Bioethics, Biology, Cinema, Entertainment, Human Rights, Philosophy, recent

How Prophetic Was Gattaca?

Dystopian science fiction films often have the veneer of plausibility. For example, the premise of an overpopulated world (Soylent Green), or a deep freeze earth (The Day After Tomorrow), or an infertility epidemic (Children of Men), generate voyeuristic horror but rarely possess the credibility to elicit anxiety of a real world, highly probable outcome. The 1997 film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is an exception. Technology has now caught up with Niccol’s dystopian vision of a society where every member is categorized and determined by their genetic origin. Last year a Chinese bioengineer announced the germline editing and live birth of twin girls using CRISPR technology.

In the world of Gattaca, preimplantation screening and genetic engineering have generated a culture of discrimination based on genomic scores. The story’s hero, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), has the bad luck of being conceived the old-fashioned way, his genome left to the crapshoot of meiosis. His genome is read to his parents at birth: neurological condition: 60 percent; probability of manic depression: 42 percent; probability of heart disease: 99 percent: life expectancy: 30.2 years. In this brave new world, Vincent is labeled an “In-Valid,” a human not genetically selected, screened, and engineered—a second-class minority, which prohibits any chance of him fulfilling his ambition of becoming an astronaut. The only job available for his kind is janitor. Not deterred by his genomic handicap, Vincent strikes a deal with Jerome (Jude Law), a “Valid” of impeccable pedigree, but now a paraplegic because of an accident. Vincent impersonates Jerome using his biological specimens—blood, urine, and hair—to deceive the ubiquitous DNA-scanning devices. With his new DNA fingerprint, Vincent becomes an astronaut-in-training and is days away from his dream of space flight when the murder of an executive threatens to expose his identity.

Gattaca’s depiction of a dystopian society has uneasily informed debate on public policy. For example, in 2003 an Australia Law Reform Commission produced a 1,100-page document in which Gattaca is quoted several times as a starting point for a discussion on “the ethical, legal and social implications of the New Genetics.” In a 2013 speech, US Senator Rand Paul referenced Gattaca as a warning to argue for the passage of legislation he introduced called the Life at Conception Act.

The film’s hold on the popular imagination was confirmed again by two recently published books: Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are by Robert Plomin and Innate: How the Wiring of our Brains Shapes Who We Are by Kevin Mitchell. Both books examine the genetic influence on variation in different psychological traits between individuals and both discuss whether a Gattaca-like dystopia is in our future. The society depicted in the film treats genes as deterministic, an idea that both Plomin and Mitchell are at pains to distance themselves from, and, curiously, that is the theme of the film too: “After all, there is no gene for fate,” says Vincent.

According to Mitchell, the manner in which genes go about building an organism is in part affected by what engineers call noise. There is a randomness to neural development, subjecting the process to tiny random perturbation. Identical twins share the same DNA but are not completely identical. Even the two sides of our bodies, based on the same plan but executed independently, reveal slight differences. Mitchell’s claim is that much of what is labeled environmental “is intrinsic to each person, arising from inherent randomness in the process of brain development.” Plomin, for his part, repeatedly uses the word “probabilistic” to describe the effect of our genome on our destiny, contrasting this with “deterministic.”

Andrew Niccol goes further than this and gives the impression that general cognitive ability—one of the most heritable psychological traits—isn’t influenced by genetics in the slightest, let alone determined. In an early scene, we learn that Vincent, impersonating Jerome, has programmed computer code flawlessly “not one error in a million keystrokes” for his upcoming space mission. Somehow, in spite of his apparently average genetic scores, Vincent is able to impersonate Jerome who has “an IQ off the register.”

That makes you wonder why the authorities in Gattaca set such store by polygenic scores. What does it matter if Vincent was conceived in the back of a car if he can mimic a genetically-engineered god? The film glosses over this contradiction, implying that Vincent’s compulsive study of a “celestial navigation textbook” is all it took for him to meet the job requirements. But if Andrew Niccol was hoping this point of view would eventually be vindicated by genetic research, he was mistaken. According to Plomin, more than 50 years of behavioral genetics have shown that “…genetic differences between people account for about half of their differences in tests of intelligence.” Mitchell states that “…intelligence is ‘genetic,’ in the sense that it relies on a complex program encoded in our genomes and can be seriously affected by mutations that compromise that program.”

So Gattaca was prophetic, but not quite in the way Niccol intended. He created a dystopia that was based on what he thought of as a misunderstanding about the influence genes have on our destinies. But in fact, it wasn’t a misunderstanding; it’s been borne out by genetic research. The overlords of the society Niccol depicts are actually right about the science and he was wrong. What Niccol got wrong is that a society in which parents decide to fertilize numerous embryos and decide which one to implant and take to term, as they do in Gattaca, won’t be as dystopic as he imagines because genetically-engineered inequality won’t necessarily lead to unequal treatment, any more than randomly-generated genetic inequality will. As Plomin says, “[T]he American founders did not mean that all people are created identical…equal does not mean identical. If everyone were identical, there would be no need to worry about equal rights or equal opportunity. The essence of democracy is that people are treated fairly despite their difference.”

Which is not to deny that gene editing will confront society with unprecedented ethical dilemmas. A two caste Gattaca-like society is not out of the question, but only if we allow it to develop. It’s entirely possible that while initial access to genome engineering will be restricted to the super rich, government subsidies could eventually make it universally accessible. Gattaca is an excellently-crafted film, but its vision of genetic discrimination shouldn’t be mistaken for an inevitable future.


George Schifini is a graduate of CUNY. He has also been published in Areo. You can find him on Twitter at @gschifini

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.


  1. E. Olson says

    Star Wars is said to be simply a Western (aka horse opera) set in the future and outer space, and I can’t help but think that Gattaca is simply a futuristic version of the Beverly Hillbillies. The Clampetts were dirt poor uneducated Ozark hillbillies who accidentally strike oil and move to Beverly with their millions, where all but Jethro (with his 6th grade education) proceed to show much more wisdom, ability, and ingenuity than their city slicker neighbors who presumably have much higher IQ and fancy educations and therefore look down on the Clampetts or try to take advantage of them.

    In fact such fish out of water stories are quite common, and always rest on the assumption that the downtrodden can easily and quickly catch up or surpass high society if only given an opportunity, but it is seldom considered why such innately intelligent and talented “fish” were so downtrodden in the first place. Sadly this interesting essay is correct that such stories are very rare in the real world, but unfortunately Marxism and much of the modern welfare state are built on the fairy tale assumption that more money and special favors spent on the downtrodden (and taken from the talented and successful) will turn them all into Vincents or Clampetts.

    • NashTiger says

      The entire point of Gattaca was that Vincent possessed the attitude and the willpower to risk everything and go beyond what was comfortable or even safe because of the limitations he had been told were imposed on him. He risked his life swimming beyond the breakers, he stayed on the treadmill until his heart was about to explode, he dedicated every waking minute to a painstaking complex routine to mask his trace DNA left in the office.

      It has nothing to do with fish out of water

      • The truth is the truth says

        Exactly! Genetics can give a person a huge advantage, but the right attitude, willpower, work ethic and willingness to risk it all often overcomes. Vincent’s line “I never saved anything for the swim back” is one of my single favorite lines in all of cinema.

        [Vincent takes up Anton’s dare on their old challenge of swimming out to sea to see who will chicken out first]

        Anton: Vincent! How are you doing this Vincent? How have you done any of this? We have to go back.

        Vincent: It’s too late for that. We’re closer to the other side.

        Anton: What other side? You wanna drown us both?

        Vincent: You wanna know how I did it? This is how I did it Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.

        • Out of Nowhere says

          You’re right, that’s truly a remarkable scene in the movie.

          But the point is: Many personality features like extraversion, determination and curiosity are highly heritable, too. A single movie hero might be lucky and provide us with a deeply moving story, but statistically the genetically enhanced would have higher values on those desirable traits.

        • Peter from Oz says

          ” but the right attitude, willpower, work ethic and willingness to risk it all often overcomes.”
          Could these attributes also, as a pretty cracker said to a nice, brilliant young nigger in Spain last Tuesday, be genetic?

        • Tim Lewis says

          Wasn’t that scene just about perfect?

      • E Taph says

        The entire point of Gattaca is that a guy with a possible medical condition decided to cheat through his way to a position of responsibility over the passengers of a starship. And the reason why we emphasize with him is purely due to the way the story is presented.

        We could have a very similar movie set in the modern day about someone with ischemic heart disease that could flare up at any moment while he’s in the cockpit, landing or takeoff or midflight or whatever, who’d like to become a passenger plane pilot in the 80s. But that’d be too obvious and not very inspiring.

      • Tim Lewis says

        NashTiger. – I interpreted the message the same way. At the end of the day, genetics may be prophetic for populations, but they’re will still always be situations where the individual can overcome outrageous odds through tenacity, planning, cleverness, the willingness to take a chance & a bit of luck.

        I loved how the stairway in the apartment was a double helix. It was a nice touch.

  2. Cynical Old Biologist says

    “It’s entirely possible that while initial access to genome engineering will be restricted to the super rich, government subsidies could eventually make it universally accessible.”

    This comment gives the misleading impression that precise genetic engineering of humans will be possible and easy in the not-too-distant future. The problem is that that there are very few processes in biology that are not subject to error. This is usually countered in biological systems by increasing the number of “attempts” and, if sufficient of these are successful, then some individuals will survive and life, and evolution, can continue. But when you are talking about engineering a human embryo, you will need to do this at the one-cell stage and it will need to occur perfectly. Any unexpected / unintentional changes carry the risk of detrimental consequences and the unethical aspect of this is that those consequences must be borne by the manipulated individual, not the person doing the manipulation.

    The situation reminds me of going to the cinema and watching the early scenes of “Alien Resurrection” when it was first released. As someone involved in genetic engineering and the study of embryo development, it was quite uncomfortable to see a deformed, (unsuccessfully cloned), Sigourney Weaver begging to be put to death. I wondered what it would be like to stand up in the cinema at that moment and declare, “I’m a genetic engineer!!”. (Visions of being torn to pieces by an enraged audience.)

    As long as the supply of fertilised eggs from any individual human is limited, the imperfect nature of biological systems means that we may not see widespread genetic engineering of individuals because of uncertainty regarding the outcomes of the procedure and the ethical quandary of possibly condemning the engineered individual to detriment rather than benefit.

    • Eigen Eagle says

      All of what you’re describing is assuming that we can even figure out which loci to make the edits in.

      The human genome has millions of SNPs (basically places on the genome that vary between individuals). It already takes a massive sample size to find relations between genes and diseases in genome-wide association studies that only cover a fraction of SNPs. If you had genetic data on every living person it still might be out of the question to gain a good understanding of complex polygenic traits like intelligence and athletic ability and looks.

      • Foyle says

        Intelligence is highly heritable. Average IQ of kids is roughly equal to average of; average of parents and population average. So can lift average IQ by about 1 standard deviation just by utilising the sperm of +4 s.d genius with women from general population, +2 s.d. if you also use harvested eggs from genius women. Rich families are already massively advantaged as their children get pick of mates (Attracted by money/power), and as a result can hold a 1-2 s.d average intelligence advantage over general population.

  3. Farris says

    Isn’t there currently a caste system where one’s victim hood score is subtracted by one’s privilege score to determine rank?

  4. Uomo Qualunque says

    The self-evident fact that our genes determine in large part our destiny is at odds with the modern dogmas of equality and self-determination; and when coupled with the science that points to biological differences between the races, it can lead to dangerous conclusions. But let’s not get into that…

    The kind of discrimination depicted in Gattaca will probably happen, but I think it’ll be restricted to a few jobs where there’s very little room for mistakes and the selection process is of the utmost importance. I can see it happening for astronauts, for example, or certain branches of the military and intelligence agencies. The average person will keep getting discriminated on the basis of sex, race, class, age and other things, but not the presence of a specific gene.

  5. Geary Johansen says

    If memory serves, I think Jordan Peterson stated that IQ accounts for 31% of lifetime outcomes and conscientiousness for 9%, so there is still 60% or so that is down to other factors. Besides which, I think part of the problem we are facing as Western societies, is down to placing too much emphasis on income as the primary source of status, when many more people could feel a great deal better about their lives if they were valued for the other things they do. Are you a good person? Are you kind and compassionate? Are you a law-abiding citizen? Do your friends and family know that you can be relied upon, regardless of circumstances? Do you help out whenever and wherever possible, in you local community? If the answer is yes to all or most of these questions and others, you should feel a whole lot better about yourself, than you probably do.

    But I think that there is also the case, that many of the nurturing systems that we have in society are broke and need fixing. In America, the Liberals are probably right about needing extra funding for the worst off schools, but there is also the fact that the latest cognitive science proves that the progressive education system is deeply flawed in it’s methodology. On the subject of which, Katherine Birbalsingh has done a new interview, on New Culture Forum, which I won’t link because I keep getting moderation, when I do. There is also the Criminal Justice System, and a highly informative talk by George L. Kelling, on the St. Olaf College YouTube channel, called Examining the ‘Broken Windows’ Theory, which is highly informative on what pro-active policing gets right, and when it can go wrong- which again, I will not link. Must go, we’re just off to walk the dog down the boat dyke. Probably come back to this later.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Geary Johansen

      “In America, the Liberals are probably right about needing extra funding for the worst off schools …”

      Extra funding for America’s worst-off schools is like giving foreign aid to Latin American governments for the benefit of their poorest citizens.

      Almost every dollar will be stolen or wasted.

      Likewise, throwing money at America’s worst-off schools will accomplish nothing, so long as public teachers unions and state officials with their hands out for endorsements and cash are in control of them.

      Not to mention the irredeemably indifferent parents of the students who suffer in those schools.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ Morgan

        I definitely agree with you point on rent-seeking bureaucracies. A recent video by Tim Poole @Timcast highlighting a California school, which wanted to paint over a mural- with the minimum estimate to cover it, coming in at a whopping $300K, because of the environmental impact study. So in a Two party system, the Democrats should get to set a minimum bar for educational funding, whilst the Republicans would get to audit all educational funding, with a line item veto, including a full audit of salaries, for anyone above the pay grade or rank of Principal- in order to recoup cost from this funding.

        But there is a larger issue of trust. From a narrative viewpoint, humans are far more productive, happy, healthy and likely to participate in society gainfully, when their perception is that the ‘game’ is fair. Social scientists have proven that inequality, not poverty, is the main driver of crime- and I believe this must be caused because of resentment over the belief that systems and processes are fundamentally unfair- why not cheat, if the game is rigged against you?

        This is also important to my point about ‘Broken Windows’. Pro-active policing can be an incredibly effective tool in reducing crime when it fixes problems. But, at it’s best, it relies on having the right partners in terms of community resources, social workers, mental health workers, housing officers, etc- and the police functioning as a big ‘or else’. As in go on this diversion program, or else. This may sound expensive, but it actually represents a huge tax saving when you look at the costs you save it other parts of the system, not to mention the benefits this adds to revenue from greater economic participation, communities feeling as though they are able to go out and shop or dine out and the cost of having to repair repeatedly damaged property.

        But as George L. Kelling states in his candid talk, ‘Broken Windows’ can be dreadful if it is implemented without the proper training to put solutions at the heart of the policy. Another speaker on the same channel, asserts that in many instances where ‘Broken Windows’ is used punitively, it can actually lead to increased risk of further criminalisation, as the already deep resentment that ‘at risk’ teens feel, is exacerbated by the belief that they are being unfairly singled out, just because they match the make-up of the local gang and happen to live in a high crime area.

        On the subject of indifferent parents I quite agree with you- in Britain this, along with the progressive education system’s de-emphasis of structured learning and low-level discipline enforcement, has led to a generation of young people who feel far more comfortable assaulting police officers when drunk, and, when taken together, are probably one of the main contributory factors to the knife crime epidemic. Yet only recently in the span of decades, a combination of pro-active policing, inter-agency co-operation and good community resourcing, took Glasgow from being the knife crime capital of Europe, to the whole of Scotland achieving the lowest violent crime stats in Europe- all without adding the structural costs of placing a significant portion of the population in prisons.

        It makes one weep to consider what could be achieved in America- if Democrats could put aside their deep-seated mistrust of ‘Broken Windows’ at it’s worst and Republicans could finally understand that the punitive approach just doesn’t work, unless it’s on the grounds of public safety. If you eliminate the proven huge savings to middle income America, the human costs are still staggering, in wasted and lost lives, unfulfilled potential and communities ever fearful of the knock on the door. But liberals will tell you that people have changed and conservatives will tell you that they need to keep you safe, and the quite voices urging that there is tried and tested way, will be drowned out in the cacophony of angrily voiced recriminations that don’t help anyone.

  6. Chase says

    “Which is not to deny that gene editing will confront society with unprecedented ethical dilemmas. A two caste Gattaca-like society is not out of the question, but only if we allow it to develop.”

    So ether we:

    A) Leave genetic engineering in the hands of private companies and let money decide who’s able to have superior offspring.

    B) We allow the government to decide who can and cannot get genetically engineering offspring and decide which genes we can modify.

    Either situation leads to inequality and war. You are also forgetting that we are social creatures and will follow trends within society. Everyone will want their baby to fit in and look the same, which is just an alternative form of eugenics. It will be easy for either the environment or biological terrorists to exploit those similarities within our population. Literally one plague could wipe out an entire continent of people.

    There is no good argument for genetic engineering besides parents being selfish and wanting to give their child an advantage over others. Child birth is one of those fundamental aspects of humanity which needs to be left sacred and untouched.

    • JWatts says

      “Either situation leads to inequality and war. ”

      Why would either lead to war. We leave food, housing, consumer goods, etc in the hands of private companies all the time. That doesn’t lead to war.

      And you are always going to have inequality. The Communists killed millions of people to eradicate inequality and their efforts failed. Some people will always be more successful than others. Others will be more lucky. That’s life.

      “There is no good argument for genetic engineering besides parents being selfish and wanting to give their child an advantage over others.”

      That’s a good enough argument to win the day. People care more about their children than they do strangers. They always will.

      • Chase says

        The difference is that current day inequality is able to be overcome through hard work and talent. Even though wealthier kids have much more opportunity and chances to get ahead, it doesn’t mean much if that rich kid has subpar genetics and are raised to be lazy. The poor, hardworking, talented kid will have a chance to surpass him.

        With genetic engineering, money will be the sole deciding factor as to whether or not your kid has more discipline, intelligence, physical strength, etc than all of the rest. This is on top of being born into a wealthier family with more connections and more opportunities. In other words, the poor will have no way to claw themselves out of their situation and the only their only way forward will be through war or leaving to another country.

        As far as the government regulating our genetics, I don’t see how that type of process wouldn’t eventually collapse. It’s too delicate of a situation to let “big brother” decide what goes into your child’s genetics. It would be like the anti-vax movement x 1,000,000. Our society would split between government made babies and natural ones.

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  8. Denny Sinnoh says

    Chinese bioengineers cloned female twins?

    If only China would see to it to flood the world with millions and millions of genetically engineered, cute, intelligent Asian girls.

    Oh yeah …

  9. Nakatomi Plaza says

    Leave it to the Quillette posters to fuck this up. Gattaca is fundamentally a conservative film about the power of the individual and the value of life, regardless of potential or economic value. Gattaca offers an escape from bureaucracy, discrimination, and oppression.

    Most of you were probably hoping Vincent got arrested and Irene died from a heart attack. Oh, and probably wondering how a black guy got to be doctor, right?

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ Nakatomi

      And there was me thinking it was about the individual’s triumph over adversity (and government).

      • Morgan Foster says

        @ Geary Johansen

        I thought it was about the power of the lower class (good) to prevail over the upper class (bad).

  10. jimhaz says

    I’m not bothered by this issue. Our limbic systems will always find ways to set up status hierarchies.

    Let’s do something about the rich getting richer and the rise of gated communities first!

  11. E Taph says

    Widespread genetic editing likely invoked an “ick” in the movie’s makers so instead of pondering an ‘unnatural’ route for humanity to take, they glossed over the one way to make our genetic predicament bearable, choosing to beat up a “determinist” strawman instead. Their perspective on genetics fits with reality about as well as their perspective on the rest of technology.

    Even if everything we did was a hundred percent pure expression of our genes, free will being an illusion, being able to physically edit our code in a safe manner(even already existing techniques like PGA-guided IVF) would still render biological determinism a non-question.
    And those people who can’t separate the ‘is’ from ‘oughts’ are effectively fighting on determinism’s side here, nature’s right to stomp its boot in mankind’s face, one generation at a time.

    But Niccol’s next movie is somehow even shallower – “In Time”, an exploration of how a future society could’ve abolished aging and death across the entire population, but instead, for some reason, chose to serve as a pulled by the ears anti-capitalist aesop for a hack movie director from New Zealand.

  12. Photondancer says

    The author must not have read any anthropology if he’s puzzled by a society that has an illogical and contradictory class structure.

  13. Max York says

    If and when eugenics becomes operational, cost factors will rule out its use in the case of selecting most births, at least for a long time to come. In the meantime, the fight will be over who gets to be tested for superior traits. Those with the right political or financial assets will get first dibs on participation, namely the same people who get the upper hand in life already. What practical purpose will there be in the capability to make super-babies, when in the dystopian future to come, AI and robotics will fill most jobs and there is a new super-class called the Unemployed? An unemployed class of super-geniuses will be a source of great political instability. A more likely application for a Gattaca-style investigation of genetic background is the identification of people with anti-social or even criminal histories of their own or in their family tree, with an eye to eradicating the people having genetic traits thought to be responsible for such behavior.

    • JWatts says

      “In the meantime, the fight will be over who gets to be tested for superior traits. Those with the right political or financial assets will get first dibs on participation,”

      My wife ordered a full DNA test for a couple of 100 bucks. Down from a $1,000 two years ago. It won’t take long before testing for superior traits cost about what an annual flu shot does.

      “when in the dystopian future to come, AI and robotics will fill most jobs and there is a new super-class called the Unemployed?”

      And the Unemployed will no doubt benefit from the massive amount of consumer goods and services that will all be essentially free. You do realize that in a world with “free” skilled labor, then almost all the output of skilled labor will be free, right?

      • Stoic Realist says


        “You do realize that in a world with “free” skilled labor, then almost all the output of skilled labor will be free, right?”

        It is unwise to underestimate the greed of the average corporate executive. The price of a product was disentangled from its cost a long time ago in many industries. The pharmaceutical industry is one easy example. You should not expect the cost savings in production to be so directly passed to the consumer though they like to claim that it will.

    • david says

      Ive always imagined the future would have lots of humans indoors working on coding and programming. An unintelligent super class may not fare well as programmers. Just my thought experiment tho

  14. Steve says

    Sounds like an updated “Brave New World.”

  15. david says

    “It’s entirely possible that while initial access to genome engineering will be restricted to the super rich, government subsidies could eventually make it universally accessible.” Is it government subsidies that made the car, plane, radio, tv, telephone and cell phone available to the average person? New tech always starts out expensive and the market eventually drives down the price 😉

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