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Learning episode 6:


Purpose and use of this learning episode: Gattaca and the triumph of will over DNA

On the myclasses portal where this learning episode was found a discussion of genetic engineering versus the human will in Gattaca, then on into eugenics and even free will. The page used images from the film Gattaca, especially the bland workplaces and the 'Invalid' images.


Students attending a face-to-face class for this study watched the DVD version of the film in class with computer and overhead projector, while students studying as flexible learning were offered a copy of the film on CD-ROM, copied under the special provisions of local Copyright laws.



Forum topics for discussion
GATTACA and the study of SF
The genetic society is a drab society
Not anti-Science, but a warning
Genetic enhancement determined by societal preferences
Are humans just a collection of parts?
Free will and genetic determinism
Resource list
Readings and links
Further reading and links




The points at the start of these notes are to be discussed in the Forum area. You are asked to jump to the Forum area, using the link here and making a comment in the appropriate Forum thread. Please remember, your participation in discussions is expected in this study, as part of your overall participation.


Forum topics for discussion:



How does Vincent succeed in completing his life-long ambition to travel from Earth?


To what extent is Gattaca a narrative against genetic determinism?
  How much of your life is controlled by your genes and what can you can do about it?



GATTACA and the study of SF


In the brave new world theme area we turn to Gattaca (Niccol, 1999) after the different Star Trek episodes of learning episode five because these episodes show several recent views on genetic engineering and its possible use in society and its impact on an individual. The same is true of Gattaca,


Gattaca is a Science Fiction text that can be found in most courses studying SF. In fact, it occupies a strong place in many commentaries on the whole genre. It is so important in some SF courses that an ex-student from Narrabundah College in Canberra now studying at the Australian National University is writing her fourth-year thesis on Gattaca alone. This course does not study Gattaca to the same level as at university, but we will use it as an example of another major SF text that discusses important social issues, through analogy.




The genetic society is a drab society


Just as in the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode 'The Masterpiece Society' discussed in  learning episode five, the future Earth society seen in Gattaca is clean and ordered, at first glance. Many of the scenes show large spaces in muted colours and there are many stainless steel objects, elevators and thin computer screens around the workspaces of the Gattaca company, with their work of sending out off-world expeditions. This presentation of the society as clean and subdued seems to indicate a sort of "antiseptic world" has been created in this near future scenario. In fact, the SF critic Kirby has said that Gattaca shows an "antiseptic world that has been purged of imperfections and blemishes" (Kirby, 2000). Kirby goes on to add that the future society of Gattaca has created a genetically perfect world but the price that has been paid for this balance is a loss of the human spirit (Kirby, 2000).  




Not anti-Science, but a warning


When Gattaca was ready for release the producers of the film went to a good deal of trouble to have it checked by groups of geneticists and other scientists. Many of these scientists at the advance screenings liked the film and thought that the discussion of genetic engineering was important and valuable. However, when the film was released commercially, many critics said that the film was against Science. The respected SF critic Mann said that Gattaca was not anti-science, but was against the misuse of some technologies. Mann pointed out that the chief protagonist dreamt of travelling to Titan and this is a celebration of science (Mann, 2001:375). 


Mann believes that Gattaca is a warning against eugenics. Eugenics is a social philosophy that believes that humanity can be improved by selective breeding or genetic manipulation. Eugenics was a popular movement that was widely held over many years but when it was adopted by the Nazis, its popularity disappeared. However, there has been a return to eugenics in some ways because of the rise in the notion that genes play such a crucial role in human behaviour. Many films and articles seem to believe that society can be explained by the genetic traits of some individuals. Recently, there have been claims that science has discovered the gene for some human conditions or habits, like alcoholism, obesity, and so on. This belief that genes control aspects of human behaviour is called 'genetic determinism'.


Genetic determinism is a cause of many arguments amongst scientists even though many non-scientists believe it is true. The basic idea of genetic determinism is that when we understand the nature of all the genes in the human genome, then human behaviour can be understood by these genes and their interactions. For evidence to support this scientists can look at genes that code for mutations in a single gene that can produce Down syndrome. Using gene therapy genes without mutations can be substituted for genes that have known effects like Down's syndrome. Expanding this to other human characteristics like substance abuse, some scientists maintain that gene therapy could remove drug abuse, obesity, addiction to gambling and others from our society. In a deleted scene from Gattaca a doctor designing a genetically engineered baby offers the parents the option to remove the gene for homosexuality.


Mann (2001) believes that Gattaca shows that genetics may be used to enhance humans, but it will not necessarily improve minds. Mann adds that, "The film is stylish and retro-futuristic; the technology is evident yet understood. The characters are portrayed well, and the plot is well realized and developed" (Mann, 2001).

Because it is powerful and relates to one man's quest to reach the stars regardless of a genetic defect of a weak heart, then Gattaca undermines the myth "that has sprung up around the science of genetic engineering over recent years" (Mann, 2001:376). The movie is a moving evocation of "the personal implications of genetic engineering" (Mann, 2001:376).




Genetic enhancement determined by societal preferences


Gattaca forecasts a future world where there is unrestricted human-gene therapy. Based in our current reality of limited gene therapy, Gattaca builds from here to a world in the near future where a new eugenics is a reality (Kirby, 2000). SF critic Kirby (2000) believes that this new eugencis will be driven by what families want. An example of this is the use of the human growth hormone called hGH. This was designed to treat dwarfism but increasingly it has come to be used to increase the height of children who have no growth defect. This is because parents believe tall people generally do better in life. Kirby believes that genetic enhancements will be those that give advantages in our culture.


The static and bland societies seen in both Gattaca and 'The Masterpiece Society' have lost their genetic diversity. These films play on a fear of a totalitarian society, that is, a society where all aspects of human life are tightly controlled by some central authority, including human reproduction. The intrusion of this central authority into private matters is an "invasive technoscience" (Martinez, 2004) that dehumanises us as individuals.

As with the choice to ensure a child is not obese, homosexual or likely to abuse drugs, genetic determinist scientists off a much more controlled and less diverse society. Some writers have looked at Gattaca from alternative viewpoints, suggesting that the oppression of the 'in-valids' could equate to the current oppression of homosexuals and women (Hayles, 2002).




Are humans just a collection of parts?


As we saw in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein studied in learning episode two, one of the central themes in the brave new world area is the nature of humanity - what it means to be human. This is explored in many texts not only in this theme area, but others in the mySf Project. It is argued by Kirby (2000) that Gattaca also explores this idea, saying there is considerable danger in a society that believes that humans are nothing more than their genes.


Gattaca shows the viewer that humans can be much more than just their genes and their body parts. The genetically unenhanced Vincent, the main protagonist, is seen as a superior human being, "able to excel physically and socially despite his built-in 'flaws'" (Kirby, 2000). The unenhanced, like Vincent, are actively discriminated against in the near-future world seen in Gattaca. This is seen as similar to our own racism or classism by Vincent and he says, "'it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of genetics—genoism it’s called—but no one takes the laws seriously'" (Kirby, 2000). There is proof for this in the terms that people who are not genetically manipulated are called, "faith births," "defectives," "God children," or the officially sanctioned term, "in-valids." Vincent himself is an 'in-valid' and he uses the genetic profile of a 'valid' to stay in Gattaca to fulfil his dreams. In this he is called a "de-gene-erates" or "borrowed ladders" (Kirby, 2000).




Free will and genetic determinism


The film study of  Gattaca raises many important points, as noted above. It introduces the idea of genetic determinism but as the critics have noted, it disputes the claim that humans are just a collection of genes that condition behaviour. Gattaca demonstrates through the life of Vincent that human will and passion is superior to genetic enhancement. This is seen clearly when Vincent swims against his genetically enhanced brother out into the waves but he beats his brother through sheer will power, by leaving no strength to return. This is undoubtedly the corniest scene in the film but it does make clear the central idea that human individual will is superior to genetic modification, in the view of the writers.


In this way Gattaca argues strongly against genetic determinism and the return of eugenics into our culture.




Resource list:


Hayles, K. (2002). 'Prognosticating the Future'. From Science Fiction Studies. Number 88, Volume 29, Part 3. November, 2002. Review of Hollinger, V. and Gordon, J. (Editors).  Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania. 2002.


Kirby, D. 'The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy in GATTACA'. Science Fiction Studies. Number #81 = Volume 27, Part 2. July, 2000.


Mann, G. (Ed.)     (2001). The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: Carroll and Graf.


Martinez, J. (2004). 'Technology and Theology (or Lack Thereof)'. Science Fiction Studies. Number #92, Volume 31, Part 1. March, 2004. Review of Graham, E. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2002.


Niccol, A. (1999). Gattaca. Directed by A. Niccol. (DVD). Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment. 2003. Screenplay by Andrew Niccol, starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Uma Thorman.



Readings and links:

  Wikipedia page on Eugenics, the idea that a social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention
  Wikipedia link on genetic determinism
  Wikipedia link on gene therapy
  Wikipedia link on the racial policies of the Nazi party




Further reading and links



Short story 'It' by Theodore Sturgeon


Short story 'The Dead Man' by Fritz Leiber


Short story 'The Furniture of Life's Ambitions' by Brian Stableford


Short story 'Blood Music' by Greg Bear


Brave new world theme area podcast 1a - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF


Brave new world theme area podcast 1b - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF



Michael Sisley



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