Sometimes the speed with which science moves can be startling, even to scientists. The 1990s film Gattaca is set in a future in which everyone aspires to conceive via IVF so they can select those embryos with the best genetic profile for their offspring.
In this society job interviews consist solely of giving a DNA sample. Individuals conceived naturally, or whose profiling was less than successful, are classified as “genetically inferior”. They occupy an underclass that is only allowed to carry out the most routine and badly paid jobs.
The twist in the story is that a supposedly inferior individual, Vincent, demonstrates a resourcefulness and intelligence far beyond anything shown by his supposed biological superiors.
Meanwhile, Eugene, the apparently genetically perfect individual who lets Vincent borrow his genetic identity, is consumed with self-loathing.
But surely the scientific premise of Gattaca is a far-fetched one? Not according to studies published last week in which, for the first time, genomes were sequenced in order to identify the gene defects responsible for specific diseases.
The latest breakthroughs were made possible by a dramatic reduction in costs in recent years. Thus, while the Human Genome Project cost £2 billion, many geneticists predict it will soon be possible to sequence all the DNA letters in an individual’s genetic code for £600 – making this feasible for every newborn in Britain.
Moreover, current technologies can already assess genetic differences between individuals at increasingly high resolution.
Such technologies are being used to select the best embryos for women with fertility problems. For adults, companies like 23andMe (there being 23 human chromosomes) claim to predict an individual’s likelihood of succumbing to any of a hundred different diseases for £330.
So is this the beginning of a slippery slope to “designer babies” and a Gattaca-like society where rich people will be able to ensure their offspring have intelligence, beauty, sporting prowess, or other desirable attributes, as well as material wealth?
I believe there are two mistakes we might make in discussing this possibility.
The first would be to assume that genetic differences do not matter. Such a view might follow from recognition that humans are unique in having developed a society in which progress occurs through the exchange of new ideas, rather than the infinitely slower process of biological evolution.
But the idea that we are merely “blank slates” wholly shaped by our environment ignores the genetic variation within human populations, and the contribution of this to human individuality.
An equally mistaken viewpoint would be to believe that individual characteristics can be reduced to these genetic differences.
Even single-gene disorders, like cystic fibrosis, show variation in the way they manifest themselves.
And while common diseases like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, are being linked to particular gene variants, these conditions require a complex combination of biological determinants, as well as exposure to a particular environment or lifestyle.
Such complexity must be even more the case for mental disorders like schizophrenia. The fact that African-Caribbeans in Britain are six times as likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic as white British people – or, importantly, black people in the Caribbean – demonstrates how environment influences the development of this condition.
As for those who aspire to create an Albert Einstein by gene selection I wish them luck. It is worth remembering that he was a high school dropout who initially struggled to find a job.
Biology may play an important part in the development of genius, but so too does chance and individual circumstance.
In Gattaca a single individual manages to realise his dream despite being labelled as inferior. The experience of revolutions shows that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things once freed from the fetters of conformity. That’s one of the things that makes socialism so desirable.