Home Culture Gattaca and Genetic Editing in the 21st Century — The Science of Discrimination

Gattaca and Genetic Editing in the 21st Century — The Science of Discrimination

by Tyler Charboneau
Gattaca and Genetic Editing in the 21st Century — The Science of Discrimination
Gattaca and Genetic Editing in the 21st Century — The Science of Discrimination

20 Years Ago Gattaca imaged a society completely changed by gene editing – how close are we to that now?

While scientific advancements are largely meritorious, Gattaca truly makes us dwell on their darker consequences. The film broke new ground with its inquisitive-and-critical commentary regarding eugenics – the concept of dividing the populace into desirables and undesirables based on genetic “quality.” Genetics inherited at birth are the results of a lottery system. Accordingly, this random chance influences how our health evolves during life. 

As individuals, however, we prefer to attribute our value and accomplishments to our own choices. But what if we never had a say? Gattaca explores this question beautifully, urging us to reflect and confront our preconceptions of self-worth. Genetic variety has existed since the dawn of mankind. The danger lies with assigning value to those differences, and then acting on them. Individuals can hold prejudices, but what if that discrimination extended to workplaces and governments? Both Gattaca and this writer argue a society driven by differences is invalid. 

22 years have passed since the movie’s initial release, and our own medical knowledge has grown in lockstep. Of course, that knowledge has been applied in numerous ways. Before discussing our current world, let’s first explore the concepts in Gattaca

The World of Gattaca

Imagine the following: 

Like most kids, you absolutely knew what you wanted to be when you grew up – a firefighter, a police officer, or even an astronaut, destined for intergalactic exploration. As an adult you gained experience and worked hard, making that dream possible. However, a five second genetic scan determined you unable to accomplish that goal. Not only were you denied, but your inferior genes doomed you to a life of menial work. It’s not what you know nor who you know, but who you are from a genetic standpoint. This information isn’t privacy protected and is available within a widely-publicized database. In that dystopia, this information follows you everywhere, determining your future opportunities. 

This is Gattaca’s universe, comprised of genetic haves and have nots, dubbed “valids” and “in-valids.” Accordingly, conception methods in Gattaca account for those genetic differences. It’s the future, and eugenics are back. In vitro fertilization (IVF) makes it easy for parents to pick and choose which traits their children inherit, effectively eliminating undesirable genes. These babies become valids. Conversely, those conceived traditionally become in-valids, carrying the lifelong burden of that genetic leap of faith.

Gattaca and Genetic Editing in the 21st Century — The Science of Discrimination
The results of a genetic ID scan in Gattaca. Credit: We Heart It.

In both cases, genetic scans serve as daily reminders of one’s status. People admire valids and are scornful towards in-valids – almost dehumanizing them. Not only does science lead to discrimination, but it also normalizes it. Additionally, parents in the film’s universe struggle with guilt over their decisions. Do I strive for the perfect child, or is there equal purity in conceiving naturally? The themes in Gattaca are heavy and pervasive throughout most every interaction between our characters. 

Gattaca’s characters grapple with these challenges every day. It’s important to note that science and technology aren’t inherently bad. Unfortunately, people have a way of corrupting those innovations to satisfy sinister ends. Gattaca essentially begs the question, “What if we misplaced our moral compasses, and our societal structure depended on us never finding them?” It’s also a story of finding one’s identity while breaking down barriers. 

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The World as we Know It

Gene Splicing and Editing

Since about 1980, the scientific community has been able to edit genetic structures using various methods. These early methods have been modestly effective, though somewhat unreliable. Since genetic modifications are permanent, even small missteps can be detrimental to long-term health. For these reasons, human gene splicing has been extremely controversial. Technology has advanced mightily, yet our methods aren’t optimal. The chance of harming a person through genetic editing raised ethical concerns. 

2015 brought with it a huge leap forward with the introduction of CRISPR gene editing. In the past, taking a strand of DNA and replacing targeted sections of that strand was risky. If you replaced one portion of genetic material, it could cause mutations further down the strand. This domino effect was unpredictable and could potentially cause adverse effects. CRISPR editing has transformed this process entirely. With a nuclease which allows scientists to unlock the genetic strand, DNA can be modified at an exact point with great success. This allows for minute changes by removing undesirable sequences and adding in beneficial ones. This allows scientists to create genetically-“superior” individuals.

Gattaca and Genetic Editing in the 21st Century — The Science of Discrimination
A diagram of the CRISPR editing process. Credit: Vox.

Hypothetically, these individuals are less vulnerable to inherited shortcomings. For example, a person may have genetic markers indicative of late-onset Alzheimer’s. Geneticists have the ability to rewrite that part of the genome and reprogram it, effectively eliminating that predisposition. 

Again, this raises its own ethical concerns. As we observed in Gattaca, designer babies became commonplace. These methods were perfected, paving the way for a societal divide between valids and in-valids. Sure, we may be mitigating risks associated with earlier genetic-editing processes. Science has undoubtedly become safer as a result. However, we know the implications stretch far beyond safety and into the realm of public perception. Assigning labels and greater importance to those of higher genetic quality (and likely socioeconomic status) gives rise to a whole new battle – one for the society’s soul. We may have genetics down to an exact science, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of widespread discrimination. Like we discussed before, the health benefits in themselves should be the end-all-be-all of genomic modifications. We want to live longer and enjoy a higher quality of life. Those benefits quickly lose value within a dystopia. 

As this science advances further, it will raise additional questions. Will costs come down? Will this be used to further discrimination in the health-insurance field? Will that perceived superiority spill into the workplace and determine advancement? We love to buy into the idea of meritocracy, but genetic testing run rampant may all but replace that concept with determinism. These effects will become magnified as governments become more authoritarian.

Consumer Genetic Testing

In 2019, genetic sequencing is nothing new. Testing has even become mainstream, with the rise of ancestry products from 23andMe and Ancestry. These products make it easy for people to discover their genetic identities. Furthermore, these services offer separate health screenings. Interestingly, these provide customers a glimpse into predispositions and genetic markers related to common medical conditions.

Gattaca and Genetic Editing in the 21st Century — The Science of Discrimination
Gattaca and Genetic Editing in the 21st Century — The Science of Discrimination

These services – taking them at their word until we’ve a reason not to – pledge to destroy your genetic sample upon request. Personal research contributions are also voluntary. Results are hidden behind user authentication, kept away from prying eyes. Currently, this privacy focus is a welcome contrast to Gattaca’s openness. Such tools are meant to be fun and informative, minus the real-world consequences (unless you uncover a hidden family secret). That being said, millions of samples are stored in a facility with the capability to sequence genomes. Should these companies take a nefarious turn, there is substantial risk. That’s not to say you should dash to the kitchen and don your tin-foil hat. However, it’s important to approach these topics with a “what-if” mindset. Gattaca inspired us to question things, and that curiosity is healthy.

What Comes Next?

We’ve discussed how technology has the power to cause problems, but that circumvents the real issue. The point that productions like Gattaca and Black Mirror are trying to hammer home is that technology is powerful. Accordingly, actors with bad intentions or little foresight can corrupt that technology – manipulating it to satisfy their own desires. 

Our own advancements have the power to build us up or tear us down. In Gattaca, people have acclimated to a dystopian world. While we haven’t progressed to that point, we’re moving closer to it. Science and technology will lead us down a road paved by innovation. Eventually, we’ll reach a fork. At the point, we’ll have to choose between a Gattacan universe or one governed by equality. Human potential amounts to more than genetic makeup, and people deserve the chance to make their own futures. 

Overall, these universes are closer than we think. Many of the themes present in the film can be observed worldwide today. Luckily, we haven’t devolved as a society quite yet. Progress can sometimes be anything but, and we should tread with caution moving forward. Genetic engineering and designer babies may be en vogue in some circles. However, we’ve escaped Gattaca’s stigma around conception and genetics thus far. Hopefully we can continue embracing science for its objective benefits without traveling down a dark path.

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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