Science Does Not Change Culture: Extrapolating Discrimination Practices in Gattaca
“All men are created equal” — Thomas Jefferson. These are the words penned in the Declaration of Independence, a document that has been cited by every Civil Rights movement, and is the basis of American freedom from tyranny. Of course, in Jefferson’s time, every citizen was created equally — meaning born in the same natural way; this fact was indeed “self evident,” as Jefferson wrote. But due to uncontrollable factors such as wealth inequality, racial privilege, and gender privilege, it is clear there has never been a guarantee of equal opportunity. In modern times, however, the validity of the very statement, “all men are created equal” does not hold true either. Based on technological advancements, scientific discovery, and genetic manipulation, a world where parents control the birth and genetic composition of their children is is its late nascent stages.
Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film Gattaca portrays such a futuristic world. In contrast to modern times, the society depicted in the film appears to be one without overt racial discrimination, gender bias, or religious prejudices. There is no indication that ending discrimination and prejudice was the main goal of eugenics in the film, but Gattaca portrays this result as an inadvertent byproduct of the technological advancements. That said, while genetic manipulation seems to be a productive and effective solution to end appearance-based discrimination, this is not the case. In a world like Gattaca’s universe, overt racism may arguably be eliminated, but the customizability of offspring gives rise to a new form of nuanced discrimination: genoism, making previous discrimination practices more specific and systematic. For example, instead of an employer choosing not to hire African Americans in an act of discrimination, the Gattaca universe allows for parents to discriminate in a much earlier step. Instead of the employer acting out of prejudice, parents do when they customize their children and choose for them to have lighter skin. Furthermore, thanks to parents’ capability to decide nuanced characteristics about their children such as a specific height and eye color, distinct biases and preferences become more pronounced. Ultimately, I argue that discrimination and racism cannot be solved through science, that these are social issues that must be solved culturally through education and tolerance, two pillars that are lacking in Gattaca.
Similar to the argument I make, David A. Kirby, a writer for Literature and Medicine, suggests that by implementing such genetic manipulation in our current society, equality will not be achieved through social change, but rather ingenuinely through a simple route of genetic manipulation. Kirby argues the film is a warning for future generations. The warning message Kirby discusses concerns the potential dangers of a futuristic world interested only with enhancing our genes. Gattaca hints at this message through the film’s title and opening quote. Douglas Elby’s Talent Develop article discusses the meaning of “GATTACA:” it is a genetic sequence that exists in every human being; it is what unifies the entire human species. Elby explains that the genetic nucleotide sequence “GATTACA” is meant to illustrate what all human beings have in common. I agree with this interpretation; however, I disagree with his analysis of the film’s opening quote. The quote, “I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to,” comes from William Gaylin, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia and the founder of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institution. Elby argues that the film may be cautionary to an extent, but that there is undeniable value in genetic manipulation. I contend that Elby is misinterpreting the film’s intention of inserting Gaylin’s quote in its opening. Perhaps Gattaca indents for the audience to agree with the quote before the film’s plot unfolds, but by the film’s end it is obvious that Gattaca is significantly more cautionary than it is pro-genetic manipulation. As such, the opening quote must be analyzed along with the film’s title to expose its irony. While “GATTACA” describes what we share in common as human beings, the act of genetic manipulation focuses solely on our differences and how to get ahead in a competitive world. It is therefore ironic that the film be entitled with a genetic sequence that unites humans when the whole Gattaca universe is one of systematic discrimination, focusing only on our differences.
Just like Gaylin’s pro-eugenic stance, the medical professionals in the Gattaca universe believe racism and prejudice are a mere byproduct of “imperfect” humans. When Vincent’s parents discuss with the doctor about the birth of Anton, who Vincent describes would be born the “new natural” way, the doctor says he will make sure to “eradicate all potentially prejudicial conditions” such as baldness and obesity (9:15). By eliminating everything that is “potentially prejudicial,” the doctor is in fact being prejudicial. The science does not eliminate prejudice itself; it just eliminates what society has considered to be “prejudicial conditions.” In trying to convince Vincent’s parents to go through with customizing Anton, the doctor tells them, “you want to give your child the best possible start … your child doesn’t need any additional burdens” (10:08). By suggesting that an appearance characteristic could translate to an “additional burden” on a child, the doctor is acknowledging a racist and prejudiced society. He informs the parents that rather than trying to end such attitudes, it is better to conform to them and prevent children from displaying any characteristics that might trigger them.
The doctor’s thoughts are not novel; in fact, former USC President and eugenicist Rufus B. Von Kleinsmid had similar beliefs. In his work “Eugenics and the State” (1913), he offers an almost identical opinion to that of the doctor: “A prime necessity in any program for social betterment is the discovery of the defective at the earliest possible moment, allowing of the most humane treatment of them through a longer portion of their lives, and for their safest care in the light of what society owes to itself” (Eugenics and the State p. 9). Von Kleinsmid’s use of the word “defective” in 1913 is obviously a crude description of the impaired community and is clear evidence suggesting that eugenics is in fact a form of discrimination. Just like the doctor in Gattaca, Von Kleinsmid believed the human race was better off in “fixing” these “defective” people so they would not be discriminated against.
Von Kleinsmid additionally contends that by not “fixing” these “defective” people, society is doing injustice to the “normal” class of students: “why admit to our public schools—at least to any other sort than those organized especially to care for such—the feeble minded boy and girl, when we all recognize the fact that for feeble mindedness there is no cure, and that the idiot and the imbecile cannot be educated in any fair sense of the word?” (Eugenics and the State p.10). Von Kleinsmid goes on to make an economic argument for why eugenics is a necessary means of improving society: “The economic waste everywhere apparent in our treatment of that portion of this class who do come under our observation is nothing short of appalling. To think of the hundreds of thousands of school children of normal mentality whose daily progress is marked, not by what it is possible and even easy for them to accomplish, but by what in the presence of defective pupils of the public schools they are allowed to accomplish … is discouraging” (Eugenics and the State p. 9). Von Kleinsmid takes the Gattaca doctor’s argument to a new level — he says that not only will the offspring have to bear an additional burden if they are not enhanced, but society as a whole will suffer. While it is apparent that Von Kleinsmid’s concepts and views lack sophistication and are a vulgar way to catalog members of the disabled community, Gattaca’s universe heavily implies the same views, resulting in systematic discrimination.
The observable implications of this systematic discrimination are apparent in the first scenes of the film. In the montage of scenes showing Anton’s superiority compared to Vincent, the film discusses their difference in height (10:25), portrays Vincent as needing glasses (10:30), and shows Anton running down the hill faster than Vincent (10:45). Albeit minor differences between the two brothers, they are all intentional enhancements made to Anton. In a society that allows every characteristic to be customized, broad differences will no longer exist. Rather, the differences become more nuanced and specific. While there may be no more prejudice on the basis of race, there is now favorability based on controllable characteristics like height, speed, and eyesight. As Vincent puts it, he now “belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin … no, we now had discrimination down to a science” (15:30). Vincent is explaining that the act of appearance-based discrimination may seem to have gone extinct, when in reality it has been systemized. In the Gattaca universe, discrimination has transformed from an act to a practice, existing well before children are born. The “science of discrimination” now takes place in parents’ conforming to what society has deemed to be the “best” human being.
Gattaca also demonstrates the way the law against discrimination serves as a weak constraint for businesses and companies in the their hiring practices. Instead of describing race-based discrimination like the form that exists in modern times, Gattaca promulgates genetic-based discrimination, better known as “genoism.” The term “genoism” is one coined by Niccol through Gattaca, and one that is now widely referred to in social commentaries and in the medical field. Vincent mentions the term for the first time in his opening monologue: “Of course, it’s illegal to discriminate. Genoism, it’s called. But no one takes the law seriously. If you refuse to disclose, they can always take a sample from a door handle, or a handshake, even the saliva on your app form. If in doubt, a legal drug test can become an illegal peak into your future in the company” (13:30). Niccol cleverly inserted this line in Gattaca to remind the audience of the loopholes companies use to discriminate in today’s times. For example, it is obviously illegal to unequally compensate two workers performing the same job just because of their gender. It is also illegal not to hire someone just because of their race. However, the data shows that the law is being ignored, just like it is in Gattaca’s world. In an experiment reported by Business Insider magazine, a man named Jose Zamora changed just one letter in his name to become Joe Zamora, and was subsequently “flooded with emails” from recruiters eager to meet him. A study by Atlantic magazine concluded that people with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks than equal job-searchers with black-sounding names. The study concluded that having a white-sounded last name can be compared to having to eight years of work experience. Based on the results of this study, it is clear that that Gattaca’s depiction of workplace discrimination is not only futuristic, but also realistic for today.
Gattaca also alludes to the discrimination procedures practiced by modern insurance companies. There is ample data regarding insurance discrimination practices in our current society: some is covert and subconscious, and others are overt and open. Health insurance companies, for example, take advantage of patients who accept genetic testing through their medical providers. In certain cases, these genetic tests reveal genetically-transmitted diseases and generate probabilities that calculate how likely it is for such diseases to appear in certain individuals. When this information is made available to health insurance companies — because the health foundations are the ones offering the tests — they charge higher premiums based on the data.
In Gattaca, the insurance lady in one of the film’s opening montages tells Vincent’s mother, “the insurance won’t cover it,” and then she shuts the gate in her face. The camera stays an extra second on the gate closing and zooms to baby Vincent’s hands grasping on the gate (8:40). This image is symbolic of an exclusion. Vincent is excluded from insurance benefits because of something that is beyond his control. This metaphoric image exposes the reality for victims of discrimination: they lack the ability to change their reality; they are handicapped by something that is out of their control. In this case, it is a cultural attitude. Such was the finding of a group of researchers at the University of Chicago. In their report titled The next exclusion debate: assessing technology, ethics, and intellectual disability after the Human Genome Project, the researchers found that genetic testing for down syndrome “perpetuate[s] discrimination by preventing the birth of children with disabilities.” The work reports on the critiques of prenatal testing that is articulated by many disability rights activists.
Gattaca makes this same critique on a universe that has enhanced discrimination. The film contends that society acted as Vincent’s handicap, and it is culture that must be altered to end such handicaps and discrimination practices. A recurring image in Gattaca is the game of “chicken” Vincent and his older brother Anton played together. The two would swim out into the ocean, and whichever one became too scared or tired to continue would lose. Based on Anton’s superior genetic composition, it is clear that he should have beat Vincent every time. But that all changes right before Vincent moves out of his family’s home: “It was the one moment when my brother was not as strong as he believed to be, and I was not as weak. It was the moment that made everything possible” (14:40). It is interesting to note how Niccol does not mirror Anton’s belief about himself to Vincent’s beliefs about himself. Niccol constructs the sentence to explain how Anton was not as weak as Anton thought he was, but that Vincent was just “not as weak,” with no mentioning of Vincent’s thoughts. By doing so, Niccol implies that Vincent never thought he was weak. Anton might have though Vincent was weak, and most likely the rest of society thought the same. It was not Vincent’s beliefs that dragged him down and gave him a handicap in progressing in life, but rather it was society’s prejudgment of him based on the prejudices concerning his genetic composition This is discrimination and prejudice by definition.
Tom Shakespeare discusses this concept of social handicapness at length in his work, “The Social Model of Disability.” He explains how there is a difference between “impairment” and a “disability.” The former, he contends, is the state or fact of being weakened in comparison to other individuals. A disability, however, only exists because of society’s failure to accommodate for impairments. The most obvious example of an improperly-treated impairment is the case of Eugene. Prior to his accident, Eugene was a top athlete who reached celebrity status. He was genetically engineered to be a supreme human being who should be able to compete at the highest levels. But after he lost his ability to walk, he became worthless in society’s eyes. When one of the detectives tests Eugene’s blood and finds him to be “valid,” he immediately questions Eugene’s position in Gattaca: “it doesn’t say you’re a cripple on here,” the detective states skeptically (47:43). The film is commentating on the prejudging that we make as a society. In a world where genes are customizable, the detective thinks there cannot possibly be a “crippled” individual working for Gattaca. The detective makes a prejudiced assumption based on appearance alone.
Based on Gattaca’s portrayal of the futuristic, eugenic world, the film takes a stance against the prospect of genetic customizability. That said, it is a soft, forbearing stance. The film makes sure to portray the benefits of such a society. But ultimately, the film is a cautionary prophecy, exposing a likely outcome of such a universe. Much to the scientists’ dismay, eugenicist will bring forth substantial setbacks to the progress made against prejudice and discrimination. It will “solve” the problem in a roundabout way, avoiding the root cause of the issue: our flawed cultural beliefs about the superiority of a particular physical appearance. The way to solve discrimination and prejudice cannot be through the use of technology and science; it must be solved through a direct reform of our culture. Prejudice is a cultural issue, and cultural tolerance alone — through education and tolerance — will be what solves it.
Elby, Douglas. “Andrew Niccol – On Making GATTACA” Talent Develop. N.d.
Hall, Mark A. and Stephen S. Rich. “Patients’ fear of genetic discrimination by health Insurers: The impact of legal protections.” Genetics in Medicine, vol. 2, no. 4, 2010, pp. 214-21.
Kirby, David A. “Extrapolating Race in GATTACA : Genetic Passing, Identity, and the Science of Race.” Literature and Medicine vol. 23, no. 1, 2004, pp. 184-200.
Kleinsmid, Rufus Bernhard von. Eugenics and the State. Indiana Reformatory Printing Trade School, 1913.
Munger, K, M, et al. “The next Exclusion Debate: Assessing Technology, Ethics, and Intellectual Disability after the Human Genome Project.” Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2007, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17563891.
Shakespeare, Tom “The Social Disability Model.” The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives, Cassell, 1998.
Taube, Aaron. “How One Man Turned His Fruitless Job Search Around By Changing His Name.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 3 Sept. 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/job-seeker-changed-his-name-2014-9.