your offspring," including physical characteristics such as eye color, weight, and stature, as well as personality traits such as intellect, athletic ability, aggressive tendencies, addictive susceptibility, and musical ability. "Unfortunately," the ad declares, "there is no gene for the human spirit." LabCorp, whose logo is a double helix, provides "bloodless specimen collection" for paternity, family relationship, and child identification testing. The LabCorp ad also includes a baby staring at the camera, encircled by a pair of denim jeans. Above the baby is the phrase: "We may not be in the fashion business but we can tell you which genes fit." The LabCorp ad even has a phone number (1-800-WE-DO-DNA) that is reminiscent of the phone number for the fictional Gattaca Corporation (1-888-4-BEST-DNA).

The controversy surrounding GATTACA’s ad campaign actually emphasizes the theme of the film: we are approaching a point when we will have the ability to radically alter our genetic makeup and we need to start thinking about the consequences. This notion is even more relevant in a decade that has seen technological breakthroughs in the biological sciences that would have seemed unthinkable even a decade ago. As evidenced by the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep and the threat by Dr. Richard Seed to use cloning technology on human specimens, the time to think about bioethical issues is before, not after, the technology becomes possible. In Frankenstein’s Footsteps Jon Turney argues that Mary Shelley’s novel has provided the "governing myth of modern biology" (2) and that "the Frankenstein script has become one of the most important in our culture’s discussion of science and technology" (6). In the case of gene therapy, the Frankenstein story warns us that the time to address the ethical implications of this technology is before we actually apply it.

GATTACA is a bioethical text that brings the issues associated with gene therapy to the public before the new eugenics becomes a reality. Unlike most bioethics texts that discuss gene therapy, however, GATTACA maintains that many of the problems associated with the new eugenics, such as genetic discrimination, genetic prophecy, and the homogenization of society, are not due to the technology itself. Rather, GATTACA proposes that these problems will only arise if the belief that individuals are no more than the sum of their genes becomes a matter of consensus: a black box. GATTACA’s approach is not only unique among bioethics texts; it is virtually alone among recent popular-culture narratives in its rejection of the genetic-determinist ideology. GATTACA is also distinctive in the amount of attention it received from the scientific community. That human genetics researchers felt the need to confront GATTACA attests to sf cinema’s capacity to provide a venue for discourse about the prevailing "social forces" of science—in this case, our use (and possible abuse) of genetic technologies.


1. Many of the films that address biotechnology can be classified as either horror or science fiction, or a combination of both. Although horror and science fiction are considered separate genres, the differences between the two have little bearing on my arguments, and I will refer only to science fiction.

2. The various scientists in Zardoz (1973), Ssssss (1973), and Goldengirl (1979) all hope to improve the human species, but do so using selective breeding, snake venom, and drugs, respectively. One exception is the low-budget British horror film The Mutations (1974), in which a scientist tries to create a better human race by inserting plant genes into human beings. While the argument can certainly be made that gene therapy is involved in the construction of its replicants, Blade Runner (1982) is usually considered a robot/android film—a treatment of the problem of the "artificial person"—rather than a genetic engineering film per se.

3. Kevles’s account of the American and British eugenics movement is considered the standard history.

4. For a fuller discussion of the downfall of the eugenics movement in America, see Pickens.

5. Although Cohen and Boyer were the first to use restriction enzymes to construct DNA hybrid molecules, their work built upon the ideas of Paul Berg at Stanford. Cohen and Boyer’s work, however, showed the ease with which the techniques could be applied. Thus, Cohen and Boyer’s work is traditionally cited as the experiment that prompted the debates surrounding rDNA technologies. For a complete scientific and social history of the early days of genetic engineering, see Lear and Krimsky.

6. For an admirably objective review of the current state of behavioral genetics, see Mann.

7. Although Nelkin and Lindee examine few films, there were several released around the same time as GATTACA that support their findings, including Natural Born Killers (1994), The Nutty Professor (1996), and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996).

8. At various times in the film, both Vincent (Ethan Hawke) and Eugene (Jude Law) go by the name of Jerome. Eugene’s full name is Jerome Eugene Morrow; when Vincent assumes Morrow’s public identity, using his urine and blood samples to fool the authorities, he goes under the name of Jerome, while Jerome becomes Eugene. In order to avoid confusion here, I will refer to Ethan Hawke’s character as Vincent and Jude Law’s character as Eugene throughout.

9. Nancy Kress’s BEGGARS trilogy differs from these other novels, and from GATTACA, in that the genetically-enhanced individuals face discrimination. Like GATTACA, however, the genetically enhanced in Kress’s novels lack important human qualities that the unenhanced possess.

10. Penelope Green uses "Gattaca" as an adjective to describe the recent phenomenon of cosmetic strips and "health pads"—used variously to cleanse pores, relieve muscle pains, and so forth—saying that they are "all very ‘Gattaca,’ I think—very medical and modern" (1).

11. Premiere magazine referred to the effect as the "Prada Aesthetic" ("Gattaca" 30), probably referring to Milan fashion designer Miuccia Prada’s return to basic patterns and unisex designs in 1997. According to Prada, "masculine and feminine looks are mixed with a modern twist" in the new designs (Klensch).

12. The title sequence for GATTACA won a "Gold Pencil" award at the British Design and Art Direction Awards in the category of Television and Cinema Graphics (Marshall 1).

13. For examples of politicians and scientists citing negative portrayals of science in popular culture as a reason for decreasing funding in the sciences, see Ehlers, Hawkes, and Singer.

14. This ending is also described in Niccol’s screenplay. It is interesting to note that this ending must have been left in some prints released for review: Philip Yam discusses this ending in his review of GATTACA for Scientific American (154). The ending is included, along with other "lost scenes," on the DVD release of the film.

15. The information and quotations in this paragraph have all been culled from Holden’s article.


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