Why Splice isn’t science fiction.
Splice, an indie thriller directed by Vincenzo Natali, has been marketed as an updated tale of Frankenstein’s monster. Indeed, in Frankenstein’s tradition, Splice‘s heroic couple, Clive (played by Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), genetically engineer a dangerous creature, whom they name Dren, while in pursuit of knowledge, fame, and patents valuable to the pharmaceutical industry. But the movie isn’t really science fiction.
The science, for one thing, isn’t all that edgy or alarming. Splicing human DNA with that of other organisms? Millions of Americans inject themselves daily with human insulin, which is manufactured by mixing human DNA into that of E. coli bacteria, letting the bacteria bloom, and then putting it through a blender. As it happens, human DNA has a lot of nucleotides in common with animal DNA already, so a wanton squirting of animal genes into human genes is unlikely to make a super creature. In fact, humans and roundworms have about the same number of genes, which suggests that more is not more, in the number-of-genes department. How scary is the idea of typing up an organism’s entire genetic code on a computer, manufacturing it from scratch, and bringing it to life? J. Craig Venter announced a couple of weeks ago that he and his research team have done just that. Hope you’ve been able to sleep nights since.
As for cloning itself, the sheep Dolly, the first mammal to be cloned, was born in 1996. Bulls, cats, pigs, deer, mice, and goats have followed. By now, dog clones have been around for so long that The New York Times has run a lifestyle article about coping with the disappointment that Fido’s clone only loosely resembles the original. Human cloning is illegal in some states but far from all of them, and the technical challenge is unlikely to remain insurmountable. Three years ago, monkey embryos were cloned well enough to allow the extraction of stem cells, and two years ago, scientists in California persuaded clones of adult human skin cells to progress to early-stage embryos. Once human cloning does become possible, though, there’s little need to worry that it will catch on as a way of making new humans. Cloning, unlike natural reproduction, is neither inexpensive nor recreational. Moreover, it inflicts a fair amount of genetic and epigenetic damage on the progeny who ensue. You might not mind a little damage in a cow that you plan to eat, but few people are likely to want to clone themselves or their loved ones once they understand that the baby will be saddled with birth defects, developmental delays, a compromised immune system, or some combination of the above. The prospect would just be too sad.
Sadness brings us to the true subject of Splice: child rearing. Specifically, what’s a two-career couple to do when an episode of hastiness and curiosity leaves them with a squirmy naked mole rat who shows ambiguous signs of a developing intelligence and even sentiment? Feed it sugar and lock it in a plastic crate for as long as possible, of course. But once it begins breaking things, cornering people, and putting words together with Scrabble tiles, then what? The most science-fiction thing about Splice is that it never occurs to Clive and Elsa to provide their unbabysitted spawn with a television. Probably because the movie is so “irredeemably Canadian,” my husband complained. It’s for the same reason, no doubt, that no government agency ever shows up to sweep everything under the rug.