The new movie by Pedro Almodóvar La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In) is pretty sinister. It is about a plastic surgeon (played by Antonio Banderas) who decides to give to himself what life has taken away with the help of genetic enhancement and, by so doing, revenge and, at the same time, transhumanize evil. The movie is filmed as a psycho-thriller with suspense-filled movements back and forth in time and with horror-like emotional intensity.
The plot in summary (and chronological order): Vera Ledgard dies in the aftermath of a car accident that burns her skin—she was running away with her lover. Her daughter, Norma, suffers a trauma, accentuated a few years later by attempted rape, and she ends up committing suicide. Robert Ledgard, the husband / father, a successful plastic surgeon, abducts Vicente, the young man who tried to rape his daughter, submits him to sexual-change operation to then proceed to transplant him the skin of his dead wife, which has been genetically enhanced so as not to burn. Over a period of six years Vera is re-born as the female version of Vicente. S/he pretends to return her captor’s feelings, till s/he gets the chance to escape, kill him and return home to her/his mother.
The character of Robert Ledgard is modeled according to the archetype of the evil scientist playing God, whereby his motivation is based less on hubris and more on anger and unhappiness. In Generosity; An Enhancement, a novel by Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009) that also tackles the ethical problems entailed in genetic engineering, the scientist Thomas Kurton is more of an entrepreneur who believes he is doing good when he convinces Thassa Amzwar, the novel’s heroine, to donate her eggs, so that her rare happiness genes can be better researched and reproduced. Thassa has a horrific past and still she is a happy and generous person and, as such, she agrees to the experiment. Consequently, she finds herself constantly under pursuit. Her only way out is to return to the Algerian desert, where she can better hide, but where she no longer can be her happy self.
So much for the story lines—in both cases revolving around the theme of fear of loss of identity in and through relationships, social relations and institutional power structures.
As for the science, this is wrong, both in La Piel Que Habito and in Generosity.
There is no happiness gene identified as of yet. It is, in fact, unlikely that there is such a thing like a single happiness gene. Even if a genetic basis to happiness were ever to be found this would most likely reside in a multitude of complex interfaces between different genes and the environment. (On this, see also Peter Kramer writing for Slate and a meta-level analysis article for JAMA).
There is also no genetically modified skin that does not burn. Even if it could be engineered, such skin would probably display many other weaknesses making it difficult to sustain—and definitely not as beautiful as Vera/Vicente’s in La Piel Que Habito.
New emerging technologies in genetics, cognitive science, nanotechnology as well as bio- and synthetic biology raise several ethical questions that need to be carefully monitored on a case-by-case basis. For instance, it is very sad that children with mental retardation can be diagnosed at a very early stage and subsequently aborted. This is even sadder considering that today families and schools are more capable than in earlier times to support these children in growing up to become happy and well-integrated members of society.
There are no easy answers to these very difficult normative questions. It would also be wrong to say, like many scientists will often claim, that the problem lies alone in the use made of scientific findings. Science is not neutral just like politics are not irrational. Yet fearing science is also not the answer.