In Fear of the Coming Dark: Genetics and Humanity

There’s a striking moment in PBS’s “Cracking the Code of Life” which, for a moment, may seem frightening. We cut to a scene from Gattaca, a 1997 film about something involving genes and astronauts, in which two parents are screening their gametes. They’re well on their way to sacrificing their myriad aspirations on an altar of parenthood, but in their hubris, they make a classic mistake! They’ve trusted in Fate’s notoriously fickle fingers to shuffle the baby’s genetic deck! Now, with all the cards stacked against him, how will little Jimmy grow up to fulfill his dreams of being an astronaut (or something)? It seems unfair, doesn’t it? It isn’t right, on some universal moral level, for Johnny’s dreams to be crushed mere moments after he’s been decanted from his abominable surrogate womb of glass and tubes (or something; this is a sci-fi dystopia, right?).

Well, isn’t there a bit more to life than that? In the sterile and machine-precise world of Gattaca, why should genes be the absolute definition of a human being’s worth? It is science fiction, which more or less means that somewhere along the line, someone took a look at a contemporary trend and blew it up to distressing proportions so they could point at its flaws. The trend, then, is a cultural quasi-awareness of genetics as a panacea, not only for disease, but for all of humanity’s social and cultural fracturings. The thesis – born of that disproportionate bloating of what genetics will be able to do – is that somehow, by sorting people based on their genetic perfection à la a certain piece of Hogwarts headgear, we lose a piece of our essential humanity.

Well, yes. I suppose that’s exactly what that would mean, if not for a fairly broad variety of other factors. Could genetic perfection somehow create a perfect society from the bottom on up? For example, is the world of Gattaca so far post-scarcity that poverty is no longer an issue? Is there no chance that disaster might strike young Julius, who witnesses his parents gunned down as the happy family leaves the opera house? Why should he be so lucky to die at 30? What does it even mean to be “human,” anyway?

In the first few pages of Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama envisions a similar world. He claims that the age of fearing technology had passed (though the Y2K scare and the recent NSA scandals may cause us to question that a bit). Instead, he proposes, it is the new and frightening realm of of genetic engineering and modification that drags us towards an inevitable doom, not in a cataclysm of nuclear fire, but a stripping-away of that aforementioned “essential humanity.” Look to Wells’s Dr. Moreau, he argues, and to the outrages of Huxley’s Brave New World!

I have the questionable good fortune of having been born in the dusk of the 20th century. There were two incredible stories which dragged my attention away from the books that held my childhood hostage for a ransom of reading: the impending doom of Y2K, and the glorious revolution of the Human Genome Project. In the haze of memories, the latter seemed as optimistic as the former was pessimistic; at the time, I figured that even if all the lights went out, leaving roving gangs of out-of-work engineering Morlocks to terrorize night-black city streets, at least their cannibalistic urges could be slaked on genetically-perfected Eloi. In the harsh glare of hindsight (as mediated by rosy-jade Wells), I realize now that the problem may be that we imagine what we’ve read. We fear the revolution because it comes at us down the same barrel as Gattaca, Y2K, HGP, and the very bravest inhabitants of Dr. Moreau’s new world. We fear the revolution because all our stories are testaments to the inevitability of test-tube terrors and failed humanity.

(Oh, the kid’s name is Vincent? Vincent Freeman? That’s way more subtle than I was expecting.)

~ B. Guarino

~ by breonmguarino on January 12, 2014.

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