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Genetic Coming of Age: Genomics, Enhancement, and Identity in Film
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Genetic Coming of Age:
Genomics, Enhancement, and Identity in Film

I

Midway through the 1996 film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau the muumuu-clad Dr. Moreau stumbles upon a renegade band of genetically engineered Beast-People beating on the grand piano in his study. After Moreau delivers a short lecture on Schoenberg and Gershwin, the group's leader, Hyena-Swine, kneels next to his "father" and asks him, "What am I?" Moreau's answer, "You are my children," is unsatisfactory. Hyena-Swine is confused about this answer, not just because he does not look like his father, but also because he is unable to live up to Moreau's expectations for his genetically modified children. Moreau believes that because he engineered their genomes in a specific way, the Beast-People should be able to conform to his "laws" of behavior. In fact, Hyena-Swine's inability to live up to Moreau's expectations brings forth this confrontation. When a fellow Beast-Person is killed for failing to live up to these expectations, Hyena-Swine questions why he, or any of the Beast-People, must live up to these expectations. Hyena-Swine struggles to find his authentic self, but the fact that another person has constructed his genome adds to his confusion during this search.

Hyena-Swine's sense of self is confused not only by the expectations imposed by his genomic construction, but also by the inherent inequality set up between Moreau and his "children." Moreau assumes that his position as creator places him at a higher social status, while the Beast-People are disadvantaged by their position as "creations." Hyena-Swine questions this inequality: "We call you Father, yet we are not like you." If they are all "men," then why is it that Moreau chooses the laws and controls the distribution of "pain"? Is he below Moreau as his creation, or is he above Moreau because the scientist endowed him with a genome that Moreau himself selected as superior? Is he even a part of the same species as Moreau? Ultimately, Hyena-Swine determines that while Moreau is a man, Hyena-Swine is a god. Therefore, he kills Moreau to show that he, not Moreau, should determine what is the law. [End Page 263]

New Line Cinema chose the release date of their 1996 film adaptation of H. G. Wells's novel to correspond with the 100th anniversary of the novel's publication. Wells's novel about a scientist who attempts to improve humanity through scientific means provided filmmakers the perfect narrative for addressing current issues related to human genomics and the genetic engineering of humans. Like his literary model, the 1996 Moreau has the eugenic goal of scientifically removing the "mark of the beast" from humanity in order to create a "new and improved" human species.1 Rather than using vivisection, the 1996 Moreau manipulates DNA in order to create a new humanity, a genetically pure human race without the "destructive elements" embedded in the genomics of current humans. The biotechnological revolution over the last thirty years has raised many questions among bioethicists about the consequences of the liberal use of human gene–altering technologies. The film touches upon many of these questions: What represents a superior genome and who decides? What is the cost of losing human genetic diversity? Does genomic modification significantly impact behavioral traits? The confrontational piano scene in The Island of Dr. Moreau, however, captures perfectly an ethical issue that pertains to our most fundamental beliefs about human nature. This issue is the dominant theme in recent films about human genome–altering technologies: what impact does the manipulation of one's genome by other humans have on the nature of self-identity?

Like any contemporary person, Hyena-Swine is searching for his identity. Who am I? What is my place in the world? What should I do with my life? Unlike Hyena-Swine, however, most humans are the product of a random fusion of gametes. We know that our genomes are a truly arbitrary mix of genes from our parents. While this knowledge comes into play as we struggle to determine our...