Man of Steel and Genetic Engineering

by Benjamin Studebaker

Earlier this week, I went to see Man of Steel, and wrote about the way I thought it ignored and marginalized interesting and controversial moral debates about whom we have moral duties to. Toward the end of that piece, I noted that I also had thoughts concerning genetic engineering, another issue the film briefly raises, then discards. Today I’d like to pursue that thread further. Having thought about it more, I’m now convinced that the film’s take of genetic engineering is even more knee-jerk and surface level than its attitude toward imperialism.

In Man of Steel, genetic engineering is used by the Kryptonians in order to ensure that their society has a sufficient number of people of the various temperaments necessary for its optimal functionality. Russell Crowe’s character (Superman’s father, Jor-El), objects to this system on these grounds:

What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?

For this reason, Jor-El advocates a return to regular births and inherited genetic outcomes.

This platitudinous argument is easy for the 21st century audience member to just accept as is–after all, we are all the products of natural births, and human beings are nothing if not self-justifying. We like to think that we are wonderful just the way we are. The argument is, however, deeply flawed.

What Jor-El seems to be arguing is some formulation of this:

  1. Liberty is desirable.
  2. Regular births allow people to choose what they want to be–this is a form of liberty.
  3. Insofar as genetic engineering takes this choice away from individuals and gives it to society, it removes this liberty.
  4. Therefore, genetic engineering is wrong.

The critical error comes at #2–Jor-El mistakes what regular births are. Regular births do not give individuals the power to determine what they are. Babies do not get to choose their traits–they have them assigned based on the system of inheritance. Society’s input is excluded, but not in favor of the individual, but in favor of taking the choice away from people altogether. The full extent of human influence on genetic outcomes is reduced to mate selection. In sum, there is less human influence over genetic outcomes, not more.

Why do the film’s writers make this mistake? They seem to buy into one or more of these views:

  1. Argument from Nature–originally, human beings were born without genetic engineering, therefore to be born with genetic engineering violates nature or is an “act of god”.
  2. Conflating nature with free will–they seem to believe that people who are born regularly have more ability to determine their own fates than people who are born with genetic engineering.
  3. Existence precedes Essence–they seem to have some commitment to the old existentialist argument.

The argument from nature is wrong because it violates Hume’s Guillotine by conflating what is with what ought to be. The fact that people are not currently born with genetic engineering has no bearing on whether or not they ought to be born with it. In addition, all human behavior is, by definition, natural, because human beings are naturally occurring parts of the universe. Regardless, there is an element of genetic engineering in all mate selection processes–if you choose to have babies with someone in part because that someone is intelligent, and you want intelligent children, you are participating in a very primitive and haphazard form of genetic engineering. You are attempting to influence the genetic outcome of offspring in order to achieve a human goal. The only way to swear off genetic engineering entirely would be to have babies with no eye at all to whether or not the people with whom you’re having them are genetically suitable. This is impossible–physical attraction is itself based on indicators of fertility. No living thing has sex completely at random. In all cases, there is some influencing factor, and on some level, whether we are conscious of it or not, that factor is connected to the viability of capable offspring.

The film seems to hold to a very strange and contradictory interpretation of #2 and #3. On the one hand, the writers seem to think that existence precedes essence, that what we are at birth does not impose constraints on who we are. How else could a person seriously dream of being something other than what he is? I may think it nice if I could be a Tyrannosaurus, but to really, seriously dream about it, I would have to believe on some level that the fact that I have been born human does not prevent me from being able to crush buildings and swallow children whole. Yet simultaneously, the writers seem to believe that if we are born under a specifically chosen set of genes rather than the set that would be assigned to us at random, existence no longer precedes essence, that we are then determined to act within a very narrow spectrum of behavior. The two views cannot be sustained at once. Either existence precedes essence, and it does not matter what we are born as, we can be whatever we choose to be, or it does not, in which case both regular births and genetically engineered births give us an essence which we cannot transcend.

What’s important to note here is that whether you accept the existentialist view or not, in either case genetic engineering makes no difference to the question. If the existentialist view is correct, genetic engineering doesn’t matter because we can always transcend our genetics. If the existentialist view is incorrect, genetic engineering doesn’t matter because it chooses a specific essence for offspring rather than a random one, both of which are equally constraining but in merely different ways.

Personally, I reject the existentialist view of the existence/essence question, but you don’t have to do so to reach my conclusion here–that genetic engineering does not change how free or determined we are, it either only serves to change the variety of determination or has no effect at all.

So once again I find myself in the position of being glad that the film brought this issue to my attention and encouraged me to think about it, but disappointed in the limited thoughts the film had to share itself.  Man of Steel, on a philosophical level, truly was the “what might have been” film of the summer.