Requiem for the Mad Scientist

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Nov. 20 1997 3:30 AM

Requiem for the Mad Scientist

In books and movies, geneticists are no longer deranged. They are ethical.

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The National Institutes of Health happened to be hosting a gene-therapy conference last month when the makers of the film Gattaca launched their ad campaign. Gattaca's premise is the creation, in the not-so-distant future, of a genetic elite whose DNA has been rejiggered at the embryo stage to eliminate dispositions to such traits as premature baldness and attention-deficit disorder while heightening cheekbones and IQs. The newspaper ads for the film featured a mock promotion for a biotech company that offered prospective parents "children made to order." At the NIH conference, gene therapists reported that after seven years of trying to insert DNA into the cells of the genetically sick, not a single cure had been reported. Considering the difficulty of such relatively simple procedures as these, the world of Gattaca seems a distant nightmare. "There's not a chance in hell," said a conference participant, geneticist Huntington Willard of Case Western Reserve University, "that you could recombine all those genes and get a desired effect."

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Still, Francis Collins, the guru of the Human Genome Project at NIH, which is sequencing and identifying all human genes, was intrigued enough to see Gattaca twice, the second time leading a matinee field trip of 60 NIH scientists and staff. Collins, a Christian in the C.S. Lewis mold, broods about the ethical reverberations of genetics quite a bit these days. What he worries about most is genetic redlining, where claims adjusters use tests, which he has helped develop for heritable illnesses, to deny Americans their health insurance. What fascinates and horrifies artists, on the other hand, is the impression that geneticists have more creative power than artists. (Ian Willmut, the Scotsman who cloned Dolly, would seem to be a guy whose work has really come alive.) In Gattaca, as well as in lots of other recent films and books, artists have dreamed up complex nightmares of genetic determinism, where characters are mere puppets of their DNA scripts or of the scientists and profit seekers who manipulate them.

T he wellspring of these works is H.G. Wells'The Island of Dr. Moreau. In this 1896 novel, a vivisectionist attempts to transform animals into men until the misshapen creatures revert and kill him, the forces of nature overcoming man's civilizing artifices. From The Boys From Brazil (Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele, alive and well and cloning Hitlers at a secret lab in the Brazilian Amazon) to Jurassic Park (Richard Attenborough alive and well and cloning velociraptors), Wells' basic formula has become familiar: an island; a Frankensteinian experiment; a Faustian scientist; something gone terribly, terribly wrong.

But something else has gone terribly wrong since H.G. Wells' time. In the new genetic thriller, the scientist is no longer mad, because he has no illusions of mastery. Instead, he's a lone and often belated moralist, eaten up with remorse and anxiety, pushed into unsavory experimentation less by runaway curiosity than by unscrupulous corporate overlords. Genetic manipulation is a given. The yucky thing is the profit motive. And the mistreatment of lab animals.

In Gattaca, the victim is Vincent Freeman (played by Ethan Hawke), a "faith birth" whose parents didn't tamper with his embryonic DNA. Because baby Vincent's instant genome readout indicated a weak heart and a life expectancy of 30.2 years, he finds as an adult that nobody will hire him, particularly not at the space agency. The hero, in a sense, is the company doctor, who helps Vincent realize his dreams of becoming an astronaut in order to spite the biotech-state (the doctor's own eugenically planned son "didn't turn out the way they promised").

Or consider Robin Cook's thriller Chromosome 6. Molecular biologist Kevin Marshall works at a secret lab in Africa (shades of Moreau) fiddling with the DNA of apes to render their organs immunologically fit for transplanting into rich Americans. One day Marshall notices smoke rising from the island on which the organ-harvested apes are warehoused. Arriving to investigate, he finds them standing around a campfire, chatting. It seems that he has inadvertently re-created the missing link.

So what does Kevin do? Resign and register his ethical concerns with the NIH? Write up his results for publication in Nature? Order his broker to buy biotech? In the end, his nostalgia for fuzzy critters results in an act of defiance against his corporate boss: He throws biotech and science to the wind and helps the man-apes flee into the wilderness.

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T he misgivings of scientists are particularly shrill in Frameshift, by Canadian sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer. It's a purple premise: The Treblinka death-camp guard Ivan the Terrible has adopted a new identity in California as the chief actuary for a health-insurance company. When a French-Canadian scientist working in the genome project at Berkeley stumbles onto a series of murders in which Ivan is implicated, he thinks he's found a neo-Nazi plot to eliminate the genetically challenged. But it turns out Ivan's goals are more banal: His company is bumping off clients whose genetic profiles indicate big future medical bills.

In Gattaca and elsewhere, genetic enhancement is harnessed to profit, reflecting capitalism's relentless remaking of the world in search of efficiency. This can backfire alarmingly, as in Nancy Kress' 1991 novel, Beggars in Spain. In it, genetic engineers adhering to an Ayn Rand-like philosophy called "Yagaism" create a race of people who don't need to sleep. The genetically altered kids are exceedingly bright, ambitious, and nerdy, as if cloned from Bill Gates, and grow up believing that a person's only value is what he or she produces. Eventually, this race of supergeeks becomes so thoroughly eugenicist that it turns on its makers.

In Dr. Moreau, it's the monsters who force the moral issues. They're sloppy, imperfect products, trying desperately to live up to an ideal of progress. "Are we not men?" they plaintively ask. Their struggle underscores Moreau's spiritual poverty and capacity for mischief. "To this day I have never troubled about the ethics," he says of his work. In the new genetic thrillers, it's the scientist who makes a last-ditch stand against an irresponsible society--reflecting a role for scientists as the defenders of ethical principles that were born at the Nazi doctor trials at Nuremberg and endured through the Cold War.

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