May 26, 2008


From my new column on Jim Manzi's National Review cover story "Escaping the Tyranny of Genes:"

From Manzi’s vague article, it's difficult to figure out what he fears. But I would guess it is something like the silly 1997 eugenic dystopia sci-fi flick Gattaca. (Tagline: "There Is No Gene for the Human Spirit.")

Weirdly, Manzi argues that it would be okay to establish a scientific totalitarian state:

"Science may someday allow us to predict human behavior comprehensively and reliably, so that we can live in Woodrow Wilson's 'perfected, co-ordinated beehive.'"

Nevertheless, we shouldn't, yet, because science hasn't become accurate enough:

"Until then, however, we need to keep stumbling forward in freedom as best we can."

Well, that's a relief!

Although Manzi can't seem to find any living human beings who advocate converting American into a dictatorial scientocracy, he still spends much of his article laboriously (but pointlessly) documenting that the human sciences aren't advanced enough at present to implement Gattaca. It's a "straw man argument" raised exponentially to the point of self-parody.

My main memory of "Gattaca" is that astronaut training in the future will apparently consist of long rows of well-groomed young men dressed like extras from Brideshead Revisted typing away under the direction of Gore Vidal. That's what I remember -- lots and lots of typing.

Here's some of the film's screamingly repressed typing-centric dialogue:

Gore Vidal: "You keep your work station so clean, Jerome."

Ethan Hawke: "It's next to godliness. Isn't that what they say?"

Gore Vidal: "Godliness. I reviewed your flight plan. Not one error in a million keystrokes. Phenomenal. It's right that someone like you is taking us to Titan."

The filmmakers must have pitched "Gattaca" like this:
"It's like a gay version of 'The Right Stuff' crossed with "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing."

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Steve, are you going to see and review War Inc?. It is only playing in LA and NYC right now, but that is your neck of the woods.

The mainstream critics panned it, but we all know they have an agenda.

Others liked it a lot and it looks very funny to me, but you can do a lot with trailers, eh?

Anonymous said...

Gattaca is a great film, even though your criticisms of it aren't completely off the mark. However, recently I was pointed to this essay which really made rethink what the movie is actually about. The gist of the essay's argument is this:

Imagine that you are on an intercontinental flight and that immediately after take‐off
the pilot makes the following announcement: ‘Dear passengers, I hope you will join me in
celebrating a wonderful achievement of one of our navigators. His name is Vincent.
Vincent’s childhood dream was to become an airplane navigator but unfortunately he was declared unfit for the job because of his serious heart condition. True, he does occasionally have symptoms of heart disease like shortness of breath and chest pain, yet he is certainly not the kind of person to be deterred from pursuing his dream so easily. Being quite convinced that he is up to the task and that everything would be fine Vincent decided to falsify his medical records. And indeed, with the clean bill of health readily forged and attached to his application, he smoothly managed to get the plum job and is very proud to take care of your safety today. Can we please get some applause for Vincent’s accomplishment and perseverance in the face of adversity? And, by the way, keep your seat belts tightly fastened during the entire flight.’

Anonymous said...

I like Gattaca, too. The movie's portrayal of a society in which class status is largely determined by genetics does not seem so far-fetched, given recent scientific advances.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed your critique of Manzi. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I believe that the moral of Gattacca was that many people in that world absolutely hated that some people might succeed even though they had not been genetically engineered to do so. That he was a so called "Love Child".

Also, another point was that he was aware of his basic limitations, but was determined to apply himself. No complaints, no whining, no self loathing, just lots of hard work.

It was an interesting flick.

Burke said...

Invoking Brezhnev in this context is on point. You are certainly correct that this variant of political correctness is in its Brezhnev phase insofar as it enforces orthodoxy by raw power. We should also remember that the actual Brezhnev and his ideological successors ruled the Soviet empire for 22 years, and there was nothing inevitable about its eventual demise.

cheerful iconoclast said...

You forget about running on the treadmill being supervised by Gabrielle Reece. Much more fun than the typing!

Anonymous said...

With regards to the typing, the movie did come out at the height of the computer/internet craze in 1997. Something like typing (or generally computer skills) being the most important thing in the world was entirely plausible at that time.

Anonymous said...

As a warning message, Gattaca suffers from the same basic problem as Brave New World. In Brave New World, we've managed to engineer a drug which provides superficial happiness, and as a result we've abandoned the pursuit of deep and lasting happiness. The results follow logically from this flaw, and have nothing to do with directly addressing the issue of social engineering. In Gattaca, we've apparently mastered genetic engineering to a high level and then build a society around the pursuit of physical health and beauty at the expense of individuals with physical imperfections but who are otherwise intellectually competent. Vincent should have been programming space ships, he just shouldn't be allowed to fly in them. The problem with the society in Gattaca is that it isn't meritocratic enough. It's possible to tell a Gattaca-like story without these ridiculous conceits, and such a story might have value as a social commentary.

Anonymous said...

Jim Manzi wrote an article for NR in which he proclaimed that global warming is for real.

The guy's a leftist and I don't understand how he's writing in NR. William F. Buckley, Jr. is turning over in his grave.

Anonymous said...

My criticism of Gattaca is that it presents a nonsensical dichotomy on the progress of science and medicine. Doctors can supposedly engineer "perfect" humans in a petri dishes yet are seemingly incapable of creating medicines capable of ameliorating or repairing preexisting health problems. Virtually all current genetic research is involved with the latter circumstances, making Gattaca's premise hopelessly absurd.

TGGP said...

TH, glad you liked the paper. Kind of odd finding at The Fourth Checkraise. I was surprised to find at TAS that only one other commenter joined me in denying the society in Gattaca was a dystopia, and even that one did so jokingly.