There are oracles living among us: individuals who, for whatever magical turn of ethereal connectivity, are able to tap into the human trajectory deeply, and glimpse the future.
We know them by the names of Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick, Gibson, Heinlein, Huxley, Le Guin, Wells… They were all masters of the written word, weaving them to serve as warnings to the oblivious masses — to awaken our sleeping consciousnesses, in order to help us understand where we were headed, in the hopes that we could do something virtuous about it.
In that way, they served not only as oracles, but as consciences. They were there to remind us of the consequences of our unknowing and inauspicious actions — actions that held the potential to lead the human march to the cliff edge, where the first to fall off would no longer be able to warn the ranks of their error, until it was too late.
Not all oracles wrote books. Some saw film for what it was — the medium for the masses — and sought to capitalize on its reach to awaken us. The truth is, we now live almost exclusively in a film world. Reading is tedious; slow; boring; elitist. Film is fun, and the investment is minimal: we eat popcorn in plush chairs or on sofas, while the actors, director and production crew do all the work for us, so that in just ninety-or-so minutes, it’s over, and we can move on. Where books represented the world of knowledge, insight and wisdom, film represent the world of entertainment, fun and diversion. It is a Happy Meal to books’ slow cooking. Within the genre, there is a tiny sect of new alchemists — called screenwriters — who along with their director-interpreters have sought to impregnate the world of entertainment with the heft of the written tome. It is a heretical idea, given that if a book is a mistress, a movie is a one-night stand. It’s hard to develop feelings for the flash-in-the-pan, beyond the length of a hangover, or an end-credit run.
But alas, time marches on, and the cliff edge looms just over the horizon. Today, even ninety minutes is a stretch. While film reaches the masses, the sound bite is so much easier. We needn’t get up from the chair, or even exercise our fingertips, beyond the need to swipe them across a tiny, pocket-sized screen. One after the next, a blur of seconds-long micro-movies truly democratized the world of film. Pure entertainment now, minus the pretense of trying to communicate anything beyond the punch line, we are all now filmmakers — maestros of the meaningless. Drumroll, please.
In spite of this, feature film is not yet dead. And within its ranks, four screenwriting oracles — an O.G., or sorts — stand out, to me, for their dark and lasting takes on human folly. I’m going to touch on one and do a deep dive on the foil for today’s thoughts. But to do lip service to the two I’ll ignore, they include Stanton and Reardon, the co-writers of Pixar’s brilliant, dystopic WALL-E, about a garbage-infested world stripped of all life, forcing humans into space, where ultimate robot convenience turns them all into corpulent blobs, unable even to walk, anymore; and Judge and Cohen, the co-writers of the eye-opening (though middlingly acted) Idiocracy, in which the twin forces of commercialism and anti-intellectualism conspire to run the world to ruin, leaving a rediscovered and cryogenically thawed 500-year-old idiot to save the world, now that he is, incomprehensibly, the most intelligent man left on Earth. They are both well worth your time, because both speak to what could still quite plausibly be the future reality of Project Human, unless we change a few fundamental behavior drivers, such as consumerism, anti-intellectualism, profligate wastefulness, sickening diets and technology-enabled sloth.
If we are honest, the end game of these five traits is pretty clear, and we are heading into the mire with all of them.
Ok. On to the appetizer. Every architect’s favorite film: 1982’s Blade Runner, written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples — the latter of whom also wrote the apocalyptic Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys. While Fancher and Peoples based their screenplay on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the term blade runner in fact came from an earlier piece of written science fiction by Alan Nourse, called The Bladerunner. Nourse wrote about an advanced eugenics experiment responding to an overpopulated world, in which anyone requiring medical assistance must submit to sterilization — the premise being that if they are imperfect, they should not breed. Crazy? Think again. The Canadian province of Alberta legally practiced eugenics for a whopping 44 years, from the 1928 passing of The Sexual Sterilization Act to its 1972 repeal. In Alberta, those who lived in mental hospitals were neutered, presumably to save the population from the possibility that these ‘nutbar genes’ were passed on to future offspring. Crazy Albertans? Impossible elsewhere? Well the year before, in 1927, Acting Chief Justice for the US Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes endorsed the practice of sterilizIng “defectives” as he called them. His endorsement empowered people like Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood. Sanger was a leader of the American eugenics movement.
See how this works?
In the book Bladerunner, parallel cities — one above and one below ground — are set in a symbiotic relationship, where blade runners deliver supplies to the underground world of sterilizing doctors, who are the object of furor by both the establishment and the anti-medicine (think anti-vaxxer) hordes. While the movie Blade Runner has little to do with Nourse’s eugenics, it still paints a bleak and vivid story that pits humans against their robot creations, in a wildlife-and-flora-free world blanketed in perpetual darkness and filth, in which just a few master inventors can afford to live in the sky.
Blade Runner was less memorable for its storyline than for its vivid depiction of the urban wasteland of our future, and for Harrison Ford’s and Rutger Hauer’s pas-de-deux as apex reciprocal predators.
It could still come.
But the story of eugenics — the loose tie-in to (the original) Blade Runner — was the de facto focus of 1997’s Gattaca, written by Andrew Niccol, who also wrote the dystopic The Truman Show. Gattaca is a film about a future governed by eugenics, in which babies are ‘designed’ to a parental budget, and from which a population of ‘tinkered tots’ is born and raised. In the movie, designer babies are sorted and ranked by their genetic profiles, and their entire futures are pre-determined, and enforced, according to an assessment of their genetic potential. ‘Valids’ (the designed) are separated from ‘invalids’ (the un-designed), which is another way of sorting out — and amplifying — the advantages wealth can confer on the rich. Vincent, the protagonist, is a “faith baby”; his parents foolishly left his future up to chance, ignoring the fact that in doing so they were relegating him to both an early death (estimated at 30.2 years) and menial labor throughout it. Though I’ve found nothing to officially tie the two together, Gattaca’s screenplay is doubtlessly inspired, at the very least, by Huxley’s Brave New World. In both, eugenic ‘recipes’ determine the social order, removing the inefficiency and uncertainty of chance mutation or recombination, thereby turning human procreation into an industrial assembly line worthy of the Ford Motor Co.
In Gattaca, the acting is, well, terrible. The plot is almost as thin as the character development, and the single, nearly melancholy instrumental soundtrack that attempts to make up for the characters’ dialogue is cloying, like one of those flavors that held promise, but now just lingers annoyingly in your nasal passages. But still, the notion of a world in which babies are designed; in which the wealthy become physically superior; in which prejudice is encoded, supported by mathematical probabilities — and therefore legitimized — and in which emotions run at a low because human strife and aspiration have both been neutered, seems about right. In fact, just a half-century from now it may well be us.
We are already tinkering. Since Craig Venter first mapped the human genome in the year 2000, he and others have embarked on a mission to use our understanding of the human genome to improve upon it. The twin directions it is taking, in its relative infancy, are that of lowering human disease burden and engineering better humans. It is Huxley in the real world. In fact, Venter himself launched Human Longevity, Inc. just six years ago, in service of extending ‘high-performance’ human lifespans. And while they’ve not yet created an army of Methuselahs, he is capitalized and connected enough to do the trick.
Today, we have already dipped our toe into the practical and profitable ocean of bio-tinkering. While sex selection cannot be called ‘eugenic’, truly, it nonetheless allows parents a measure of control over their progeny for the first time in history. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) takes IVF-incubated embryos and sequences them to determine the sex, after which parents can select which one(s) to implant, thus effectively allowing them to select the sex of their babies. It is over 99% accurate. What makes it so pernicious is that it is so seemingly harmless that it opens the door to other ‘low-impact’ ethical decision-making when it comes to both the quality of our lives and our expiry dates.
Today — already — PGD is regularly used to test for over 170 diseases, comprising one third of all testing, like cystic fibrosis, hemoglobin disorders, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia, among scores of others. While again, this isn’t eugenics, per se, it puts the control over the life of a future human into the hands of parental will. It is still, bluntly put, playing god, or gaia. Then, there’s BRCA, a gene significant for the fact that it can dramatically increase the chances that the gene-carrier will develop various types of cancer associated with reproductive organs, up to 70% over non-carriers. While breast and ovarian cancers are most common, BRCA genes can presage peritoneal and prostate cancer, as well.
In an IVF pregnancy, the gene can be identified and removed. In high-risk populations (BRCA’s occurrence is about 1 in 400), something foreboding has happened:
Perfectly fertile parents have decided to forego natural childbirth in favor of IVF, so that they can give their unborn children a genetic advantage, in the form of a guaranteed, cancer-free life.
This is the slippery slope that leads to the designer baby. First, it is used to protect at-risk populations from what amount to guarantees of crippling disease. Slowly, it takes another step, into a preventive measure for potential diseases. These are both cases of what is now called “negative genetic engineering,” because it focused on removing impediments to a quality life.
Positive genetic engineering — that is, gene therapy for the express purpose of enhancement — is emerging. A well-written article for Northwestern University’s science publication, Helix, references the new term “gene doping” as the “non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements or modulation of gene expression having the capacity to enhance performance.” The World Anti-Doping Agency already has it in its crosshairs.
As long as eighteen years ago, so-called “Schwarzenegger Mice” were the result of IGF gene-injected mice that reminded me of the film Ratatouille’s Emile — the hulking rat sibling of the movie’s protagonist, Remy, who could bend bars with his bare… paws. You might recall the pictures. It was somewhat horrific, seeing giant muscled mice alongside their svelte natural brethren.
The Helix article goes on. “In 1994, Sir Walter Bodmer, former president of the Europe-based Human Genome Organization famously proclaimed, “Would it really be so bad, if we added genes for height to small people, or for hair to the bald, or good eyesight to the myopic? Probably not.” But in response to whether we should add genes for intelligence or athleticism? “Just where we get off the slippery slope is therefore a matter for society to choose…we have plenty of time to debate the issues and resolve them.”
This form of thinking — “plenty of time” — misses the central emotional and economic drivers of human behavior. The particular combination of parental urges and shareholder value conspire the blow the doors open on superbabies.
Hitler would kvell.
The invention of PGD presaged a new age, commonly called “new eugenics”. The NCBI has long been one of my favorite websites for clear-eyed science in the biotechnology orbit. In appraising its rise, NCBI writes that “the new eugenics although based on science, continues to pursue the same goal as the old eugenics, the development of a superior individual. The elimination of the inferior individual [italics mine] continues to be an integral part of this system of ideas. The conditioned acceptance of the child by the parent may affect negatively the parent–child relationship, and ultimately the family unit which is the basic institution of society.”
Gattaca is a film about that future. And with it, comes the emergence of genoism — a term that screenwriter Niccol himself created to describe the world of “unethical and illegal genetic discrimination.”
I think we may be on the precipice of just such a world. Our oracle has spoken, and he has given it a name — one I’m afraid we may hear a lot more of, in the future.