Rebranding a Movement: A New Age of Eugenics?

For our upcoming research paper, I choose to pick the film Gattaca, which was written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Gattaca is a film made in 1997 in which a “not-too-distant-future”, scientists are able to manipulate and predetermine a child’s genome before actual implantation of the embryo, bringing about a unique form of eugenics. While researching Gattaca’s particular depiction of artificial selection and the effects behind it for this project, I came across the Forbes article linked above.

The article, “Gattaca Alert? Or Should We Welcome the New Age of Eugenics?”, is written by Jon Entine in which he talks about the attempt to rebrand the eugenics movement of the past into something new. As some might remember, eugenics in the past has been used both to promote the reproduction among among certain groups of people, while in contrast also attempting to restrict the same reproductive rights of others, such as certain ethnic groups. As Entine points out and is quite obvious to most of us, sentiments of the past behind eugenics tended to lean towards the latter rather than the former. Recently though, there has been a push to rebrand eugenics towards the goal of gradually eliminating disease and helping all people live longer and healthier lives.

This new movement in eugenics is already here though, as we already ruitenely screen for mutations in embryos and abort certain embryos in the process. What has been going on is a push to increase acceptance of the practice. This has alerted both groups on the right and the left who argue for the rights of everyone. Both sides, for essentially different reasons, attack this new brand of eugenics, considering it ethically wrong to carry out.

This new movement brings about many, and not completely undeserved comparisons to Gattaca. The main argument is that like in Gattaca, these genetic improvements leads to genetically altering or assisting a child something everyone will strive for. For example, in Gattaca, the main character Vincent is born without any genetic assistance and is born with a high probability of developing heart issues, and an estimated lifetime of only 30 years.  The results of Vincent being born a “God Child” and being faced with such harrowing circumstances leads his parents to choose to conceive their second child, Anton, with assistance. In a world with such contrasting results in the aftermath of choosing to genetically assist your children or not, is it possible to say no? That is what Hank Campbell argues, saying that “once it becomes possible to engineer “superior” qualities in human beings, then a parent’s only moral choice will be to have genetically “improved” children.”

The last point that Entine chooses to include is that while this genetic improvement may come eventually possible, it is inevitable that the government will make restrictions on it. It is interesting Entine chooses to include this, as in Gattaca, there are restrictions on discrimination against Invalids. Desipite this, many people ignore these restrictions and discriminate anyway. Given our history as not only a species but also as a country brazen with discrimination, isn’t it highly likely that any government restrictions on a new brand of eugenics that seeks to better individuals, will also be ignored? I believe so.

In the end, will it be possible to rebrand eugenics after all of the negative connotations surrounding it for decades now? Even though Gattaca is presented as a “Sci-Fi” movie, it has some real life implications.  Although Gattaca is set in an unknown future, it shows that the ethical connotations behind eugenics are completely ignored.

If this brand of eugenics is meant to better human as a species, it will be interesting to see how it plays out, especially with new scientific innovations in the future.

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15 Responses to Rebranding a Movement: A New Age of Eugenics?

  1. greenDC says:

    Campell’s argument that the availability of genetically assisted births and screenings will only promote eugenics is very much true. However, the brand of genetic selection that Entine is discussing appears to have very attractive implications. First, as it is being preformed without the attempted extinction of another ethnic group or any harm to others, it could potentially just have a neutral effect on those who do not participate. Next, it would make the population stronger, as rather than reducing the gene pool by greatly squandering the number of traits like Hitler’s attempt at eugenics did, this method would still provide immense diversity and only provide the successful mutations to protect against disease.

  2. sm1414 says:

    I think that when discussing the idea of gene selection, we must first reflect on our past. As the article correctly points out, eugenics has had a negative connotation associated with it because of its use by early progressives and later as a means of ethnic cleansing. For many people, the negative actions of these regimes are permanently associated with eugenics. I think that in the future, it will be difficult to convince many members of the public to accept eugenics because of this history and the general distrust that many citizens place both in government and in science. They trust neither the government nor scientists to obey ethical rules, perhaps because of movies like GATTACA and other science fiction films that portray rogue scientists doing whatever they want.

    That being said, I would agree with greenDC that the idea of eugenics could be used to remove unwanted genes from the gene pool and eradicate genetic diseases that do not have a cure and may never have one. However, I am hesitant to accept this use of eugenics because it could lead to parents choosing to abort unborn children based on a genetic disease. If we open the door to that kind of parental choice, what is to stop a parent from saying that they do not want a child with blue eyes or that is a girl and having the child aborted for that reason? As ridiculous as this might seem, it is not outside the realm of possibilities. Therefore, I would have to say that I oppose genetic screenings post-conception on this basis. However, if there were a way to screen the original genetic content of parents with a higher risk of producing children with genetic diseases and using in vitro fertilization to create an embryo that would not have a genetic disease, then I would support the procedure. In this sense, you are screening out the genetic disorder before conception, but not actually doing any harm to a conceived fetus.

    Before this occurs, I would still like to see clearly defined ethical rules for doctors that engage in these procedures and careful government regulation to ensure that genes that would create a super-human are not selected for. I also think that more research is necessary because our DNA code is composed of billions of nucleic acids, but only a small percentage of these acids have any impact on our physical characteristics. I think this technology has infinite possibilities, but it must be carefully regulated to ensure ethical questions are not violated.

  3. jps591 says:

    Is ridding the human population of disease and flaws a good thing? While on paper eugenics seems like a beneficial technological advancement, it could have a negative long term impact. Although grim, genetic deficiencies, diseases, and sicknesses act as a natural population control. If people started living longer, we would not be able to sustain the population boom with our current paradigm or resources. Countries like Japan and the United States, where they have experienced this debacle, are having a hard time providing for the increasing elderly population that is living longer due to better medical practices.

    Moreover, eugenics is not worth the risk. In the article, scientist Gerhard Adams argues that removing a certain disease causing gene could cause additional unknown problems. He gives the example of sickle cells, which are primarily known for the diseases associated with it like sickle cell anemia, but also acts as a protectant from contracting malaria. The possibility of decreasing the quality of life for all in addition to the possibility of creating greater genetic deficiencies makes pursuing eugenics on a large scale an unfeasible option.

  4. roberly2 says:

    Sm1414 makes what I believe is the most pertinent point about eugenics in the modern world; there must be some kind of clearly defined set of ethics in place before genetic manipulation can occur. There is no question that we have the tools to do a great deal with the human genome; we can cure disease, we can increase the longevity of the lives of those who would otherwise suffer early deaths. But we can also pick eye color, gender and skin tone of a fetus and we can detect genetic mutations in fetus early enough to advise the mother- to- be to abort the child.

    Nathaniel Comfort, in a journal article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that outlines the arguments of his book about modern eugenics, says that “eugenics is an irrevocable impulse to improve our selves, and this impulse is playing out in new ways now that society has access to an expanding set of genetic tools.”

    It is not just about science; it is about impulse. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our position, whether it is social, personal, or even genetic. And if we are in an era of modern eugenics then we ought to proceed with caution; what began as “good genes” in the twenties became a social “cleansing” movement that climaxed with the atrocities commitment in Nazi Germany.

    Eugenics refers not just to the ability to seek perfected genes but the social forces that drive that desire. The article claims that, originally, “positive eugenics,” or the encouragement of healthy people to reproduce, was outlived by “negative eugenics” or the prevention of “degenerate” people from reproducing at all. What’s keeping the modern eugenics movement from becomes much the same thing? What’s going to keep the desire to create healthy humans from becoming the desire to create “perfect” humans?

    • drc1995 says:

      I think roberly2, in concurrence with Sm1414, makes an interesting point. Just how far will eugenics go? Obviously at this point in time we don’t know exactly how much eugenics may develop, but if we use current developments or even science fiction, we might get a sense.

      There is no telling what people may do given the opportunity to do it. Will people simply abort just to do something as meaningless as picking out a certain eye color for their children? I would hope not, but it is always a possibility. If anyone has seen Gattaca, obviously not everyone goes that far, but some people do. When Vincent’s parents went to use genetic assistance in conceiving Anton, they were asked by their doctor if they wanted any specific eye or hair color. They said no, hoping to keep Anton as natural as possible, but their doctor still took what he saw as the initiative, and removed any discriminatory genetics like baldness. By whom, and where, will we draw the line?

      This new brand of eugenics is meant to be good, but we obviously don’t know how it will turn in the end. Due to this, I too agree and think that we will need some kind of laws in the future restricting eugenics. That being said, as freddie1994 below points out, whenever the government gets involved, it will be a cause for concern based on how far they go. It will all be about moderation.

  5. freddie1994 says:

    I agree with roberly2 and sm1414 that the government needs to set ethical rules. That being said there are already people today that abort children for reasons such as down syndrome, money, and a friend of mine even knows someone who has aborted a child because they wanted a boy not a girl. While we might find some reasons for abortion strange, it is that woman’s prerogative. In relation to ‘good genes,’ many people would define good differently, such as hair color, or height. As long as choosing an embryo’s genetics isn’t controlled by the government, but is just the personal choice of the parents, there is no reason why there would be worry of a genetic cleansing. That being said, if the government does start to interfere with the choice of parents (except ethical guide lines for doctors) then there is most definitely cause to worry.

  6. theotherhemingway says:

    Eugenics has massive implications for humanity. On one hand, humanity has a natural trend to describe its evolution as the betterment of humanity. However, this is a flawed assumption. Evolution is a massive process encompassing both the rise and downfall of species (assuming existence in the first place is enviable). If a trait is naturally selected in humanity that promotes aggression and eventually leads to our destruction through wars and other conflict, then such is the way evolution works with regards to our species. On the other hand, diversity counters the trend of betterment by encouraging human differences as themselves being natural. Other traits no matter how much they go against traits considered betterment by the majority of humanity are respected in the developed world. Genetic defects that lead to disease and eventual handicap are equalized with things we take for granted such as ramps and automatic doors.

    This trend of diversity counters the belief in human betterment, and eugenics serves to bridge the disparity between the two. By homogenizing the population, betterment can be achieved more easily. Yet, this relies on the flawed assumption that our evolution is a process of betterment. Thus, tailoring my earlier statement, eugenics serves to bridge the false perception of disparity between diversity and betterment. Diversity is key to humanity;s survival, and engaging in eugenics has the potential to destroy diversity. Films like GATTACA attempt to demonstrate this issue best by representing the proponents of eugenics as ‘rogue’ or otherwise counter to the aims of society.

  7. secondcitytocapitalcity says:

    I’m currently taking a course called Medicine in American Culture where we spent some time talking about the different eugenics movements in United States history. One of the things that I learned is that eugenists have tried to rebrand themselves before, specifically after World War II when people began to find out about the Nazi eugenics experiments. After this, eugenicists tried to rebrand themselves. They used things like better baby contests to promote their ideals while still trying to distance themselves from the idea that eugenicists want to exterminate different races.
    While I don’t think that we are in danger of eugenicists coming to power and start killing different groups, I think that this type of genetic manipulation that the article talked about should be approached with caution. The main reason that I believe this has to do with the idea of better. Someone has to define what is better. While most people agree that being free of disease is better, it is a pretty quick jump to saying that certain physical traits are preferable to others. Then once these traits are seen as desirable, people will want to to engineer their children to have these genetic traits. I believe that this will lead to a GATTACA like situation where people who cannot afford these genetic modifications will be outcast from the rest of society that is seen as better because they can afford to give themselves these traits.

  8. Mykkros says:

    Many people here have mentioned that they are in favor of eugenic via genetic engineering. Jps591, for example, questions if “is getting humanity rid of disease a bad thing” at first. However, I disagree, at least for the most part. Sure eugenics can do some of those things such as finding and even possibly eradicating hereditary diseases. However, implanting genes, something we do all of the time in labs, is much different from simply finding the exact source of an issue in a genome and correcting it. The human genome, despite recently being mapped out through the Human Genome Project in the late 1990s and early 2000s is still a long way from being completely understood. Minor changes that are for the better could turn out disastrous for the person when he is born. How much testing will be needed in order for this process to be perfected and how will we test what experimentation is ethical and what is not? Introns, for example, parts of the DNA that supposedly were “junk” are only now, as mentioned in an article in the Evolution Times, found to have much importance ( What other parts of the DNA are there that we are still unsure of its use but are planning to change in the short future?

    In addition, another problem with eugenics is that at the beginning only the very wealthy will be able to afford such expensive procedures for their children. Genetic engineering will, without a doubt, be incredibly expensive and will remain something that only the wealthy could afford initially. Income divide, especially between the top one percent the wealthy and the rest of the 99%, is a source of great dispute right now and the ability for the top 1% to genetically engineer their children while the rest cannot will only aggravate the issue. Simply put, in today’s world, another thing to divide society based on economic class will only increase tensions and cause widespread problems. Thus, while the idea of genetic engineering does, without a doubt, have positive implications, the negative sides are something that humanity is still far from ready for.

  9. nicolina1215 says:

    I agree with sm1414 that eugenics has acquired a negative connotation from historical events that took eugenics to a new extreme of violating people and their genes. Ethics has always been an important character in politics dating back to Aristotle and his republican view that all must work to benefit the common good. Though what is in the common good’s interest? Is it to lower the chances of our future generations contracting fatal diseases? I personally agree with science blogger Cameron English’s argument that as we consider genetic engineering and its possibilities, we need to refrain from infringing on people’s person choices and rights. I understand “Gattaca argument” that once some people start genetically improving their offspring others will be inclined to do so as well. That being said I do not believe that everyone in the world will suddenly change the entire genome of their children if given the chance. While an important part of reproduction is the survival of your offspring, much of the desire is so that your genes continue into future generations. Many people like the idea that their children resemble them. While people obviously want what is best for their children, I do not believe the slight incorporation of artificial genetic variation will cause a Gattaca type world to erupt.
    For these reasons I believe it is important to continue searching genetic improvements on certain issues such as fatal or life-threatening diseases. I do not believe this research will lead to large ethical problems if scientists and companies remember that it is not only the individual’s right to choose how their genetics are aligned (i.e. naturally or artificially). As for other more ethical improvements such as intelligence and beauty, I am still unsure whether or not I think these should be accessible. Once people start becoming attached to vein improvements that are not based on health or livelihood, there is potential for more drastic social issues than simply abortion of children who parents do not think would lead happy or healthy lives (which is already a large social issue as it is). I believe it is precisely historical events that will help individuals refrain from falling into a Gattaca scenario. While eugenics will still need much better reputation in order for it to become more applicable in the scientific and hospital realm, I do not believe it will ever become a friendly enough term that people use eugenics for their children sparingly.

  10. thomgc says:

    The difficulty that you have with an issue like gene manipulation is one of free will. Specifically I am referring to the use of chemical modifications to make people behave a certain way, you mention birds and making them monogamous, and just imagine if that were used on humans. If such modifiers were used on humans it would mean that the odds of somebody ever cheating on their spouse would approach zero, a fine change to current society. Does that mean that I should modify my own children with such genes to make them monogamous in the future? Why should I force that upon them, making them monogamous despite flaws in marriages that they may have, and forcing them to remain because of alterations to reward centres in the brain. We would be rewrding them for being in an unhappy scenario. Should we simply dictate who our children are to become before they are mature enough to make decisions for themselves then we would be creating a cultural stagnation, where our own speculations of desirable attributes prevents them from developing personalities and interests simply via living life. Evolution does not occur through speculation about what will be valuable 40 years from now, but by having traits that are valuable survive from one generation to the next. The commercialisation of genetic enhancement (which is the form it would take were they to become common place) is ultimately a surefire way to create evolutionary stagnation, as random traits that could be advantageous for survival in certain, unknowable scenarios are undone for traits that we speculate will be advantageous.

  11. running95 says:

    I believe that eugenics will most definitely yield results similar to those in GATTACA. The ability to control the genetic sequence of a person will undoubtedly lead to the eventual selection of an control of all genetic outcomes. Moreover, once people are able to choose the genetics of their children they will then look down upon other people who have not been genetically manufactured. While a separation as intense as that in GATTACA is very unlikely, people will definitely be looked down upon and face hardships for their “inferior” DNA.

    Moreover, the control of DNA will completely wipe out the entire concept of human evolution. Nature is need to evolve and without the hand of nature we as a species simply will fail to do so. We need to be fit in our environment and therefore without being able to naturally change with our environment it leaves us vulnerable to the changes of the environment. I took AP Biology last year and we learned that a species needs to evolve as their surroundings change because they will not be fit to every environment and every niche.

    John Entine proposes, eugenics can help eliminate the population of disease and defect, however, as any great scientific find is there is always a double edge to the sword. Just as the invention of the gun and the atomic bomb among others have been great advances in technology that eventually turned out to be terrible weapons for mankind, eugenics may be the same. Roberly2 quoted Nathaniel Comfort as saying, “eugenics is an irrevocable impulse to improve our selves,” which, frankly, is disconcerting. People will without a doubt use eugenics negatively and once the technology is out in the world the Pandora’s box is open. In all honesty I really do believe that scientists should cease all work on eugenics and instead turn their attentions to other things.

  12. foldervral says:

    With such genetic manipulation it will be interesting to see how children are changed in appearance. Right now having green or blue eyes may seem attractive because they are rare compared to the more common brown eye color. With these genetic manipulations parents may decide that since blue eyes are attractive to them that their child should have blue eyes. I believe that this will cause every generation to have the opposite idea of what is attractive than the last due to the shift in rarity from brown back to blue or some other colors. I agree with greenDC when he says that it will result in an overall improvement for the human race, but it is still something that can be slowly taken advantage of by the government if they were so motivated. The moral obligation to minimize genetic diseases or complications would be present, but the rest is effectively vanity. Who are you to decide what another human being should look like? There are even studies that some psychological behavior stems from genetics, this could take a very dangerous turn if tampered with or put under control of by our limited understanding. This is not to say that these actions would be against God or that we should even prevent these technological advancements. If humans wish to start improving the genetic makeup of embryos than we had better make sure we understand the long term consequences.

  13. phishmonkees says:

    This Forbes article is very thought provoking. I agree with drc1995 that there are many ethical dilemmas associated with eugenics. The source is interesting; Forbes deals mainly with stories revolving around the financial markets or business stories. Eugenics would create a whole new market, likely resulting in billions of dollars in revenue. In my opinion, I do not believe that eugenics is unethical if it improves the lives of those that partake in it. If a child is predisposed to a heart condition, why wait until he or she is born to deal with the problem? It is better to address the problem before it occurs. I understand that eugenics has a negative connotation, especially since it has been promoted by some of the most evil regimes in history, such as the Nazis. When eugenics is proposed in forms of sterilization, it then crosses an ethical boundary and is undoubtedly immoral. The article posted below shares a negative stance on eugenics, “Eugenics, as a philosophy does not care for the weak, the poor, the old. Eugenics is survival and engineering of the fittest.” Yet I still believe that eugenics is the way of the future and has immense business opportunities. That is possibly why it is a Forbes article.

    Read more:

  14. Sl1017 says:

    For the paper I also chose to research Gattaca and did extensive research on the possibility of Eugenics happening in the very near future. There are two different types of eugenics, positive and negative. Positive eugenics includes the encouragement of reproduction because of a certain desirable trait, ethnicity or superior quality. Negative eugenics is the opposite, the restriction of reproduction because of ethnicity, traits or characteristics.
    It seems to be that based on current research negative eugenics are in the past. However, as we approach the use of positive eugenics it is important to consider the natural order of things.
    The eugenics research today that will make certain options like gender of your baby, hair and eye color, and the eradication of genetic predispotions completely influences and eradicates natural selection.
    In this article, the author discusses that the procedure of choosing the gender of your child is possible for about twenty thousand dollars. He mentions that the majority of these parents who select a zygote based on it’s gender are able to conceive on their own yet are willing to pay the money to get the gender of their choice.
    If choosing the gender of your child becomes a common thing, it could disturb the natural order of women to men ratio and then lead to the choosing of other traits like hair color and eye color, or height and weight in the future.

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