Home / Culture / Gattaca is Wrong: The Moral & Evolutionary Case for Genetic Selection

Gattaca is Wrong: The Moral & Evolutionary Case for Genetic Selection

Mark Field:gattaca_1997_movie_poster-200x300

Fun fact: Despite graduating from a prestigious University in the U.K (which will not be named) with the best possible grade, this essay nearly got me kicked off the course for being “monomaniacal” (admittedly Captain Ahab is a personal hero) “dog-whistling” and advocating the “most reprehensible means for improvement.” I had to fight bitterly against the PC police and the radical Marxist professors for an impartial marker. 

Gattaca (1997) written and directed by Andrew Niccol is considered one of the ’90s best unheralded films acclaimed for its rigorous intelligence and moral backbone exploring ethical questions about the nature and direction of genetic science (Ebert). To date, Gattaca is considered one of the best cinematic exposes of genetic determinism and serves as a “counter narrative” against biotechnology and the ideology of genetic determinism for a non-scientific audience (Kirby 180). This article will demonstrate that Gattaca’s egalitarian premises are neither rigorously intelligent nor an exposé of genetic science. The premises are, rather than insightful or illuminating, symptomatic of past and current egalitarian and ideological fantasies, which have been exposed as such in the intervening years since the release of the movie to be nothing more than unscientific drivel and wish fulfilment. If anything, rather than looking towards the future, Gattaca projects the liberal narrative of history onto the future.

Gattaca portrays a futuristic world of the “genetic haves” and the “genetic have nots,” in which genetic science creates a caste system of the “valids” and the “in-valids.” The valids are those who have undergone genetic selection enhancing their health and their intellectual and physical abilities. The valids are selected to attain the best jobs, the best mates, and the best lives based on their superior abilities as a result of their superior genetic worth. The in-valids are those conceived by traditional methods (subject to natural selection) and are denied access to the world of the valids, based on genetic discrimination between those who are genetically enhanced and those who are not. The in-valids have to settle for a place lower on the social hierarchy as a result of their lower genetic ability, accepting menial jobs and lower life outcomes appropriate to value and worth of their genes. Gattaca’s portrayal of genetic determinism has not just influenced popular culture to a degree but the legal and medical professions. Gattaca, for instance, became the reference point for a discussion of genetic selection in an Australian public policy document, the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) Essentially Yours, to illuminate social, legal and ethical considerations of genetic engineering (Von Burg). More pointedly, Gattaca, despite its own labelling as a revolutionary counter narrative, is the cultural mainstream and political establishment narrative on genetics, perpetuating the egalitarian rejection of individual and group variation with the advocacy that those naturally selected and those artificially selected are able to achieve equal outcomes — if only prejudice wasn’t holding the naturally selected in-valids back.

While the imagined scenario of Gattaca in 1997 seemed futuristic, the ethical considerations borne from preimplantation and “embryo splitting” have become exceedingly relevant as the procedure of genetic embryo selection is considered by the medical establishment to be only five to ten years away (Schulman and Bostrom 2), while genetic screening for genetic abnormalities is already common. To date, on the 1st February 2016, UK scientists were given permission to genetically engineer human embryos (Withnall), while it was revealed in the same month that musician John Legend and model Chrissy Teigan through IVF selected the gender of their child — a baby girl (for which they received widespread criticism). Unlike the negative portrayal of genetic selection in Gattaca, this article will advocate the use of genetic selection arguing from the different viewpoints: evolutionary, moral and societal. This article will begin by outlining the contemporary science behind human evolution — as a result of new genomic research — established since the coding of the genome in 2003. The new availability of examining selective pressures on the genome supports the idea that evolution is a continuous process and that human nature is not inviolate or static. It will be argued that human directed evolution through genetic selection is a continuance of evolution and not the artificial hijacking of it. This article will then proceed with a moral and philosophical argument for genetic selection based on the idea that parents have a moral obligation (good reasons to) to improve or maximize the ability of their child to have the best possible quality of life and not a reduced one. This article will then conclude with an analysis of the idea that genetic selection will lead to a genetic class stratification as proposed by Gattaca.

Before we proceed to analyze the moral argument for genetic selection in Gattaca, it will be prudent to outline the simultaneous layering of this thesis. Behind the philosophical and sociological arguments advocating “genetic selection,” is an additional evolutionary argument stating that “human nature” and “what it means to be human” is dynamic and continuously in flux and the ability to direct evolution through genetic selection is the logical extension of the continuous evolutionary process of adapting to the challenges of new environments — in this case, the post-industrial environment. This argument will sketch out the new scientific evolutionary view of human behavior with a brief explication on selective pressures using the newest genomic and psychometric research, before evaluating the evolutionary significance of genetic selection (not to be confused with genetic engineering which involves tampering and manipulating DNA through invasive methods).

While many biologists and evolutionists, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Ernst Mayr, (Harpending 1), stated the case in the 1970s that human evolution stopped suddenly 40,000 to 50,000 years ago as humans migrated from northeast Africa, in the last few decades this has been proven to be erroneous and grossly incorrect (Harpending 2) (See Wade and Harpending for exhaustive citations). Since the coding of the genome in 2003 it has been proven that evolution has proceeded vigorously for the last 30,000 years and has accelerated intensely at six times the rate since the development of agriculture in the last 10,000 years (Harpending 3). Since 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, for instance, 14% of the human genome has changed under evolutionary pressure (Wade 2). There is significant evidence that shortages in the diet of Northern Europeans 5,000 years ago led to the gene LCT being positively selected, allowing for lactose tolerance into adulthood (Akey 712). This allowed Europeans to survive famines by consuming diary as an additional energy source. A genetic sweep occurred and today more than 90 percent of the population are lactose tolerant (Smithsonian). Blue eyes, for instance, are a recent phenomenon of the last 10,000 years (Harpending 149) and owe their occurrence to a single allele of the gene OCA2 originating from a single Lithuanian village (149). There is also evidence that the constitution of the inner ear has undergone recent selection in the last 30,000 years as a result of new complexities of speech and language (4).

While biological changes modulated by frequency of gene expression are easier to track, there is substantial evidence for evolutionary cognitive and neurological changes. This is harder to disentangle, and to track to a single gene (or combination) because of the complex interplay of culture and genes means that at current cognitive and neurobiological changes can only be inferred through proxy indirect means (Wade). Take the “speed” gene for instance. While one gene has not been isolated to explain speed, it is likely that there will be, as a result of evolution, a gene or combination of genes that explain why Africans are generally quicker and jump higher than Europeans. Considering since the 1980 Olympics, for example, every finalist has had West African ancestry, it will not be a surprise to find genetic differences in sprinting between those of West African origin and those who are not. While physiologically West Africans have longer legs relative to body height and narrower hips (Epstein 176) (an evolutionary physiological adaptation to warmer climates and low latitudes) (176) making them endowed for explosive events of small duration, there is also evidence of a higher preponderance of the protein alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3) (150). The higher distribution of this gene correlates with Olympic performance. The gene ACTN3 itself does not directly account for speed (speed is a complex interplay of culture, training and nutrition) but the high correlation of Olympic sprinters with the XX variant of ACTN3 compared to those without the variation suggests that you can’t be an Olympic sprinter without it (151). There is also significant evidence that the evolutionary adaptation of Africans to rampant malaria led to physical and metabolic alterations beneficial for sprinting and explosive movements (181). That is, the “genes that adapted and proliferated to protect against malaria reduce the individual’s ability to make energy aerobically led to a shift of making more fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are less dependent on oxygen for production” (181). The more fast-twitch muscle fibers you have the quicker you generally are. Africans generally have more fast-twitch muscle fibers compared to other population groups.

Most importantly in evolutionary terms are the cognitive differences between major population groups (Wade 8). This suggests that the variance and distribution of intelligence is a result of differences in evolutionary history. Ashkenazi Jews, for example, score a standard deviation (15, 16 points) higher on IQ tests than Oriental Jews (Harpending 210; also cited by Wade in chapter 8). While the mean IQ score for Caucasians is 100 and Negroids 85 or lower, Ashkenazi Jews score on average between 112-115 (211). Statistically, while per 1,000 of the population there will be 4 Caucasians with an IQ of 140, Ashkenazi Jews will have 23 per 1,000 with an IQ of 140 (Wade). Despite constituting only 0.2% of the population, Jews have disproportionately accounted for 14% of Nobel prizes winners in the first half of last century, despite severe discrimination, persecution and the Holocaust (197), suggesting that Jewish intelligence is a result of genetic and not cultural factors. As from 2007, Jews account for 32% of Nobel Prize winners (Wade 198) and half of the world’s chess champions, including my personal favorite Bobby Fischer — who was measured to have a staggeringly high IQ of 180 (Brady 31). High Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence, then, rather than a result of culture (child rearing or overbearing mothers) has been theorized to be a result of selective pressures unique in their history (199), developing high cognitive faculties in the face of persecution. The hypothesis being that “the unique demography and sociology of Ashkenazim in medieval Europe selected for intelligence. Ashkenazi literacy, economic specialization, and closure to inward gene flow led to a social environment in which there was high fitness payoff to intelligence, specifically verbal and mathematical intelligence but not spatial ability” (Cochran, Hardy and Harpending 1). The adaptation of Jews to a cognitive niche is illustrative of natural selection’s ability to change the cognitive functions of a population within a few centuries of evolutionary demands (Wade 199); also in turn demonstrating the heritable nature of intelligence (correlated to 0.8 by adulthood) (Bouchard) (also see twin and adoption studies) in individuals and population groups. More importantly, natural selection is not perfect (to be addressed later in the article) and intelligence as a side-effect or an indirect (type of causation not yet known) result of gene mutations — a result of environmental adaptation — extracts a heavy price: with recessive gene conditions Tay-Sachs and Gaucher’s disease most prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews (Entine).

Evidently, then, rather than human nature being inviolate there has been, since time immemorial, a continuous process of natural selection and adaptation to the challenges of the environment. Demonstrably, there has been an evolutionary adaptation to the environment affecting biology, cognition and personality traits to ensure reproductive survival and promulgation in different population groups. The survival of the species is, in effect, the story of adaptation, of betterment, of improvement (Capalan 202). What we consider to be essential traits are continually being selected and deselected depending on the needs and pressures of the environment. Ultimately, if the history of natural selection can teach us one thing, it is that “what we are now” is not “who we are to become” (203). Anti-evolutionists who worry about essential human nature being lost (such as Fukuyama’s X factor) struggle to define and mystify what human nature is because it is a process of “random forces, accidental environmental contingencies and stochastic genetic events” (201). As such, moral concerns such as losing our essential humanity lose their foundation. Human traits become less essential and/or defining, they are random (in a sense) and blind. It makes no difference if these traits are randomly or deliberately selected as what it means to be human is continuously in flux and subject to continual redefinition through evolutionary adaptation. Genetic selection, then, would be the logical extension in a continuous step of the biological evolutionary process in which traits and mutations are selected because they are favorable and adaptive in response to the environment, not because they are essential and defining of an inviolate and static human nature. This article will now proceed with the moral argument for genetic selection using Gattaca as a reference point.

Gattaca begins with a monologue voiced by Vincent Freeman explaining his (traditional) natural conception. In the monologue Vincent makes clear that he does not understand why his mother, Marie Freeman, did not consult and employ the services of the local geneticist as normally practiced, but instead left Vincent’s birth in the hands of God. That is, rather than engaging in deliberate selection (or “enhanced evolution”), Marie Freeman left it to the “lottery” of natural selection. By leaving Vincent’s birth to natural selection, the genes allotted to Vincent are, with exception to inherited, hereditary traits, random, subjected to chance and various selective pressures (not by design). That is, the genes allotted to Vincent have been selected by evolution to adapt to long term evolutionary pressures (Salter 28) but not selected to adapt to contemporary society (Harpending 24) — (as evolution adapts incrementally compared to the rapidity of industrial and technological progress) (Salter 28). The genes allotted to Vincent are, in effect, random and blind in the sense that, in a world populated by genetic selection (genes selected to fit the environment), Vincent’s genes are (relatively) maladaptive in the sense that they have not been selected for the environment and bestow little fitness in a society (or class) selected for genetic distinction in intelligence, health and behavior. This is made starkly clear by a reading of Vincent’s genetic code extracted moments after birth:

Medic: [reading Vincent’s genetic data] neurological condition 60% probability, manic depression 42% probability, ADD 89% probability, heart disorder 99% probability, early fatal potential, life expectancy 30.2 years.

That Vincent’s parents are dissatisfied with the genes allotted by natural selection and the resulting genetic read-out is made clear when Vincent’s father, Antonio Freeman, understandably shocked that his son will only (in all probability) live till thirty (!), refuses to christen his first-born son with his name, Anton, and instead substitutes instead the name Vincent. This dissatisfaction is evidenced when they subsequently decide to have their second child, Anton Freeman, through the reproductive process of “deliberate” selection. Marie and Antonio Freeman’s decision to repudiate natural selection in favor of “deliberate” selection is rational and understandable. That is, as parents, they want to maximize the reproduction of genes (not consciously) and, more importantly, consciously ensure that their offspring lead a happy life, not beset or reduced in quality by a genetically predisposed early death or developing cardiovascular or neurological disorders. More than that, as parents, they are morally obliged to choose artificial selection (Savulescu 415). Consider for example: Marie and Antonio Freeman have two reproductive options: they can either choose to conceive naturally again (natural selection) or choose “deliberate selection” (genetic selection). Essentially, they have the choice between two embryos (even if other embryos are rejected in genetic selection). Embryo A is the result of natural selection and Embryo B is the result of genetic selection. For arguments sake, both embryos have exactly the same non-disease characteristics (intelligence and behavior, etcetera) except embryo A has a 5% chance of resulting in a genetic abnormality (the assumed error rate in natural reproduction) or to developing a predisposition to cancer. While the Freeman’s are free to choose embryo A they have substantial reason to choose the genetically selected embryo B — as a parent, it would be absurd to willingly choose the embryo that could potentially develop cancer or genetic abnormalities when a perfectly healthy embryo with the same characteristics exist. To choose Embryo A would a decision that directly harms the child. Therefore, in choosing to conceive their second child through “deliberate” means, the Freeman’s acted in accordance with the principal of “procreative beneficence” (Savulescu 413). That is, with the information available they selected the embryo with the best characteristics which would allow their child the best quality of life (425). The logic of this argument can be extended to include selecting for non-disease traits such as intelligence or behavioral characteristics, if it can be proved that desirable behavioral characteristics, such as increased intelligence or aptitudes for sport or music (depending on the genetic information of the embryo), improve the quality of a child’s life. If so, parents should be able to access this genetic information when selecting which embryo to fertilize and likewise deselect for traits such as predisposition towards violence, criminality or anti-social behavior based on the prevalence of the enzymes coding for the MOA-M (McDermott, R. et al), to name but one example of anti-social traits. If the argument of ‘procreative beneficence’ asserts that traits can be selected based on increasing and maximizing a child’s quality of life, it can equally asserted that certain traits should be deselected based on the same criteria if it can be proven that criminality or anti-social behavior reduces a child’s quality of life or the quality of life of others. As with selecting for health, parents are morally obliged to select for desired characteristics.

While some are concerned that we will only be selecting certain types and certain selected traits, this concern is unwarranted because the traits and aptitudes selected are individually chosen and not state enforced or coerced. In a free market and a free society, an individual is free to choose in the ‘gene supermarket’ (Singer 288), even if it leads to a society where certain traits are desired and certain traits are not desired (such as depression) because it is in the best interests of the child. Analogously, in a free society, we choose sexual partners and wives based on certain selected, pro-social traits and discriminate against those traits and those partners not in our best interest. Natural and sexual selection is a process based on the choosing of traits perceived to enhance our genetic fitness.

When Marie Freeman chose to conceive naturally with Vincent, she, theoretically, had the choice between two embryos:  if she chooses ‘deliberate’ selection she could have had a child with perfect health but, instead, through natural selection, (blindly) conceived an embryo that, while containing the possibility of being perfectly healthy and adaptive (with desired characteristics), contained the larger probability and potentiality of error (in this case, a chronic heart condition predisposing Vincent to an extremely likely early death) — even if it was just asthma (a mild affliction) it would, theoretically, reduce the quality of Vincent’s life and ergo is not in the child’s best interest. The propensity towards minor afflictions should also be deselected for.

Considering there are two different embryos to select, natural selection, then, also becomes a type of selection, a negative one (Brook 251). The question, then, between choosing natural selection and ‘deliberate’ selection becomes an ethical and moral question. It is, perhaps, a mere extension from the contemporary moral and ethical issue regarding terminating foetus’ which have been detected to contain a high probability of a genetic disorder — downs syndrome, for instance — because of the reduced quality of life a genetic disorder bestows on an individual (Savulescu 422) and a group — this same criterion should be applied to a low IQ, learning disabilities and anti-social behaviour. Marie Freeman’s decision, then, at first to choose natural selection over ‘deliberate’ human directed selection is an instance of status quo bias. Not that preferring the status quo is automatically wrong (it isn’t — especially if there are good reasons in supporting the status quo), but to irrationally select an option which preserves the status quo (because we’re irrationally biased towards maintaining the status quo) constitutes a significant cognitive error when there are no real rational reasons to do so and many superior rational reasons to do otherwise (Bostrom and Ord) (See Applied Ethics: Anthropic reasoning) as is the case between natural selection and ‘deliberate selection.’ Seen as such, the ability to select for health and desired characteristics is not undesirable in a free society or free market place and the desire to have healthy children is a naturally instinctive and healthy biological drive.

Ultimately, the desire to have a healthy child through genetic selection is, then, no different than the desire to have a healthy child in contemporary society by refraining to drink, smoke or to take drugs with the acknowledgement that these practices will harm the child’s quality of life or the child’s ability to function in the short or long term. There are no moral qualms over enhancement through environmental means — such as breastfeeding (especially true if the child has the FADS2 gene), nutrition, diet or early education (Sifferlin) — and therefore there is no rational reason to oppose enhancement through genetic selection — the means are different the ends the same. Moreover, genetic selection is no more different than selecting something two sexually interacting couples could have produced — it is not the conception of something artificial (genetic engineering) or enhancing something that could not have existed (Savulescu). It is after all for a parent still their child, a product of their genes (Singer 278).

As a product of a parent’s genes, the child’s aptitudes are still predicated on inheriting heritable traits from parents (all measured traits are heritable). It is, then, selecting rather than enhancing the traits of existing persons (Sparrow 33) but correlated with enhancement as the best embryo is selected. The selecting for traits should be considered no more immoral than the fact that through assortative mating and sexual attraction we are already subconsciously (or consciously) selecting for traits in our decisions with whom to mate with (Symons and Buss). More importantly, these are not “person affecting decisions,” meaning no-one is harmed in the making of these decisions or how they are made because ultimately a different person is brought in to the world and you cannot harm someone who did not exist. Viewed from an evolutionary angle, genetic selection, with its ability to wipe out genetic birth defects and/or genetic abnormalities, should be considered no different than a technological and medical advancement, a continuation of the eradication of disease, an evolutionary adaptive step towards resistance against disease. A continuation of biological evolution motivated out of the love a parent has for their child.

The main argument in Gattaca against genetic selection or biological enhancement is that it will lead to a rigid class stratification with no social mobility based on genetic determinism (Kirby 198). That is, the technology for genetic selection will only be available to those privileged enough to have the monetary resources to pay for such a technology, leading to a society of “genetic haves and genetic have-nots,” (Kirby 200) the “valids” and “in-valids.” Those who are financially and socially disadvantaged will be unable to genetically select their children and as such will be discriminated against, aggravating social inequality to such an extent that there is no longer any equality of opportunity (Singer 287). Those “genetic haves” will have the best jobs, the best mates and live longer more pleasant lives filled with more opportunities and enriching experiences — economic inequality will become a pronounced genetic inequality (287).

Class stratification is merely presumed in Gattaca as an undeniable social fact but fails to sufficiently enumerate on how this class stratification occurs or stratifies (or whether ultimately it is a bad thing? Is genetic equality not economic inequality?). Gattaca merely assumes that a class stratification will occur not because of cognitive or meritocratic superiority (Vincent is extremely bright) or the proliferation of desirable social and individual traits (Vincent can delay gratification and shows an extremely impressive work ethic) but merely on a prejudice which is “skin deep” — that is, a new form (which looks exactly like the old form) of discrimination, genoism. Genoism is the discrimination based on those who are genetically enhanced and those who are not (“those who are genetically [racially] pure and those who are not”). Despite being illegal and unethical in Gattaca, genoism becomes the unspoken law of the land.

Gattaca, then, essentially becomes a film about “passing” as Vincent Freeman passes as the “valid” Eugene Morrow and attains access to a world and occupation (and even lover?) previously denied to him based on the perceived inferiority of his genes. This world is, in fact, congruent with his intellectual and moral abilities (Kirby 202) as he chosen to be the lead navigator in an expedition to Saturn’s moon, Titan. Less than a thought provoking argument against genetic selection, class stratification in Gattaca becomes a reflection of historical issues regarding social inequality and racial discrimination and is not based on a feasible scenario of discrimination in an advanced technological age through the reproductive technology of genetic selection. The argument that genetic discrimination based on whether you were genetically selected or not relies on an extremely flimsy premise that can hardly be called genetic determinism (it smells more like genetic racism) — a straw man argument (the biggest hint is the ridiculousness of the extent of Vincent’s genetic imperfections) that itself relies on the crudest unscientific version of genetic determinism that no geneticist remotely (or feasibly) believes (Kirby 210). To compound the inaccuracy of the portrayal of genetic determinism in the film, what Gattaca terms genetic determinism is not even genetic determinism — if it was genetic determinism, Vincent would have been accepted to the Gattaca corporation (a corporation which only accepts the genetically perfect) after measuring his cognitive and mental ability through a sample DNA extract. If the Gattaca corporation deny Vincent a place as an astronaut based on his heart disorders through a DNA extract, it is no different than astronauts being denied a place at NASA after detection of an underlying heart condition.

Not only then is genetic determinism inaccurately portrayed, it is then refuted by an extremely implausible “soul over circumstance” (trying to prove that genes are not a main determinant of behavior) scenario that is so implausible (unscientific) that is it on par with proving Godzilla exists because he stars in a Hollywood film. Vincent transcends his genetic makeup and severe cardiovascular abnormalities by virtue of will and outperforms his cognitively and physically enhanced genetically selected brother “because he never left anything for the swim back” (i.e., through sheer will power alone). Vincent’s inferiority athletically had already been pronounced by the fact that he had lost every single race previously. Not only does Vincent miraculously start by outperforming Anton in the swimming races, but he then subsequently saves his brother, Anton, from drowning by fact of superior fitness and by navigating back to shore through celestial navigation.

The premise fails because, to beat his brother, Anton, Vincent physically would need a higher lung capacity, more efficient heart, lowering lactate threshold, more efficient stroke, better and more streamlined coordination, improved breathing patterns etcetera (all physiological capacities shown previously that he genetically doesn’t have or hasn’t acquired). These physical improvements can only, theoretically, be achieved through rigorous training and practice if one is genetically able to improve on this scale. Vincent does not train. I cannot will myself to be Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps (I’ve tried).

To be the lead engineer at Gattaca Vincent would need an IQ near the right top tail end of IQ distribution. If he has, then fine (there are indications of this at the beginning of the film). If he doesn’t then he cannot will (or train) it into existence (IQ is surprisingly not plastic — as the brain evidently is). In short, Vincent would have (or need) the genes to accomplish these feats. Gattaca accidentally refutes its own premise within the film when Vincent’s eye contacts have fallen out (a form of enhancement) and subject to his own severe myopia (a condition caused by a combination of gene proteins) Vincent cannot cross the road as he cannot see. Realistically, then, Vincent cannot overcome biological predispositions and/or limitations any more than he can naturally overcome myopia without enhancements.

While (if we accept the premises) Gattaca certainly portrays a dystopian possibility of nightmarish proportions, it seems quite unfeasible in light of recent egalitarian social trends continuing on from the last century (Fukuyama), with the continued expectation and development of minority recognition, whether religious, sexual or ethnic showing no sign of abating but intensifying — with more concern than ever for those perceived as oppressed or disadvantaged (to the extent of willfully ignoring low minority IQ and high minority crime statistics. See The Color of Crime) — whether there will be racial discrimination in the same historical form ever again (this ignores the question whether racism actually exists? Or whether it is legitimate reaction to group differences?) is extremely doubtful.

The central premise of Gattaca also ignores the promising developing trend of technology in the twentieth century, what Ithiel de Sola Pool coined “technologies of freedom.” This is no less true in 1997 when Gattaca was premiered than it is in 2016 (even with the advance of genetic science). That is, rather than restricting individual freedom, the technological trend of the last century has been, in conjunction with free market capitalism, increased moral freedom and personal autonomy in the West — gay rights, female emancipation, free speech, decentralized media, to name but a few — and has led to more and more decentralized systems and more individual autonomy (Fukuyama), whether through print, connectivity or sound. Such a reversal in moral thought from the ideologies of equality and egalitarianism and such a reversal from the technological trend towards autonomy seems unlikely to be so drastically reversed because of genetic selection. As a result, genetic selection should not be curtailed by modern governments or ideologists but allowed to thrive in the marketplace in acknowledgement that the breeding of high I.Q leads to a rising tide that lifts all boats. Moving away from state doctrines of equality and egalitarianism, then, we have to be very clear: the premise that the “genetic haves” have the best jobs, best mates and the longer more pleasant lives due to a cognitive or physical superiority is no more a fact of a futuristic world than it is in a contemporary liberal democracy (Murray). That is, rigid cognitive stratification is the result of a free and meritocratic society, that is, a biological fact. Contrary to liberal arguments, this does not lead to no upward social mobility (a gifted individual with good grades is not denied educational or career attainment — they are exclusively sought out. Those less gifted drop down the social ladder) but admittedly does lead to a certain amount of (natural) class stratification — maintained by assortative mating and the heritability of IQ which is expressed as an individual or couple’s social economic status (Murray part 1 and part 2).

This, then, is discernibly different from the genetic discrimination of “genoism” in Gattaca, which proposes that those who have the cognitive ability to do a job will be refused on their traditionally conceived status — a euphemism for skin color, so to speak. To hire someone brighter or more employable is not discrimination (even if its demarcates along racial or gender lines due to individual and group differences), it is a reflection of the distribution of intelligence and personality traits in a society. There is, for instance, in a meritocratic liberal society, a high correlation between IQ and academic achievement (0.56) and/or occupation (0.43) (Gottfredson) (see APA statement on intelligence), with IQ a better predictor of socioeconomic status (SES) than a parent’s SES (Strenze; Ganzach; Lubinski). In these studies, IQ is considered as an independent variable from SES but, tellingly and more importantly, a parent’s SES is predicated on their IQ. The fact that somebody is genetically selected and has an IQ of 140 and becomes an astrophysicist and is given the job based on grades rather than somebody with lower IQ and/or lower grades but was naturally conceived is not discrimination but meritocratic.

There is, for instance, in contemporary multicultural societies a massive distribution in cognitive and personality differences, but this does not lead to a repudiation of the doctrine of egalitarianism or the amount of welfare programs for the disadvantaged which vastly outnumber programs for the gifted — leaving aside arguments that it should. Universal IQ tests in America, for instance, are now being promoted to increase minority students in gifted education programs (Card and Giuliano) with the recognition that IQ is a legitimate and strongly predictive measurement of intelligence and life outcome. It is a logical error to assume that an acknowledgement of unequal abilities leads to the abolishment of egalitarianism (Winkler 352). It is an equally logical error to assume that egalitarianism rests on the premise that every individual is equal in cognitive and/or physical abilities, to do so commits the naturalistic fallacy in assuming that because we all ought to be equal that we are all equal in distribution of cognitive, musical or athletic ability. It is also a mistake to confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome (a common error predicated on denying differences and ascribing a structural or cultural obstacle).

Unlike Gattaca, as a contemporary egalitarian society, if we are serious about raising equality of opportunity there is no reason why genetic selection cannot be given to the disadvantaged. If so, the societal implication of genetic embryo selection should be based on the same societal implications as environmental policies to raise IQ and life outcomes in the disadvantaged (Shulman and Bostrom 2). It should not be repudiated and irrationally dismissed because it is a genetic rather than environmental solution — especially when environmental solutions have been proven through scientific and psychometric testing to be remarkably ineffective and erroneous, in effect, unable to solve a genetic problem. That is, the means of a genetic solution occupies the same goals and outcomes as current environmental means of improving IQ and desirable life outcomes. Therefore, to consider environmental enhancement as desirable but not a genetic enhancement is irrational, subject to the status quo bias and unscientific. The message of genetic selection is: “don’t have less children, have better children,” which is exactly the same message promoted by early educational and environmental programs: President Obama, for instance, recently called for a large investment in environmental programs because “[e]very dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime” (Murray). The desire to have better children, then, is a healthy biological and societal drive, equally desired in a meritocratic, egalitarian society. This desire for enhancement is not limited to the periphery or the fringe, but is at the core of the American Dream and the Faustian West. The West actively invests in early educational and egalitarian programs to increase cognitive abilities, to lower crime rates and to promote pro-social behavior — even when the science shows that the environmental solutions are ineffective and the problems are genetic in origin (see The Bell Curve; see Arthur Jensen; Philippe Ruston; see over 1,000 psychometric studies). Such is the desire to see improvement, that the West continually invests more and more resources to combat social ills and to raise cognitive and personality traits. This intervention of environmental means, then, is no different in kind from intervention through genetic selection (it cannot be considered any different), even if the genetic solution is labelled “liberal eugenics,” predicated on free individual choice and not state coerced or enforced. This form of Liberal eugenics can in no way be considered the same as the state repressive and discriminative eugenic policies of the past (U.N. charter resolution on Liberal Eugenics).

Even if early childhood interventions did lead to a positive outcome (the evidence is unambiguous in its failure to lead to sustainable positive improvement), it would lag behind the efficacy of genetic selection (Bostrom 37). Consider Obama’s call for the changes through early educational programs to the difference a raise in 3 IQ points makes across a society (predicated on group differences of individuals with an IQ of 100 to a group of individuals with an IQ of 103); an analysis of results interpreted from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1994): “. . . poverty rate falls by 25 percent, so does the proportion of males interviewed in jail. High school dropouts fall by 28 percent . . . Welfare recipiency, both temporary and chronic, falls by 18 percent. Children born out of wedlock drop by 15 percent. . . . Children who live in poverty for the first three years of their lives drop by 20 percent.” (Herrnstein and Murray 367).

While the first generation effects of genetic selection would be relative to current environmental education programs (predicated on the minimum amount of embryos to be split, if more embryos are split the short term gains are significant), the long term effects would be significantly larger. As detailed above, the approximated boost in IQ points would depend on how many embryos were available to be selected. It is theorized that a one out of two embryo selection would lead to an average improvement of four IQ points per individual, while a selection of 1 out of 10 embryos would lead to an average increase of 12 points (significantly larger than any environmental means). The first outcome would lead to significantly less learning disability, personality dysfunction and crime in one generation, while the second outcome would lead to a substantial reduction in crime and learning disability, substantial growth in educational attainment and a raising of income in just one generation. Furthermore, after every generation the effect of genetic selection would become more pronounced (Shulman and Bostrom 5) through assortative mating and the eradication of lower IQ. While a higher IQ would perhaps be the “new normal,” it would still lead to a better outcome for the disadvantaged, minorities and for society as a whole.

In conclusion, this article has outlined the new theory of evolution as a continuous process, not stopping 40-50,000 years ago as previously presumed but the continuing to the present day. The history of selective pressures was sketched to demonstrate the continuing process of natural selection to select favorable alleles and mutations in response to challenges of the environment. This was to prove that human nature is not a static entity but continuously in flux and subject to continual pressures. Using Gattaca as an example, this essay demonstrated the argument between natural and deliberate selection. It was shown that parents are morally obliged to choose deliberate selection over natural selection as a means to ensuring their child has the best quality of life. To do otherwise would be to implicitly harm the child and to be subject to the status quo bias. Gattaca’s premise that genetic selection would lead to genetic class stratification was then analyzed. It was concluded that this argument was without basis. To be likely, current moral thought and trends would have to be reversed. This article concluded with an argument that, for the disadvantaged, it may be more efficient in the future to receive genetic selection rather than be subject to environmental and educational programs.

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  • VANITAS

    Gattaca is one of my most favorite movies. Though i never agreed with the negative portrayal of genetic engineering.