Introduction to a Bioethical Analysis of the Film Gattaca

This paper was delivered at a Post-graduate seminar, Latrobe University, Melbourne 2003.
Footnotes are missing.

All fictions dealing with genetic “engineering” raise issues of identity and genetic essentialism/determinism. This film is often favoured as a representation of ‘real’ as opposed to ‘fictional’ problems in this regard because it extrapolates on the basis of known science and because it avoids the cruder, less plausible forms of essentialism.

Essentialism is the view that we are our genes and our genes determine behaviour and control the development of capacities. Self-respecting geneticists will typically acknowledge only that genes determine dispositions under environmental contexts. In other words, essentialism is probably false.

In as much as a film can have an argument, this film’s argument might go something like this: The invasion of an individual’s genetic privacy is a harm because such information is used as a basis for discrimination. In particular, it is used to justify a fallacious form of genetic essentialism.

It is arguably, the invasion of an individual’s genetic privacy that is really the central theme of the film. Every where that Vincent goes he is tracked by his genetics. There is much discussion about the inability to resist such intrusions. His social identity is his genetics. This has echoes in the real world with genetic screening being used for identification purposes, genetic data banks, gene patenting and genetic screening for insurance purposes. The intrusions on our genetic privacy indicated in the film are therefore just a matter of degree.

That this information can be used as a basis of discrimination is obvious enough too. This problem has already arisen in relation to health insurance. Even though genes are only ever probabilities in an environment, health insurers discriminate on the basis of probability. It is quite rational for them to do so. Just as it is rational for individuals to wish to ‘engineer’ their offspring to reduce the likelihood of genetic disadvantage.

The serious issue raised in this respect is whether or not it is possible to prevent genetic knowledge from being used as a means of discrimination. If a health insurer asks you to disclose all information relevant to your health status, are you obliged to disclose the fact that you carry a gene that increases the likelihood of cancer?

However, it really not possible to address these sorts of issues without also addressing the harms caused by a belief in genetic essentialism. The film directly positions itself as rejecting essentialism through the identity of the main character. Literally, Vincent is not the genetic code that publicly identifies him as Jerome. His capacity is not determined by his genetic code. He becomes more than he is genetically predicted to be. The film also directly reminds us of the impact of the environment on genes, through the crippled Jerome. As the film itself suggests, genes do not determine fate. And in suggesting that, it suggests we are not our genes.

Nonetheless, the film does contain a number of subtlies that make it more than a simple argument against essentialism. On several occasions, the film addresses the issue of expectation and the relationship between life chances and expectation. Our capacities are determined to some degree by what we expect for our selves and what others expect for us. In this instance, expectations are shaped by what people believe about genetics. Does genetic essentialism become a self-fulfilling prophecy if people believe it?

The film also addresses the difficulty of distinguishing between genetic disorder and genetic enhancement. This is an old problem that is at the heart of metaphysical question ‘what are we?’ For instance, the film gives us the example of the 12 fingered pianist who plays music, playable only by someone with 12 fingers. But this is contrasted with the constant reference to Vincent’s short sightedness and the probability of his weak heart failing. This issue can be formulated in any number of ways but here are some interesting possibilities.

“The worry is that one generation’s eugenic fashions in genetic enhancement may forever eliminate the diversity of life plans that feeds liberalism”. Does the reduction of disadvantage invariably lead to a reduction in diversity? Will eugenic choices made under Capitalist economic systems tend to genetically replicate Capitalism?

Finally, although I’m not sure to what degree this question is raised in the film, it also worth considering the actual likely capabilities of genetic science. The ability to genetically engineer humans in any radical way may be well beyond the capabilities of genetic science, even in principle. In which case, it is worth wondering, ‘whose interests are served by constantly exaggerating these capacities’?