The publication of Charles Robert Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ in 1859 challenged humanity’s notion of divine creation and separation from the animal world by claiming that human beings are animals with an evolutionary link to all life on earth. For many people, this linkage to the animal world provided a scientific explanation for humanity’s “immorality.” Human beings could no longer consider immoral traits to represent punishment from God or temptation from the Devil. Instead, Charles Robert Darwin provided a natural explanation that these traits were our evolutionary inheritance. Charles Robert Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, took this explanation further and concluded that most of society’s ills, such as a propensity for violence and promiscuity, resulted from inherited animalistic behaviours. As natural rather than divinely-given traits, they should be correctable in future generations. In 1883, Francis Galton proposed a system of selective breeding for human beings, which he termed “eugenics,” that he believed could eradicate our bestial inheritance and ameliorate the social problems it created.
While Francis Galton’s ideas have consistently appealed to scientists and social reformers over the last 120 years, eugenics has been hindered by a lack of knowledge about our heritable material and a limited technological capacity for manipulating human heredity. However, developments in genomics, genetic engineering, and reproductive biology in the 1980s and 1990s have placed the eugenic goal of correcting and perfecting the human genome within our reach. As the technology develops further, many contemporary scientists and social commentators are now beginning to publicly champion eugenics as a legitimate social and scientific pursuit. In his influential book, ‘Redesigning Humans’, for example, Gregory Stock comes to the technologically deterministic conclusion that for genomic enhancement, “The question is no longer whether we will manipulate embryos, but when, where, and how.” It is clear that, while the term “eugenics” may conjure up images as radically different as “better baby contests” and Nazi plans for a “master race,” scholars such as Gregory Stock have moved eugenics as a desirable scientific and social goal from the edges back into the mainstream.
Not surprisingly, the recent social and scientific resurrection of eugenics has been accompanied by a spate of science fiction films addressing the ethical issues and ideological underpinnings of a eugenics movement based on emerging genomic enhancement technologies. However, as I will show in this article, eugenic themes have been a constant presence in fictional cinema throughout the roughly hundred-year history shared by both eugenics and the cinema. In general, science fiction films provide scholars with a gauge of social concerns, social attitudes, and social change regarding science and technology. The cornerstone of negative eugenics, that human beings retain animalistic behaviours from their evolutionary past, has been a prominent theme and visual motif in science fiction cinema. The key principle of positive eugenics, a belief that human beings have untapped evolutionary potential, has also been a staple element in numerous science fiction films. The persistence of these two themes in cinema over time reflects fundamental societal beliefs about heredity’s role as the source of social problems.
Whether human beings are inherently criminal and violent or are one step away from Homo superior, eugenic goals are always about improvement. For eugenics proponents, the scientific search for heritable material was about finding a means for creating their conception of humanity. Therefore, eugenic themes in the film also speak to our desire to control those biological elements that make us human. Both the “flawed humanity” and the “evolutionary potential” themes are frequently accompanied by a secondary eugenic theme of scientist characters attempting to manipulate human heredity in order to ameliorate social problems or to create superhumans. Ultimately, these films almost uniformly support the idea that humanity’s fundamental nature lies within its genome and could be improved by technological means. However, these same films critique any attempts to manipulate human heredity. Most science fiction films thus accept the idea that perfection is possible but critique the idea that “perfection” is desirable through technological means.
In early science fiction cinema, perfection equals monstrosity, while later films question the notion that the perfect genome will actually lead to the perfect person. At the same time, because these films attribute spiritual significance to the human genome as well as position it as the locus of personal identity, they condemn any belief that our genome should be modified.
The persistence of these themes over the last hundred years provides evidence that our beliefs and concerns about eugenic thinking, as represented in film, remain the same in the post-Human Genome Project age as they were in Francis Galton’s time. The only factors that have changed over the last hundred years are an increase in our knowledge of human heredity and our technological capacity both biologically and cinematically. We retain the same conviction that our fate is in our genome and the same hesitation about changing this sacred entity. With each new scientific discovery about the nature of human heredity, filmmakers have dusted off these themes and dressed them up with new graphical technologies.
Ultimately, I argue that attacks on the idea of biologically-directed human evolution find their strongest voice in science fiction films. Cinema has the ability to give tangible form to scientists’ visions of a better humanity. Filmmakers portray for the public what is essentially a debate over an abstract entity, the nature of human heredity. Filmmakers also create concrete representations of our concerns about manipulating human heredity by depicting eugenic experiments gone awry. Transformation is at the heart of cinematic storytelling. For filmmakers, the transformation is both visually interesting and makes for a compelling story. Eugenics is all about transformation: transforming human “animals” into the ideal human species or transforming human beings into “gods.” Eugenics makes for good cinema, whether we want these transformations to happen or not.
Also published on Medium.