Over the past 100 years, films have simultaneously mistrusted and marveled in the possibility of genomic improvement
By David A. Kirby | February 9, 2007
"The very essence of the devil is no more than a tiresome collection of genes." So claims Dr. Moreau in the 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. With his white muumuu, rosemary-like beaded necklace and domed "Pope-mobile," Marlon Brando's Moreau suggests the image of a secular priest worshipping at a genetic altar.
Over the last one hundred years, each new generation of filmmakers has confronted contemporary social concerns about the manipulation of human heredity. Despite recent scientific advances, science fiction films from most decades, including The Island of Dr. Moreau, have surprisingly utilized the same themes and visual motifs in their representations of human heredity and genomic modification: Our genes encode both the dark and delightful sides of human nature, and any steps towards genomic improvement should inspire both wonder and wariness.
From its earliest days, science fiction films implicitly accepted notions that human nature, both good and bad, was deeply embedded within our genome. Humanity's struggle with "bestial" elements of heredity is a core theme in science fiction cinema. The animalistic "human ape" is a constant visual motif from early comedies such as Reversing Darwin's Theory (1908) to post-Scopes trial mad evolutionist films like Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), all the way to the zombies infected with "rage" genes in 28 Days Later (2003). The quality of the makeup may significantly differ between the B-movie She Demons (1958) and the major studio-produced Wolf (1994), but each film's visuals are symbolic reminders of humanity's animal taint. Despite their acceptance that human heredity is inherently flawed, however, these same films condemn any attempts to correct these flaws. What is meant to be a genetic transformation from "human ape" to "human being" is often graphically portrayed as a change from man to monster as in Hulk (2003).
Not every film depicts our genome as defective; many science fiction films instead find the human genome to be serviceable but harboring untapped "evolutionary potential." Films from Life Without a Soul (1916) to Spider-Man (2002) feature scientists who want to turn ordinary Homo sapiens into the highly evolved Homo superior. "Perfection" through genomic manipulation is possible, but highly undesirable. Films like Homunculus (1916) and GATTACA (1997) depict a different kind of monster: physically and intellectually perfect individuals whose perfection robs them of their connection to the rest of humanity. Homunculus's dark style of dress, his emotionless demeanor, and the film's antiseptic sets convey the same sense of spiritual deficiency as the genomically enhanced characters and stainless steel sets in GATTACA.
The question is: Why do science fiction films simultaneously acknowledge the possibility of genomic improvement but consider it morally problematic? In their groundbreaking work on genetics in popular culture, Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee found that geneticists often endow DNA with a nearly spiritual importance. Even geneticists' own language -- describing the human genome as the "Book of Man," the "essence of life" or the "Holy Grail" -- plays directly into popular belief in the sanctity of the human genome. This spiritual language about the human genome helps fuel the anti-technology aspects of human gene manipulation in science fiction cinema: How can scientists consider our genome humanity's "soul," and then commit sacrilege by manipulating a "holy object?"
As evidenced by the persistence of these themes over the last century, our beliefs and concerns about human heredity remain the same in the post-Human Genome Project age as they were before the rediscovery of Mendel. With each new scientific discovery about the nature of human heredity, filmmakers dusted off these themes and dressed them up with new graphical technologies. Ultimately, society, as reflected in science fiction cinema, retains the conviction that our fate is in our DNA -- and, as movies often show us, messing with fate can have disastrous consequences.
David A. Kirby was a practicing molecular evolutionary geneticist before leaving bench science to become Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Manchester. Several of his publications address the relationship between fictional media, genetics and biotechnology. He is also exploring the collaboration between scientists and the entertainment industry in making fictional films.
David A. Kirby
Links within this article:
The Island of Dr. Moreau
Reversing Darwin's Theory
Murders in the Rue Morgue
28 Days Later
JK Jackson, "Mothering the monsters," The Scientist, September 1, 2006.
Life Without Soul
Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee, The DNA Mystique (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1995).
S. Brenner, "Genomics: Hunting the metaphor," Science, February 16, 2001.
LH Gresh and Robert Weinberg, "It's life science, Mr. Bond," The Scientist, September 8, 2006.