The Criticism behind Gattaca’s Genetic Apartheid Scenario

Term Paper, 2016

24 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. ‘State of the genetic art’
2.1. Cultural and social implications of the new genetics
2.2. Genetic determinism

3. The genetic apartheid society in Gattaca
3.1. Vincent Freeman
3.2. Jerome Eugene Morrow

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men (La science a fait de nous des dieux avant même que nous méritions d'être des homes)

Jean Rostand

1. Introduction

With the turn of the 20th century, scientists discovered how to isolate and decipher the human DNA so that we are nowadays finding a flood of reports on new genetic discoveries every day, as genetics has become a leading discipline in science. Never before, so many people have compiled so much knowledge about human beings at the cellular level. In the course of time, scientists developed genetic tests which can forecast the future health of individuals. Based on the growing understanding of genetic factors in health and diseases, genetic medicine has been designed to improve the human health and prosperity. On top, nowadays, it is a standard procedure offered to pregnant women to screen their unborn baby for any of several genetic diseases. Moreover, since the decipherment of the human genome at the beginning of the 21st century, humanity came to notice that DNA holds treasures of information beyond the cellular level as researchers seem to discover genes responsible for basic human traits like intelligence on an almost daily basis.

The new advances and tendencies in the application of genetic science evoke ethical, social, and legal concerns, as the immense progress in genetics is a double- edged sword. On the one hand, the completion of the Human Genome Project at the beginning of the 21st century and the recent progress in genetics come along with obvious benefits in genomic medicine such as better diagnosis of diseases and gene therapy. However, on the other hand, the new genetics[1] bring along worries that the new genetics could lead to a society that is less tolerant of disability and (genetic) diversity. Moreover, after successfully having intervened in the transformation of animals and plants to human’s liking, humans are now on the verge of manipulating the human genome so as to perfect the human species possibly, since the necessary genetic technology is now available. However, this might drastically influence humanity.

The movie Gattaca (1997) directed by Andrew Niccol builds upon the scientific and technological advances in genetics in the late 20th century and displays a dystopian “not-too-distant” future. In the portrayed future, excessive genetic screening and embryo manipulation have brought about a rigidly hierarchical society grounded on genetic discrimination. In Gattaca’s society, the elite social class is made up of genetically enhanced superior human beings, the so-called “Valids”, while the lower class consists of the genetically unenhanced, naturally conceived “In-Valid”. Undeniably, there is an insurmountable social gap between these two classes. Gattaca thoughtfully portrays the lives of different people trapped in these social categories and the special burdens they have to bear in such a society, which is obsessed with genetic perfection. A distinct two-tiered society structure is the result of liberal eugenic[2] practices and the unquestioned belief in genes being the determinants of an individual’s life.

Niccol constructs a profoundly dystopian future, which results from of the utopian quest to eradicate imperfections in society and genetically perfect humankind. As Nicolas Pethes postulates, science fiction possesses the possibility to “prearrange real science and to picture outcomes that have not yet happened” (177) and to “[articulate] the current cultural image of science” (169). Hence, I read Gattaca as a genetic apartheid scenario to show how it comments on the advance in genetics in a critical way. It is not possible to dismiss that the visions of the dystopian movie can be easily tied in with the contemporary genetic advances of our society and the hereby-evoked ethical, social and legal controversies and obstacles.

Thus, first of all, I elucidate the current genetic status quo in the Western culture. It is evident that, in the last 20 years, genetic science and new genetic technologies have gained weight and heavily affected the public’s perception of the role of genes in a human’s life. The fast-paced advance of genetic science manifested in genetic determinism, which is a prevalent ideology in Western cultures. Therefore, 1 elaborate on the ideology of genetic determinism and show how the media influences the public’s genetic determinism. Moreover, I examine how genetic determinism is discernible in the mass media’s reports on genetic discoveries. Following that, I dissect Gattaca’s genetic apartheid society and, thereby, show how Niccol portrays a dystopian two-tiered genetic apartheid society resulting from the unquestioned belief in genetic determinism. The two protagonists, the In-Valid Vincent Freeman and the Valid Jerome Eugene Morrow, are positioned at two opposite ends of Gattaca’s society, and both have to suffer from society’s obsession with genetic perfection. Therefore, I focus on the societal and individual consequences of on the lives of the two protagonists in the movie and show Niccol’s entailed critique of the unquestioned belief in genes being the determinants of humanity.

2. ‘State of the genetic art’

Since the discovery of the human genome sequence, humankind has been witnessing a revolution in science, which has the potential to transform humanity radically. Genetics became a leading science in the late 20th century. As scientists unlocked the core code of life through the understanding of the structure of the DNA in 1953 and the deciphering of the human genome at the beginning of this century, we are now technologically moving forward to manipulate life at the most fundamental level.

Although the idea of perfecting the human race is not new, the technological implementation of this idea has been taken to a whole new dimension with the decipherment of the human genome. Hence, humankind has transitioned from the stage of passive observers of nature to operators of human nature. By studying the human DNA, researchers have discovered and are still discovering different genes and their localization, which are responsible for various physiological processes in the human body as well as for human traits. As never before, so much knowledge about human beings on the cellular level has been collected. On an almost daily basis, a flood of new discoveries is presented in the scientific as well as in the popular media.

The scientific advances coming along with the discovery of the human genome have already improved the way we diagnose and treat diseases. Reliable (predictive) genetic tests for any of several genetic illnesses have been developed which are used to spot genetic malfunctions in humans in their adulthood, before birth, or even in the petri dish before an in vitro fertilization[3]. Genetic screening of fetuses has become a standard procedure offered to pregnant women in western cultures. In adulthood, simple blood tests reveal if one carries a heart disease, cancer or even Alzheimer’s disease and, soon, genetic screening will probably be as routine as checking one’s blood pressure.

The goal of genetic testing is to improve health by producing information about the health-related future of the examined persons and to work out genetic treatments. However, there are differences between testable genetic diseases. Single genes cause some genetically based diseases. These are precisely examined and, therefore, physicians can quite accurately predict the sometimes-severe physiological defects. These tests can offer a glimpse into the future different to any other medical examinations that usually gives information about a person’s health at the moment of testing. Another goal of genetic testing is to avoid the occurrence of severe inherited disorders such as the Tay-Sachs Syndrome, cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease. However, other diseases such as cancers or heart diseases are multifactorial multigenic diseases, which are caused by the interaction of several genes that are influenced by environmental factors. Looking further into the future, once the genetic basis of the multigenic diseases has been identified, scientists can take the required steps to diagnose and develop treatments. The early diagnosis of predispositions to disorders such as cancers - which have a high incidence in the human population and are especially burdensome on society as a whole concerning the depletion of health resources - will become applied with the goal to maximize the effectiveness of preventive health care.

People have always attempted to optimize the human body, to cure disease, and to relieve suffering and now, with the detailed knowledge of genetic diseases, genetic medicine has developed. Hence, after having unraveled the fundamental code of human biology, the stage is set for humanity to manipulate it. It is now possible to treat and prevent genetic disorders with gene therapy, where functional genes are inserted into the cells of human beings. The great promise of genetic medicine is that it will eventually eradicate many of the diseases that threaten humans’ lives. However, the biotechnological revolution will not only enable us to prevent and cure many diseases; it will even go further. We are already able to repair and regrow human tissues and organs, and this may eventually lead us to a future in which human defects may no longer be part of humanity.

On top of that, humans may now not only be controlling their own biology but also that of future generations: After successfully having cloned and genetically manipulated animals, scientists around the world are now experimenting with CRISPR a new technology which can be used to manipulate the genome of human embryos (Hesman Saey). As it is already possible to genetically enhance certain traits in animals like mice, which are genetically similar to humans, theoretically, this paves the way to genetically enhance human traits such as memory or other intellectual and physical abilities as well. The news about research in this field has already raised concern about future generations of ‘designer children’.

2.1. Cultural and social implications of the new genetics

This technological revolution is no more science fiction future - it is already happening right now and, despite the benefits and hopes, it raises ethical, societal and legal questions. The discourse of concern encompasses a variety of issues, of which the most important are misuse, discrimination, and commercialization issues (Morgan 188), the resurgence of eugenic practices (Lippman 1991, 15), “designer children” (Sandel 45), the widening of the societal gap, and a society that is less tolerant of disability and diversity (Richards & Marteau 352). At the individual level, knowledge of genetic disorder may promote feelings of discrimination, isolation, and stigmatization, depending on the society’s attitude towards genetic diseases and diversity.

Especially the predictive genetic testing is seen as a technological development with distinctive psychological and social consequences as the test results might blight the tested person’s life even before the actual disease might develop. Therefore, knowledge of a genetic disorder could lead to sadness and distress as is might distort social relationships and the emotional and individual development of the tested persons (Clarke & Flinter 165). Another side effect is that the new genetics could further widen already existent social divisions as predictive tests only detect certain disorders and might as well be expensive and restricted in availability. All in all, the application of the new genetic tests might lead to stigmatization and discrimination both within a family and in relation to society at large (Habermas 72).

Undeniably, the agency of genetic screening and the possible future use of genetic manipulation of human beings will be making changes in the social structure and the understanding of humanity itself. With the localization of genes that are responsible for certain traits like height or intelligent and the technological tool of CRISPR at hand, it may potentially become available for parents to choose particular features of their offspring. Undeniably, this will lead to a society, which favors different aspects of human beings (Lippman 1991, 15). As the pace of genetic science and technology accelerates, humans have to decide how this influences the construction of humanity in the future (Fukuyama 51). Transhumanists believe that this technological movement will lead humans to transcend their evolutionary boundaries and into the formation of a new post-human species. Moreover, as in the case of genetic engineering in human beings, restrictions inherent in the human biology may be overcome. Undeniably, this progress could revolutionize health care and prolong human lifespan, but it also raises serious questions for both, the individual and society as a whole (Fukuyama 69). Social pressure might arise as soon as we are capable of manipulating the human genome and super-enhance humans. Hence, the development of new genetic knowledge and technology is undeniably accompanied by a growing influence on society and culture.

Society and culture are directly affected by the application of genetic testing and the new insights into the (mal-)functions of genes regarding health and disease. Consequently, genetic technology is regarded as a groundbreaking technology that will potentially change humans’ understanding of life at its core and humans’ visions of humanity’s future. Abby Lippman states that the Western culture in caught in the process of “geneticization”: “The ongoing process by which priority is given to differences between individuals based on their DNA codes, with most disorders, behaviors, and physiological variations [...] structured as, at least in part, hereditary” (Lippman 1993, 178). Genes are seen as “cultural icons” which are crucial for understanding identity, social relationships, health, and disease, and this can be perceived in the ideology of genetic determinism, which is part of the Western culture (Nelkin & Lindee 2).

2.2. Genetic determinism

“Genetic determinism” is the reductionist ideological position that assumes that the person's genome determines all characteristics of the individual. Genes are seen as the determining entity of a person’s identity and destiny: Who a person will be and what a person can accomplish is controlled by the information codified in their genes. Genes are the basis of human biology; therefore, genetic information is essential for human life and plays a vital role in heredity as it is transmitted from the parents to the offspring. Because genetic information is informative about a person’s and maybe even his or her family members’ genetic makeup, it has to be treated particularly sensitive in our society (Morgan 205). The fact that it has already been proven necessary to establish laws against the misuse of genetic information mirrors the overall cultural belief in genetic determinism (Jecker 109). Genetic determinism is a strong form of “genetic essentialism”.

In genetic essentialism, as Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee explain, the self is reduced to a molecular entity and, thereby, human beings are equated, in all their social, historical, and moral complexity, with their genes (Nelkin & Lindee 2). They state that, with the discovery of the DNA as the code of life and with the advances in genetics, genes have gained a striking influence on our everyday lives and the way we interpret identity and human differences.

As the science of genetics has moved from the laboratory to mass culture [...] the gene has been transformed. Instead of a piece of hereditary information, it has become the key to human relationships and the basis of family cohesion [...] it has become the essence of identity and the source of social difference [and] it has become the secular equivalent of the human soul (Nelkin & Lindee 198).

Moreover, Ted Peters recognizes two dimensions of genetic determinism: “Puppet determinism” and “Promethean determinism” (8). In puppet determinism, DNA is seen as the entity that defines who we are and, moreover, “we are immutably destined to act as our DNA programs us to act” and, as a result of this, gain “innocence in a new form” (Peters 8). The Promethean dimension of genetic determinism entails the belief that “genes determine the human future, but the human race determines the genes” meaning that the human species will be able to control human evolution through both the scientific knowledge and technological progress (Peters 8). The Promethean determinism “embodies the ambivalence of hope and trepidation precipitated in our society by the genetic revolution” (Peters 17).

Thus, the increased attention to genetics has led to an increased popular acceptance and integration of genetics into our everyday life. Furthermore, it changes the way humans think about themselves and others. The gene has become a “cultural icon” (Nelkin & Lindee 2). This can be seen in the media coverage of new genetic research results, which increases as well as the rapid advances in genetics. Undeniably, the representations of the results of genetic research in the mass media have an impact on lay attitudes about genetics and the meaning of genes as powerful determinants of one’s life in general as well as relatedness, human diversity, and disability.

Through the coverage of the results of genetic research in mass media and the popular illustrations of the capabilities awarded to genes have an impact on people’s understanding of genetics and attitude towards genetic research. With the discovery of genes, which seem to be responsible for particular human traits, on an almost daily basis, the common genetic knowledge is fostered and the belief in genetic determinism reinforced.

In supermarket tabloids and soap operas, in television sitcoms and talk shows, in women’s magazines and parenting advice books, genes appear to explain obesity, criminality, shyness, directional ability, intelligence, political leanings, and preferred styles of dressing. There are selfish genes, gay genes, couch-potato genes, depression genes, genes for genius, genes for saving, and even genes for sinning. These popular images convey a striking picture of the gene as powerful, deterministic, and central to an understanding of both everyday behavior and the ‘secret of life’ (Nelkin & Lindee 2).

The highly deterministic depiction of single genes in popular media, which are responsible for human traits, reinforces the belief that what makes us human at the basis must be of genetic origin. On top of that, as Leigh Turner states, the “mass media foster attitudes of technological and scientific determinism by implying that scientific ‘progress’ cannot be halted” (388). Undeniably, there are deterministic distortions prominent in mass media, when new findings in genetic research are published.

Mass media simplifies the complexity of recent genetic research to make it easier comprehensible for non-professionals (Görke & Ruhrmann 229). Hence, this simplified representation of genetics intensifies the discriminatory and deterministic role of genes in society (van Dijck 126). On top of that, the portrayal of the double- edged genetic technological advantages in the popular media is often moralizing (Görke & Ruhrmann 229). For example, Condit and her colleagues used quantitative and qualitative research methods to determine the impact of headlines of genetic research in mass media. They found that metaphors such as the “genetic blueprint” or “genetic recipe” for life promote genetic determinism in the headlines, while the body of the reports often provides a more realistic and balanced understanding and view of the new genetics (Condit et al. 199, 981; Condit et al. 2002, 313). Hence, the belief in genetic determinism can be recognized in the presentation of genetic research result in the mass media. Vice versa, the presentation of genetic research results reinforces the mass’ overall assumption of genetic determinism.

What it all amounts to is that genetic determinism frames the cultural picture we have of genes. The advances in genetic knowledge and technologies have an immense impact on the individual and society as a whole. With the assumption of genetic determinism, the source of health and social problems, as well as social achievements, are located in the individual, which might encourage genetic discrimination and cause social injustice. As Francis S. Collins postulates, “Carried to its extreme, this ‘Genes R Us’ mentality would deny the value of social interventions to maximize individual potential [...] and even deny the existence of free will” (in the foreword in Peters, x). As these genetic achievements do not arise in a social vacuum, they are reflected and processed in the mass media.


[1] New genetics meaning the genetic applications and knowledge after the Human Genome Project

[2] Eugenics means public policies that attempt to improve the qualities of the human species by encouraging reproduction of individuals with desirable “good” genetic traits; such policies were promoted in many different countries with the Nazi eugenics being the most well-known. Liberal eugenics means choices made by parents to improve their offspring.

[3] Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is a common procedure in which genetic testing is performed on a very early embryo before implantation; it serves the identification of diseases caused by single gene mutations or by an extra chromosome. Only embryos free of genetic diseases would then be implanted in the uterus

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The Criticism behind Gattaca’s Genetic Apartheid Scenario
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
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ISBN (Book)
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Gattaca, Genetic Determinism, Society, Intolerance, Genetic Diversity, Dystopia, Genetic Apartheid, Genetic Discrimination, Culture, Media, Humanity
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Myriam Nickels (Author), 2016, The Criticism behind Gattaca’s Genetic Apartheid Scenario, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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