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Literature and Medicine 23.1 (2004) 184-200
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Extrapolating Race in GATTACA:
Genetic Passing, Identity, and the Science of Race
David A. Kirby
GATTACA (1997) is a rarity among science fiction films in that it transcended its mediocre box office earnings to become a common reference point in discussions about human-gene altering technologies.1 As with Brave New World, another biologically based dystopian narrative, GATTACA provides a means of framing our relationships to new biotechnologies. News and magazine articles regularly use the phrase "GATTACA" when reporting discoveries in human genetics and biotechnology and their ethical implications. For example, the author of an article on reproductive medicine in Wired magazine wonders if allowing parents to select the gender of their offspring "would be a first step toward a GATTACA-like future of made-to-order babies, scrubbed clean of diseases and endowed with sparkling blue eyes—a world in which eugenics is just another branch of science."2 Likewise, many television news programs highlight the ethical issues associated with human genetic engineering by showing clips of the film, such as CNN's Newsroom's 2001 show about developments in genetic technologies.3 In effect, these media outlets use the expression "GATTACA" to quickly conjure up images of a sterilized world where biotechnology has led to severe discrimination against the genetically unmodified. Educators also frequently use the film in a wide variety of classrooms, from junior high school through graduate school and from biology to English, to help teach about the bioethics of genetic technologies. One need only glance at the many online GATTACA teaching guides to see how the film has been widely acknowledged by educators as a text that conveys the ethical issues associated with human biotechnologies.4 [End Page 184]
Much of the science fiction cinema that extrapolates from emerging scientific theories and technologies explores socially troubling aspects of these new technologies. Following in this tradition, GATTACA projects from today's limited use of human biotechnologies to imagine a future where parents eagerly enhance the genetic makeup of their offspring. In this imagined future, limited access to genetic technologies sets up a two-tiered system of social organization: the genetically modified who represent the privileged, dominant group and the genetically unmodified who represent an oppressed group. During the course of the film the unmodified Vincent circumvents this genetic discrimination by passing off the genes of the enhanced Eugene as his own. In a previous essay, I demonstrated that GATTACA works as a successful bioethical text because it does not fault human genetic technologies.5 Rather, the film warns that these technologies will create problems only if society accepts a genetic determinist ideology that sees humans as nothing more than the sum of their genes.
GATTACA extrapolates not only from current technological trajectories but also from current ideological trajectories in that it projects a world of total genetic determinism from today's movement toward "geneticization." Geneticization, a phrase coined by geneticist Abby Lippman, describes the trend in American society toward a reductionist view of humanity as a collection of genes. As Lippman defines it, "Geneticization refers to an ongoing process by which differences between individuals are reduced to their DNA codes, with most disorders, behaviors and physiological variations defined, at least in part, as genetic in origin."6 GATTACA shows the ultimate consequence of this trend: a world where a person's only sense of identity comes from his or her genes.
Although GATTACA succeeds in its social criticism of genetic determinism, its extrapolation of a eugenic world from trends in geneticization ignores the equally problematic contemporary trend toward the scientific linking of genes and racial differences. The film's discussion of genetic determinism and eugenics does not take into account current attempts by social conservatives to define race genetically, or the role race has played in the history of eugenics. Although GATTACA relies on the recognizable tropes of racial discrimination to support its claims about genetic discrimination, it ignores contemporary issues of race and genetics in America. In actuality, GATTACA functions as a...