The 1997 film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, portrays a futuristic society where babies are genetically engineered according to parental references. The film features a society that consists almost exclusively of such artificially built individuals, with those who are born in the archaic, natural manner occupying the fringes of this society. In order to protect the rights of what are referred to as the “valids” and thereby keep out the inferior “invalids,” each individual’s genetic material is constantly sampled and monitored. Every person’s DNA is stored in a database, making multiple scans and random genetic sweeps in the workplace very efficient. The story follows an “invalid” who has a dream of becoming an astronaut, a job open only to the genetically enhanced elite.
But my intention here is not to provide a synopsis of the film, which is very good and is certainly well worth the time it takes to watch. Rather, I wanted to make reference to three news articles, which, read together, can well be the grounding for a prequel to the film. And although the film is a great example of science fiction, the articles are current news.
Adoption has been practiced at least since ancient Roman times and is a common practice today. However, although newborn babies are in greater demand than older children (since prospective parents may wish to raise the child from infancy), there is another kind of “baby” on the adoption market these days. They are called “snowflake babies” because they are frozen human embryos. Hannah Strege, born in 1998, was the first “snowflake baby” to be born. Cheryl Wetzstein, of The Washington Times, reports that “[r]esearchers think as many as 50,000 of the 600,000 cryogenically preserved embryos in the U.S. eventually could become available for adoption.” And although the Obama administration is proposing to cut the program and allow the discarding of “extra” frozen human embryos, if the adoption of “snowflake babies” becomes profitable, then the economic incentives involved will ensure that many such “babies” survive. After all, where there is money, there is a will, and thus most likely a way.
Now let us hold this though for a moment and move onto the second article. The headline of an article by Stephen Harris in The Engineer reads: “Scientists at Nottingham University have developed an artificial womb to aid research into how early embryos develop.” The embryos used in this research are mouse embryos, but the concept is certainly transferrable to other mammals. The article continues:
Using the artificial womb, researchers at Cambridge University have been able to study the process that is the first step in the formation of the embryo’s head. Shakesheff now wants to use nanotechnology and polymer technology to simulate the next step of growth for embryos where waves of growth-factor proteins stimulate their development.
The Wall Street Journal reports that “New York is again debating expanding its DNA database, this time to include samples from every person convicted of a crime.” There is, of course, some debate over this proposal, but those in favour argue that such a database would certainly be nothing but beneficial.
The scientist running New York’s DNA crime laboratory said he cannot recall a single instance in 16 years when the lab produced bad genetic information that linked an innocent person to a crime. Instead, the work has helped police identify suspects in 12,000 cases, many of them previously unsolved, and exonerate 27 people wrongfully convicted.
By themselves, all research and proposals mentioned above can be very beneficial to our health, our safety, our efficiency, and they can perhaps even be conducive to greater happiness. However, what is so horrifying about the film Gattaca is not the technological advancements of the society portrayed, but the social and individual constraints and control such technologies are capable of imposing. DNA databases can easily be expanded beyond the population of convicted criminals (though forced DNA archiving within this group is also highly debatable). Why not have a database of all potential criminals? Wouldn’t that make it easier for police to solve crimes? And who are potential criminals? Well, at first, certain minorities might be targeted, but in all honesty, everyone should be tagged, so why not just expand the database to all people?
With knowledge gained in research on the development of embryos and in research in artificially modifying embryos, there may one day emerge a different, more profitable, batch of “snowflake babies” ready for adoption. And if a parent is going to pay a substantial amount of money for a baby, why not ensure that their offspring will be ale to fend for herself in an overpopulated world? And in the spirit of keeping track of potential criminals, all newly “adopted” (engineered??) babies should be added to the DNA database.
I am by no means suggesting that the world’s future is grim. However, it is interesting to note that great science fiction is often based in scientific trends. Some of the threads necessary to weave a story like the one of Gattaca are very much in the process of becoming “science non-fiction,” which in itself is not alarming, but also not entirely inconsistent with the possibility of a world not too much unlike that of Gattaca.