In “the not-too-distant future,” where eugenics is common and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class, Vincent Freeman is conceived and born without the aid of this technology. Suffering from the nearly eradicated physical dysfunction of myopia, as well as a heart disorder probability of 99%, Vincent faces extreme genetic discrimination and prejudice. The only way he can achieve his life-long dream of becoming an astronaut is to break the law and impersonate a "valid,” a person with appropriate genetic advantage.
Vincent decides to take the risk, becoming a heretic against the new order of genetic determinism. He becomes a “borrowed ladder” (a play on words referring to both the structure of an un-coiled DNA strand and the metaphor of a ladder used to climb higher in social status). In harsher language, he becomes a “de-gene-erate.” (edited from a description in the DVD)
But, of course, Vincent’s elaborate ploy works. At the end of the movie, we see him rocketing toward Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Vincent has proven that “there’s no gene for the human spirit.” But is the statement really true? Don’t our genes determine all our human qualities, both physical and mental?
Well, not exactly. Not all genes are activated or expressed. Clinging to our DNA strands are chemicals that make up the so-called epigenetic system. Chemical sequences in this epigenome can turn genes on or off. Moreover, these epigenetic triggers are influenced by our environment.
For example, suppose a child is born into a dysfunctional, even abusive family. That child’s stress hormones will inevitably increase and stay at high levels in the child’s body. The stress hormones may then activate parts of the epigenome. These epigenetic triggers may, in turn, activate genes that predispose the child to clinical depression. Put more simplistically, a bad family environment may turn on variant genes that lead to depression.
If the family environment is loving and good, these variant genes will likely stay dormant, and the child may live a normal, un-depressed life. In fact, a good family environment may turn on beneficial variants.
And a dysfunctional family environment may be offset by other, positive environmental influences. For example, the child of an abusive family may have a mentor whose positive influence counteracts the familial abuse. The genetic and epigenetic systems interact with a multitude of environmental factors that are almost impossible to disentangle.
So, we can’t know the source of Vincent’s passionate, intellectually focused quest for a career that would take him into outer space. But Gattaca raises a larger, equally difficult question: Should society allow geneticists to modify a zygote and produce a genetically superior human being?
We can possibly agree that eliminating genetic diseases or dispositions to disease is a positive good, but should we genetically alter human beings to make them smarter or more emotionally stable? Should we allow geneticists to make us mathematically gifted or non-violent?
Well, first of all, we are far from being able to genetically control mathematical ability or a predisposition to violence. So many genes are involved in these qualities as to make their control an impossible task in the foreseeable future. Even the elimination of conditions like Huntington’s Disease is challenging, and Huntington’s is caused by the excessive repetition of nucleotides (chemical elements in DNA) in just one gene. Eliminating a disease like bi-polar depression is an even more daunting challenge since there are at least two hundred genes implicated in the disorder.
But, there are certainly a number of rare diseases that could be eliminated with beneficial genetic variants. That process currently involves attaching the desired DNA sequence to a virus and then injecting the virus into cells of the body, thereby allowing the cells to produce functional instead of dysfunctional proteins.
So, to the extent that we can tamper with DNA, we should probably hope for the widespread application of gene therapy. And yet, there may be a cost. Gene therapy is expensive and will continue to be so for a good while. Only the wealthy will be able to afford such treatments. Tampering with our genes will not be widespread because of the cost.
Moreover, genetic medicine will give its recipients a social advantage over those not able to afford the therapy. Genetic interventions may well contribute to the social inequality that plagues our society. A middle-class Quaker may be able to afford (with the help of insurance) a genetic procedure. Inner-city, lower-class Afro-Americans may just have to suffer from their genetic diseases. While it’s hard to imagine Americans in a Gattaca-style society with a genetic elite in control, it's not hard to imagine genetic medicine having undesirable social effects.
Nevertheless, Friends should put genetic manipulation far down on their list of worries. Climate change and war are more threatening than eugenics. Even the political and cultural divisions in the U.S. are of more immediate concern. Still, it can’t hurt to have a basic knowledge of genetics. Perhaps Friends should add to their reading list Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Gene: An Intimate History. And if Friends need a rest from reading the book, they can always watch Gattaca, an enthralling science fiction movie.
~ Richard Russell
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