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Science at the Movies: Gattaca

U of T experts discuss the film's science and ethics

guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine (image by raul2010 via Flickr)

It's a chance to talk biopunk, bioethics and the science of genetic manipulation with experts in the field while enjoying an award-winning film at the same time. 

The University of Toronto's Professor Lucy Osborne, jointly appointed to medicine and molecular genetics, and Professor Donald Ainslie from the Department of Philosophy discuss academic issues raised in the 1997 film Gattaca, following its screening at the Bloor Cinema on March 12. (Tickets available here.)

This is the second in a series of Science at the Movies screenings organized by Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics and Senior Advisor on Science Engagement to U of T President David Naylor.

Each screening includes a question and answer session moderated by science journalist Dan Falk.

U of T News asked Ainslie and Osborne for a preview of what the Gattaca audience can expect.

What interests you about Gattaca?

Osborne: Firstly, it’s probably the most believable science fiction movie out there, and as a scientist it’s always interesting to see future technology portrayed realistically. Secondly, it makes you think and I like that in a movie – discrimination and determinism are both highly relevant topics in our society and Gattaca weaves them into a great story, full of suspense and with strong characters.

Ainslie: Gattaca was released in 1997 in the midst of the hype about the human genome project, so it capture our imaginative reactions to that medical advance.

How well does its treatment of genetic manipulation reflect academic and philosophical discussions of the issue? And does that matter?

Osborne: Genetic manipulation of human embryos or human germ cells is not permitted, but I think the issues are still very relevant to current discussion. Gattaca takes genetic selection to an extreme, but we do carry out genetic selection of embryos in cases where we can predict severely disabling or lethal genetic disorders. Importantly, in Gattaca we still witness both sides of the discussion, with some characters buying in to the idea of genetic perfection, and others clearly less enthusiastic!

Ainslie: I don’t think it matters, but it is a fascinating fictional exploration of our anxieties about reproduction and our capacities to intervene in so-called “natural” processes.

How close are we to developing the genetic procedures described in the movie?

Osborne: Whole genome sequencing is a reality, although not within the time-frame shown in Gattaca, and as we know from watching forensics TV series, DNA profiling is quite possible from fragments of hair or skin. The manipulation of the genome to incorporate variants that will lead to specific traits, however, is not currently feasible and there are many barriers to achieving this goal, both technical and ethical.

How have philosophical approaches to the ethics of genetic manipulations changed since Gattaca came out?

Ainslie: Moral philosophy moves slowly (we still read Aristotle and Plato for ethical insight), but the recognition that the decoding the human genome did not mean we fully understand how and what traits are inherited--or even what a trait is--has introduced more nuance into the discussion.

Professor Osborne, how do you feel about co-presenting with a philosopher? Professor Ainslie, how do you feel about co-presenting with an expert on molecular genetics?

Osborne: Relieved! There are some very important issues surrounding this movie that he is in a far better position to address.

Ainslie: Relieved, because I have no expertise in that area!

Any other suggestions for movies that debate issues of genetic manipulation—and why?

Osborne: Blade Runner is another favourite of mine, where androids known as replicants are genetically engineered as slaves but develop human emotional consciousness. This film raises questions about the essence of humanity and is also a fantastic movie.

Ainslie: There’s an interesting independent film from around the same time as Gattaca called The Twilight of the Golds (1996) that explores how parents choices around genetic testing of their fetuses can impact others in their lives. In this case, a test for the (fictional) gay gene has been invented, and a woman discovers that her fetus will be gay. Her husband pushes for abortion, while her gay brother takes this to mean that they wish he didn’t exist.