Faith, Film, and Philosophy: When Gattaca and the Engineered Man

There is an ominous line in the first set of dialogue in the film Gattaca, it is simple and could almost be considered a throw-away-line. It is the straight and simple, “It is right that someone like you is taking us to Titan.” At the point this line is said all the first time viewer will be aware of is that Ethan Hawke is pretending to be someone he is not. A fact that is explained just a few minutes later with the simple line:

No, there’s truly nothing remarkable about the progress of Jerome Morrow. Except that I am not Jerome Morrow.

Jerome Marrow, we are told, had, as we might say, won the genetic lottery. However, what we find as Vincent, or the-man-who-is-not-Jerome-Marrow, lays out his history, it is a story of favoritism that grows into a story of discrimination. As it turns out Jerome had not won the genetic lottery, he had been simply received a ticket known to be a winner. His parents had selected—as if from a catalog—the best possible traits their genetic code could produce. Jerome was a valid, Vincent was not. Geneoism, discrimination on the basis of genetics:

I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.

What we find is that Vincent purchased a partnership with Jerome Marrow (Jude Law) on the black market to enable him to pursue his dream of space travel. He would not be able to train at the futuristic NASA organization known as Gattaca—a notable play on the initials given to the four proteins that come together to make our genetic code: G, A, T, and C—with the genetic code of an “invalid” so he obtained a partnership with the near perfect, but handicapped Marrow. Though the film is a thriller driven by one individual’s refusal to play the hand life dealt him, that is simply window dressing for the troubling commentary on humanity and our scientific pursuits to redefine or exceed the limits of humanity. Thus the film begins with two super imposed quotes that suggest a Tower of Babel mentality in our transhumanist pursuits:

Consider God’s handiwork. Who can straighten what he hath made crooked?

— Ecclesiastes 7:13

I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to.

— Willard Gaylin (one time simultaneous Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia Medical School, Professor of Psychiatry and Law at Columbia Law School and Adjunct Professor at Union Theological Seminary)

The sub-text of the film is a question about whether science will really draw us forward or whether advancements will push us backward. Let’s consider a few of the places in which Gattaca imagines regression caused by the scientific progression.

The first that comes to mind is the idea of human worth. Though I tend to eschew Nazi/Hitler references as I find they are a sort of strong man argument, it is hard not to consider the term popularized in the Weimar Republic, the precursor to the Hitler’s Third Reich, Lebensunwertes Leben, or life unworthy of life. This theme comes through quite clearly in the application of the terms valid and invalid for the two classes in the dystopia. But is there really such a thing as a life unworthy of living? This is legitimately a tragic question that we have to ask in this day. That is the day in which Denmark declares a desire to be down syndrome free by 2030. Or the day in which the terminally ill of California, Oregon, and Colorado can (and on occasion are encouraged) to ‘die with dignity’. Human worth is questioned on a number of levels and in a number of scenarios these days, but we have still made great progress in understanding the intrinsic dignity of humanity. We have made great strides as a society in views on gender and race. We are inconstant pursuit of an egalitarian society, but Gattaca proposes that the pursuit of what has casually been called “designer babies” would push us back to the days of segregation.

A second concern arises that might be overlooked at first, a regression in the concepts of love and marriage. In On Love, a tragically unfamiliar work in America, French philosopher Luc Ferry discusses the evolution in the views of marriage and love in order to delineate the use of love as a concept to give meaning and purpose to life. Ferry argued we pushed past the point of marriage being a transactional relationship between families and communities, we moved past the idea that marriage was about “a smart match” to the belief that marriage is about love. This, Ferry argues, is progress which no one would want to walk away from, progress which we society understands as a good. But in the world of Gattaca, we are back to “the smart match”. In one telling scene Uma Therman’s character Irene has Jerome “sequenced”, a process in which perspective partners have their would be mate’s genetic code processed from a sample and printed out so that they can be sure of the match.

A third aspect that might to be overlooked from the initial lines is what makes a good story. There is a distinct and troubling truth in the line quoted above, “there’s truly nothing remarkable about the progress of Jerome Morrow.” Good stories are about the overcoming of obstacles, the meeting and wrestling of adversity. But in the world of Gattaca the only potential someone has is that which is written in their genetic code. There is nothing beyond that. In fact, the Director of Gattaca (the institution in the film not the film itself), who twice mentions the idea of ‘the right kind of people’, states, “No one exceeds their potential. If they did, it would mean we did not accurately gauge their potential in the first place.” There is nothing remarkable in Gattaca because all is supposedly known and preordained.

Fourth, we might understand that the world of Gattaca promotes the progress of a failed and flawed philosophy called physicalism, the belief that all that exists is physical. In the film, Vincent is able to overcome, to trick the genetic elites into accepting him and allowing him to be a chief navigator on the launch to Titan. He is able to do so because of a little thing we might call heart or spirit. There is, simply put, more to Vincent than his “ladder”, his genetic code. 

There is much more that could be said about the fine film Gattaca, but at this point it may be interesting to briefly turn to why Gattaca caught my eye as a subject of interest. The 1997 film tells us that it is set in the “Not to distant future” and there is a sense in which it may be right. Twenty years out from the films release, designer babies are regularly referenced in periodicals and the science sections of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other such sources. Recently both NYT and WSJ ran articles on the progress of gene editing. A massive ethical debate has been brewing, but what each article makes clear is that there is a growing disparity between how bioethicists and the relevant scientists are viewing the issue. Many scientists are making pragmatic arguments about staying ahead of scientists in other countries (notably any countries that are seen as global competitors like China). As is usually the case, it appears that art was ahead of both our scientific ability and philosophical rumination on the relevant issues. 

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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