All in our Genes?

I’ve just watched the film Gattaca for the second time. It’s written and directed by a New Zealander, Andrew Niccol who also penned another of last year’s big box-office hits, The Truman Show. This is a man to watch out for – these two films are two of the most intelligent and thought-provoking I’ve seen in a long time.

Gattaca is set in the “not-too-distant-future” and opens with a quotation from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 7:13 which says, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” The film tells how our civilisation may one day attempt to do this.

As soon as the hero, Vincent, is born, his DNA is analysed and his future capabilities are predicted – including the fact that he has a 99% chance of dying of a heart disorder when he is 30 years old. As a result, he is condemned to a life of menial labour.

However, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) has a dream – to get to Gattaca Space Academy and join space missions. Through sheer determination – and the use of someone else’s very superior DNA which he buys illegally – he manages to achieve his ambition.

This is a world in which “normal” children are genetically engineered to be free of significant diseases and social hindrances such as left-handedness. Those born by “old-fashioned” methods (i.e. not by IVF) are significantly inferior – they are designated “In-valid” and are the scum of society. No longer is discrimination on the basis of race or gender – it has become a science based on analysing someone’s genetic code.

What’s so disturbing about Gattaca is that this frightening scenario is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

When Andrew Niccol was asked why he wrote this film, he replied, “My genes made me do it. I don’t know when I first thought of it, but you can open a newspaper today, and I’m certain that you’ll read something about a new gene, and it became inescapable for me as a story idea.”

It sometimes seems that hardly a day passes without the media reporting some new discovery in genetics. Again and again we hear that scientists claim to have isolated a gene for a certain disease. Increasingly we are told that aspects of our personality can be attributed to our DNA. Just last year we heard about genetic connections for lust, being a good parent and religious inclination and several others.

Insurance companies want to increase the amount of genetic testing they carry out in order to identify high-risk applicants for life-insurance. We are already getting to the point where our society is attempting to define us by our DNA.

This is an issue that raises extremely difficult ethical issues. The Human Genome Project (a vast undertaking to identify every human gene) is ahead of schedule and has already led to major steps forward in diagnosing and treating a number of diseases. It’s something for which we should all be grateful.

But how far should we go? Should life-insurance companies have the right to know about our susceptibility to heart disease? When does treatment become meddling? How do we prevent ourselves reaching a situation where discrimination on the basis of genes is normal?

One of my concerns is that there is not enough debate going on about the ethics of genetics research – but the research continues at full speed. It is important for Christians to get up to speed on these issues and make sure that we have something to say – to our friends if not at a wider level. Otherwise things will move on regardless.