Even an optimist beyond saving like me can sometimes get the shivers from a dystopian science fiction portrayal of the potential dangers of genetics, especially if they are realistic, like Gattaca.
These last weeks, I’ve been going through dusty ol’ films that I never had the time to watch. And last weekend, the bottle pointed at the Gattaca movie! Yes, I know that it’s a 1997 movie and that I’m “soo late, bro” and all that, but I’ve been saving it for a special occasion; the current quarantine will do.
“Heart disorder: 99% probability. Early fatal potential: life expectancy 30.2 years.” Those are the news that the nurse delivers to Vincent’s parents the moment he’s born. (Thanks for adding to this magical moment of birth, nurse; light up my cigar.)
According to his society, Vincent is a so-called in-valid, an individual born the natural way (you know), in contrast to so-called valids, born through genetic selection. In other words, from the day he’s born, Vincent’s “suboptimal” DNA has doomed him to a crappy life.
The genetically superior valids get “real” jobs, and in-valids, well, they get what they deserve for being natural, “simple” tasks. But Vincent fights the dogma. With conviction and against society’s deterministic view of genes, he trains and studies to become the best version of himself to reach his childhood dream: becoming a spaceman. Yeah!
Listen, if you want to watch a science fiction movie that makes sense from a scientific point of view, watch Gattaca. Apart from being an entertaining movie, at least three of the movie’s main messages accurately depict where our society may end up if we’re not careful. The film also manages to explain a big misconception regarding genes and genetics.
(You’ll have to forgive the film’s representation of “futuristic technology”, though; the 90s, you know.)
1. The dangers of genetic selection of embryos
Once the delivery nurse reveals the newborn boy’s genetic predispositions, “Heart disorder: 99% probability. Early fatal potential: life expectancy 30.2 years,” the parents decide not to name him after his father, Antonio. Instead, the parents, Marie and Antonio, choose to have a second baby, but this time, a genetically selected son who brings pride to the name “Antonio”. [that’s cold…]
The parents can select the most desirable traits in Vincent’s baby brother through preimplantation genetic diagnosis. The doctors can eradicate unwanted genetic characteristics, such as baldness, susceptibility to addictions, and myopia. So, with the apparent strong probability of conceiving yet another toddler with crappy genes in an increasingly competitive society, a parent wants what’s best for the baby. Right?
Is preimplantation genetic diagnosis a reality?
Here’s the thing, a pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is a real approach to profile oocytes (the female egg cells) or embryos before implantation (pre-implantation). Today, doctors can screen and select away genetic predispositions of several disorders. Not only that, but they can also select the sex of the baby and try to improve the chances of pregnancy upon in vitro fertilization.
Do you think selecting against baldness, addiction, and myopia is unethical? How about selecting for height, hair and eye color, or musculature? Too superficial and extreme? Do you think we have too much control over the outcomes and that we’re acting like gods?
If so, you might be right. Still, there’s a reasonable probability that currently perceived “superficial” genetic selection will become a natural and maybe even necessary choice. Our perception of what’s extreme changes with time since humans, after all, are adaptable creatures, whether you like it or not.
For example, in 1994, the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine considered preimplantation sex selection nonacceptable for nonmedical conditions. These arguments later changed when the committee in 2001 justified nonmedical sex selection in certain circumstances.
In the Gattaca movie, in-valids, the second-class citizens were destined to “insignificant” simple jobs. But, like Vincent’s and Anton’s parents, don’t you want the best for your future kid? Don’t you want the freedom of choice for your kid, not limiting him/her to “simple” tasks? You know, questions that might keep your brain busy while deciding whether to buy a Cybex e-PRIAM Stroller for $1,400 or a slightly cheaper Bugaboo Fox Complete Stroller for around $1,000 (the Embassy did the research).
2. The prophecy by your genes
Although standard conception (flowers and bees) dealt Vincent a pretty shitty hand (genetically speaking), he manages to overcome the prophecies of his genetic verdict. He eventually realizes that hard work and willpower can take him further than he’d previously thought. So, he reaches the position he wants through unorthodox home training and intense studying. Sure, he gets there by “borrowing” the identity, including blood and urine of a valid, but Vincent earns his place among the “chosen ones”; the “valids”.
The second accurate point of Gattaca is that genes do not predict your future.
“It’s genetic” or “it’s in [my/their/our/the] genes” are many times the go-to arguments when explaining traits that might deviate from the normal. This person is super-good at cycling; it’s in the person’s genes. I drink too much, but it’s in my genes. The argument is magic as it often seems it can explain the unexplainable.
Sure, genes have an immense impact on our lives. But people often miss appreciating that genes are not the be-all and end-all of realities. Sometimes your surroundings can control your outcomes, for example, in the form of epigenetics or social pressure, and sometimes it’s just a matter of personal choices in life. A specific gene will not one day trigger you to start binging the six-pack of beers in front of you; many factors need to coincide for your alcoholism to kick in.
The Gattaca movie nicely communicates this problem.
Of note, the name Gattaca is based on the four letters that represent the DNA nucleobases that form the DNA codes, namely guanine (G), adenine (A), thymine (T), and cytosine (C).
Genes and DNA do not dictate your life
“Yes, Embassy, but it’s only a movie,” you say.
Well, surprise. A post-Gattaca publication (unrelated to the movie) showed the limitations in predicting outcomes based on genetic predisposition alone, validating the film’s premise. The investigators studied patients with high, intermediate, and low genetic risk factors associated with heart disease. They recorded their lifestyle choices, including food intake, exercise, and smoking.
The results were pretty amazing. A “healthy lifestyle” reduced the risk of heart disease even among the patients with the highest risk factor. And here’s the kicker: the patients with the highest genetic risk but a “healthy lifestyle” had a 50% lower relative risk of heart disease than their “unhealthy” counterparts.
How about that? The “it’s in the genes” argument seems insufficient to explain certain traits, which is a relief if you think about it. As far as genetics goes, your life is not a genetic script dictating your future; you can tune your future with the right mindset and environment.
Of course, we should take genetic disorders seriously, and there are important reasons to protect people with certain genetic predispositions, including heart diseases. Still, the film highlights the common misunderstanding of genes explaining every human characteristic. In reality, your traits are a complex balance between your genes (for sure) and your environment, and many times it’s impossible to know which of the two is responsible.
3. The potential dangers of individualized DNA sequencing
In the dystopian world of the Gattaca movie, discrimination based on genes is illegal. But employers and insurance companies have no issues collecting someone’s DNA from a doorknob or a simple handshake.
As a result, since his parents cannot cover the insurance, Vincent gets over-protected as a child. He can also forget his dream job as a space-man at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, at least if society gets to decide.
The Gattaca movie points out how your genetic code can be used against you in the wrong hands. But again, does this fit into our reality? I mean, we have rules, contracts, and laws.
Can employers and insurance companies abuse your genetic code in real life?
Your DNA is unique. Sure, I toned it down a bit in the previous section, but I never claimed that your DNA and genes are unimportant to life. On the contrary, your DNA contains valuable information about your identity and predispositions that can be abused by other parties – easily.
Let’s say you have a gene mutation that puts you at risk for Alzheimer’s, and your future employer finds out. Yes, you can forget that job (pun intended). Or let’s say that you, just like Vincent, happen to run the risk of a heart condition, and the private insurance companies know. How’s that insurance premium or deductible of yours going to look like?
Guys, you know all this; there’s no need for me to nag about the obvious. Still, before I leave the topic, understand that your exposed DNA information doesn’t only put you at risk but also your surroundings. Think of your close or distant family who shares parts of your DNA. And, if you’re concerned about potential genetic (CRISPR) warfare risks, you might want to know that you’re also putting non-family members at risk.
But are these scenarios realistic?
Sure, what would make you think they’re not? Hackers have stolen information from DNA-testing companies, and pharmaceutical companies signed $300 million deals with DNA-testing companies. And if you think privacy laws will protect you, think again; they do not always apply to disability insurers, for example.
With this and other examples in mind, do we have reasons to believe that the dystopian society of the Gattaca movie is inaccurate?
The scientific accuracy of Gattaca
Gattaca did an excellent job of portraying a society that uses genetics to alienate individuals with genetic abnormalities and create a “perfect” world. Not only that, but it also challenged the common misconception that genes dictate every aspect of your life, which is unusual for a Hollywood movie.
If you haven’t watched it yet and want to freak out a bit about our future, go rent that VHS tape and enjoy Gattaca’s scientific and futuristic accuracy. A dystopian society with beautiful people everywhere. “Makes me want to say it’s a beautiful world… for you.”
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