We used to think that our fate was in the stars. Now we know in large measure, our fate is in our genes.
When the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the DNA double helix James Watson made his famous statement in 1989, he was implying that access to a person’s genetic code allows you to predict the outcome of their life.
The troubling implications were not lost on people, of course. A few years later they were explored in the American film Gattaca, which depicted a civilisation from the near future that had embraced this kind of genetic determinism. It was a world in which most people are conceived in test tubes, and taken to term only if they passed genetic tests designed to prevent them from inheriting imperfections ranging from baldness to serious genetic diseases.
With these so-called “valids” – the dominant majority – the film was a warning about the dangers in our technological advancement. As it turns out, we were probably being optimistic about the potential of genetics. Yet too few people seem to have got that message, and this kind of mistaken thinking about the links between genes and traits is having unsettling consequences of its own.
What we now know