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Are We Headed for a Sci-Fi Dystopia?

For Boomers and the World War II generation, Aldous Huxley's 1932 Brave New World is the touchstone tale of a techno-utopian nightmare created by reproductive and biological engineering. Those in Gen X and Gen Y who ponder the prospect of a repro-genetic dystopia think of Gattaca.

Last week's release of a collector's edition of the 1997 film unavoidably prompts us to measure ourselves against its "not-too-distant future" of genetic castes and DNA-based discrimination. Has our world become more like Gattaca than it was a decade ago?

In Gattaca world, nonenhanced babies are born only to the poor and the sexually reckless. Those who can possibly afford it consult with a genetic technician before initiating a pregnancy, and select their future child's traits for optimum success: sex, life expectancy, intelligence, appearance.

Children with high-caliber preselected genes are classified at birth as "Valids." They're the ruling elite, eligible for top careers and entitled to high social status. "In-Valids" labor at menial jobs with no way up or out. In one memorable scene, a team of In-Valid janitors in prisoner-like jumpsuits is bussed into a gleaming office building. It's clear that the only way they get through the door is to clean the toilets and sweep the floors.

Gattaca's plot revolves around the tribulations and ultimate triumph of an In-Valid (played by Ethan Hawke) who refuses to accept his genetic destiny. Hawke's determined character manages not only to fool the genetic hierarchy's enforcers, but also -- this being Hollywood -- to get the gorgeous upper-class girl. (In real life, Hawke married and then divorced the same girl, Uma Thurman, but that's a different sort of story.)

But what about the real-life prospects of the horrors portrayed in Gattaca? In 1997, fertility clinics weren't advertising delivery of a boy or a girl -- you choose -- using the embryo screening technique portrayed in the film. The world didn't yet know about Dolly the cloned sheep. Far fewer genes had been mapped to far fewer traits. Genetic scientists hadn't yet created the monkey or the bunny engineered with a jellyfish gene to glow in the dark, or the goats and sheep that lactate spider silk, or the mice that run mazes faster than their nonengineered counterparts yet also display increased sensitivity to pain.

These technical feats are not the only portents of a future in which genetic engineers take it upon themselves to create designer babies and "enhanced" humans. Perhaps even more troubling is the small but disturbing number of prognosticators who predict this future with eagerness rather than caution; they just can't wait for Gattaca and Brave New World to transcend fiction and become real life.

Who are these promoters of human redesign? A few are researchers for whom the "sweetness" of the science eclipses its social consequences. A few more -- most notably Princeton's former mouse biologist, Lee Silver -- have shifted their careers from the lab to the talk show in order to push scenarios of a "GenRich" ruling class and a hoi polloi composed of "Naturals."

Then there's the coterie of bioethicists who can't say no to anything that any scientist dreams up, and another crew of libertarians who can't say no to anything that the market might wish to offer. And there's the whacky band of futurists who call themselves "transhumanists" and natter about "homo perfectus" and the "Singularity" -- the messianic moment when human technology will suddenly cause superhuman, superintelligent "entities" to appear among us.

Nearly all these crystal-ball gazers acknowledge that Gattaca-like inequalities would be part of their longed-for picture. But this does not seem to dampen their enthusiasm. From their perspective, it seems, self-evident truths about human equality are way outdated, and dreams of social justice and the common good are so 20th century.

Fortunately, voices of greater wisdom are also in play. Many scientists, ethicists and other scholars resoundingly reject technological applications that would so greatly exacerbate our already shameful socioeconomic disparities. In opinion surveys about designer-baby technologies -- yes, they already poll about such matters -- very large majorities say they are opposed. And every country in the world that has adopted laws or policies about cloning or genetically redesigning children -- more than three dozen nations, though not the United States -- has opted to forgo them.

Gattaca was originally released to critical acclaim but a lukewarm box office. It's a good story and a good film, but its renown has grown -- and will likely endure -- because of its bulls-eye hit on the all too realistic unease that the new technologies of human bio-engineering trigger.

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