NYHW: The Class – Genetics and Determinism (SCSI/BIO 157) The topic – Drawing upon the plot of the film GATTACA as well as the personal account of Alice Wexler in Mapping Fate, identify, and briefly discuss the benefits and detriments of being able to identify a carrier of a disease gene.

Genetics: Not Always a Hollywood Ending

The idea of genetic testing for diseases as well as other characteristics is one which our generation has already been presented with, and it is now our responsibility to make moral choices regarding how far we should go. Two accounts addressing this dilemma are GATTACA, a dramatized, fictitious movie of overcoming genetic defectiveness; and Mapping Fate, a true account of a family with a lethal inherited disease. Within the film GATTACA, the narrator, Vincent Freeman is an individual whose natural conception is actually viewed as inferior in the world of the future. Vincent’s dream of one day flying into space is presumably impossible due to his substandard genes, yet the tagline to the movie, “There Is No Gene For The Human Spirit” seems to suggest that genetic statistics can be overcome. A more moving, yet arguably less entertaining account is presented within Alice Wexler’s Mapping Fate, an autobiographical novel documenting her family’s confrontation with Huntington’s Disease. The depictions of sorrow experienced by her family is expressed through the recollections of letters and conversations as well as actual worldly events involving the disease. While these two stories are superficially different, the moral implications addressed within them are in essence the same. Analysis of the central themes and conclusions show a bias towards the different stances on the issue of Genetic detection processes; mainly that, while the “Hollywood ending” of GATTACA suggests that any individual can overcome their genetic handicap, the true story of Alice’s family suggests that it would be for the best if diseases were screened for and eliminated. This contrast is embodied within the themes of personal motivation and familial importance.

The narrators within both chronicles lead very opposite lives, as Vincent overcomes his handicap through assuming a new identity, Alice adopts a new one in learning of her susceptibility to Huntington’s. The future world in which Vincent lives is very interesting to contemplate because it allows for the parents to choose whether or not they want their children to be genetically altered, yet the statistical probability of contracting diseases is told upon birth of the child regardless. Vincent’s ability to outlive his statistics and fly despite his faulty genetic makeup makes him a hero and instills hope in the audience. An opposite position to individual motivation involving genetic determinism is portrayed through Alice Wexler. Alice begins as a promising student with an entire world of opportunity ahead of her but is then confronted with not only having to care for her mother, but in addition having to deal with the realization that Huntington’s could strike her. And unlike its Hollywood counterpart, this story does not end happily, leaving the audience with the feeling that preventative measures should have been taken. In the case of these two accounts, it seems that the more realistic outcome of the individual’s life tends to be worse than their exaggerated counterpart.

Families are never perfect, but their dynamics often help complement their members, which is shown rather tactfully in both GATTACA and Mapping Fate. The interaction between Vincent and his brother Antony, whose genes were altered in order to favor a longer life and enhanced opportunities, shows an initial combativeness which actually leads to motivational competition that drives Vincent to succeed. The Wexler family is much more complex and involves emotional and passionate relationships that consequently lead us to feel pity and regret for both daughters as well as their mother, Leonore. As Alice writes, “What my sister and I thought we knew about our family suddenly shifted, and everything had to be rethought, reinterpreted. Who we were had suddenly been called into question and everything had to be reconfigured taking into account the presence of the disease” (75). This statement most accurately reflects how much the disease truly affected all their lives, and it was all real, and certainly frightening. And what was most disheartening was that they were forced to deal with the situation without being able to write themselves a script in which they would all be okay.

When push comes to shove, it will be the upcoming generation that will determine how far, and with what sorts of regulations, gene testing is going to go. And while the entertainment industry is surely going to capitalize on the moral implications, as was already seen in GATTACA, it is important to also take into account the accurate portrayals of those who truly have diseases, such as the Wexler family in Mapping Fate.

Works Cited

  • GATTACA. Directed by Andrew Niccol starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Therman and Jude Law. 1997. http://imdb.com/title/tt0119177/
  • Wexler, Alice. Mapping Fate: A Memoir of Family, Risk, and Genetic Research. University of California Press. ©1995.