Monday, August 27, 2012

Bourne and Generic Engineering

A few days ago I went to see the new Bourne movie and found myself completely caught up with the science behind the film. For years now this concept of genetic engineering has both fascinated and terrified me. As the daughter of a brittle Type 1 diabetic, I’m torn on the subject of scientific tampering. On the one hand, I pray for the day when we’ve progressed far enough to eradicate hereditary diseases and rid human evolution of this kind of genetic weakness. On the other hand, where is the line? How do we know when we’ve venture too far from our benevolent aims and begun tampering not only with DNA, but with human nature itself?

This is a common theme in the science fiction genre, and in nearly every literary and cinematic example, we see the terrible effects of cellular tampering. Like the Larx-03 agent from The Bourne Legacy. Spoilers: While physically he proved very advanced, ultimately he seemed to be little more than a human robot, completely devoid of emotional responses. They achieved their goal of creating an agent – or assassin – capable of immeasurable violence and destruction, but they sacrificed his moral understanding of the world in the process. Larx-03 seemed closer to a robotic Terminator than a human being.

This concept of creating a ‘supersoldier’ isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s pretty common these days with the popularity of comic book films like Captain America, and war-related video games such as Halo and Resident Evil. But what keeps me up at night is the very real possibility that governments are already developing scientific projects to create genuine ‘supersoldiers’. The truth is, having never underestimated the lengths to which political powers will go, I have no doubt that this is already under way. Government agencies like DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) devote their energies to the pursuit of any and all scientific and technological advancements that might give us a military advantage. They’ve delved into behavioral sciences already – why not genetic engineering?

Whether it’s for medical or military purposes, I fear that this concept of improving humanity could potentially lead us down a dark road. When does eradicating diseases or creating better soldiers transcend into something else – something more extreme?

When does it cross over into eugenics?

Historically we’ve seen the terrible repercussions eugenics can have. Segregation, marginalization – even sterilization, infanticide and genocide. This quest for enhancing human genetics is dangerously flawed. And while I approve of attempts to lesson mankind’s suffering via genetic exploration, I’m apprehensive about any scientific endeavors which could lead to such deadly consequences.

I’ll leave off here with one last thought. The human race is an imperfect one – to try to make us perfect is going against our very nature. I just hope we never lose sight of that as our scientific exploration of the human mind and body continues on its amazing path forward.


  1. Ah, I thought your title was going to be a joke or a pun of some kind!

    Just to say it, there have already been actual super soldier programs in existence. The most aggressive of these were done by the Nazis in the 30s and 40s, but they're hardly the only ones.

    I really want to go see the new Bourne movie, but I don't think it's going to happen :(

    1. I know historically there have been - programs that were "abandoned", etc. I just wonder how far along current projects, funded by the US government, have come. It's a scary thought.

      It was pretty interesting movie. My friends and I have mixed opinions on it, but I liked it a lot. Way more than expected.

    2. Yeah, a lot of that is scary, and you can't really trust the government, any government, when they say they quit. It's just like with addicts. They just -think- they can stop any time.

  2. And now all I can think about is that copy of GATTACA I picked up at the dollar store yesterday.

  3. I've been immersing myself in this topic for sometime now, as it's a theme in my next release. You've articulated the concern very well.

  4. This is a scary subject that many fear for good reasons. The Nazi's are a prime example. Dean Koontz handled this subject well in his novel, 'Watchers,' which uses animals as the enhanced subject matter. Let us hope that governments fail at this attempt.

  5. Such as the killer in the end with no sympathy or empathy? That is a scary trait to remove from humans.

  6. Star Trek hit the subject pretty hard, with Khan being the most famous example. He was, in the end, an extremely limited moron, even for a genetically perfect specimen and a so-called genius. There was also Dr. Bashir, and the several episodes from Enterprise's fourth year, including just how Klingons ended up smooth-headed for a while.

    It's just such a slippery slope, attempting to define perfection, because it's impossible to identify and actually hit every necessary target without severe compromise. The new Bourne apparently understands that, and that's good to hear.

  7. Science without compassion and empathy and a moral guide is absolutely terrifying! But it does make for interesting fiction!

  8. I'm a huge fan of the original Bourne movies, but haven't had a chance to check this one out. I too am very intrigued by genetic messings around, which Hollywood seems to be love in with as well. (Caught Total Recall earlier this summer, and there was a bit of that in there, and one of my favorite action movies is Hannah--which also had some genetic meddling.)

    The concept of removing the human characteristics of the species and leaving only the animal-like tendencies is intriguing to say the least.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier today, btw. Really appreciated your comment, and look forward to reading more about your movie going insights. :-)

  9. You've hit on a very scary subject. Scientists shouldn't tamper with some things just because they CAN, any more than some people should wear low-rise hot pants just because they can squeeze their tushes into them.

  10. It's going to happen at some point, and there's going to be a whole new can of wormed opened when it does. People have killed because skintones vary, imagine the damage people would do once we start to see 'Humans 2.0' entering the fray...

  11. At what point does genetic engineering produce humans who aren't really human at all? That, of course, is the subject of many other science fiction books and movies ...

  12. It's amazing how we change our perspective when someone we love faces a life-altering illness. Not every thing seems so black and white, but when you have time to reflect, it scares us.

  13. People aren't going to agree on what constitutes a "perfect" version of humanity any more than they're going to agree on what, exactly, makes someone "human." Scientifically, any member of the genus Homo is considered human, though I don't think that's what most commenters here mean. And you know, there are naturally-occurring sociopaths and psychopaths as well. Do people consider them non-human? What about those with severe mental retardation? What is the criteria people are using for "human" here? The whole concept seems subjective and ill-defined to me. Even the idea that some humans may be less human than others, whatever the reason, is super ick to me, as it's usually the rhetoric used to withhold basic rights.

    What I get out of this discussion is that advocating social equality and fighting for human rights is incredibly important. People already do terrible things to each other in the name of arbitrary, naturally-occurring differences. Eugenics is more a social issue than a scientific one, and if it happens it's going to be due to a culture of prejudice and oppression, not because of genetic engineering. If we can cultivate a society that values diversity, equality, and human rights rather than promotes fear and hatred of those who are different, then things like skin color, sexual orientation, disability, genetic enhancement (or lack of), etc. won't be cause for oppression or systematic discrimination. It'll be difficult (if not outright impossible) to achieve that, but it's worth fighting for, and any improvement is better than none. I think promoting equality is a significantly more productive use of our energy, and better preparation for genetically enhanced human beings, than living in fear of scary/evil genetic engineering ideas.

  14. Well, science fiction is a tool to explore the ramifications of genetic engineering. I know we've read and seen lots of books and movies that have discussed the topic. Gattaca was mentioned by somebody, I think David Brin's Uplift novels really are about the same thing.

    I think the traditional view of Eugenics... hold on, I read an SF book about a Eugenics experiment last year... I'm going over to Goodreads to see what it was....

    .... it's been a while and I can't find it. I could go downstairs and pick it off my bookshelf but I'm pretty sure I'm the only person that cares right about now, and I don't care enough to go look. So, I've got nothing. Now, where was I?

    Oh, the traditional view of Eugenics. I don't think we'll see that happen like it did here in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th Century or in Germany a bit later. I think we'll see things like google glasses become google contacts, and then we'll get augmented thoughts, better memories, more augmented reality sort of stuff.

    Then folks who are slow to adopt the tech can't compete in lots of areas in life. Academic, engineers, etc. Pretty soon we wake up and we're all transhumans.

    Maybe not, but if society doesn't collapse I'd wager that's the direction we'll go. Fun to think about.

  15. Holy crap... talk about having to SKIM THIS POST!!

    Girl... remember how I DON'T like spoilers?! *glares at Lauren*

    Haha ( : Kidding. I love this topic though. I too, have been thinking a lot about this lately. You REALLY, REALLY, REALLY should read Partials. Like... move it to the TOP of your victim list. Its awesome! And deals heavily with this topic. Seriously loved it!

  16. I got caught up in that aspect of the movie, too (though I spent a good deal of time muttering to hubby about how everything they said didn't actually make sense and was completely wrong...I'm kinda a hard person to see movies with :/). Anyhow, the concern you raise is something I think about all the time, and even teach a course on. The only good thing right now: we're not there yet. Genetic engineering isn't to the point where it's function on that kind of scale. It will be soon. And then we really need to start thinking about the consequences of what we're messing with. And if you really want to see what will happen, watch GATTACA--such an awesome movie!

  17. Great points. You are right, we are imperfect and will never be perfect in this world, as much as we try to be.

    Allison (Geek Banter)