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Scientists play god

A look at how the genetically engineered creatures in the world of ‘Gattaca’ may potentially roam the ‘real world’
Could you image living in a world where your genetic makeup predetermines your quality of life and your future? A place where humankind no longer reins supreme? Well, begin to prepare for the future, as this revolutionary world is fast approaching. The scientific film Gattaca presents an innovative forecast of our future that combines natural human beings with genetically engineered creatures. While the film exemplifies what is present in science fiction novels today, the world of Gattaca is not an illusionary representation of our future. Today, scientists have the ability to genetically engineer the characteristics of an unborn child. In a matter of decades, genetically engineered beings will revolutionize and change the world into a society that is no longer divided by levels of class, but by one’s DNA.

A world where one’s ‘inside’ truly counts

In the world of Gattaca, naturally born humans are weak and passive. They are recognized as ‘invalids,’ while genetically engineered creatures, retain validity. The genetically engineered creatures dominate over those who are naturally conceived. In this world, one’s strength, health, gender, and physical characteristics are predetermined to shape ultimate precision. As a result, the genetically engineered are described as creatures of perfection because of their pre-programmed flawless soul and super-human strength. With genetic engineering, one’s power and status in life will no longer be determined by their race, gender, or social status. According to Vincent, a naturally born human in the world of


Gattaca, “Discrimination is now down to a science” (Gattaca 19:11). Thus, the genetically engineered represent a new form of life with a DNA structure that threatens those conceived by chance.

New Competition to Humankind

Genetically engineered humans are artificially shaped to encompass mental and physical abilities beyond the aptitudes of naturally born humans (Gert, par.1). In the film, Vincent’s parents are seen pre-determining the gender, health, intelligence, and strength of their second child. Vincent’s brother, Anton, is genetically engineered with superior body matter that surpasses the quality of Vincent’s DNA. On the surface, one cannot decipher a valid from an invalid, as the superior body matter of the genetically engineered lies within their DNA. Thus, Anton looks just as human as Vincent. Although unlike Vincent, Anton was genetically engineered to embody extreme strength, intelligence beyond natural human IQ, exceptional physical health, and the ability to perform better in athletics. His powerful physical and mental aptitudes are beyond Vincent’s normal human capabilities. Anton is one of many powerful genetically engineered creatures who are qualified for space exploration.

In Vincent’s quest to become a valid, his pursuit illustrates the unattainable abilities of the genetically engineered. To conceal the fact that he was naturally born and reach the level of skill and strength of the genetically engineered, he goes through physically exhausting measures. He runs deadly distances for a natural human being, and studies intensely to keep up with the mental and physical capabilities of the genetically engineered. Vincent eventually reaches his goal to become recognized as a genetically engineered being. Had he


not gone through the measures he did to attain this new identity, he would have been treated as a second-class citizen (Gattaca 18:05). Since the genetically engineered rise supreme in Gattaca, natural human beings are forced and restricted to fulfil low-level positions. Vincent explains that everyone’s resume lies within his or her cells (Gattaca 16:03). As a child, Vincent came to understand that his DNA restricts him from attaining success. His father exclaimed, “The only way you will see the inside of a spaceship is if you are cleaning it” (Gattaca 15:50). Thus, in the world of Gattaca, natural human beings are considered a ‘lower class’ as they compete with the genetically engineered.

Science of Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is the process of inserting new genetic information into natural cells for the purpose to modify a specific organism by altering or enhancing genes (Whittington, par.4). Since the 1970’s, scientists have genetically engineered animals to repair genetic defects and enhance their resistance to disease (Gert, par.2). Today, scientists genetically engineer animals to enhance their production of useful substances that provide nutrition or treatment medication for humans. For example, a sheep named Tracy was genetically enhanced to produce large quantities of human protein in her milk. Similar to Tracy, cows are also being enhanced to produce extra proteins in their milk to improve the nutritional value (Moore, par.2). A Hen named Brittany was also one of the first animals to be genetically engineered. She was modified to produce eggs with high levels of protein, which are useful to create anti-cancer drugs (Moore, par.3). Also, plants are genetically engineered for similar reasons. In particular, they are enhanced to increase crop yields, crop quality


(redness of a tomato, prolong freshness), tolerate environmental extremes (cold, dry weather) and have greater resistance to disease and pests (Downey, par.2).

Genetic Engineering & Humans

Alongside animals, scientists currently hold the science to genetically engineer the sex of an unborn child. Could you imagine choosing the sex of your child? Well, according to medical scientist and author Gale Largely, the science to pre-select the sex of a child exists and parents are already buying into it (Largely, 310). According to Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, a fertility doctor in California specializing in gender selection, gender selection practises are opening across North America. Using an embryo screening technology called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), doctors like Steinberg are scientifically controlling the sex of an embryo (CBS News, par.9). Steinberg explains that the efficiency of sex selection has improved over the last decade, as he has gone from performing two procedures a month to 10 or more per week (CBS News, par.10). Thus, genetically engineering the sex of a child is proven to be possible and successful.

While gender selection has been legitimized in North America, there is large debate around whether it should be banned. Those in favour of sex pre-selection argue that it will help control the rising birthrate because parents will no longer be bearing added children that they had in order have a particular gender. Others also argue that it will help families avoid hereditary illnesses that only affect one gender, by choosing the gender that is not at risk (Largely, 312). In contrast, those against sex pre-selection argue it will harm the way a society functions. For example, if the masses are given the freedom to predetermine the


gender of their child, the choices could imbalance the sex ratio, which could possibly disrupt human customs and how institutions are run (Hayes 28). According to Kazuo Yamaguchi, an American sociologist focusing on the social impact of sex selection, there would be a 7-10% increase in the proportion of male births if the choice were given to North American families (Largely, 313).

Moving Closer To Genetically Engineered Humans

While determining the sex of a child is possible in our world today, another programmed characteristic of genetically engineered humans, as represented in the film, might become possible to encode in the near future. For example, the science used to protect Anton from disease is currently in development. VIDO, a Canadian Vaccine Research Institute, developed an ‘in utero vaccination and injection technique’ that scientist’s foresee as a method to enhance the traits of unborn children and prevent them from disease and or sickness (Bond, par.4). Originally created to protect animals against disease, scientists tested on an expecting lamb by injecting the vaccine through it’s uterus wall and stomach, and it became disease-free. Dr. Philip Griebel, the VIDO Immunology Program Director, explains that a human fetus may one-day benefit from the same treatment. Griebel claims, “We have proven that this method works on animals and now the implications for human health are profound” (Bond, par.13). According to Stuart Newman, an anatomy professor at New York Medical College, ‘in utero’ has not advanced far enough to be used on humans, however, since humans and animals are genetically similar, he expects that these methods could oneday be used to provide unborn children with the science that will protect them from disease (Newman, par.1).


While scientists are still testing methods to prevent disease in an unborn child, methods that can correct severe hereditary defects are developing. For example, Germline Gene Therapy is a method used by scientists to alter the genetic makeup of an embryo in order to correct severe hereditary defects such as immune deficiency and cystic fibrosis (Whittington, par.16). As gene therapy is currently being used to provide ‘disease-free happiness,’ many scientists believe that methods of gene therapy will soon be used to enhance or improve human qualities (Thompson, par.13). According to Edward Wilson, an entomologist from Harvard University, medical science will someday advance far enough to use gene therapy to enhance or design the genetic makeup of unborn children. He admits that scientists are currently developing research on positive eugenics, which promotes human enhancements in size, strength, and intelligence (Bohlin, par.19).

Signs of progress

Enhancing Human Strength

The science used in the world of Gattaca to enhance the strength of Anton has been discovered today. After a natural genetic mutation occurred in a boy in Germany, scientists discovered how to mutate genetics to boost muscle growth. In 2004, Dr. Markus Schuelke, a professor in child neurology in Berlin, discovered that one of his patients had been born with a genetic mutation that blocks the production of a protein called myostatin, which limits extreme muscle growth. Now recognized as the world’s ‘superboy,’ at less than four years old he could lift 6.6lbs with his arms over his head, which is an unsual feat of strength for his


age (MSNBC News, par.7). Schuelke explains, “He looks like a normal boy, he can just lift heavy things” (MSNBC News, par.3). The boy’s natural genetic mutation has led Schuelke to discover that by restricting the genes that produce myostatin, muscles will grow sporatically. Today, Schuelke insists that with this new knowledge, doctors understand how to genetically enhance the muscular strength in humans (MSNBC News, par.6). Testing Genetically Engineered Intelligence

While we have the science to enhance human strength, other genetically engineered qualities that were represented in the film are unattainable today. For example, the genetically engineered in the world of Gattaca have enhanced intelligence that science today cannot execute. According to Raymond G. Bohlin, a molecular biologist from the University of Illinois, as science around genetic engineering develops, humans may one-day be able to design their children (Bohlin, par.18). Today, scientists hold the science to enhance the intelligence of animals, which brings anticipation for future procedures on humans. Joe Tsien, a Princeton University Neurobiologist, genetically engineered a single gene called NR2B into mice to control a brain chemical called NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartic acid) that plays a role in learning and memory. Tsien’s results showed that after the gene was inserted into the mice, they produced more NMDA (CNN Health, par.5). To prove that these mice attained enhanced intelligence, Tsien and his colleagues tested the abilities of these mice compared to unmodified mice. These mice were put to tasks such as recognizing objects in their environment and solving problems such as how to get out of water and or off a high shelf. As a result, the genetically modified mice outperformed the unmodified mice (CNN Health, par.8). Tsien concludes that these findings suggest that enhancing the intelligence of humans may be possible. He explains that the gene in humans that corresponds with memory


and learning has been found and how it performs in the brain is currently being studied (CNN Health, par.9).

Genetically Engineered Future

The success of genetically engineering animals and plants and the ongoing development of gene therapy are strong advances that help to push the idea that the science to genetically engineer humans is possible. Today, scientists can determine the sex of a child through embryo screening technology, protect unborn children from hereditary diseases via Germline Therapy, and although it is not yet practised, scientists hold the science to genetically enhance the muscular strength of an unborn child. Thus, the world of Gattaca has almost become reality. Today, scientists cannot genetically engineer human intelligence or human physical traits, however, growing research on ‘in utero vaccinations’ and the ‘genes that control human memory and thought’ make these measures seem possible. Bohlin argues that since scientists can genetically engineer animals, there is no reason to suggest that it cannot be done on humans. Thus, Gattaca’s Anton could one-day represent an everyday real world creature. What does this mean for our future? Human genetic engineering will “Destabilize human biological identity and function” (Hayes 28). As illustrated in the world of Gattaca, naturally born humans will be considered a phase of the past, as human life will no longer transpire by chance, but by a fate that is predestined by scientists.

Thursday, April 12th /2007


MIT 203G Essay: T.A. Trent Cruz Word Count: 2166 By: Kelly Foss