Wisdom of Gattaca: Measuring Human Potential

I recently spent a whole month researching and writing about aliens.  For a science fiction writer like me, learning about astrobiology—the scientific search for and eventual study of alien life—is an immensely valuable source of inspiration.  However, there is more to Sci-Fi than aliens and outer space.

I think I always knew this on some level, but the first movie to really make me understand it was Gattaca.  Growing up with Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who, I thought I had a pretty good feel for what science fiction was all about. While Gattaca didn’t totally break the mold (it does have spaceships, after all), it stretched the limits of the genre as I understood it at the time.

It was also a movie that raised a lot of questions and did not always supply the audience with easy answers.  Take this scene where the Mission Director at Gattaca talks about “a new measuring stick” for human potential.

Mission Director: We have to ensure that people are meeting their potential.

Police Detective: And exceeding it?

M.D.: No one exceeds his potential.

P.D.: If he did?

M.D.: It would simply mean that we did not accurately gauge his potential in the first place.

I really don’t want to agree with the Mission Director’s point.  I’m pretty sure, given the overall themes Gattaca explores, that the movie doesn’t want me to agree with him.  And yet it’s really hard to argue against the Mission Director’s logic here.

You can’t really “turn it up to eleven.”  You can’t really “give 110%,” because that’s just not how percentages work.  People may underestimate you.  You may underestimate yourself.  But you do have limits.  You can’t do more than you’re capable of doing, you can’t achieve more than you’re able to achieve… can you?

So I don’t really know how I feel about this exchange of dialogue, except that maybe the Mission Director’s logic started from a faulty premise.  Maybe the very idea of “a new measuring stick” for human potential is wrong.  Maybe human potential isn’t a thing that can be measured at all.  Maybe it’s not a quantifiable thing, at least not in the way the Mission Director presumes that it is.

But I don’t know.  Have you seen this movie?  Do you agree with what the Mission Director is saying?  Do you disagree? Let me know in the comments!

14 thoughts on “Wisdom of Gattaca: Measuring Human Potential

  1. I saw the movie ages ago, so I can’t really comment on the movie. But the Mission Director’s logic strikes me as more of a language problem than any real insight into human nature. I define human potential as an absolute limit and therefore it is, so any surprises are just measurement error. Or something with a different definition. It’s like asking if a virus is alive. The answer depends more on your definition than on the virus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very good way of looking at it. And I think a lot of people do this. They’re so caught up in quibbling over how to define a term that they miss the whole point.


  2. I really need to watch this movie. I’ve seen bits and parts of it, but never the whole thing.

    Sounds like the Mission Director was literally right. Also sounds like he was a persnickety schmuck for being so literal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess that’s true. Time is one of the most precious resources in our lives, and once its gone you can never get it back. So it really is a limiting factor in what we can accomplish.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The search for Aliens beats me. Who knows whats at the end of the tunnel. I guess its only a matter of time before an alien pops up and waves back to the people of Earth through our very own telescopes, 🙂 How cool is that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That day may come. The next generation of telescopes are supposed to be very good at observing exoplanets. There are many things we may end up seeing out there!


  4. I think I watched it for a science class in high school? Possibly middle school. But from what I remember I agree with you, I don’t think the movie wants us to agree with the mission director.

    Genetic predetermism (my spell check doesn’t think that’s a word, but it can’t tell me what to gd do) is ridiculously limiting when you consider that so many human traits, particularly behavioral traits, can be influenced by so much more than genetics. I don’t think science could get to a point where it could literally predict and map every single possible influence on everything you might accomplish in your entire life beyond a reasonable doubt. The movie is a giant middle finger to the idea that science could do this.

    I mean, the main character undergoes an incredibly painful surgery just to make himself taller — who could’ve predicted that? It’s so stupid and ultimately pointless, yet literally a requirement of the situation he’s in. Human beings will do an amazingly stupid array of things when their backs are against the wall.

    … I’m going to have to rewatch this movie now, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a great movie, well worth rewatching. That leg surgery scene still makes me cringe. But it’s still really inspiring to see someone do whatever it takes to follow his dream, no matter what stupid obstacles society throws in his way.

      Liked by 1 person

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