Cognition & Reality

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

“Heroes,” Genetics And Nonsense

Mainly because Netflix said I might like it, I streamed the first two episodes of the first season of “Heroes,” the NBC science-fiction drama. The basic idea of the show is that, scattered across the globe, there are individuals whose genetics gives them extraordinary powers, flight, invulnerability, teleportation, mind-reading, etc. The faith that the creator of the show, Tim Kring, places in genetic science is touching, puzzling, and fucking frightening.

The larger theme of the show, that evolution has produced people whose DNA is the key to the next step in human evolution, places genetics within a magical context. Because their heredity dramatically determines the destinies of the main characters in the show, who are among the genetic elect, genetics is portrayed as a mystical force, not unlike the force determining that only Arthur can draw Uther Pendragon’s sword from the Stone. Just as people once took for granted the divine right of kings, which was a theological construct, they now take for granted a scientific construct, thoroughgoing genetic determinism. Each construct is culturally coherent: The medieval creators of the King Arthur legend could not have accepted an explanation of his gifts based on genetics; nor could members of modern industrialized society, including most of the very religious, accept an explanation of someone’s gifts based on mystical election by God.

The writers have bolstered the show’s “scientific” basis by including a subplot involving the “genetics” of depression. When one of the mother of one of the main characters, Peter, tells him that , although Peter had not known it previously, his father had been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder at age 25, resulting in suicide, decades later. She is concerned about Peter because, as she says in AMA-approved language, “the disorder may have a genetic component,” and Peter is a sensitive, susceptible type. Sadly, we live in a time when such drivel has entered the very warp and woof of our culture.

The best propaganda does not, of course, appear to be propaganda. Propagandists know that a genuine argument is not the most persuasive form of communication. Rational discussion confuses people, and furthermore blunts the point at issue. That is what makes “Heroes” such a strong piece of propaganda. Like any decent piece of fiction, it requires suspension of disbelief. In order to enjoy the drama, one must accept genetic determinism, including the possibility that there are, as the show postulates, seemingly ordinary people whose DNA brings them extraordinary powers.

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