September 14, 2003


Gattaca: A Must-See Movie: Great Fiction Dealing With BioEthics (Nigel Cameron, September 12, 2003, Breakpoint)

The two great masterpieces that have powerfully helped shape our understanding of the biotech revolution—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—have now been joined by a third. Appropriately enough for our generation, it is not a book but a movie. It isn’t even a new movie; it’s been out for several years, and when it hit the box offices it was not a conspicuous success. But that is often the way with prophets, even, as it were, secular prophets. (Note to Christians: All three of these wake-up calls are secular products. That should give us serious pause for thought, as well as gratitude and a fresh openness to work side by side with perceptive and humane unbelievers in the days to come.)

The movie, is Gattaca.

Writer/Director Andrew Niccol is responsible for a trio of thoughtful films--The Truman Show; Gattaca; and S1m0ne--that raise troubling questions about how far we're willing to go in our dissatisfaction with the human condition.

Also, be sure to check out Leon Kass's essay on Brave New World, which let's those of us who saw the novel as a parable of politics when we read it during the Cold War see that it is even more pertinent today, when we are at war with our own natures.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2003 10:48 AM

This headline from the journal Nature's online updates seems timely:

Science and ethics must not be separated 121
The progress of research must be kept free from religious and political intervention.

Just noticed that this is not an article per se, but was in the correspondence section. Telling, none the less.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at September 14, 2003 3:39 PM

Forgive me for posting the entire text of the letter. The logical disconnect between the title and subtitle above is just as profound in the body of the letter:
Nature 425, 121 (11 September 2003); doi:10.1038/425121a

Science and ethics must not be separated

Sir – It is regrettable that ethics has been split from science and renamed bioethics. Ethics is an integral part of science. Like science, it requires us to be consistent and empirically justified in our interpretations of the actions of scientists. The ethics of science and science itself share the goal of comprehending in human terms scientists' actions in manipulating the physical world.

The division of science and ethics has been driven by an increasing interest in the actions of scientists by non-scientists. An unfortunate result of this has been a shift away from the consistent and justifiable methodology of science to an approach based on an often ill-defined 'personal philosophy' and 'gut feeling', for instance as described in Correspondence by D. P. Leader: "Reproductive cloning: an attack on human dignity" (Nature 424, 14; 2003).

Such 'gut feelings' undoubtedly play a part in science but are useless for proper understanding. The reactions of non-specialist observers to complex ethical problems raised by cutting-edge science such as embryonic stem-cell research are no more justified or useful than their opinions about the technical difficulties yet to be overcome. The central issue in the ethical debate surrounding the embryo is not whether it is wrong to kill innocent human beings, but what the embryo and its disaggregation constitutes. The specialist scientific community's familiarity with the facts places it in a privileged position in determining the interpretation or interpretations best supported by the facts.

The rise of bioethics as an independent discipline has resulted in a confrontation between ethics and science that has obscured the similar aims of both. Of considerable concern is the increasingly political and religious nature of bioethics and the power it wields over the direction and progress of science. Science and the ethics of science are two sides of the same coin, dealing with the same empirical data and actions of the same scientists.

As well as thinking of their actions in terms of future experimental design, scientists must explain the significance of their actions in the wider scientific and human contexts. Scientists must take the lead in ensuring that the progress of science is both ethical and as free from political intervention as possible, if for no other reason than that only they can do so.

Paul Copland
Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago, Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand

Note the date this was published.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at September 14, 2003 3:44 PM

For the record, I don't define discarded emybros as "life". I might also note that this won't stop the Chinese. Out of curiousity, who should lead the world in genetic research the US or China? If you support Bush, you support Chinese ascendency in biotech research. Food for thought.

I actually liked Gattaca. I thought it was a horror movie. To me, there should be no limitations on how far you can evolve yourself. If you want 12 fingers to play the piano, great. If you want to increase your IQ or your lifespan, then that's your choice and good for you. I guess the downside was the discimination against the naturals. Now, Godless Capitalist, of Gene Expression fame, found the logic quite all right and everything, which I suppose is consistent with his other neo eugenicist views.

On the other hand, there should be a number of life extension therapies that will hit the markets soon. I believe that neither brother has declared that he won't take these therapies, in that that would delay your no doubt happy meeting with Jesus in heaven. We'd like to get you on this record on this. I'm certain that you will both want to die on time. Of course, you're already cheating your god given limitations by using computers, a blasphemy against the natural way that unfairly raises your intelligence. It's against God I tell you...

Posted by: Philip Shropshire at September 14, 2003 5:35 PM


The Chinese are our enemies so I very much favor their self-extermination and the further degradation of their society. I oppose our trading with them, but you'll be able to get any drugs they come up with and we'll have not lowered ourselves to their level. The best of both worlds, though morally dubious.

I'm unaware of any way in which the computer violates human dignity.

Posted by: oj at September 14, 2003 6:29 PM

OJ: You are avoiding the key question. Life extension therapies will be on the market in five years. Will the Brothers Judd accept their god ordained deaths, on time, or will you "play god" and extend your lifetimes. It's not a hard question. A simple yes or no will do.

Uhhh, are you saying the Chinese will sell us life saving therapies the same way the US shares nuclear bomb technology or cheap aids drugs to the Third World? You won't necessarily have access. The other horror show scenario for this is bioweapons. You might not have access to a cure. I don't think that you've responsibly answered this question either...

Posted by: Philip Shropshire at September 14, 2003 8:22 PM

I'm unaware of any way in which the computer violates human dignity.

Ahhhh, but you see, my "faith" tells me that the evil computer is bad bad bad. God speaks to me directly everyday don't you know and you can't counter God you shameless idol worshipping heathen! You are one with the Nazis I think.

Ha ha ha. I'm just joking of course. I can't rebut a logical argument based on evidence and facts with an argument based on faith, which is unprovable. I believe Robert Kuttner defines this as "dogmatism", not reason. I might note that the above paragraph is pretty much your final recourse on every issue! I've never found that line of argument compelling.

Posted by: Philip Shropshire at September 14, 2003 8:29 PM

OJ--Which Chiese are "our enemies"? All of them? Do you advocate the extermination of all Chinese?

Posted by: Jimmy at September 14, 2003 10:55 PM

I might have screened S1m0ne but for Al Pacino. He's devolved into unwatchable overacting self-parody.

Truman Show was decent, but really played out like an extended Twilight Zone episode. Need it have been so long?

Never saw Gattaca, but that Jude Law sure has some high cheek bones.

Posted by: Jimmy at September 14, 2003 10:59 PM


Medicine is a life extension therapy. The question is are you willing to kill others to extend your life. I'm not.


I'm in favor of any enemy of ours exterminating themselves. China might have been a significant world power but is instead destroying itself. Good riddance.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 12:18 AM

OJ: You could actually get those life extension therapies from adult stem cells. Being that once again you have not answered this straight, I can only assume that you are saying yes, you will take the superantioxidant pills, thereby delaying your no doubt thrill happy and rapturous reunion with Christ. Now, why in Heaven's name would you do that? I would think that you would want to die on time. O ye of little faith.

One more point, you do research on discarded embyros, which would be destroyed anyway (by the way, I agree with you that there should never be a financial incentive to discard embryos. Together, let's make that proposal to codify that into a law of some sort as well as ending slave labor abroad and paying the prevailing (not anywhere near the american minimum wage by the way) living wage. I'm sure that's what Jesus would do...)to understand not only stem cells in the womb but how adult stem cells work.

Yet, through all this, I see a point of agreement. I can extend my life indefinitely as long as I'm not using the research gleaned from embryonic stem cell research. Well bully for you! A lot of those therapies have nothing to do with embryonic stem cell research. Let me applaud the tolerance of the Brothers Judd. And I suppose you can extend your lifespans as well, of course this delays what will only be a too swell meeting with Christ but perhaps more of God's work needs to be done on this plane. How noble of you.

Posted by: Philip Shropshire at September 15, 2003 2:02 AM

Uhhh, how is China, with its 1.2 billion in population destroying itself? It seems like they have quite healthy drives to me...I think companies that are investing in China are fools but that's just me...

Posted by: Philip Shropshire at September 15, 2003 2:06 AM

GATTACA was a great movie, but not very convincing from the standpoint of the dangers of genetic engineering. The kind of discrimination that the protagonist suffers because of his genetic status is with us today. Someone with a heart condition and poor eyesight would never pass the screening to become an astronaut today. We discriminate in our choices of mates and employees today based on their genetics - they are either too ugly or sickly or stupid - but we don't have to read their genome, we just examine the finished product of the genes.

I can sympathize with the main character, because I wanted to be an astronaut until I found out that my poor eyesight disqualified me. I just don't buy how genetic engineering is going to make society any more discriminatory than it already is.

Posted by: Robert D at September 15, 2003 6:59 PM


Because the better-sighted, smarter, more physically fit, healthier, will truly be your superior.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 7:27 PM


How are the better-sighted, smarter, more physically fit etc not somehow superior?

I doubt you can find anyone who would rather be sick than healthy.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 15, 2003 8:07 PM


Agreed. So when the wealthy use their money to design such children they'll create a caste that is superior. All men will not be equal. Some will be more equal than others. Public policy will change to meet that reality. For instance: one kidney donor; two possible recipients; a superior and an inferior; who gets it?

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 8:33 PM

OJ, we have all the genetic inequality today to justify such a caste based society. We are not equal today. Why aren't we all wearing dots on our heads now?

Posted by: Robert D at September 15, 2003 9:35 PM


You're kidding right? You just mentioned one way in which we appropriately discriminate against the physically inferior. Such will only multiply as the divide widens between the superior and those they leave behind.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 9:46 PM


Just a quibble, but in your example, it's not necessary to chose, or even to have a donor. If either needs a kidney, just harvest a kidney cell and grow a new one, guaranteed not to be rejected.

More fundamentally, although soon we'll be able to choose eye color and eliminate some simple diseases, cracking the code of what makes people successful is likely to be VERY complex.
A clone of Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet is EXTREMELY unlikely to be as successful, and quite likely to chose a different profession from the original.

The future oppression of the "naturals" is far in the future, and by far, I mean three generations, at least.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 17, 2003 9:23 AM

What's far to a liberal is short to a conservative and it's never too soon to fight the future.

Posted by: oj at September 17, 2003 9:30 AM