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5/24: Who’s the Boss? The Nature v. Nurture Dilemma

DNA background

Photo credit: M Pinarci GENE A101 via photopin (license)

Still a month behind with these posts, but catching up. At this point, however, I’m fairly confident I’m actually going to be able to complete February’s post in February. Hope springs eternal…

January’s movie selection, the fifth movie in my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series, was GATTACA (1997). (What, I hear you gasp, “A non-80s movie?” Yes, folks, I do have some depth.)

What did I remember about this movie? I remember it being smart and atmospheric, but mostly I remember thinking, “Shit, they’re right, that is going to be our future!” And that worried the hell out of me — and still does. Which is why it’s on my list.

The premise behind GATTACA, in the most reductionist IMDB parlance possible, is simply: “A genetically inferior man assumes the identity of a superior one in order to pursue his lifelong dream of space travel.”

It’s the “not-too-distant” future we’re told at the beginning of the film (though since it’s hard to get the future exactly right, the costume designers have actually reverted to a retro 1950s look to represent this near-contemporary time frame), and it turns out that medical science is now able to — and thus, invariable, do — manipulate the genes in unborn children to such an extent that they can easily create “designer” babies to meet parents’ specifications. (Insert Six Million Dollar Man voice over: “Better. Stronger. Faster.”) Babies who, of course, then grow into designer adults. We quickly learn that all your “stats” and your related mortal potentialities can be determined, or at least reasonably extrapolated, at birth from a simple blood test which provides a comprehensive summary of your genetic inventory. Hence the movie’s title: G, T, C, and A being the letters that code the four “bases” that represent the entirety of the billions of DNA sequences that define us.

With a wonderful linguistic sleight of hand, those who are suitably genetically endowed are easily — biologically — scanned, whenever necessary, and correspondingly confirmed as “Valid.” Their success in life is assured (barring catastrophe, as we soon learn). The world is their oyster. On the other hand, individuals who have not been thus “designed”, who are naturally conceived, gestated and born purely at the mercy of the universe, end up completely disenfranchised and, when similarly scanned, are identified as, you guessed it, “In-Valid.” Get it? Invalid. See what they did there?

The result? A further perpetuation of the on-going, human-driven zero sum game of life. Two solitudes. Us and them. Haves and have nots. Nobility and peasants. The one percent vs. the 99. As our protagonist notes at the beginning of the movie, in seeking to explain his own context within this new world order: “They had discrimination down to a science.” In other words, one could argue, business as usual as far as civilization is concerned.

Our hero, of course, is an InValid posing, through an elaborate biological con game, as a Valid so that he can fulfill his dream of traveling to Saturn as an astronaut. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge; that is, returning toward the stars from whence we all ultimately emerged — “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon…”). But here’s the rub: he’s risen to the top of his class in training for the Saturn mission not because he was genetically engineered to be smart and fit enough to do so (as those around him in training had been) — a simple blood test would expose him as a InValid after all, a mere mortal with a weak heart who’s not even supposed to live to 30 — but because he’s busted his ass to do all the work (both physical and intellectual) that he needed to do to get there. The hard way. From scratch.

And that’s the discussion I wanted to have with my son. To what extent are we simply the sum of our genetic parts (Nature) versus the person we make ourselves — or get made — into (Nurture)? Will the scorpion always sting the frog to death that’s ferrying him across the river, causing them both drown, simply because we are all — especially scorpions, it appears — slaves to our “nature.” What is fate? What is destiny? To what extent is gene manipulation a slippery slope to rampant cellular eugenics?

We didn’t get very far with the fate / destiny discussion. We had an great discussion regarding the potential implications of genetic manipulation though. My son is quite an empathetic individual. He’s always worried about the underdog, so his take on things was that he was all for genetic manipulation if it could give an individual a leg up on curing a illness or disease, before he or she was born, so that that person didn’t have to be saddled with such an obvious impediment throughout his or her life. He was adamantly, vehemently, opposed to using genetic manipulation for “cosmetic” purposes, however. To change the colour of someone’s eyes, or make them taller, or give them a more muscular physique for example. As usual, he gets full points for being a reasonable, compassionate human being. Beyond such fairly specific aesthetic examples, however, he seemed a little more vague. Nonetheless, I sensed he felt that any sort of potential non-disease curing, non-appearance-based personal enhancements, would, likewise, still essentially fall into the “cosmetic” category.

At which point I suggested to him that, from my experience, this often does not seem to be how the world actually works, either in terms of scientific advancement or moral subjectivism. Once Pandora’s Box has been breached, even just a crack, it’s pretty much inevitable the lid will eventually be thrown wide open. And it is this fear of slippery slopes that continued to make me so uncomfortable as I watched GATTACA again, 20 years later. Because, to my mind, the future unfolds something like this:

  • Step #1: “Let’s turn off the gene that causes, say, Muscular Dystrophy, before the child is born.” Awesome idea, says the world (myself included). Here’s your Nobel Prize Ms. Researcher, you’re a true humanitarian.
  • Step #2: “What do you mean I can’t have the geneticist tweak my unborn’s DNA to give him blue eyes? Jeez, it’s not a question of ethics, after all. It’s not like I’m not allowing him to have eyes. Nature would randomly assign him an eye colour anyway, and if something is random then it obviously doesn’t matter what colour you end up with. If it doesn’t matter in nature, what’s the problem?” Money changes hands and a new, commercially viable industry emerges from the shadows.
  • Step #3: “Come on, doctor! Why won’t you manipulate the genes to enhance my unborn daughter’s neural network? You have the capability. I’m already allowed to change her eye colour if I want to, so why can’t I make her a little smarter? She’ll do better in life that way. All I want is for my daughter to have the chances I never had. It’s not like we’re giving her somebody else’s brain after all. This is her brain we’re talking about, and the innate potential we want to unlock already resides within her genes. Who are you to hold her back from that potential and limit her life and opportunities? You’re curtailing her future! You’re making Bay Jesus cry! We’re suing for damages!”

Game, set, and match. The more money you have, the better the baby you’ll be able to build. And you better have money ‘cuz you can be damn sure such procedures are not going to be covered by your provincial health plan!

Tell me I’m overthinking this one. Please!

Wait a minute. Is that CSI I hear starting on TV?

“Who are you? Who, who, who, who?

I really wanna know…”

3/24: Third Time’s a Charm!


Photo credit: wwarby Alcatraz Cells via photopin (license)

So, November’s movie — the third instalment of my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series — was The Shawshank Redemption (1994). This is one of those movies that is on TV often enough that we’ve probably all seen and become familiar with at least some part(s) of it. I’m not sure, however, until this November, that I’ve ever actually seen the whole thing all the way through. In any case, as I have with the two previous films in this series, I chose this movie for what I believed to be a significant “life lesson” as expressed in a single scene that always stuck in my head: the “Ah-ha” moment when the Warden rips the Marilyn Munroe poster off Andy’s (played by Tim Robbins) cell wall to reveal a tunnel he has spent nearly 20 years patiently digging with a tiny rock hammer to facilitate his eventual escape — which he has just completed.

For me, the lesson behind the tunnel — a deliciously surprising plot twist — focuses on the incredible power of “incrementalism” in our lives. This is a concept I always try to impart to my son when he feels overwhelmed by the sheer scope of certain significant undertakings he might be faced with, whether it’s a school project — “Sure To Kill a Mockingbird is a long book, but you’ve got a month to read it, so that’s not more than eight pages a day which is no problem at all” — or playing a sport — “No, you’re not going to be Sidney Crosby the first instant you step out on the ice in your hockey gear, but you will get better if you’re committed to practicing.”

For me this message of incrementalism was especially timely because I was also participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, — which is why I’m not getting around to completing this post about November’s movie until December! — so I spent most of the month trying to convince myself that I could write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days and still be able to go to work and live a relatively normal life. What kept me going was not worrying about the 50,000 words that were required by the end of the month (which was far too daunting to even consider), but simply getting through the 1,667 words I needed to make sure I wrote every day. 1,667 words a day was “do-able” after all. And if I could string 30 days of “do-able” together, one after another, at the end of the month I’d have the draft of a novel in my hands. Which seemed, from the perspective of November 1st at least, somewhat improbable, if not completely impossible.

But NaNoWriMo turned out to be a success, and so was Shawshank. Not only did my son not hem and haw very much about having to watch it in the first place, as he did with the first two movies (thank you Morgan Freeman! — one of his favourite actors), he actually said to me afterwards that he thought it was one of the best movies he had ever seen. (Forgive him, he’s still young). But the real pay off for me was when I asked him what he felt to be the most important part of the story. “Uhmm, I think it was when when the Warden pulled the poster off the wall and discovered the tunnel,” he informed me. “Why was that?” I asked, trying to contain my excitement. “Well, because it showed that as hard as it was on Andy to be in prison he always had a plan he was working toward and he never stopped being able to manipulate people to make his plan work.”

I thought the “manipulation” comment offered an interesting — and maybe rather personal — perspective, but, nonetheless, I was nearly jumping up and down in jubilation that the message I had wanted him to take from the movie — “Plan your work and work your plan” — was exactly what he had come up with. Then, seeking to further leverage his new-found insight, I sought to broaden the scope a little in terms of how important incrementalism is as a tool in a person’s everyday life, including its application to things like compound interest, healthy eating and exercise, getting through university, saving for an expensive purchase, undertaking a large project at school or work, etc. The sheer, almost counter-intuitive power of incrementalism is probably not really something you can fully appreciate at 16 — given you haven’t yet had the experience of 40 or 50 years slipping by you in the wink of an eye — but he seemed to grasp it “in principle,” which, I expect, is all any parent can really hope for at this juncture.

And sure, we also discussed how the movie seemed to talk a lot about the idea “hope” in apparently hopeless situations, but what Andy ultimately shows us is that hope is an active, not a passive process. And an active process requires a plan. And the bigger the plan, the more imperative is our understanding of incrementalism. As Andy himself concludes, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Roger that!