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Evol Biol (2007) 34:4954

DOI 10.1007/s11692-007-9001-8

GENERAL INTEREST ESSAY

Biology in the Movies: Using the Double-Edged Sword of Popular


Culture to Enhance Public Understanding of Science
Christopher S. Rose

Received: 15 January 2007 / Accepted: 9 March 2007 / Published online: 12 July 2007
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Abstract Advances in technology typically outpace the


publics understanding of the underlying science, the
consequences of which are public distrust and confusion
about the actual benefits and risks involved. That popular
culture, particularly movies, often misrepresent scientific
facts and ideas for the purpose of entertainment is usually
viewed as part of the problem. Some movies, however,
offer excellent opportunities for teachers to draw connections and parallels between entertaining movie science and
exciting real world science. This article illustrates how
movies with genetics and developmental biology themes
can be used to teach important ideas such as how genes
control animal development and evolution, how cloning
works, whether DNA is sufficient to create life, and how
much genes matter in determining human behavior.
Keywords Genetics  Genes  Developmental biology 
Movies  Film  Popular culture  Pedagogy  Science
education  Embryo  Genetic determinism  Cloning 
Animal development  Animal evolution  Traits 
Genetic basis

Introduction
The biggest challenge to biology and to science is not to
achieve deeper understanding of genomes or ecosystems or
black holes .... The challenge that matters now is to make
sure that science is taken seriously (Futuyma, 2007). The
problem that this biologist is alluding to is that while the
C. S. Rose (&)
Department of Biology, James Madison University,
Harrisonburg, VA 22807, USA
e-mail: rosecs@jmu.edu

public readily accepts science as a means to improve our


lives and save us from disasters, disease, and old age, its
understanding of science is far less secure. At one level, the
public is bombarded by facts that tend to be obscured with
jargon, sensationalized into sound bites, or otherwise
stripped of the context needed to convey their real scientific
significance. These facts are usually quickly forgotten or
replaced with new facts. On another level, big ideas like
evolution theory, global warming, and human cloning tend
to hang around, but rarely become fully understood or
accepted. More often, they become shrouded in doubt, e.g.,
evolution is just a theory, or mistrust, e.g., global
warming is a political hoax, or linked to a biasing emotional response, e.g., human cloning and repugnance or the
yuk response (Kass, 1997; Kimberly, 2002; Midgley,
2000; Turner, 2004).
As with many relationship issues, the root of the problem and its solution lie in communication. Scientists as a
group love to fault movies for inaccurately portraying facts,
procedures and theories, and misrepresenting the benefits
and risks of scientific phenomena to humanity (see references in Crichton, 1999; Kirby, 2003). As a scientist myself, I share their concerns. However, as a moviegoer, I
agree with Crichton (1999) that making movies and representing science are often at odds with each other simply
because entertainment and education are different things.
Fictional movies cannot be bound to a strict code of scientific realism if they are to entertain and make money.
Also, movies can only portray external experiences,
meaning that the internal experiences of creative and critical thinking inevitably get left out. At the same time,
movies can convey intriguing ideas and provocative
viewpoints about the roles of science in life and society. As
a science teacher, I argue that movies provide opportunities
to educate not by finding faults, but by making connections

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to real science (Rose, 2003). This article is designed to


illustrate how science teachers and popular science writers
can use movies with genetics and developmental biology
themes to clarify and deepen the public understanding of
science. As movies cannot replace textbooks, I must start
with a brief overview of these areas of biology and the
fundamental knowledge required to discuss them.

Evol Biol (2007) 34:4954

factors that recognize and bind to sequences in the regulatory regions of specific genes to turn them on or off. The
other type makes signaling proteins that are secreted by
cells and bind to other cells to cause them to change their
gene expression.

Genes in Animal Development


What are Genetics and Developmental Biology?
Genes mean different things to different kinds of geneticists. For our purposes, genes are two things: pieces of
DNA that are used to make proteins and entities that code
for traits. As a piece of DNA, a gene is defined by its
sequence of nitrogenous bases (As, Ts, Cs and Gs). A gene
has two types of regions, coding and regulatory regions.
The sequence in the coding regions of a gene determine the
sequence of amino acids that make up the protein made
from that gene. The many processes involved in making
that protein, which include transcribing the DNA into
messenger RNA, translating the mRNA into a peptide, and
converting the peptide into an active protein, are collectively referred to as gene expression. A gene is only
functional when it is being expressed, i.e., when it is on
to make a protein, and the function of a gene is really the
function of the protein made from it. Proteins have many
different functions ranging from regulating chemical
reactions to making the ground substances of different
tissue types (e.g., cartilage, liver, skin, blood) and
becoming antibodies and hormones.
As entities that codes for traits, genes help determine all
features of an organisms external and internal anatomy,
physiology and behavior. It is important to remember that
since genes make proteins, their role in determining traits is
really that of their proteins in controlling cell activities.
Genes are also responsible for the inheritance of traits, but
only to the extent that differences in a trait are controlled
by genes. Most traits are in fact the product of many genes
and many environmental factors as well as interactions
between the genes and factors. This raises the question of
whether genes actually determine traits or merely affect
traits (which is something that biologists still argue about).
Developmental biology is the study of how an organism
transforms itself from a single fertilized egg cell into many
cell types that are organized into tissues, organs and organ
systems according to a specific body plan. All cells in an
embryo have the same DNA in them, yet at some point
different cells start expressing different genes, which allow
them to start undergoing different cell behaviors and ultimately become different cell types. Two types of regulatory gene are important in controlling this differential gene
expression. One type makes proteins called transcription

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Movies love to use genetics as a force for transforming


animals into life threatening monsters. It is genetics that
makes animals susceptible to radiation and toxic waste
pollution and turns them in gargantuan ants (the classic
Them, 1954), Godzillas, or laughably well organized
amphibians and reptiles (Frogs, 1972). It is genetics that
underlie the survival instincts, territorial behaviors, and
feeding urges of large anaconda snakes, great white sharks,
alligators, bats, birds, piranhas, insects, and every other
animal to star in its own B movie. It is also genetics that
when altered by well-meaning scientists to combat pests
(Mimic, 1997) or find life-saving cures (Deep Blue Sea,
1999) results in animals with special properties bent on
human destruction. Whereas most of these films refer to
genetics indirectly through comments about force of
nature or natural instinct, two provide great opportunities for connecting with real world science.
In the 1986 version of The Fly, a scientist working on a
teleportation device for conveying matter through space
accidentally recombines his own DNA with that of a fly.
Despite some early gains in reflex times, sexual prowess,
and athletic ability, the result is ultimately bad. The outer
parts of his body degenerate and fall off, he starts vomiting
highly corrosive stomach juices, his personality becomes
increasingly insect-like, and he eventually metamorphoses
into a giant fly. To make matters worse, his girlfriend
leaves him!
The educational value of this gory movie comes from a
purely coincidental connection with a real scientific
breakthrough made about the same time. After identifying
the genes responsible for patterning the head-to-tail axis of
fly embryos, developmental geneticists began to look for
homologous genes in other animals. Surprisingly, not only
did they find some in mice, but the genes that they found
(Hox genes) are arranged in the same order on the chromosome, expressed in the same pattern along the headto-tail axis in embryos, and have the same functions as
their homologues in flies. These and many, more recently
discovered, master regulatory genes appear to be shared
among metazoans. Many have similar roles in animal
development, e.g., Pax6, which controls eye development
in arthropods and vertebrates. In fact, the fly and mouse
Pax6 genes are so similar that the two can be interchanged
between fly and mouse embryos without affecting the

Evol Biol (2007) 34:4954

development of either animal (unlike in the movie)


(Halder, Callaerts, & Gehring, 1995).
This real world science raises many questions for
learning about genes in animal development and evolution.
Why does transferring a master regulatory gene for making
an eye from a mouse to a fly still result in a fly eye being
made? Alternatively, how do master regulatory genes for
making organs work? Why are such genes conserved in
animal evolution? If all animals have similar regulatory
genes, how do they make their different kinds of body
plans and organs?
Interestingly, the original 1958 version of The Fly offers
another connection to real science. In this film, fly and
human are combined not at the level of genes, but at the
level of organs (a fly head and hand on a mans body and
vice versa, again with unpleasant results). While this is
clearly impossible for all kinds of anatomical and physiological reasons, it has an intriguing parallel in real world
science. Reproductive biologists in the early 1980s were
searching for a way to combine the cells of different
mammal embryos to produce an embryo of one species
with a placenta of another. This would allow for embryos
of rare or endangered species to be implanted into mothers
of related species without the risk of immune rejection. The
result of combining embryonic cells was again unexpected.
Sheep and goat cells contributed to both placenta and
embryo, and in some cases, the embryo developed into an
adult chimera, a geep whose body was of intermediate
form and composed of a fine mix of both kinds of cells
(Fehilly, Willadsen, & Tucker, 1984; Meinecke-Tilmann &
Meinecke, 1984). Since goat and sheep are genetically
distinct to the point of not being able to interbreed, this
result raises questions about the genes for signaling proteins in embryos and why they are conserved to the degree
that a chimera can develop normally but a hybrid cannot.1

Genetics and Cloning


In 1997, Dolly, a sheep cloned from a cell from a ewes
mammary gland (and hence named after a well known
country music star) sparked a whirlwind of media and
public attention. It is thus surprising that the only movies to
portray cloning with any resemblance to the technique used
to make Dolly (somatic cell nuclear transplantation or
SCNT) were made years earlier. The Boys from Brazil
1

Interestingly, the geep has since been cited as proof of feasibility


for a patent application to make humanchimp chimeras. The application was submitted primarily to draw attention to ethical concerns
about patenting human genes and body parts (Newman, 2002). Also,
the phenomenon of humanhuman chimeras, which form when two
non-identical twins fuse prior to implantation, has been well utilized
in TV crime shows including CSI.

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(1978) deserves scientists praise for presenting an interview with a polite, friendly, tea-sipping scientist (i.e.,
everything that most movie scientists are not), and a film
clip, both of which explain in simple terms SCNT as it was
practiced in 1978. The explanation educates the viewer and
confirms the protagonists suspicions about an old archenemy (Dr. Josef Mengele) who is plotting to clone Hitlers
in yet another stab at world domination. Viewing the movie
now raises questions about how SCNT was modified to
make it work for Dolly, why it works on some mammal
species but not others, and what exactly goes right in the
low percentage of successful clones.
Jurassic Park (1993) presents a more ambitious scheme
to resurrect extinct species by reconstructing their DNA
from disintegrated chromosomes and using SCNT to place
those chromosomes into artificial eggs. The overwhelming
amounts of scientific effort, knowledge, guesswork, and
blind luck required to make this project work are explored
in an excellent book by DeSalle and Lindley (1997). The
films relevance to this discussion lies in its message that
DNA is all one needs to build an organism.
Many scientists refer to DNA as a blueprint or recipe
for life. Some including a Nobel laureate (quoted in Lewontin, 2000) also claim that knowing the complete DNA
sequence of an organism is enough to be able to compute the organism. However appealing, this idea is
fundamentally flawed. While DNA represents a huge store
of information for making the RNA and proteins needed
to carry out most of a cells activities, few if any of these
molecules can be made and activated in the appropriate
time and place in the organism strictly on the basis of the
sequences of their genes. The assembly, localizing, activating and degrading of most molecules in cells are
controlled by numerous chemical and physical factors that
are themselves regulated by other factors and this applies
to all cells in all organisms and at all stages of life. To
speak of DNA as controlling how embryos develop or
how adults regulate bodily functions is like saying that
one bank controls the world economy. DNA and banks
are admittedly big pools of an essential ingredient
(information and currency), but it is a higher order network of interactions that ultimately controls the fate of
both organisms and economies.
To return to Jurassic Park, the assembled chromosomes
would have to be placed into an egg with the appropriate
chemical and physical factors to activate the dinosaurs
developmental genes. Since scientists do not have intact
dinosaur eggs, it would be a total fluke to simulate this step
with a bird or artificial egg. For example, bird development
requires that the egg be rotated while in the hens uterus to
create the future head-to-tail axis of the embryo; dinosaur
development could involve a similar mechanism or something entirely different.

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Genetics and Human Behavior


Genetics is generally viewed as most threatening when it is
used to control human behavior and evolution. Genetic
determinism has already fueled one dark phase of human
history (the eugenics movement in the early 1900s which
culminated in Nazism). The rise of recombinant DNA
technology, which might allow us one day to select DNA
for desired traits and make designer babies, has prompted
fears of another such phase in the near future.
GATTACA (1997) explores this idea by portraying a
future society that routinely uses recombinant DNA technology in family planning. The story follows one couple
who go to a fertility clinic where their eggs and sperm are
used to produce numerous embryos that are screened for
genes encoding desired and undesired traits. The doctor
overrules the couples request to leave some level of
uncertainty in their baby and recommends that only the
genetically optimal embryos be used for implantation. The
problem is that the couple already have a son, Vincent, who
like many other unfortunate individuals in this society was
born via natural procreation. He must thus compete first
with a genetically enhanced younger brother and later with
a genetically enhanced upper tier of society. The film focuses on Vincents efforts to fulfill his dream of becoming
an astronaut by impersonating a genetically enhanced
individual so he can complete a highly competitive training
program for interplanetary expeditions.
The first half of the movie portrays how the institutionalized use of recombinant DNA technology has allowed society to become divided into upper and lower tiers
based on genetic makeup, and how, despite laws to prevent
it, the same technology is used to discriminate against the
lower tier. The movie emphasizes the DNA-centric nature
of society with nicknames for individuals who masquerade
above their tier (de-gene-erates and borrowed ladders) and spiral staircases resembling the double helix.
The movies ending, however, makes a compelling argument against genetic determinism. Vincent, with the help
of several genetically enhanced but flawed friends, rises
above his socially imposed limits and realizes his dream,
discrediting societys blind faith in genetics in the process.
The message is that genes do matter, but they do not predict traits with one hundred percent certainty and other
factors such as free will, persistence, and motivation can
override those predictions.
GATTACAs portrayal of a future society corrupted by
the institutionalized use of existing technologies raises
important questions for us. Where is our society in the
process of making designer babies, what additional information is necessary for a GATTACA-type society to
become reality, and should we be worried? That people
want to have designer babies who will grow up into

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Evol Biol (2007) 34:4954

attractive, competitive adults is undeniable. Companies


that sell the eggs and sperm of Ivy league graduates and
beauty models to prospective single parents are so popular
that the offspring living in big cities are recommended not
to marry within their city for fear of unknowingly hooking
up with a half sibling. Also, in vitro fertilization clinics for
couples wishing to conceive without passing on a genetic
disease have turned the corner from negative selection of
embryos to positive selection. Instead of just implanting
embryos that test negative for the disease, they sometimes
now implant embryos that also test positive for a tissue
type that will allow the future child to be a donor for an
older sibling with the disease.
Although scientists have identified nearly one thousand
genetic diseases (Jimenez-Sanchez, Childs, & Valle, 2001)
and found genetic predispositions for various health conditions and behavior patterns (e.g., male pattern baldness,
short sightedness, alcoholism), it remains unclear whether
intelligence, musical and athletic abilities, sense of humor
and other personality traits have a genetic basis. One way
to find out would be to construct a database of all the DNA
sequences that differ within one or more large populations
of people and then compare this data with the results of
standardized tests for IQ, athletic ability, musical aptitude,
personality, etc. This scenario is not so far fetched when
one considers that at least two large-scale DNA database
projects are already underway, the international hapmap
project (International HapMap Consortium, 2003) and one
for the entire population of Iceland. Comparisons of DNA
sequences and trait scores might reveal three kinds of traits:
traits whose exceptionally high or low scores always occur
in people with one or a few key DNA sequences (meaning
traits with a strong genetic basis), traits whose exceptional
scores co-occur with many different combinations of DNA
sequences (a weak basis), and traits with no genetic basis at
all.
While everyone agrees that great athletes, musicians,
and thinkers are gifted in the sense that they have the
right genes, few people (including scientists) are comfortable saying these traits have a strong genetic basis.
There are good reasons for this. Many behavioral traits
appear to depend on many genes, dietary compounds, and
other environmental factors, all of which work together to
determine the trait. Few genes appear to play much larger
roles than others and the effect of each gene depends on the
other genes and factors present (notice the change in terminology from gene role to gene effect). Even master
regulatory genes and disease-causing genes have effects
that vary with the genetic and environmental backgrounds
of the individual. For example, the degree to which
mutations in Pax6 and the gene for cystic fibrosis cause eye
loss and CF symptoms depends on the other genes and life
history of the individual.

Evol Biol (2007) 34:4954

Also, it is important to appreciate how deeply human


behavior is forged by non-genetic factors, especially our
history of social interactions and learning experiences.
These experiences, which are largely voluntary and arise
from the opportunities presented by our home, work, and
play environments, mold our attitudes, emotions, tolerances, and desires. At another level, they shape and reshape
our patterns of brain activity and brain cell connections
much the same way that our exercise habits affect the
condition of our muscles and bones. This plasticity of our
central nervous system is in fact our best defense against
genetic determinism.

Summary
Movies will probably never meet the standards for accuracy and plausibility demanded by professional scientists,
nor will they serve as reliable teachers of fundamental
knowledge. However, that does not mean that science
educators should despair at the inaccuracies, hyperbole and
plain silliness that movies routinely serve to the general
public. Whether intentional or coincidental, the kinds of
connections between movie and real world science discussed above present opportunities for teaching important
ideas such as how genes control animal development and
evolution, how cloning works, whether DNA is sufficient
to create life, and how much genes matter in determining
human behavior. Some movies also go beyond the usual
storyline of science going wrong and threatening humans
to explore bioethical issues such as whether reproductive
practices should be under institutional control, and how to
prevent discrimination based on genetic makeup. In closing, movies are useful in pedagogy to the extent that they
inspire teachers to draw connections with exciting real
world science, and motivate students to think and talk
about scientific phenomena and their impacts on society.

Glossary
Chimeraa mythological beast comprised of the body
parts of different species, also an animal produced by
combining the embryonic cells of different species.
Eugenicsthe social policy of trying to improve the
quality of the human race by selective breeding.
Genetic determinismthe belief that all aspects of
human behavior, personality and physical makeup are
controlled exclusively by ones genes.
Genetic predispositionhaving genes that make an
individual more likely to express a certain condition.

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Genomethe entire sequence of DNA found in the


chromosomes in each cell of an individual, and all the
variation that exists in that sequence across the individuals
species.
Homologous genesgenes usually found in different
organisms that by virtue of their similar sequences are
thought to have evolved from the same gene in a common
ancestor.
Hox genesgenes for transcription factors that are
responsible for patterning the head-to-tail axis and limbs of
vertebrate embryos.
Hybridthe offspring of parents that belong to two
different species.
Master regulatory genea gene for a transcription
factor that when expressed in early embryos turns on a
cascade of other regulatory genes, which ultimately directs
cells to form organs such as an eye or to become a certain
region of the body.
Metazoansany and all multicellular animals, which
are thought to have descended from one ancestral multicellular animal that lived more than 600 million years ago.
Mutationa randomly occurring change in the DNA
sequence of a gene.
Patterning the head-to-tail axisthe instruction of cells
along the length of a embryo to become head, trunk and tail
regions.
Plasticitythe ability of environment and patterns of
use to induce changes in a phenotypic trait such as muscle
thickness, bone density and the wiring of our nervous
system.
Recombinant DNA technologyany techniques
involving the cutting and linking of DNA.
Acknowledgments Thanks to my students for thoughtful discussions and to Maria Rose for helpful comments on the manuscript.

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