Genes aren’t scary

Is GATTACA a “don’t meddle” story? Strap on the gloves and check it out with me.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is a really soft science fiction story, with almost no fictionally-advanced technology. The primary tech is sequencing, which identifies the list of nucleotides, in order, along a DNA molecule, or RNA for that matter. The real-world Human Genome Project began in 1990 with the goal to map the genome, which focuses on what the various versions of known genes do and where they are, but it was transformed into the more complete and doable but less informative sequencing project. We talk about it being completed in 2003, but that’s for a very limited sample of the general population, and concerns almost no information about the genes as such. It did sharply revise the estimated number of human genes down to somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000.

Let’s do some quick genetic terminology to nail down what sequencing does.

  • Physically, a gene is a small strip of DNA composed of several hundred nucleotides, of which there are only four, so what matters is their exact order (“sequence”).
  • Functionally, a gene either provides the template for the production of RNA, itself the template for a given protein (always the same one), or interacts with some other part of the genome relative to a protein being made.

The term “genetic code” refers specifically and only to the translation of RNA nucleotide sequences into proteins’ amino acid sequences. Although this step is indeed crucial to the production of a phenotype, the term does not refer to the determination of traits due to genetic information, at least not in a blueprint-y or 1:1 way. Nor does it refer to a prediction or determinant regarding the outcome of events in an individual’s life. The ordinary connotation that a code must be hiding a secret does not apply.

Most crucially, I hope you see that genes don’t each individually “do a thing” in terms of anatomical or physiological function. As I described in We are, in fact, Devo, they typically operate in cascades, which is to say, multi-step multi-gene effects spread through a specific portion of developmental time. These cascading effects are how “things” are “done” or at least their foundations laid down, i.e., why you are a human and not a raccoon. For a single gene’s effect, we talk about penetrance – how much of its allelic variation actually produces phenotypic variation in the real world, across individuals. Students addled by years of AA/Aa = purple and aa = white are often shocked to learn that typical penetrance is way lower than they think. This is because a cascade is riddled with redundancy and as a whole tends to buffer the effect of any single gene’s allelic variation. (more on that “allele” word in a minute)

Genes with very, very high penetrance (i) are rare, (ii) affect very simple traits that are pretty much that one protein as opposed to an organ, and (iii) typically include a range of drastically dysfunctional or neutral effects. (One important exception is the MHC complex, about which more later, in another post.) The fact that these are the easiest genes to study is on the one hand, good for dealing with certain medical problems due to them, but on the other, a disaster for the conceptual framing needed to study every other, vastly more common gene that might be involved in ordinary anatomy, physiology, behavior, and their non-pathological and non-neutral variations.

Sequencing swathes of DNA does not by itself indicate which genes are active or suppressed in the working tissue, what a given gene’s penetrance may be (on average and in terms of range), how the cascade this gene is involved with actually influences the trait, how the cascade’s activity is regulated, or even which parts of the DNA are gene and which are intron. All such information is subject to later investigation.

One may well ask, how are individual people genetically different from one another? Two huge concepts: first, that the number of genes involved in such differences are quite few. Mostly, we’re pretty much the same genetic person. Second, that a given single gene may display, across the population, one, two, three … (fill in) … to over a hundred available alleles, or distinctive sequences. For most of your genes, you personally get two alleles each out of however many that gene “has” across the whole population. Now you can see that there’s at least some interesting diversity to talk about. For some more stuff about this, please check out this genetic re-orientation when you get the chance.

In GATTACA, the implied technological changes include (i) completing the HGP, as did happen in reality a few years after the film’s release; and (ii) extending the project’s data collection to a much broader range across the population and therefore learning more about the allelic range for each gene.

One piece of relevant real-world technology that’s emerged since the film came out is the RNA microarray, a way to display the RNA content of a given set of tissue, which strongly implies which proteins are currently being synthesized in that tissue. It’s still not a magic detecto-device to learn what the DNA in those cells is actually doing in physiological or developmental terms, but it does narrow the field to indicate which genes’ activity to examine.

However, what really matters in the story concerns less about technology than policy. Specifically, running historical correlations among individual allelic profiles and a wide variety of medical and psychological conditions. The elites therefore treat specific allele combinations as predictions for a given person’s professional potential. It’s plain and simple actuary work, exactly as insurance companies do today, with all the usual problems with correlation/causation and with individual/trend interpretations. These problems are crucial in the story – they are why the policy has become discriminatory.

On paper, there are laws against genetic discrimination, but apparently the business world has found ways to dodge their enforcement by claiming they’re “just” being realistic. Stick with me here: going by the film’s main text, it’s not the tech which is evil and spawns evil in spite of good intentions, but instead familiar and real social behavior which gloms onto this tech just like it’s glommed onto anything which can be exploited and discriminated against throughout human history. There are two types.

The first concerns how discrimination is officialized and institutionalized. This type of evil is also prone to counting and measuring in such a way that no actual real thing is assessed, because when reality fails to behave, the responsible person can blithely point to the summary statistics and say “But but the numbers said so, what else could I have done.”

Wicked mad scientist? No, just a bigot – and your boss.

Drive this into your brain: people can make an ethnicity out of anything. The elites in the film believe that their actuarial calculations have sufficiently captured predictable reality, simply because the calculations can be done. The last thing they’d ever do is actually test these beliefs, and instead they make their measurements ever more frequent, more elaborate, and more punitive based on the outcomes. They use perceptual blinders to justify the identification as “obviously” physiological and “obviously” consistent. Passing – the primary situation of the film – is all about gaming these blinders: altering one’s semiotic appearance, substituting records, colluding with an elite individual, adopting associated behaviors, avoiding conflicts, and brazening out suspicion.

The other kind isn’t ipso facto evil, but it generates moral and political conflicts in which labeling others as evil is practically guaranteed. The broad issue is assigning literal quantitative and consequential value to human beings, and I’ll start by saying that we, and you, do this every day. Note that the word “discriminate” has two meanings, and people value the good one as much as they decry the bad one, without realizing that it’s really the same behavior. The problems in the film dramatize this precise bit of personal cognitive dissonance.

One of them is parental power over an offspring’s life, as in the story, apparently “parents’ rights” have prevailed concerning the genetic composition and fate of potential offspring. This content does rely on a bit more SF, as technologically, the film’s version of engineering the genome of a single early embryo is beyond the bounds of current hypothetical applications. Modern understanding suggests that the closest we could get is generating multiple zygotes via fertility technology, then assessing the gene sequences and choosing the most-desired combination. The policy, however, isn’t fictional, specifically the policy which permits exercising the range of individual ethics. We already permit parents to identify disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome in pre-implantation zygotes, and to consider whether to terminate such zygotes. Now, chromosomally, this is a nigh-determinant macro-chromosomal feature; the breakage and re-fusion of chromosome 21 associated with Down’s Syndrome is much more drastic than a single-gene, allelic effect. The question is whether the same policy is applicable for parents regarding correlation-based estimates of reproductive and professional advantage. Would it be that socially difficult for them to tag allele combinations which “score low” on the average … pathological? If you get squicked at that possibility – as I do – then we really need to examine what boundary just got crossed. It’s not “obvious.”

The other film-relevant version is mate choice, or less technically, whom you’re gonna have sex with, with the subordinate topics of how it’s framed in social status and associations. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the very act of finding one or another person more attractive than others is not too far from small-scale, ethics-level eugenics in itself. Is the singles-bar activity in the story – comparing genetic profiles as a dating/pickup device – any different from real-life dating/pickup behavior, concerning ordinary variables like income and health? Bluntly, no it’s not. What’s wrong with it, if anything, is a matter for reflection, not on “oh no they’re using genetic information,” but on the behavior. Again, this concerns the relation of observed trends to the specific and individual human you happen to be looking at and talking to, and how the former easily replace the latter in our minds.

So far, so good! We’re looking at classically excellent social science fiction, in which the fantastic element (in this case, “the day after tomorrow” technology) highlights and exacerbates real-world, known problems that we have as people – moral, political, and emotional. We don’t currently have certain tech innovations as they appear in the film, and as the future unfolds we may never actually have them exactly as depicted – but the point is not the problems such tech will bring, but the problems we already have, without it. All to the better that, although one of the “bad guy” behaviors is something I do think is bad, a couple of them are too close to home to call “bad” even though I dislike them in the film. Thus it forces reflection about what I dislike, not upon the tech, but upon how I myself think and value things.

That’s not a “don’t meddle” story at all. The essence of “don’t meddle” is that the tech will bring doom upon us, because it’s wrong and should not be done, and as a wrong thing, it can only bring doom. In such a story, if no one did that (and the “good characters” know it shouldn’t be done, a priori), then everything would be fine. Whereas here, instead of an accusation against a foreign-scary thing, there’s a forced reflection upon one’s own views and self-image, emerging directly from the characters’ problems, decisions, and outcomes.

So far so good. But then Jerome says …

All right, my eyes narrow, but this can be seen without mysticism. “Fate” can simply mean an outcome, and that single-gene sequences cannot be predictors for individual outcomes – yes, double yes in fact. It’s the same insight as noting that a man sees his car insurance premiums increase at age 25 regardless of his driving record, which is, yes, unfair and aggravating – and when elevated to employment and other discrimination as in the film, a form of oppression.

However, if you start in with “fate” as external intention or moral purpose for the outcome of one’s life, the idea that your life is a story, then not only is this merely a mystical concept but it also renders the sentence itself bizarre – so, there’s no gene for the outcome of my life, but since it’s written by some other mystic entity (like your “will” or your “dream”), that’s OK then? Or written by some more general life-outcome plan intended for you by the cosmos (the frequent reading of “fate”), that’s OK then?

Now we’re talking raw mysticism. Who said anything about spirit? This isn’t about biochemistry of living systems and units of heredity, this is using the word “gene” to mean essence, irreducible nuggets of pure being. The biological word profoundly does not mean this, and in the film, this sort of talk is explicitly the rhetoric of bigotry and pigheaded privilege. Crucially, this particular phrase is not dialogue but a tagline, meaning that the actual film is being sabotaged by its marketing strategy.

So far, these are single phrases, not too bad … and then comes the disaster: actual characters and actions straight from the “science/bio is stupid ’cause the spirit” file. You know I’m talking about the whole my-annoying-brother subplot which ranks among the most manipulative scripting I’ve seen.

Nonsense. If that were the case, bunky, you’d be dead by drowning. Either you had more reserves of strength than you’d been told you had (which makes perfect sense with everything else in the film), or you were imbued with mystic force by the intensity of your desires. Which one are you saying? And if the latter, that your brother isn’t attuned to the same mystic force because something-or-other?

Again: the film is great insofar as it pegs privilege with the power of prejudice and discrimination, particularly on the basis of anything that privilege can seize upon. It nails that measuring things which don’t necessarily indicate anything serves privilege best. It’s even better insofar as it forces reflection upon behaviors many of us think are pretty reasonable or morally acceptable. It also nails the fact that group trends are not individual determinants, something you can learn in any first-year statistics course but which, or rather, misunderstanding which, continues to dog personal ethics and public policy to their shame.

But it looks like some sabotage crept in, and unfortunately successfully. When you get going with this human spirit and anything is possible inspirational wall poster crap, you’re not talking about the story any more. You’re talking about something immensely marketable, the “screw your science” don’t-meddle story. It’s the perfect blend of science as a moral threat + reassurance via down-home “ordinary folks” spirit-talk which is so explicit in so many stories. And that’s what you’ll find with a quick web search too, dozens of repeats of that “never saved anything for the swim back” line, enhanced with soothing and glowy backgrounds.

Which one, then, is GATTACA? The text or the meme?

Next: Death: how and why



8 thoughts on “Genes aren’t scary

  1. Ian Hacking’s very fine book The Taming of Chance covers the epistemological maneuvers that happened with the development of statistical techniques. It explains the institutional practices of the present that get projected into the Gattaca future:

    “The elites therefore treat specific allele combinations as predictions for a given person’s professional potential … , exactly as insurance companies do today, with all the usual problems with correlation/causation and with individual/trend interpretations. ”

    Hacking describes how the discoveries of chance and statistical patterns became reinscribed into social discourse as a new kind of fatalism. And you can see his point when you look at the Naturalistic stories & dramas of the late 19th century.

    The social statistics demonstrate such and such a percentage of Parisian citizens will commit suicide every year, with some variation from year to year. This situation becomes rewritten with the “The Law of Suicide” or the “Trend for Suicide” treated as some sort of agent looking to bear down on a victim. A novelist describing the suicide treats the trend as an environment which causes the actions of that person. A depressed character at the centre of the narrative wonders if the trend is coming to get them as if it were the angel of death or fate.

    The problem of mushing correlation into causation, or the downward conflation of mass trends into the situation of particular individuals is more than a category mistake. It becomes regularized. It provides principles for generating schemata for the sorting and handling of individuals by institutions. And for guiding individuals’ expectations of each other.



    • It’s related to the fascination with the word “predict,” which has no strong position in the world of inferential statistics, and which adds nothing technical to any discussion of numbers as meaningful argument. I haven’t yet seen a scientific paper or teaching exercise that wasn’t improved by taking out that word and replacing it with plain language. However, I cannot convince anyone to scrub it from the teaching or the writing.

      Related as well to the crucial yet neglected testing of a correlation, such that you can have high correlation with low p value, or pretty low correlation with high p value (very common in biology). That goes even so much more for regression lines’ slopes …

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I admit to be a huge fan of Gattaca. I find it moving and inspiring. So my viewpoint might be _slightly_ partial. Be advised.

    Ron I read the article and I have to say that it is an interesting analysis of the movie, going under the surface to dissect the deeper elements of the story.
    Very accurate, very interesting, and I completely agree with it… except for the end.

    Somehow the article takes a weird turn when a couple of catchphrases are given, in my opinion, a twisted meaning. And it is even weirder because you first read them in the most obvious and clear way, which incidentally is perfectly coherent with the rest of the movie and reinforces its message… but then you add a second (mis) interpretation that contradicts the whole movie and, pretty obviously, offends you.


    “There is no gene for fate”

    Double yes.
    I agree.
    After a whole movie where genes have been presented as THE single and oppressive source of “fate” (a pre-set outcome of my life, independent of my actions and choices, or the very cause of my action and choices, which makes them not my own) the incriminated quote to me sounds much more like an affirmation of self determination than an inexplicable and sudden mystical crisis.

    And then…
    “I never saved anything for the swim back”
    “If that were the case, bunky, you’d be dead by drowning”

    Seriously? 🙂
    This looks like a comment that Sheldon Cooper might offer, taking a metaphor in a very literal sense, thus misunderstanding it.

    Only, you DON’T misunderstand it.
    Vincent had more reserves of strength than anyone told him he had.
    HE did not know.
    But he CHOSE to take a RISK for something he cared, instead of accepting the PERCEIVED limits that everyone else lived by.

    To me this is the only meaning of the (in)famous quote.
    And no, it is not some sort of kumbaya hymn to the “human spirit” that wins over the big bad oppressive (and wrong) science.
    I really don’t see any “screw your science” moment here.

    There is, yes, an epic “screw your preconceptions” message here… but the science is never questioned… the sequencing proven to be correct in many moments of the story; we see that:
    – Jerome HAS a heart condition
    – Jerome IS too short
    – Jerome LACKS eyesight
    – etc

    Science is never questioned in the movie.
    Human behaviour is, the complacent ignorance of the people accepting statistical data as absolute truth. You said it yourself in the first part of the article: the elite seems to fail at grasping “the usual problems with correlation/causation and with individual/trend interpretations”.

    People that MISUSE science as an excuse to justify (and elevate to system) bigotry and unfairness.
    This is the target of the metaphorical, somewhat poetic and (for me) awe inspiring middle finger represented by Vincent’s words.
    Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can not do, there is no fate, statistics don’t work on the individual.
    And also: meaningful action is risky.
    Maybe just the risk of acting outside of your usual comfort zone, like Irene does by siding with Vincent

    Jerome’s brother (and with him, the rest of society) misunderstand gene sequencing as a mystical oracle of what is possible for them.
    THEY treat science as mystical mumbo jumbo, and to THEM Vincent says “screw you”.

    At least, this is how I always understood the movie.

    – – –

    About the memes… who cares? 🙂
    I can see how the “spirit talk” lovers would jump on this movie and take away a totally mixed up message from it… carve out words out of context and spin them as a pretty self motivational tune.

    But it’s like when someone posts a horrible and outlandish statement in order to actually criticize its content through irony… and someone fails to understand this and honestly answers in support to that horrible statement.
    What can you do about it?
    Let them, and laugh 😛


    • I don’t think we’re disagreeing about the film as text, or not about much. Our views differ regarding the viewer response that you consider trivial, and I consider to be serious business.

      I could have spent 25 years fulfilling the letter of my job description, robotically repeating the standard biology textbooks to halls of bored students, grading them on their ability to repeat it by rote. Instead, I devoted myself to learning what the students brought with them, what they thought the world around them was “obviously” telling them via what they thought was real observation and thinking. What you read me criticizing is what they brought with them from Gattaca. I’m not disrespecting one of your favorite films by describing in detail how and why they received this content from that source.

      If my only concern were my own head and a circle of close acquaintances who (of course) offer no point of view likely to challenge my own, then I could indeed “let them, and laugh.” My concern has been different, and therefore here, my goal is not only to jar, but to reach a person who’s uncritically holding this point of view. Since you don’t hold it, you aren’t in that particular targeted sector … but maybe I can show you that this distinction in the readings of the film (yours & mine vs. the “glowy spiritual light”) is worth standing up and talking about. Not pointing and laughing, but speaking with sense and understanding to that other person – who is not stupid, merely having taken a particular and easily-reached mental pathway – and, as I often succeeded in doing, helping them find another.

      Anyone can feel superior about another person’s mistaken constructs. I think it’s incumbent on us to do better than that.


  3. Also: brilliant coup of Vidal as the director. He’s someone like Lewis Lapham: born into the charmed circle of the elites and completely disenchanted by them.


  4. On the G+ post share, a reader asked:
    How do you pronounce “allele”? 😉 I still don’t get what an allele is.
    Well I want to know more about cascades and what is the link between genes and phenotypes, but I should read ” We are, in fact, Devo” before asking any questions about that.
    Oh, and the genetic re-orientation.
    Wot’s an intron?

    I replied,
    Allele” = uh-leel – sort of like Jakaleel the Spindle Hag in the Lunar pantheon (Glorantha).
    I was kinda hoping the reorientation file would help with what an allele is, but to try again, a given gene features more than one version of its activity, out there among the species in question. Thus you and I have the same genes (yes!) but differ in regard to a few of them, probably not more than a couple hundred, concerning which exact alleles they happen to be. (The fact that each of us has two alleles per gene instead of one is also confusing – just bear in mind that makes us more funky-diverse in this way, but this way is still limited to not too many genes in total.)
    Cascades and genes/phenotype are definitely in that development post.
    An intron is a sector of the chromosomal DNA which doesn’t make RNA (i.e. lead to making a protein). Whether it actually does anything at all is a matter for debate, but whatever that may be, an intron is not a gene. So you can sequence the DNA and tons of that material is non-genetic repeats like TTATTATTATTA until you scream and die of boredom.

    He also asked,
    Left-field question: how much of personality and mental/cognitive character/ability is strictly genetic (heritable), and how much is due to developmental conditions: from parental nutrition, stress, etc. before birth, to parenting, stresses, common activities, peers and socialization after birth? Sidestepping mental illness, if someone is a genius, an asshole, a sociopath, creative, artistic, analytical, frenetic or pacific, trusting or inquisitive, cerebral or physical, what fraction of these traits is learned/developed, and what is inherited?

    I replied,
    See, killing that question dead with a stick is part of what I’m doing here. The dichotomy you’re invoking (however you want to split it) simply doesn’t exist. It’s reeeeal hard to get people out of thinking that “genetic” means (i) not affected in any way via development and (ii) consistent across individuals, and (iii) invariant in effect.
    The only features for which the exact genetic content is traceable to a specific physical piece of biological activity are single-protein traits like your MHC recognition functions, or a few pathologies like phenylketonuria or sickle-cell or hemophilia. Everything else is in a cascade; in fact, the latter two and others like them are in cascades too, they’re just pretty consequential therein.
    The big hump to get over is that the word “genetic” is not limited to parsing absolute and fixed differences among indviduals. The most developmentally-influenced, epigenetic, environmental (if you will) phenomena about us are all STILL GENETIC insofar as our genes in action result in a human and not in a raccoon or a slime mold.
    Fingerprints. The individual “stamp” of your fingerprints tracks to no specific genetic instruction, distinguishable from another person’s, at all. But you have human fingers with human fingerprints in a certain recognizable range of variation, and that’s because human-esque genes were doing their thing as you were developing.
    Same thing with what you’re talking about. No evidence currently suggests that personality metrics or “mental/cognitive” ability track to specific differences in genetic instructions. NONE. As I’ve mentioned at the comics blog, The Bell Curve is a piece of racist shit that no actual biologist or statistician had anything to do with, nor will. However, thinking like a human, interpreting experiences like a human does, and doing things in the range and particular idiom of what humans do, is all because human-esque genes were doing their thing as you were developing. It ends up as a “you” in terms of personality and various competencies, sure, just like your fingertips ended up with fingerprints due to whatever stochastic causes came along in the relevant moments.
    Final nail-down: many biologists do not think the word “intelligence” means a real thing. We use it at most to denote species differences in cognitive “space” which are astronomically more extreme than anything observed among individuals in the same species.

    He responded,
    Left-field: WOW. So, to take an extreme example, genetically identical people can have completely different characters and abilities, based on differences in their environments and stimuli while developing? And by “completely different” I don’t mean like “gee, Jamie likes gaming and their fraternal twin doesn’t,” I mean like total opposites, introvert vs. the best salesperson ever, high delayed gratification vs. none, self-possessed vs. completely temperamental, etc.

    I replied,
    A little too much specific prediction on your part, but the current model leans in that direction, rather than the “same genes same guy” direction.
    This is going to come up in another post soon, but briefly, two mental actions are going on here. Neither is “first” or “second,” they happen together, but they are different things.
    Induction is making a model (“rule,” “law” in previous vocabulary) based on what you observe. Deduction is using the model to speculate about things you haven’t observed yet or in a relevant way.
    You can jar the model by EITHER observing something totally whacked (according to the model) OR by seeking out situations to observe that the model itself suggests are exceptional or which it intrinsically cannot account for.
    Right now, we have NEITHER whacked observations (OMG all people with ABC genetic instructions are good at violin or whatever) NOR prior plausibility (the name of the second thing) which suggest that allelic differences = personality/etc.

    Which fortunately brought this reply:
    Makes sense, thanks. This is great, I’m filling in the gaps of what I missed by taking the physics fork :)


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