Bioethics in the Hunger Games: Evaluating the Effects of Genetic Engineering through Popular Fiction

Article excerpt

Students are immensely interested in the acclaimed science fiction trilogy, The Hunger Games (Collins 2008), which was made into a popular movie in 2012. In the story, Panem, a post-apocalyptic version of North America, uses genetically engineered organisms, such as jabberjays and tracker jackers, to frighten citizens to keep them in line.

Students often wonder about our real-life abilities to create hybrid species. In fact, cross-species gene splicing is becoming increasingly common. Recent examples include the Enviropig that incorporates mouse DNA to improve digestion of phosphorus, jellyfish genes being used to make pigs glow, and experimental mice being given a "humanized" version of a gene linked to speech.

So, if hybrids are possible in real life, what are the implications for society? Are there bioethical issues to consider regarding the possible effects of these new technologies on people as well as on the organisms themselves? Investigating questions like these through popular fiction allows students to achieve many of the literacy goals out-lined in the Common Core State Standards (NGAC and CCSSO 2010) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013). (Note: While this activity centers on the The Hunger Games, it could easily be adapted for other books or films. For example, the classic 1997 film Gattaca explores similar issues involving genetic modification in humans.)

Literary connection

In the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy, mockingjays are described as descendants of engineered jabberjays who were manipulated so they could recall and repeat what they heard people say, similarly to parrots. Mockingjays developed unintentionally: The officials at Panem high command created genetically modified male jabberjays that could eavesdrop on rebel conversations and repeat them to the authorities. The rebels caught on and started feeding the jabberjays false information. That led authorities to abandon the jabberjays in the wild, hoping they would die off. Instead, the jabberjays mated with female mockingbirds, spawning mockingjays that could learn and repeat musical notes but not memorize words. The inability of the government to control these animals made them a symbol for the rebellion.

Panem's Capitol city commanders used the tracker jackers--genetically engineered wasps--to attack anything that disturbed their nests, serving as cruel reminders of the commanders' power over the inhabitants.

This part of the story raises questions about real life: Should hybrid species be regulated? What are the possible effects of hybrids mating with native species? In this vein, students can research the effects of real-life cases of hybrid species affecting native populations. Then they can form guidelines for determining the ethical treatment and humane protection of both native and hybrid populations. A striking example of this issue is the Glofish, considered the first genetically modified pet and often used in science classrooms as a bio indicator to test for pollution and other chemicals. Glofish released into the wild are thought to be threatening native fish populations (Mueller and Zeidler 2010).

Project description

In this guided inquiry, students investigate advantages and disadvantages of genetic engineering by integrating popular fiction into their study of bioethics. What are the effects of artificially created hybrid creatures on characters in The Hunger Games and in our society? What are the effects on and basic rights of the organisms themselves given their unnatural en-try into the world? What impact might these hybrids have on native species? To consider the consequences of genetically engineered organisms in our own society, students must research current practices and policies, as well as contemporary case studies of genetically engineered organisms. Centered on a cognitively scaffolded set of guiding assessment prompts (Figure 1, p. …