GATTACA: is there a gene for the human spirit?
Contributed by Elizabeth Ricker.
What better group to view the dystopic science fiction movie Gattaca than those attempting to discern and make real the better parts of its science? In early spring, the Knome team crowded into our conference room to watch this 1997 film. Nearly all of our staff assembled to eat pizza, watch the film, discuss the science and moral dimensions of the genomic technologies that we ourselves are bringing into the world.
Post-movie discussion ranged from what genetic traits are possible to select for to considering whether the pursuit of a genomic ideal (assuming such a thing exists) could be ethically pursued. As a cutting-edge genome interpretation company with a commitment to the highest ethical standards, what is Knome’s educational responsibility?
It is often said that art mirrors life and life mirrors art—but with a lag. In the world of Gattaca, laws protect citizens from being discriminated against in employment and health insurance due to their genetics (a discrimination called “genoism” in the movie), but in practice, the law is easily circumvented. More than ten years after the film’s release, the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits genetics based employment and health insurance discrimination. State level proposals such as CalGINA, as well as the VT, CT, and MA addendums take even stronger stances. At this point, it is still unclear how much life will mirror art. Will these well-intentioned laws also fail?
In Gattaca, Ethan Hawke’s character must create a fake identity because he is repeatedly cut off from opportunities due to his genetic profile. Hawke’s character acknowledges the grim reality of his limited prospects and deviously works around them. Through secrecy, enormous determination, persistence, and personal sacrifice, he pursues his professional dreams. Jude Law plays his counterpoint, a man genetically privileged but ultimately underachieving. Despite his ostensible genetic disadvantage, Ethan Hawke is ultimately the more successful of the two. Thus the tagline of the movie: there is no gene for the human spirit.
Like many such conversations, the Gattaca discussion here at Knome raised as many questions as answers. For instance, there was debate about whether there could ever be genetic markers for the persistence, optimism, and resilience demonstrated by Ethan Hawke’s character—a ‘gene for the human spirit’. We are enthusiastic about the positive role that our products and services will play, but we must carefully demarcate areas of uncertainty as well. The answers are fascinating but complex.
Genomics heralds a new and exciting world. We must strive to make it an ethical and thoughtful one, too. With any great technology comes the potential for good or harm, but the same carefulness of thought that makes discovery itself possible can and should be utilized in navigating the ethical and logistical challenges of applying it. If there is a gene for the human spirit, we will be calling upon it to meet the challenge of the genomic era.