Two tiers – human enhancement in Gattaca and Blade RunnerThursday, 15 May, 2008
A common criticism of human enhancement technologies, such as human genetic engineering, is that it will lead to a two-tiered society, one genetically enhanced and the other natural. I’d like to compare two movies that feature such tiers, because the two show radically different outcomes of such division in the human race, with radically different directions of discrimination.
However, the two films are similar in the respect that both only became popular long after they were released at the cinema, and have been influential in discussions on bioethics.
The world of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca features the genetically superior ‘valids’ and normal humans, known as ‘invalids’. The valids get all the high-paying jobs, and practically run the country, while the invalids are shown as janitors and other menial workers. In other words, the direction of discrimination runs against normal humans, and the two-tiers have normal humans as outcasts and valids as the dominant ones.
The world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner features bioengineered cyborgs (bioroids – android brain, but with human flesh), known as replicants, and normal humans. Unlike the Valids in Gattaca, the replicants are declared illegal on Earth (apparently out of fear, because they were banned after some replicants killed some humans somewhere). The replicants look and act almost exactly like humans (leading to the derogatory term for them, ‘skin job’), so it is the job of hunters known as ‘Blade Runners’ to find and ‘retire’ (execute) any replicants found on Earth. Obviously, in this film the direction of prejudice is highly against the replicants, and as such the two-tiers feature humans are the dominant ones, and replicants as outcasts.
And don’t think you can excuse Blade Runner because the replicants aren’t humans. A very similar situation is common to many sci-fi films, and dated back to Frankenstein. The genetically engineered are monsters. Most recently, I noticed this was a key theme in the second season of the TV show Dark Angel, where the transgenic military humans are treated as outcasts and culled.
I think it is possible that the genetic divide argument against transhumanism is the direct opposite to the dehumanisation argument. Could it be possible that the two will counter each other, resulting in no net discrimination for or against the genetically enhanced in society? One can only hope.
So, next time somebody says that human enhancement will lead to a Nazi-like scenario, ask them which Nazi scenario will occur. Will the enhanced humans be segregated and killed like the Jews in the Holocaust as portrayed in Blade Runner, or will the enhanced humans be a ‘Master race’ to rule over the normal humans? Or, will human compassion allow us to widen the circle of humanity enough to let both the modified and unmodified live in peace together?