May 03, 2004

Varmus on Godsend

Posted by Ed

In yesterday's New York Times, Harold Varmus (a former head of the National Institute of Health) looks at the science in the new movie Godsend. The process of cloning, he suggests, is "vividly portrayed and quite accurate, except for the use of donor cells from someone who has been dead for a couple of days," but that doesn't mean that Varmus was impressed by the movie:

Ultimately the film is not really about the physical or ethical dangers of cloning; it asks us to experience the sensations of horror on classic premises: human perversity and scientific implausibility. The evil that produces the horror-film atmospherics is traced to a conventional villain: the mad, bad scientist, Dr. Wells, who rolls steel balls between his fingers like Captain Queeg of the Caine. Moreover, the consequences of the doctor's evil act the insertion of Zachary's DNA into Adam's clone (turning A to Z) are based on biological thinking much less plausible than a prediction that reproductive cloning will someday work efficiently and safely in humans. In fact, the far-fetched biological premise on which the horror finally hangs is only tangentially related to cloning: memory is presumed to be stored in the DNA of brain cells and to be transferable from one individual to another by injecting DNA fragments into an early (and, in this case, cloned) embryo.

To set the stage for this preposterous proposal, Dr. Wells tells the Duncans about an "urban legend" that rats can learn to run a maze by eating brains of maze-trained rats, thereby acquiring the DNA-imprinted memories of the educated animals. (Although the molecular basis of memory is not yet established, it is virtually certain to be recorded, not permanently in DNA but instead in less stable changes, like those involving the chemistry or folding of proteins.) We are then asked to accept another completely arbitrary idea, that the externally provided memory DNA kicks in, inciting nightmares, flashbacks and behavior patterns that belonged to Zachary, only when Adam No. 2 has passed the death day of Adam No. 1. Now we are in the realm of spooky music; the sudden appearance of hands wielding hammers; shower curtains ruffled by ghost-like apparitions; and scary moments in the cellar of that large new house or in the traditional horror chamber, the abandoned shed.

I'm not as convinced as Varmus is that anyone will take the science in Godsend seriously, but I'm always intrigued when academics discuss the content of movies that base their plots on a shaky factual basis.

Posted by Ed at May 3, 2004 12:54 PM

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