Et Tu, Hollywood?

Katrina Voss

Suppose you are a religious bully whose endgame is to stamp out a particular field of scientific inquiry and basically spoil everybody’s fun. Now suppose you’re not dealing with medieval peasantry but rather with a modern public at least superficially educated in science. Your plan would best be served by engaging in very “sciencey” talk and finding a creative medium such as popular film. You might try to convince people of the logical faults of the science in question. Or you might try to convince them that the science, while technically sound, will be used to destroy the world, kill babies, or enslave children.

Take creationism. First came Creationism 1.0: “All science is in conflict with God.” Then came the more sophisticated Creationism 2.0: “Evolutionary science is structurally wrong,” best known by the snappy slogan, “Teach the controversy.” Following closely on its heels was Creationism 3.0: “Science will cause another holocaust,” the argument spread quite effectively by Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Creationism’s progression from blatant to veiled religiosity has been sneaky and well planned. Slowly, scientists are beginning to realize the vastness of their intellectual enemies’ arsenals. It’s about time.

But scientists and the science-friendly may have bigger fish to fry. In recent years, the public imagination has been filled with visions of cloning, gene splicing, and bioengineering. To a science groupie like me, all that sounds quite lovely. But to many others, religious and otherwise, the “ick” factor has taken over. In fact, we may have skipped past the corollaries of Creationism 1.0 and 2.0. The corollary of Creationism 3.0 (“Science will cause another holocaust”) is now in full swing with regard to biotechnology. That is, bio-conservatism (opposition to human enhancement or modification, whether genetic, chemical, or surgical) is taking its cue from Expelled in using popular movies to capitalize on our fears of a post-genomic dystopia. Often fake science is presented as real science, and then the fake science is used to scare us into rejecting the real science—even real science that promises to reduce suffering and improve quality of life.

The latest example may also be the most egregious yet. My Sister’s Keeper (2009), based on the Jodi Picoult novel with the same name, is blatant biotechnological baloney dressed up as actual, present-day science. The movie sets up a pseudoscientific straw man to show why biotechnology is evil. (Similarly, creationists have used the straw-man tactic in claiming that Haeckel’s embryo illustrations—now acknowledged by the scientific community as exaggerated—“prove” that evolution is a hoax.) In the movie, a couple’s daughter suffers from a rare form of leukemia. Faced with the prospect of losing their child to illness, the couple conceives a second daughter using in vitro fertilization (IVF) technology. The resulting “savior child” is her sister’s perfect histocompatible match. To keep her sister alive, the second daughter endures years of medical procedures; her blood and marrow are collected continuously and well into her prepubescent years. Eventually, the fed-up savior child seeks legal emancipation when her parents plan to pluck out her kidney. Horrifying to be sure, but the scientific reality, indeed, the reality of the present year, is that a savior-child’s umbilical cord blood is collected once—at birth. The stem cell-rich cord blood is then used to cure the sibling’s disease. The end. Far from creating a perpetual bio-slave, real savior-child technology can produce two healthy people. At least the cloning and organ-stripping dystopia of The Island (2005) is presented as an imaginary future world.

Unfortunately, the very technology such movies teach us to fear has real potential to improve our lives, indeed, to make living and reproducing less frightening prospects. The savior-child situation is extreme. Another, perhaps less creepy example is using IVF to select and implant healthy embryos, effectively eliminating disease alleles—such as those that cause Huntington disease, sickle-cell anemia, or cystic fibrosis—from a family tree. Biotechnology can also intervene after a person has already been born. In 1990, the first and most famous case of gene therapy saved four-year-old Ashanti DeSilva, a child born without the genetic ability to make T cells. Piggybacking on a harmless virus, the ADA gene was ferried into Ashanti’s blood, allowing her to live a normal life with a functional immune system.

Savior-child technology, disease-free embryo selection, and gene therapy are just the beginning. Genetic technology may one day be used to enhance longevity, beauty, strength, and intelligence. After all, improving our lives is not just about exorcising disease. Of course, noncurative biotechnology makes even juicier subject matter for the “science is wicked” faction. Recall Gattaca (1997), with its dark future of genetic haves and have-nots: laboratory-created, genetically enhanced humans look down their straight, adorable noses at a “naturally created” human underclass. The (now shopworn) plot should set off the propaganda alarm in the head of any pro-science humanist. Lest we forget, that other classic, Expelled, preached a similar message about science as negative eugenics.

However, neither the bad science of some Hollywood movies nor the correct yet vilified science of others constitutes the scariest part of the bio-conservative movement. Nor does bio-conservatism’s apparent penchant for borrowing from the creationist playbook. Scarier than all of these is the fact that resistance to biotechnology is not limited to the political “right.” True, President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics was headed by Leon Kass, a prissy wet-blanket bioethicist hostile toward stem cell research, organ transplantation, infertility treatments, and cosmetic surgery. But at least in popular culture the most influential bio-conservatives are not the usual suspects; they are not that tedious buzzkill Ben Stein nor that vampiric shrew Ann Coulter. They are, perhaps unwittingly, the “progressive” actors who star in movies designed to scare the bejeezus out of anyone who thinks genetic science might be a positive pursuit. They are luminaries such as Alec Baldwin and Cameron Diaz of My Sister’s Keeper, and they are legitimizing antiscience messages for the so-called liberal public.

If biotechnology has become popular culture’s whipping boy, those holding the whips stand on both sides of the aisle, as it were. But it’s the “liberal” side that the science-friendly should fear more. Whatever our political leanings, paranoia, neophobia, and ignorance are very human weaknesses. So is our tendency to get hypnotized by Alec Baldwin’s blue eyes. When you think about it, if the actor who played that insipid teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off successfully popularized intelligent design, what might a handsome liberal actor (whose name no one had previously forgotten) do for bio-conservatism?

Katrina Voss

Katrina Voss works as a bilingual broadcast metrologist and holds the AMS Seal. She is collaborating with her husband, a Pennsylvania State University physical anthropologist, on a book about evolution, genetic ancestry, and society.

Suppose you are a religious bully whose endgame is to stamp out a particular field of scientific inquiry and basically spoil everybody’s fun. Now suppose you’re not dealing with medieval peasantry but rather with a modern public at least superficially educated in science. Your plan would best be served by engaging in very “sciencey” talk …

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