Discussing Eugenics in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Filmhouse

From November 20th to 22nd 2009 I took part in the Bioethics Film Festival at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. Now in its fifth consecutive year, the festival is believed by the organisers to be the only regular film festival on biomedical ethics anywhere in the world. At four sessions over the weekend, screening of the relevant film(s) was followed by a 30 minute discussion led by a panel of invited contributors.

Theme for the fifth festival

The theme for this year’s festival was eugenics, the “self direction of human evolution”. Attempts to influence the genetic quality of future humans have involved both promotion of the inheritance of ‘good’ genes (positive eugenics) or limitation of the transmission of ‘bad’ genes (negative eugenics). Most popular in the early twentieth century, many current developments in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and gene therapy are also considered to be eugenic.


Homo sapiens 1900

Eugenics enthusiasts saw it as drawing upon the best of various other disciplines

This year’s festival began with a showing of Peter Cohen’s 1998 documentary Homo sapiens 1900. The film can be described as unremittingly dark on several levels. Making extensive use of archive footage, the director has elected to stick with working in black and white throughout. The pace of delivery is slow, and there is frequent use of discordant piano and blank screens to add to a sombre mood. Then, of course, the subject matter is far from uplifting.

The film focusses on a history of eugenics in the first half of the 20th century, particularly an emphasis on ‘racial hygiene’. Attempts to encourage the better members of society to breed and to bar individuals deemed less suitable by performing sterilisation operations are discussed.

As I reflected on the film, there were several things that struck me. The first was just how widespread enthusiasm for eugenics was during the early twentieth century. When thinking about eugenics we might first picture the atrocities conducted in Nazi Germany. However much of the archive footage focuses on eugenic movements in America and Sweden. The ideological tensions in Russia are also shown prominently. amazingly, sterilisation of undesirable individuals was sanctioned in Sweden right up until 1976.

Secondly, it was interesting to be reminded that eugenics did not start with Francis Galton, even though he is credited with coining the term. Athenians of antiquity, particularly Plato, contemplated ways in which to promote reproduction between the better members of society. Their neighbours the Spartans were more active in weeding out the weak from within their community leaving, for example, disabled newborns out overnight so that they might die.

Thirdly, I was struck by the sincerity of those involved in eugenic practices at all periods in history. All of the actions, however appalling, were conducted with genuine intent. This stands as a stark warning in the face of more recent eugenic interventions, some of which were discussed in other films throughout the festival weekend. Just because someone has the right motives it does not make their actions right.


My Sister’s Keeper

The film version of My Sister's Keeper deviates significantly from the original novel

The second film shown was the recent adaptation of Jodi Picoult’s novel My Sister’s Keeper. I was profoundly moved when I read the book, and profoundly irritated the first time I saw the film because director Nick Cassavetes had made substantial alteration to the original version, including a radical plot change at the close of the film.

Seeing the film for a second time I already knew what was coming and I have to admit to shedding thoroughly unmacho quantities of tears (without succumbing to the extent of another audience member who was emitting loud wails and sobs).  I am also now willing to agree that the ending in the movie is far more plausible without the final twist found in the book.

For anyone unfamiliar with the premise of the story (in both formats), Anna Fitzgerald is a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager. Anna was chosen by her parents via preimplantation genetic diagnosis to be a “saviour sibling” for her older sister Kate who has cancer. The original plan to use umbilical stem cells has not gone as well as planned and during her young life Anna has frequently been called upon to be a donor of bone marrow. With Kate’s condition now deteriorating to the extent that she needs a kidney transplant, Anna has sought legal protection to stop one of her kidneys being taken (a much fuller analysis of the original book is available on our sister site Bioethicsbytes, see The future of our families?)

Some of the ethical richness (and indeed some of the characterisation) found in the novel is missing from the film. I suppose this was inevitable when condensing over 400 pages of prose into a 105 minute movie. More than one of the panelists at the discussion which followed the screening observed that the film tells us more about family dynamics and/or coming to terms with the inevitability of death, albeit the death of one taken ‘too soon’.

Finally, before moving on to the next film, mention must be made of the Cameron Diaz’s amazing re-growing hair. In an act of solidarity with her chemotherapy-affected daughter, Sara Fitzgerald (played by Diaz) shaves her head. Notwithstanding the fact that the story is told in non-linear fashion, Diaz’s long blonde hair miraculously returns for the rest of the story!



Set in the near future, Gattaca depicts a world in which the potential for genetic selction has led to discrimination against individuals conceived naturally

The Sunday lunchtime showing at the Festival was Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi classic Gattaca. I regularly use a clip from the film in my teaching (and a longer post on the subject can be found over at Bioethicsbytes) but has been a couple of years since I last watched it all the way through. The opportunity to watch it again here reminded me what a great film Gattaca remains; the story is engaging, the cinematography is exquisite and the acting is convincing. More importantly, though the film serves as an effective vehicle for introducing debate about current developments in genetics based on one vision of where such developments might ultimately lead.

Panellists for the debate on Gattaca included philosopher TillmanVierkant, MRC geneticist Liam Keegan, lawyer Mair Crouch and emerging technology expert Andy Miah. The discussion here mainly focussed on the tension between genetic determinism and free will.

Vincent, the hero of the film, clearly defies his genetic lot by succeeding in winning a place on a space mission despite his own hereditary weaknesses. His is not, however, the only depiction of this battle – the Director of the Gattaca centre apparently commits murder despite his genetic tests showing he did not have a capacity for violence. Even the other male lead Jerome Morrow (played by Jude Law), who lends his genetic identity to Vincent, has defied his elite genetic pedigree by deliberately walking in front of a speeding car (“but I couldn’t even get that right”).


Three Short Films on Eugenics

The final session of the weekend consisted of three short presentations: in reverse order these were Who’s Afraid of Designer Babies? (an episode of the BBC Horizon series), The Gift (a BBC adaptation of Nicola Baldwin’s play of the same name, originally produced by Y touring), and Eugenic questions, including interviews and dance footage shot in Edinburgh and prepared specifically for this event.

Eugenic questions: one theme emerging in the short documentary was genetics and the (im)perfect body. I think it was local councillor Jeremy Balfour, himself disabled, who commented that dignity lies in who am I not what I do.

The Gift: Originally produced in about 2000, the ‘look’ of The Gift has aged rather less well than Gattaca. The story, however, remains highly contemporary (a copy of the script can be downloaded here).

Annie and her mother discover that she has Friedreich's ataxia

In brief, promising teenage footballer Annie Kaye starts to be more clumsy. On visiting the doctor to find out what might be wrong, Annie discovery she has Friedreich’s ataxia, a degenerative disease inherited in a recessive manner (i.e. you need two bad copies of the relevant gene to have the disease, one copy would make you a carrier).

Annie’s brother Ryan is profoundly affected by his sister’s illness. He goes for a genetic test himself and is relieved to discover that he will not get the disease himself, although he is a carrier. His reading on the subject inspires him to become a research scientist, and when we catch up with him 15 years and 30 years into the future he is a world-reknowned geneticist.

Mark is shocked to discover his sporting prowess is not down to luck and hard work

Ironically for Ryan, his wife also transpires to be a carrier for Friedreich’s ataxia. After some debate, and with hesitancy on her part, they decide to have their embryos screened to make sure that they are free of the illness. Ryan, however, goes one step further and as well as selecting against the disease, he selects for a genetic propensity to have good sporting ability. Thus is their son Mark created.

On the day that Mark turns 16 he is entitled to know what is on record about his genetics. He is shocked and affronted that his father has intervened at the genetic level to enhance his sporting potential.

The drama therefore picks up on technologies that are currently possible (screening of embryos to select against diseases caused by single gene errors) and potential future interventions to select for characteristics. Both are eugenic in the sense that they are altering the genetic make-up of individuals and thereafter broader society.

Who’s Afraid of Designer Babies? Lastly, we were shown the BBC documentary Who’s Afraid of Designer Babies? The programme is ambitious in scope, touching on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), gene therapy and the potential for human cloning. A transcript is available on the BBC website and a fuller discussion of the contents appears on the BioethicsBytes site.

The documentary looks at PGD, gene therapy and human cloning


Reflections on the Festival

This was my first experience of the Edinburgh Bioethics Film Festival and I was very impressed by the concept – it deserves to be replicated elsewhere. Not all sessions were equally well attended, but the Filmhouse, the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics and the other organisers had done a great job putting together a thought-provoking schedule.

If I could change one thing, it would be to allow for fuller debate after the films – the discussion here was constrained to 30 mins at each session. This represents a slightly unsatisfactory compromise. Like all small independent cinemas, the Filmhouse needs a swift turnaround to allow for screening of other films on the same day. However, more participants would inevitably drift away if the group moved to a different location for the debate, curtailing the public engagement with these issues.



  1. I guess it is almost inevitable that this will become reality, as not new technologies but ancient, from the origins of man (see zecharia sitchin). But I guess as we rediscover these ancient technologies that it will only be a positive success to mankind if he hold string Ethics, which is greatly missing unfortunately in todays world.

  2. *strong Ethics

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  • Awards

    The Power of Comparative Genomics received a Special Commendation

  • December 2009
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