A World Without Einstein

In the 1997 film, Gattaca, the directors are trying to communicate the dangers of genetic engineering and human-influenced evolution. And while the film is not subtle with its reproach of the implied eugenics movement that is inherent in genetic screening, it really hits its point home with its deleted pre-credits scene.

At 8:52 of the video below, you can see the scene.

By listing prominent figures in the Earth’s history that would not have existed if Gattaca were real, the directors are trying to communicate the importance of genetic diversity and imperfection. The film posits that oftentimes it is those that would be considered “invalids” that can most influence the course of human history. Albert Einstein had dyslexia, Vincent Van Gogh had epilepsy, Stephen Hawking has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and the list goes on. Ending with the claim that:

Of course, the other birth that may not have taken place is your own.

The directors are appealing to every human’s instinct of self-preservation. Of course! We love our imperfections, they are what makes us ourselves. We wouldn’t want to be non-existent just because we have asthma, a predisposition for heart disease, or dyslexia.

But, what I think the film fails to acknowledge is the other end of the spectrum. If we slip into the idea that  genetically engineering our babies to be “simply the best of you,” we may also lose other prominent figures in human history. Dictators like Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong Il, Pot Pol, or Mao Zedong would not have been born. Serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Dennis Rader (the BTK killer) would not have been born either. In a study, it showed that dictators were predisposed to what it calls “the big six” group of personality  disorders. Leaders like Hitler and Hussein all demonstrated high levels of narcissism, sadism, paranoia, schizoid personality, and schizotypal personality. In a world like the one proposed in Gattaca, these personality traits would have been screened out.

And who’s to say that just because Einstein developed the theory of relativity it means that no one else would have either? It wasn’t his dyslexia that helped him become a genius in the fields of math and science, but his intellect. But we do know that if we screen for sociopathic tendencies we can avoid having crazy dictators like Hitler or Il.


~ by nerdcamper on January 19, 2014.

5 Responses to “A World Without Einstein”

  1. Sophie,

    You are really onto something crucial and rarely considered, genetic determinism and perfection failing to acknowledge the “the other end of the spectrum.” Tyrants, such as Hitler, (and to be fair and avoid ethnocentrism, maybe the United States, as most of the world sees it) and other evil people with broken genes would not be around in this dystopia. You do not seem to have an opinion on what this means though. The absence and loss of ‘evil’ and ‘imperfection’ is what makes future societies dystopic, not necessarily the loss of autonomy and the human soul.

    There is no where to go once we reach the top. Good needs evil to fight, Yin and Yang, bad examples to learn from, low caliber people to make us feel better about ourselves, measuring sticks, the struggle between the established order and what it finds undesirable in order to continue to prosper or even the opposite; Nelson Manzella was originally considered a terrorist, as were the French revolutionists. Your second last to paragraph begs the question of what use these prominent figures can serve and what there purpose is or would be.

    The closing paragraph follows the same concept. What is the use of the diseases that all of these great historical figures had, just as the what is the use of the diseases of history we have had in the world? Your argument seems militant toward them, yet criminals, serial killers, and diseases serve the important purpose of providing incomprehensible psychological benefits which no person can fully understand. I am sure Stephen Hawking would not have worked so diligently and passionately on inventing time, or whatever he did, if he could have gone out on a date or played tennis.
    Great blog.


    Adam Gill

  2. You bring up a really good point. The question then becomes, are the Einsteins and Hawkings worth the Hitlers and Dahmers? What would a world without genius or evil look like? From a strictly utilitarian point of view, I’m inclined to think that while the latter types can be devastating, their reigns of terror normally endure only as long as the people themselves, while the discoveries of the former survive to help all future generations to come. The tradeoff seems to be worth it.

  3. I really like that you point to the other side of genetic testing. While genetic screening taken to the extreme could potentially lead to a dystopia like that of Gattaca, the type of screening you’re talking about (if it becomes possible) could actually lead to a safer, better world. And who’s to say that screening out dangerous traits will necessarily be accompanied by playing God with all of the other characteristics of an embryo? It may be that we can have individuals like Einstein and Hawking even while we reduce the potential for people with personality disorders like Hitler and Hussein.

  4. You bring up a fascinating point. I believe that each of our strengths and weaknesses, whether those are genetic disorders or simple personality/character flaw, make us. We are who we are because of both types of traits. Our weaknesses make our strengths stronger.

    I do have to disagree that Einstein would have been able to discover the theory of relativity without his own issues. His struggles led him down a path that included his accomplishments. He was pushed towards the sciences and math, because of his issues with reading.

  5. Sophie,

    I really like how you challenge the film and it’s controversial ideas. Your post made me look at the film and genetic testing as a whole in a new light. Most notably, it brings up wide themes that people struggle with every day, such as the struggle of choosing between the comfort of safety and the excitement of going outside of that safe zone. The safe, comfortable choice would be to engage in genetic screening, weeding out anything potentially dangerous. The more exciting and adventurous choice, on the other hand, would be to leave the evolutionary process to nature, thus accepting the genetic imperfections that make our world interesting. In a way, therefore, new ethical dilemmas introduced by science are simply reflections of issues that have been around for centuries.

    Another question that your post brings up is the idea of just how far can we go? I believe that even if we engaged in all the genetic screening possible, external, unavoidable factors would still be in place causing it impossible to avoid evil.

    -Sarah Miller

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