Sunday, February 24, 2008


I went down to the TV room last night to get away from my thesis. Intended on switching back and forth between the #1 v. #2 Memphis-Tennessee game and whatever else is on. But despite my newfangled interest in the Boston Celtics and therefore the NBA, I still can't get interested in college hoops, even on a high level like that game or on personal level -- the Huskers won a big road game in the afternoon, but I couldn't maintain interest in the contest itself. So I ended up watching most of the Klitschko fight on HBO out of the curiosity of having not seen a live heavyweight fight since boxing committed commercial suicide and put everything on PPV. Then a bunch of folks came down to watch Gattaca.

I stayed; I'd never managed to see it before. Pretty good.

It's funny to me that MIT people love this film. It's great sci-fi, which gives it a leg up on everything else. But like a lot of the genre, it's also vaguely anti-science. Remember the tagline: "There is no gene for the human spirit."

One reason for the love is that MIT militantly self-identifies as a meritocracy. And so Gattaca, where your particular breeding spells our your lot in life, is the future extension of Harvard, which a lot of MIT folks see as a birthright or legacy sort of place. But Gattaca's selectivity is an elaboration of the same kind of health science NASA uses to select astronauts: you don't want somebody with a chance of heart problems go into space, as Ethan Hawke's character wants to.

In that sense, Gattaca is the grandparent of the same kind of troubled conscience that exists today about looking at the genetic difference between "races" -- science is inadvertently going to tell us things we don't want to hear, or make it possible to justify segregation or discrimination on the basis of genetics.

"There is no gene for the human spirit" leads to Stephen Jay Gould's compromise, that religion/spirituality/romanticism and science occupy "non-overlapping magesteria." That's a fancy way of saying they answer different questions. But the human spirit or the soul or consciousness comes strictly from the workings or neurobiology. So what's to say that once neuroscience climbs out of its infancy and does more to figure out the brain that it won't get to the point of explaining consciousness, and all the products thereof? I think this is what gets to people about Gattaca -- even scientists don't want to live in a world utterly devoid of romance.

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