Review: The Perfect 46

The Perfect 46 is an indie film that covers the rise and fall of a “genome-matching” service by the same name. Shot in a faux documentary style intermixed with a traditional movie narrative, the film achieves a striking realism that left many tech- and science-savvy reviewers with little but high praise to give, including Science, Scientific American, and MIT Technology Review. Ellen Matloff, the director of Yale Cancer Genetic Counseling, called it, “…an entertaining, and terrifying, insight into what could happen when our genomes become intertwined with our social network profiles.” When.

Notice: Spoilers after this point. If you would like to watch the movie first, consider buying it on Amazon.

The movie starts off in the not-too-distant future, shortly after the state of California makes genome sequencing standard for all its citizens. “Within 12 months,” the film explains, “it is standard in 39 states.”

This is vital for the rise of The Perfect 46 company. Genome sequencing exists today, but it is too expensive for most companies to build popular services from it. In this fictional world, however, the costs are dramatically reduced by the standardization of genome-sequencing, allowing the CEO of the company, Jesse Darden, to start the first truly popular genome-matching service.

As the fake company website promoting the movie demonstrates, the service is simple: any couple who has paid for the service logs into the website, they allow the company access to their genomes, and then an algorithm determines how susceptible their children will be to various diseases. If there is a low chance of disease or some other disorder, the service will tell the couple that they “match.” If not… well, that’s where some of the trouble comes in.

Many couples who were already married signed up for the service and were told that they did not match, leading to a string of divorces—including, as it turns out, Darden himself. This, creates other problems for Darden later on, when two men break into his home for reasons unknown until the end of the movie.

By strict movie standards, the film is okay. The personal stories are hard to sympathize with and the acting in the narrative parts of the film is often subpar. However, the relative scientific accuracy of the film, the believability of the rise and fall of the company, and the questions the story intentionally emphasizes make it indispensable as a conversation-starter.

Many of the questions the film focuses on aren’t unique to genome-sequencing. For instance, at the company’s senate hearing, Darden states that the service’s matching-algorithm “is proprietary and must remain a secret for competitive reasons.” In another place in the film, he argues that “our privacy stopped existing a long time ago,” echoing nearly identical statements made by Mark Zuckerberg.

Others are more specific. In one scene featuring a meeting early in the company’s history, we witness employees arguing over the definition of “natural” and how it applies to their own work. Essentially, they are asking themselves how much of their humanness they want to keep, reflecting Warner Herzog’s warning in his recent Reddit AMA:

The movie is important for rewilders because it is quite clear that the issues surrounding genetics are, more than any other issue, going to be the catalyst for the growth of our tendency. When services like The Perfect 46 become subject to popular scrutiny, the questions and concerns posed by rewilders, which seem fringe now, will make much more sense. This applies especially to those of the wildist variant.

For instance, wildists often mention nomadic hunter/gatherers as a useful contrast to modern life and sometimes even posit it as an ideal—a way of life that best aligns with their values, achievable or not. In our present historical context, this sounds insane. But when we consider the biopolitical world of The Perfect 46 and the fact that we are still biologically in the Stone Age, the ideal makes a lot more sense: we are not seeking to return to a specific social arrangement so much as noting that opposite of the ethic of Progress—the ethic of conservation—would only logically have a nomadic hunter/gatherer ideal. Of course, this has long made sense in the context of non-human conservation because of the threat of civilized development (see, e.g., Pleistocene rewilding), but it will take the blatant threat to human nature that is genetic tinkering before such an ideal makes sense to those outside of the population of scientists studying human behavior (see, e.g., evolutionary psychology).

The movie also illustrates what kinds of narratives wildists might have to compete with in this coming biopolitical world.  Consider this conversation between Darden, company employees, and dinner guests at Darden’s home:

Woman, unsure of the service: “But what if these flaws that you’re bringing out of people are the very thing that makes them brilliant in the first place?”

Darden: “Dostoevsky wasn’t a literary genius because of his epilepsy. He was a literary genius despite.”

Man, frustrated with Darden’s arrogance: “No that’s not true. You have no way of telling that.”

[…]

Employee: “What we’re doing isn’t changing who people fundamentally are. It’s…allowing them to be who they are. They’re not hindered by a disease or a disorder.”

Man again: “Well it’s convenient for you guys to say that, right? That’s what you’re promoting, that’s your mission statement. Don’t we all want perfect? We should all want perfect, right? …You’re talking about manufacturing a person, okay. A human being.”

Note the two different complaints here. The first is compatible, and in some ways synonymous, with the conservative, pessimistic critique of Progress outlined by wildists (see, e.g., “Technical Autonomy“). For instance, the woman echoes the pessimistic philosophers in wondering whether some amount of suffering, some amount of disease, some amount of pain, is part of our overall condition. To change this condition may be possible with technics, but, as Rubin put it in The Eclipse of Man, not only is this likely to result in unintended consequences, it lacks any sort of grounding, moral or otherwise, since in modifying our genomes we are or may be modifying the very desires by which we measure “Progress” in the first place. As a result:

It becomes harder and harder for [us] to imagine what will be retained, hence where change will start from. And if the rate of change is accelerating, that simply means we are headed the more rapidly from one unknown to another, while the recognizable old standards for judging whether the changes are progressive are overthrown with our humanity.

But then a second story comes along: “You’re talking about manufacturing a person, okay. A human being.” And here is where certain narratives start to subtly compete.

Most of the issues the movie discusses are humanist, social justice concerns. They do not question genetic engineering per se, only how it might exacerbate racial tension, class tension, or other divides that will threaten social stability. Of course, in the real world these topics also dominate discussions about genetic engineering. As a result, it is not uncommon to see many humanists partially or completely rejecting many biotechnics.

This broad uneasiness with the technics is partly why it makes such a good wedge issue for rewilders: we are unlikely to ever be more than a very small minority, so it makes sense for us to take advantage of issues full of ambiguous overlap with humanism. But in our own ranks we must take care to distinguish between the humanist and wildist narratives. Is the question whether humans will act as humans do and sometimes exploit people with these new technics, or is the question whether Progress, perfectibility, and improvement of nature are tenable and desirable goals? Is the question whether we are “manufacturing…a human being” or is it the engineering ethic itself?

Ultimately the film ends with the company falling due to an error in its algorithm, one that accidentally matches couples likely to produce babies with Tay Sachs. A review in Science notes:

The irony will not be lost on viewers who recognize Tay-Sachs screening as one of the earliest success stories of real-life genetic screening for potential couples: an effort that began in the 1970s now includes a wider spectrum of genetic disorders and has reduced the birth rate of TSD babies in the Ashkenazi Jewish community by at least 90%.

Artistically, it’s a perfectly crafted narrative, and it also gets at the heart of the question of unintended consequences. But the film does not end here. In line with its overall realism, it suggests that another, competing genome-matching company continues to thrive, the fall of The Perfect 46 an unfortunate result of their being the pioneering company in the field. In the film, barring collapse, genome-sequencing and genome-matching are permanent fixtures of society. Which ultimately leaves us with our final question: Who in this world will fight back?

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