Welcome to Gattaca

Here at Mermaids Don’t Do Windows, I’m introducing a theme for Tuesdays: “TINSTAAFL Tuesday.”

TINSTAAFL is an acronym for “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and is a common theme in science fiction literature.  It was the favorite theme for one of my SF literature professors.  Everything has a cost, which has little to do with money.  (Unless you’re Bill or Ted on an excellent adventure, and then there are no consequences).   Nothing is for free.  In SF, if it seems to good to be true, then that isn’t a good sign.  Payment will be due.

An article called “Genetically engineering ‘ethical’ babies is a moral obligation, says Oxford professor” creeped me out.  The geneticist insists that we are morally obligated to screen fetuses for imperfections and make them better people by tweaking their genes.

“Welcome to Gattaca” is the first thing I thought.  Gattaca is a 1997 SF film that stars Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.

The film is set in future Earth when eugenics determine every aspect of people’s lives.  Vincent (Ethan Hawke) was naturally conceived and born, and as  a result has imperfect vision and a heart problem.  His parents decide to give their second son a better life, and he’s perfect and picks on his older, weaker brother often.

The government catalogs everyone in a DNA database and conducts regular screenings.  DNA dictates which kinds of jobs people were allowed to have. The children who are naturally born are considered lowerclass and physically flawed and, as a result, limited to certain menial jobs.  Vincent dreams all his life of joining Gattaca and going into space, but He is trapped in his place in society.

Jerome (Jude Law) is perfect in everyway except an accident left him paralyzed.  Jerome provides Vincent with his fingerprints, blood,
urine, hair samples, and even a heartbeat–everything Vincent needs to take on Jerome’s identity.  With one DNA scan Vincent is accepted into Gattaca—the database thinks he is Jerome (absolutely flawless).  If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t give the rest away.  It’s pretty intense.

That recent article brings up many questions about morals and ethics–whose definition of these terms is this geneticist using?   His own agenda makes it sound as if he is offering utopian people.  Well, we all know how utopias end.  Stories about them now are called dystopias–let’s call it what it is.

TINSTAAFL, I say to the idea of eugenics.  No one knows what the unintended consequences could be.  What’s the geneticist going to say if he mistakenly screens out the gene for friendliness because his hand twitched?  “Oops, sorry, your kid isn’t going to be friendly, but she’ll be a genius and will be able to swim across the Pacific Ocean.”

Sure, he’s implying that the procedure could weed out psychopaths and other undesirable character flaws and make the world a better place.  That just begs the question of nature vs. nuture, doesn’t it?  I don’t see a free lunch here.

Let’s say he creates all these happy, friendly, smart, caring people who don’t have any negative feelings or emotions.  I wonder if these eugenic people would be able to function in society.  “Oh, it’s okay, my teenaged-daughter, you can stay out until 3 am, because I trust everyone has been eugenicized.”  Creeeepy–borderline Stepford Wives (which deserves a TINSTAAFL Tuesday all to itself).

If given the chance to alter a future child’s DNA before birth, would you do it to the extent of Gattaca?   Are we adding another layer of science fiction meets reality to our lives?  Are you as bothered by this “obligation” as I am?

29 thoughts on “Welcome to Gattaca

  1. TommieLyn

    You’re exactly right…there is no free lunch. And eugenists, no matter how intelligent they consider themselves, are still human and prone to make mistakes. Who’s to say that their efforts wouldn’t create a batch of inhuman monsters? I think it is highly arrogant of them to think they should make such decisions.

    There are just too many things we don’t know about genetics. For instance, scientists have discovered that there are more than 4 million switches in the “dark matter” of human DNA that they had considered “junk,” but which is proving crucial to health. So far, they’ve learned that those switches control things like, whether a person will get diabetes. Here’s a link to an article about the “dark matter”: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/science/far-from-junk-dna-dark-matter-proves-crucial-to-health.html?_r=2

    1. Diana Beebe Post author

      Thanks for the added information, Tommie. I agree with you that there is too much to understand. It’s funny how we hear that some is “junk” because the researches don’t understand what it is. What if a mechanic said that about a car part?!

  2. Ryan King

    That just gives me the creeps. There’s an old adage that applies. Just because we can do something does me we should. We need to think with our hearts, not by faith or cold intellect.

  3. Author Kristen Lamb

    I think we have a distorted idea of “perfection.” Sometimes it is the imperfections that make people who they are and what we appreciate. For instance, I have always struggled with my weight. I was also the least pretty in my family and was constantly reminded that I was (by comparison) very plain. I wasn’t tall, naturally thin and runway stunning like my cousins. But it was this deep insecurity that made me seriously funny (in my own mind, at least). Anyway, it is this wonderful gift of humor that has helped me open the world of social media to countless technophobic authors. What if I’d been screened out? Or altered? Maybe they altered my genes to be more like my cousins where I would be tall, thin and gorgeous. What might I have missed out on? I wouldn’t trade my imperfections for the world.

    1. Diana Beebe Post author

      Exactly! Each one of us uniquely perfect no matter what perceived flaws we have.

      If you’re the “plain” one, your family has some serious beauty going on. That’s a hard thing to hear growing up, especially when you *are* beautiful.

      1. Author Kristen Lamb

        You’ve never seen me without makeup, LOL. And yes, my cousins looks like they fell out of Vogue. One looks so much like Milla Jovovich it is actually spooky. Was hard to compare to that growing up for sure.

  4. darcyflynn

    Love this post, Diana! I’ll take my son in all of his imperfections, just like God made him! 🙂 I have grown in many ways by having this unique young man in my life! Both tested and blessed! lol
    Btw, I’m a SF fan, and loved Gattaca!

  5. Julie Glover

    I loved that movie Gattaca. I recommend it all of the time because a lot of people haven’t heard of it. I agree wholeheartedly that eugenics is creepy. It is our very imperfections that make us who we are. Sometimes I think people are seeking a life without any struggle, when struggle is often what shapes us into better people.

    1. Diana Beebe Post author

      So true, Julie. We do grow from our trials and struggles. We learn from our mistakes and become better people that way. At least, that’s how it should be. Life would not be interesting or colorful, if we avoided living it.

  6. Debra Kristi

    If something like this were in place my kids are among those that would have been filtered out and changed. I can’t even imagine it. But in the same fashion, I believe people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg would have been in that same boat. Can you imagine? The world needs people like these innovators. I’d hate to see them filtered out because they didn’t fit some pre-designed code. Science needs to learn when to stop meddling.

    1. Diana Beebe Post author

      That’s a fantastic point about innovators out there! When did they ever follow the “normal” path to success? You can apply your point to SO many people. Thank you for the great comment!

    2. Aaron Dyer

      I have trouble believing that more than a few of us would remain. And that’s a pity because I’d be real lonely…


  7. Piper Bayard

    To think we know what perfection is is the ultimate arrogance of ignorance. How can we look at the majesty of the Universe around us and think we know enough to improve upon it? We don’t even know what is good for ourselves as individuals most of the time. How on earth can we think we know what is best for us as an entire species? Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

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  10. Aaron Dyer

    Thanks, Diana, love your writing! What always occurs to me in matters of this kind is wondering who determines why one characteristic is “flawed.” It’s like a comment I saw recently from a Muslim who said freedom of speech should not apply when it is offensive. Who determines this? It’s like the orthodox concept of predestination. Those who somehow fit the bill are saved. Sorry about the rest of you. The idea of a deterministic, designed society is so against individual sovereignty that I imagine the only people who could like it are the ones who believe they already fit the description and that the changes would not apply to them.

    1. Diana Beebe Post author

      Thanks, Aaron! It does seem to work that way, doesn’t it? The people who think they know how to make it “right” for everyone else often find loop holes that apply only to them. More to think about…

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