But what about the real-life prospects of the horrors portrayed in Gattaca?
In 1997, fertility clinics weren’t advertising delivery of a boy or a
girl — you choose — using the embryo screening technique portrayed in
the film. The world didn’t yet know about Dolly the cloned sheep. Far
fewer genes had been mapped to far fewer traits. Genetic scientists
hadn’t yet created the monkey or the bunny engineered with a jellyfish
gene to glow in the dark, or the goats and sheep that lactate spider
silk, or the mice that run mazes faster than their nonengineered
counterparts yet also display increased sensitivity to pain.
technical feats are not the only portents of a future in which genetic
engineers take it upon themselves to create designer babies and
"enhanced" humans. Perhaps even more troubling is the small but
disturbing number of prognosticators who predict this future with
eagerness rather than caution; they just can’t wait for Gattaca and Brave New World to transcend fiction and become real life.
are these promoters of human redesign? A few are researchers for whom
the "sweetness" of the science eclipses its social consequences. A few
more — most notably Princeton’s former mouse biologist, Lee Silver —
have shifted their careers from the lab to the talk show in order to
push scenarios of a "GenRich" ruling class and a hoi polloi composed of
Then there’s the coterie of bioethicists who can’t
say no to anything that any scientist dreams up, and another crew of
libertarians who can’t say no to anything that the market might wish to
offer. And there’s the whacky band of futurists who call themselves
"transhumanists" and natter about "homo perfectus" and the
"Singularity" — the messianic moment when human technology will
suddenly cause superhuman, superintelligent "entities" to appear among
Nearly all these crystal-ball gazers acknowledge that Gattaca-like
inequalities would be part of their longed-for picture. But this does
not seem to dampen their enthusiasm. From their perspective, it seems,
self-evident truths about human equality are way outdated, and dreams
of social justice and the common good are so 20th century.
On a related note… Medical science blogger "Abel Pharmboy" liveblogged his vasectomy last week. You can relive the adventure here if you have the stomach: Liveblogging the Vasectomy Chronicles. It’s yet another proud milestone for the web. I don’t know who is creepier — the blogger who did this or the readers who tuned in live.
In response to the previous post, reader Mark sent in a link to his entertaining songs about reproductive technology and other issues: Sperm Bank Love.
The CBC Radio show Ideas posts some of its shows as (limited-time) free podcasts. I’ve been listening to a new two-part series called Brave New Family that’s an excellent exploration of the consequences of sperm donation. The summary:
Sperm donation has proven to be a Pandora’s Box. The vast majority of
donor dads do not want to be found. In rare cases some children are
seeking and finding dad and half-siblings in the process. Science
journalist Alison Motluk explores the complex portrait of the brave new family.
Note that these podcasts are only available for a few weeks.
This is a policy debate. It is not intended to be a science quiz. Nor
are we interested in state-level battles such as the evolution versus
creationism/ID debate. Our goal is to find out how aware candidates
are of America’s major science and technology problems and
opportunities, and how they propose to offer the kind of visionary
leadership and policy solutions that will tackle those challenges and
ensure America’s place as the most scientifically and technologically
advanced nation on earth. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that
you are such a leader.
It’s telling that they needed to reassure candidates that it’s not a quiz, because when Science Debate first came on the scene it was clear that many of the people pushing for it wanted a quiz. There was gloating in comment boards about the chance to make fun of candidates who don’t believe in evolution or don’t understand science. (Not that those are excusable — thank the gods that Mike Huckabee doesn’t have a chance of winning.)
There are important science and tech policy issues to discuss, but I’m still skeptical of the need for a separate debate on this. (Previous post: Do we need a presidential debate on science?)
There have been several recent articles on the story:
- New Scientist Short Sharp Science blog
- Wired (where the commenters definitely don’t get the quiz vs. debate distinction, and the techno-libertarians are upset Ron Paul wasn’t invited).
- Nature expresses skepticism: Nature’s The Great Beyond blog, Nature editorial.
- The New York Times addresses the quiz vs. debate problem as well.
- Biopolitical Times points to Nature‘s doubts and has some good quotes.
- There’s some interesting discussion (and confusion) in comments at the blog of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, two of the organizers: The Intersection.
The TV show Heroes has a new promotional tie-in site called Activating Evolution, on which the character Mohinder tells you all about evolution and the existence of radically evolved humans. What’s creepy is the site’s resemblance to real sites on the web made by transhumanists and other proponents of radical human enhancement and/or a new eugenics (e.g. Better Humans). I wonder if the transhumanists will start contributing to Mohinder’s wiki.