This article was originally posted at my Scientific American blog.
Visit theperfect46.com, and it looks like any business web page. The Perfect 46 purports to be a company that uses the power of genomics, the information stored in the entirety of your DNA–your genome–to determine if you are with “the one” for you. This is not about your perfect romantic match, but rather the perfect genetic match that ensures your offspring will be free from known genetically heritable diseases.
The most recent Pew survey released last week, US Views of Technology and the Future, is an in-depth look at how Americans feel about technology in their lives in the near future. Interestingly enough, while driverless cars and even teleportation might be embraced, there seems to be some squeamishness about designer babies (“66% think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.”). This idea is not so far-afield, as companies, such as start-up GenePeeks, are automating the genomic pairing of sperm donors and the recipients to reduce the risk of having a child with a known genetic effect, even if they are not creating designer children, per se.
The goal to dilute genetically inherited disorders from the human race, even to “steer” evolution, is laudable on some levels, yet raises many questions, which makes it a perfect topic for a movie. theperfect46.com is not, as you may have guessed, a url for a real company, but a clever website to promote a new film on the indie circuit called “The Perfect 46″ which tells the story of a geneticist who creates a website that pairs individuals with their ideal genetic partner for children and then something goes horribly wrong, creating serious issues for some of the consumers and a dilemma for the company and its founder, Jesse Darden. This film is written and directed by Brett Ryan Bonowicz.
In a refreshing change of pace, this movie handles the science of genomics quite adeptly. It was perfectly integrated and presented so well, in fact, that I thought perhaps Bonowicz had a science background. I asked him if he was a film director with an interest in technology or a biologist who decided research was not his path, but directing would be. His answer:
“I’m a film director with an interest in technology. It took me a while to combine the two but going forward I really can’t see myself making a film that doesn’t have a strong tie to science. In particular, treating science in an accurate and respectful way is important to me because the questions asked by a film like that inspire debate that’s very real and immediate, not hypothetical or imaginary.”
Whenever I describe this film to colleagues and friends, comments along the lines of, “Oh, like GATTACA!” are common. Recently, author of “The $1,000 Genome”, Kevin Davies, in his plug for the movie during our Genomics Edition of Read Science!, makes a comparison as such to which author of “Here is a Human Being”, Misha Angrist comments that now he might have something other than GATTACA to show to his genomics students! The video below should be cued to our discussion of the movie (if not, it is at 1:02:05), which was still in production at the time this conversation took place.
I asked Brett what he thinks of such knee-jerk comparisons to GATTACA:
“Personally I don’t mind the association. I love the design in the world of GATTACA. I think ultimately both films are a reflection of the time they were made and the fears and the anxieties of where we’re going next, expressed in cinema.”
I was curious about Brett’s motivation for creating a film with a science theme and overtones of larger philosophical questions about using science to shape the world, and by employing an error to cause the demise of the company and its founder. This is what he had to say:
“The Perfect 46 came from wanting to explore the ties that entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos all have with specific companies. I had just started writing The Perfect 46 when Steve Jobs died and one of the big questions that surrounded his death was the health of Apple. For one person to be tied so closely to such a large company, I started to wonder about a person like that existing in genomics, and what a strong force like that would be like. As the film developed, one comparison that stuck in my mind was always “What if the iPhone 4 “antennagate” had dealt with people instead of devices?”
In many moments, this film is a difficult one to watch because of the ethical questions it asks the viewers to face. First, there is the conflict created by the lack of a “Perfect 46″ connection between the founder of the company and his significant other. Jesse truly believes that it is a moral imperative to dilute genetic diseases from the human race if its within his power, and learning that he could be doing the opposite is a incredible source of tension. There is also the turmoil and strong emotion that the demise of the company creates throughout the film. In addition, as an overarching theme, the film presents the viewer opportunities to grapple with the concept of eugenics and ethics of biotechnology as a tool to “play God”, with a few scenes that address philosophical ideals along those lines. I asked Brett if he thinks it is eugenics and/or the biotechnology that makes people uncomfortable when they think about a not-so-distant future where “designer babies” could be possible.
“The Perfect 46″ is ultimately a film about control. Eugenics and biotechnology are all about control. It’s up to us as a society to decide where we go with these issues and I think the fear related to designer babies comes from it being a change from what we now consider standard or normal. One of the issues raised in the film is “What is natural?” If we drew that line at the polio vaccine, I’d hate to think where we’d be today. In vitro fertilization made a lot of people uncomfortable in very recent history and most don’t blink when it’s mentioned today.
Brett’s twitter profile, states that his next film will be about GMOs, which intrigued me, so naturally, I inquired about that:
I’m almost finished with the first draft of the GMO script. It’s been a lot of fun to research and build another science factual world around an entrepreneur and their creations. The movie’s one-liner currently stands as:
“After a scientist creates a new GMO, she must combat regulatory and corporate pressure to bring her product to market.”
Perhaps by now you are very curious to watch the film, and I certainly recommend you do so if possible. It is well-filmed and you will recognize many of the character actors, with splendid acting throughout.
“The Perfect 46″ is an Official Selection at the 15th The Newport Beach Film Festival, screening Saturday April 26th at 8pm. Across the Atlantic, one can see it at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival on Monday, April 28. Looking to next month, it will be shown at the SOHO Film Festival, Monday, May 19 at 6:30pm in New York.
For more details, you can keep up with the latest showings at The Perfect 46 Facebook page.