Bioethics at the Movies: Review of Minority Report

 

Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, Minority Report is set in the year 2054. The “pre-crime division” of the police force is pilot-testing a program in which crimes are stopped before they are committed. John Anderton (Tom Cruise) leads pre-crime division made up of members who combine SWAT team/special forces skills to intervene in crimes and murders before they happen and thus save society from evil. Crime is down 90%, no murders have occurred in the previous six years in the Washington DC pilot-test area, lives are saved, and society is protected because of the ability to predict crimes before they happen.

What marvelous new technology enables this amazing prediction of evil in the heart of man? Pre-cogs. Pre-cogs who can predict crime, especially murder before it happens.

Who or what are these pre-cogs? Children. Yes, children. Innocent children born to drug addicted women. Children who are born with severe brain damage as a result of their mother’s addiction. Unanticipated effects of experimental treatment intended to help the children presents an example of science gone haywire. As a result of their “treatment,” these children develop the surprising ability to see the future in their dreams. Their “gift to the world” is to wake up at night and dream only of murders. In an ironic twist—or perhaps some sort of cosmic joke—these murders were actually happening. Through an advanced EEG-like technology, Pre-Crime officers are able to see on a computer screen what the pre-cogs dream, analyze the data, identify the perpetrator and victim, predict the future, and save the world.

John Anderton’s motivation to reduce crime, especially after the senseless unsolved murder of his own six-year-old son, heightens his sense of justice and belief in the pre-crime system until the pre-cogs predict he will commit a murder in the next 36 hours. Minority Report is a rich and fascinating exploration of multiple bioethical themes: justice, legal assumptions of guilt and innocence, parental consent and subject ascent in medical research, utilitarian views of scientific progress versus individual rights, the role of memory even painful memory in human development, the role of mind altering drugs, and issues of neuroethics, just to name a few. However, the theme of predicting and therefore preventing evil is at the root of the primary premise.

Predicting and preventing evil in not a new thought, even for scientists who have a long history of attempting to identify a possible genetic basis for evil. It is reminiscent of controversy in the 1970s, a time of recent advances in genetic screening, newborn screening, and the ability to identify XYY males. Several papers had been published identifying an increased number of XYY males in penal institutions. Richard Speck, on trial for the murder of eight nurses in Chicago was rumored to be XYY. A leading geneticist was quoted as saying, “We can’t be sure XYY actually makes someone a criminal but I wouldn’t invite an XYY home to dinner”

Science published a paper by Ernst Hook in 1973 titled, “Behavioral Implications of the Human XYY Genotype.”[1] His study reviewed the available data on the XYY genotype and the increased incidence of XYY males in penal institutions. The paper addressed three questions: 1) Is an XYY male significantly more likely than an XY male to be found in settings for antisocial deviant individuals? 2) If not, then how has the present controversy arisen; but if so, then what is the nature and extent of the association between the XYY genotype and the tendency to such placement? 3) What is the magnitude of risk for an XYY individual, specifically a newborn, of eventually manifesting antisocial behavior compared to that for an XY individual born to similar circumstances? Hook concluded that there was a significant association between the XYY genotype and antisocial behavior. This resulted in significant controversy, review of research methodology and protocols, the role of causal inference, and reflection on newborn screening and patient rights. Not a bad list of issues to reflect on.

Illustrative references are listed below and can be utilized to illustrate how the dramatic portrayal of “scientific attempts to predict evil” seen in the movie Minority Report played out in one real life setting.

  • Culliton, Barbara. “Patients’ Rights: Harvard is Site of Battle over X and Y Chromosomes.” Science Vol. 186 November 22, 1974, 715-716.
  • Knox, SJ and Nevin, NC. “XYY Chromosomal Constitution in Prison Populations. Nature. 222(193):596, 1969 May 10.
  • Wiener, S, Sutherland, G, Bartholomew, AA and Hudson, B. “XYY Males in a Melbourne Prison.” Lancet. 1(7534):150, 1968 January 20.

 

References


[1] Hook, Ernest. “Behavioral Implications of the Human XYY Genotype.” Science Vol. 179 January 1973, 139-148.

 

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