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We Are Now Entering The Age of Gattaca

Image from science fiction movie Gattaca

Gattaca was filmed before CRISPR, but still correctly captures the gestalt of technology adoption.

Many people will be familiar with the science fiction movie Gattaca, the heavily emotional film which planted the seeds for a societal discussion of technological eugenics. With the dawn of sophisticated genetic engineering technology, the time has come to answer the questions that Gattaca posed. Like most of the greatest questions about the proper use and limits of technology, regular citizens will have to work in conjunction with their governments to determine what is acceptable.

Gattaca’s Degeneracy

Gattaca takes place in a hypothetical near-future in which genetic editing technology has been ubiquitously applied to human embryos by those who could afford to. Genetic engineering has eclipsed the original societal goals of reducing incidences of malformations and disease and has progressed to outright augmentation of human ability. Genetically engineered people hold all of the top positions within Gattaca’s society, and are in public opinion and also fact much smarter, faster, and stronger than naturally birthed humans. They live longer, rise through the ranks faster, and have a privileged existence relative to the un-edited, who are second-class citizens due to their biological weaknesses.

The primary struggle of Gattaca is the quest of the natural-born protagonist, Vincent Freeman, to thrive in a genetically-engineered world. Vincent works as a janitor, a job considered suitable for those who are natural born. Frequently derided for his dreams of spaceflight due to his weak genes, Vincent ultimately surpasses his biology and is able to succeed. But how realistic is the genetic determinism which Gattaca’s society believes so deeply in, and how did they get to such a radical belief?

A Note on Genetic Determinism

As it turns out, the scientific theory of genetic determinism (that genes are correlated to traits) is ironclad. What is less ironclad is the correlation of certain traits to certain behaviors (still fairly well supported), and certain behaviors with certain outcomes (much less supported). At the moment, deep inquiry into genetic determinism is mostly limited by the lack of knowledge about the full consequences of each gene in the human genome. Additionally, few individuals have their genes sequenced, leaving population-level genetic data very scarce.

Despite our relative ignorance, we do know quite a bit, and the knowledge we can harvest and understand right now is sufficient to discriminate against people in the way portrayed in Gattaca if we felt like being fascistic. Taking things along a Hitler-esque tack and discriminating based off of physical traits would be the easiest. Many physical traits are fully accounted for genetically (blood type) or mostly accounted for (eye color and hair color), meaning that probabilistic predictions about the resulting offspring of any two people can be made with high confidence with regard to these traits. It also goes without saying that for the traits of eye color and blood type, having a person’s genetic information is sufficient to know that person’s eye color and blood type without having seen them or tested their blood.

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The genetic influence on behavior is where things start to get murky. Rather than confident assertions of causation like we have with the trait of blood type, scientists being intellectually honest can only identify correlations between having certain genes and exhibiting certain behaviors. This means that while certain behaviors can be identified as heritable, merely inheriting the gene for a behavior does not guarantee that the individual will exhibit the behavior. A good example here is alcoholism, which is correlated with certain identified genes, but having those genes doesn’t doom a person to becoming an alcoholic.

What Would Practicing Eugenics Look Like?

Thus, we have a couple of potential avenues for use of genetic editing technology in humans. The first avenue is to do nothing with genetic engineering technology and to permit no genetic engineering of humans. I highly doubt we’ll end up taking this path, because it eschews the unprecedented power of genetic engineering technology, and humans love both technology and power. I do suspect that Luddite peoples or countries will attempt to take this avenue, and ultimately fail. The promise of perfection is simply too much to pass up.

The second potential avenue is laissez-faire eugenics. We are effectively in this avenue at this very moment, though there are very few people participating. Those who can afford genetic engineering can use it on whichever traits there are known physical or behavioral correlates for. The practice of laissez-faire genetic engineering is likely to have some negative consequences, as it will likely continue to be practiced before the full ramifications of every editable gene are understood. Even if the resulting genetically engineered offspring are not harmed by the genes that they have been augmented with, it’s entirely possible that imperfect gene editing or transplantation technologies will have adverse effects on their long-term health. I think that having an escalating period of this path is highly likely, given the seductive promise of ubermensch offspring and the indecisiveness of political bodies.

The third path is what I consider to be the most likely path in the long term: limited editing gradually giving way to enlightened boundary-free genetic engineering. As comprehensive knowledge of the human genome advances, the number of traits that are socially permissible and fair-game for editing will also increase, albeit at a delayed pace. At the moment, it would be socially permissible to remove oncogenes (genes correlated with cancer) from your offspring, if you had the resources to. It would be less socially acceptable to edit your child’s hair and eye color, though it is not forbidden. At the moment, it would not be broadly socially acceptable to stack the deck for your offspring by engineering in genes correlated with intelligence and academic performance.

As time passes, each level of genetic engineering will become more acceptable and commonplace. First, removal of deleterious traits will become normalized. Then, non-behavioral traits will be fair game: after all, what difference does hair or eye color really make? The final hurdle will be behavioral engineering, making offspring which are smarter and fairer than before. It is within this final hurdle that the potential to change the face of mankind lies; it’s also where eugenics and Gattaca could become reality.

Is CRISPR our path to Gattaca?

Of course, there has been much ballyhoo about CRISPR, the latest, easiest, and hottest gene-editing technology. Of principal interest is the potential to use CRISPR to edit the genome of human embryos. A number of biotechnology companies have already stepped up to the plate, despite calls for caution from the scientific community. Several groups have tried with mixed results to utilize CRISPR to edit human embryos, but their success is only a matter of time. Even if CRISPR flops in many applications, there are a multitude of companion technologies which may succeed. CRISPR is merely the best-known horse in a large race.

Final Thoughts

Never before have so many different scientific groups picked up and ran with the same technology which is capable of hitting so many targets. It is via CRISPR and related technologies that our current world could recreate Gattaca. There has been a tremendous amount of hype about CRISPR, and many promises made–and soon, promises kept.

Featured Images: Columbia Pictures

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