Television Review

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The Independent Culture
In Designer Babies (BBC1), the perfect solution emerged for how to make your children do what they are told. Get to them while they are still dozing in the womb.

Genetically modified children was the subject - the practical possibilities of choosing desirable genes for the next generation. Gentle mischief was made with some of the contributors. One scientist talked about how, with the full roll-call of human genes which the Human Genome Project aims at, science is "beginning to explore what it really means to be human". The disquieting overtones of his assertion were emphasised with a close up that was so in- your-face that his features had begun to warp. From this distorted perspective he looked like Martin Scorsese, and you wouldn't, the subtext seemed to read, trust the future of humanity to a chap who resembles the director of Taxi Driver.

But there were further problems, too, as the said scientist was clearly conflating description and understanding. Even if mission is accomplished, and all 100,000-odd human genes are pinned down, that is not quite the same as knowing what it "means" to be human. Call me an old-fashioned Cartesian, but that, surely, is still a philosophical project. Furthermore, what does science do with all that data - firstly, how does it process the vast pool of results and, secondly, how does it make sense of them.

If the script was at best uneven, the loaded visual imagery ranged from subtle to misjudged. An opening shot of a baby sitting on a black-and- white DNA strip conjured an apposite image of a bar-code, but a later shot of how the new technology could create a social underclass was illuminated by a crying baby. It was unfortunate that the wailing infant was black. Unimaginative linking shots consisted of rows of tailors' dummies having make-up applied.

The gene for neurosis had been identified, we were told at one point. Round up and shoot those miserable genetic sons of bitches and it would be as if we were on a permanent Prozac drip. Which would be good news up to a point, but the film skipped gaily past a sinister implication for the human condition, since altering the gene controlling depression would surely have a side-effect for who we are and what we create. Imagine upbeat incarnations of Virginia Woolf or John Keats, for instance. There would also be no Tony Hancock or Spike Milligan to cheer the miserable, genetically inferior underclass, and Edward Munch's "Smile" wouldn't carry the same weight. It is amazing what science can do; identify the gene for poetry and then threaten to wipe it out.

Little folks, too, could be in danger. The technique of embryo selection could be used to prevent short children, which, as my companion who watched the film with me pointed out, would be one way to abolish the royal family.

The main concern of the programme was that science will not be able to undo what it has done. We might soon be able to make our children's brown eyes blue, but among the genetically modified population, will there be anyone left with the soul to sing like Aretha Franklin?

Robert Hanks is away