Genetic Engineering and the Ghost in the Shell: 'Cracking Your Genetic Code'

“What if insurance companies gain access to this information?” asks Jay Adelson, who recently completed genome typing.


Director: Sarah Holt
Distributor: PBS
Cast : Francis Collins, Rudolph Tanzi, Catherine Elton
Rated: Not Rated
Year: 2012
Release date: 2012-05-22

Cracking Your Genetic Code, from the PBS series Nova, examines dramatic new breakthroughs in genetic research. The documentary opens with a young man plugging a jump drive into his laptop. At first glance, the jump drive appears to be the kind you can buy at Wal-Mart for $20. Yet this jump drive contains the young man’s entire genome on six gigs of storage.

“Within the next five years, each of us can have our complete genome sequenced for less than a thousand dollars,” states Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institute of Health.

The implications are staggering. The human genome is a master template that's 99.9 percent identical among all humans. The value of individual genome sequencing is in identifying mutations that a person has in their genome. Detection of mutations can trigger preventive treatment of potential diseases and early diagnosis can lead to lifestyle changes, proper medication, and potential cures.

After genome typing, Francis Collins discovered that he had a substantially high risk of Type 2 diabetes. “That got me motivated,” Collins says. “I’m 27 pounds lighter today than I was two years ago and I work out three times a week.”

But individual sequencing can result in a ‘Cassandra Effect’ where bad news is psychologically devastating. “What if you have a genetic mutation and it doesn’t matter how you live your life or what drugs you take?” asks Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard Medical School. “What if no matter what you do, you’ll still get this disease before you’re fifty years old?”

After genome sequencing, James Watson, co-founder of the DNA double helix, didn’t want to know the sequence of his APOE4 gene on Chromosome 19, a marker for Alzheimer’s disease; if a common variant is present, it represents a 3-to-10 fold increased risk in contracting Alzheimer’s. “Not everyone can handle genetic testing and this information,” adds Catherine Elton, the author of The Burden of Knowing, “If you’re going to get a disease, that knowledge affects the way you live for the rest of you life.“

A groundbreaking development in gene therapy is Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) where an embryo from a fertilized egg is genetically engineered to eliminate undesirable traits. The social implications cannot be measured in a laboratory.

Given a layman’s understanding of these issues, there are a number of consequences in genetic advances that are not mentioned in the documentary. If we eliminate undesirable mutations in the human genome as PGD is designed to do, then future generations will become more similar, diminishing variation across the human gene pool. And if that’s the case, then a more homogenous human population will be at greater risk when a viral or bacterial outbreak goes pandemic.

There’s also the danger of eugenics, where the value of a human life is determined by a preferable genome. Since moral issues cannot be weighed by science, we must look elsewhere, perhaps in unlikely places.

The 1997 anime classic Ghost in the Shell is one of the most astute statements on genetic engineering in the modern era. Set in a futuristic Japan, Section 9 is a government agency that employs both humans and cyborgs to guard state security. One of the main concerns of the film is the existence of a ‘ghost’ or moral nature in cyborgs -- whether a genetically altered life form still possesses a soul.

Major Kusanagi is a beautiful cyborg assassin. When a human asks why he was transferred into Section 9, she replies: “Because we need a guy like you… you’re almost completely human. If we’re all engineered the same way, then we become predictable. It’s slow death.”

A foreign intelligence agency recruits agents by “ghost-hacking” Japanese citizens and reprogramming their memories. Questions soon arise about whether these victims are still human. While interrogating a victim of ghost-hacking, Kusanagi asks: “Can you tell us what your mother looked like? Or where you grew up?”

The terrified victim cannot answer. The ghost has been extinguished, and all that remains is the shell. In a scene with Bateau, another cyborg agent, Kusanagi betrays an existential angst about her own persona.

Kusanagi: Maybe I’m paranoid about my origins. Perhaps there never was a real me…and I’m totally synthetic.

Bateau: You were once human, but it sounds like you doubt your own ghost.

The moral issues may be interesting for the contemplative, but economic imperatives will always trump philosophical questions. In the United States, where for-profit health insurers provide access to medical care, the predictive power of genome sequencing has dark implications. “What if insurance companies gain access to this information?” asks Jay Adelson, who recently completed genome typing.

American health care reform is now in danger of repeal by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Since American employers bear much of the cost of health care insurance, an abnormality in your genome could lead to future employment discrimination. In Britain, David Cameron’s Conservative government is trying to privatize part of the National Health Service.

Given the ascendency of dog-eat-dog capitalism in the West, it’s safe to assume that the future of genetic engineering will reflect the underlying economic system that funds it: a Darwinian imperative to eliminate the weak and advance the strong.

Yet what will this brave new world look like? What will happen to the artistic temperament in a more homogenous society? And after the human genome is scrubbed of undesirable variants, what will become of the ghost in the shell, the spirit within that makes us unique?


There are no extras with this DVD.





The Texas Gentlemen Share the Powerful and Soulful "Last Call" (premiere)

Eclectic Texas band, the Texas Gentlemen return with a vibrant, imaginative LP that resists musical boundaries. Hear their latest epic single, "Last Call".


Vincent Cross Pays Tribute to Folk Hero via "King Corcoran" (premiere)

Gangs of New York-era James "The Rooster" Corcoran was described as the terror of New York's east side. His descendent, Vincent Cross, retells his story with a "modern dark fairy tale".


Eddy Lee Ryder Gets Lonely and Defiant with "Expected to Fly" (premiere)

Eddy Lee Ryder explores the loss of friendship and refusal to come of age, cloaked in the deeply dramatic and powerful song, "Expected to Fly".


Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.


Creative Disruption in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

Portrait of a Lady on Fire yearns to burn tyrannical gendered tradition to ash and remake it into something collaborative and egalitarian.


Fave Five: The Naked and Famous

Following two members leaving the group in 2018, synthpop mavens the Naked and Famous are down to a duo for the first time ever and discuss the records they turned to help make their aptly-named fourth record, Recover.

Evan Sawdey

Fleetwood Dissects the European Mindset in His Moody, Disturbing Thriller, 'A Young Fair God'

Hugh Fleetwood's difficult though absorbing A Young Fair God offers readers a look into the age-old world views that have established and perpetuated cultural rank and the social attitudes that continue to divide us wherever we may reside in the world.


Art Feynman Creates Refreshing Worldbeat Pop on 'Half Price at 3:30'

On Half Price at 3:30, Art Feynman again proves himself adept at building colorful worlds from unexpected and well-placed aural flourishes.


The Beths Are Sharp As Ever on 'Jump Rope Gazers'

New Zealand power-poppers the Beths return with a sophomore album that makes even the most senior indie-rock acts feel rudimentary by comparison.


Jessie Ware Returns to Form on 'What's Your Pleasure'

On What's Your Pleasure, Jessie Ware returns to where it all began, the dance floor.


The Jayhawks Offer Us Some 'XOXO'

The Jayhawks offer 12-plus songs on XOXO to help listeners who may be alone and scared by reminding us that we are all alone together.


Steve McDonald Remembers the Earliest Days of Redd Kross

Steve McDonald talks about the year that produced the first Redd Kross EP, an early eighth-grade graduation show with a then-unknown Black Flag, and a punk scene that welcomed and defined him.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.