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Genetic Determinism in GATTACA

Challenge the deceiving depiction of genetic determinism in GATTACA

By Jayde Martin

GATTACA portrays a dystopian society governed by scientific truths; however, its genetic science is more of fictive speculation. The only truth one can find in the film is that GATC are the initials used for the base proteins that code for DNA. In the world where Vincent (our protagonist conceived without the influence of genetic engineering) is raised, all genetically inherited conditions can be determined with a simple heel prick test at birth. This test, also known as Guthrie’s test (after its pioneer, an American microbiologist) has real-life medicinal basis; it is known to detect inherited diseases, such as phenylketonuria (PKU), MCADD, congenital hypothyroidism, sickle cell disorder (SCD) and cystic fibrosis (CF). However, GATTACA’s rendition of the Guthrie test is manipulated to be a catch-all conditions test, capable of finding all probable (and somewhat vague) genetic disorders and diseases; for Vincent, neurological conditions, manic depression and congenital conditions apparently occur at a likelihood of 60%, 80% and 99% respectively.

In reality, congenital and neurological conditions are far too vague to test for. Additionally, the likelihood percentage given (especially that of 99%) is ridiculously misleading; this is obvious through looking at the ways in which genetic scientists study inheritance. Genetic expression is extremely dependent on environmental factors. The politics of understanding the causation of some conditions, such as manic depression, mean physical susceptibility to the illness cannot be its sole consideration. A person who develops a genetically determined condition has both genetic predisposition through the defective alleles they possess and exposure to an environment that caters to its genetic expression. An array of tests to best account for multi-factors is required for this speculation of genetic science to hold any remote resemblance to actual post-natal diagnostic procedures.

The fundamental construct of the society within GATTACA relies heavily on what two science philosophers, Resnik and Vorhaus, have debunked as falsely assumed “strong genetic determinism”. This is the belief that genetic science can predict the expression of genes within a person to 95% or above. When Vincent’s parents create their second child through the intervention of their local geneticist, the geneticist describes the “removal” of any probabilities of obesity and other apparent genetic conditions the child is likely to have. This would assume that such probability is high enough to warrant the interference of an engineer – something that genetic science cannot currently do, and most likely due to the nature of genetic inheritance, will not be able to predict.

On the basis of science fiction, should we let this representation of genetic science slide? I would argue that no, we should not. Unlike string theory in Rick and Morty or time travel in Dr. Who, genetic science is used as a therapy to help disabled people. It touches the very life experiences and identities of individuals, and possibly creates misconceptions around gene therapy treatments that could ease serious illnesses. Therefore, critical analysis on the genetic science in GATTACA should rule it out as irresponsibly fictitious. It communicates bad science to a wider audience; one that may not be specifically trained within genetics to fully understand the potential of post-natal gene therapy.

GATTACA does, however, pick up on the eugenics ethics currently underpinning the practices of genetic counselling for those carrying affected alleles and the selective abortion of possibly disabled children. These issues have resulted in what is termed as “designer babies”. GATTACA is a good example for the worst case scenario if such an “art” of discrimination were made a science, although the portrayal of its medical diagnostics has questionable real-life implications with regards to the representation of medical treatments for genetically disabled people.

From Issue 15

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