continued from previous
Olivia had decided to work from home today, having already picked up most of her personal belongings from the lab last night. She knew that any minute now, a dreaded e-mail from the University might pop up in her inbox – either announcing her immediate dismissal or summoning her to an investigation tribunal.
Those colleagues who had long antagonized her, coveted her success, or simply couldn’t wait to get rid of her, now had the perfect opportunity to do just that. She had handed one over to them on a silver platter: her detailed blogpost had already spread like wildfire on the web overnight, picked up by the media and summed up in sensationalized headlines. Some of the tabloids had been particularly nasty:
“Marine Institute scientist continues to waste taxpayer money with absurd new findings”
“Has Olivia lost the plot? Scientist publishes preliminary data for career-ending discovery”
“Controversial scientist now claims gene for empathy has been found”
She wasn’t shocked, or even phased by the headlines. Having been constantly at the center of media attention for many months for her research into the phytoplankton crisis, she had grown a thick skin. Most of all, she had learned the hard way that her job, the way she understood it, involved blocking all of this out. She wasn’t here to take this side or that side, to please this or that politician, or to engage in popular opinion debates. Her job was not to “manage” the truth or take the “safe” route the way politicians do.
Her job was to be a scientist: to get closer to the truth. To interpret the evidence that she came across in the most logical and impartial way. To not be afraid to craft, test and disprove her own theories and hypotheses if she saw fit. In the age of digital half-truths and deep fake journalism that had killed any critical thinking, her job as a scientist to shine a light on the truth seemed more challenging than ever – perhaps harder than even the likes of Galileo and other scientists who had lived long before her but were seen as dissidents, simply for daring to think. They had also found out, just like her, that the quest for truth can be a very lonely road.
Olivia wasn’t simply up against prejudice. She was up against the multi-headed beast of climate change denial and the AI-driven state PR machine. She was up against the algorithms and deep fake journalists of The Line. But retreating backwards now would have been a disservice not only to science, but to truth itself. She was ready to stand up for what she believed was a breakthrough scientific discovery – even if this meant pulling the plug on her university position.
At least some of the other news sources had decided to take on a more neutral, inquisitive stance:
“Scientist puts career on the line to reveal controversial discovery”
“If empathy is genetic, doesn’t this imply the same about apathy? New potential discovery from leading marine scientist”
One of them had even included an excerpt from her blog:
“The sequence, which so far appears to be present in all humans, is located in a remote DNA region that has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years, as indicated by the absence of any polymorphisms. Officially classified as junk DNA until recently, the broader location is far away from any significant known clusters of coding regions and is in fact quite a distance from the closest known gene. It is literally in the middle of nowhere. However, while in the control group this specific region of DNA is normally under high methylation, this has not been the case for the Minimalist individuals who overexpress the transcript. Their DNA has been selectively de-methylated over the coding stretch of the sequence by a process that is still not completely understood by science, both in terms of the exact mechanism by which it takes place as well as the chemical or other signals that may trigger this.”
“Whether the uncloaking of the sequence is a permanent trait of these individuals or has the potential to be brought about by an environmental stimulus, is yet another crucial subject for investigation which will need to take place in the future. A few of the positive volunteers did appear to have a history of life-changing trauma, which could be explored as a possible impetus for epigenetic changes at the DNA supramolecular level, and which may or may not in turn have been directly responsible for the expression of the sequence in these particular individuals. Although this is by far not an established DNA regulation mechanism, there are numerous cases reported in the literature of similar events observed in a few species, including mammals.”
“However, the possible correlation of an epigenetic change at the nucleic acid level to the psychological phenotype of a group of individuals would be a completely new finding, and one which at the very least deserves a further look, as it may open up a whole new area of research. While extensive further experiments would be needed before we can establish that a genetic basis for empathy has indeed been found, our results so far are profoundly and resoundingly supportive of such a correlation.”
“The likely future discovery of other, similar such sequences in our genetic code has the potential to uncover new biomarkers that function in the regulation of our behavior via hormonal or other biochemical cascades. These biomarkers can in turn become targets for the development of new, revolutionary psychoactive therapies with completely novel modes of action that would revolutionize healthcare and have the potential to change entire societies. We believe that these initial findings may have just given us a very short glimpse into what could be a new era of discovery, as we unlock further secrets of our genetic code: finally, being able to connect the mental to the physical, and vice versa. This may allow us one day to shed light into some of the biggest, toughest existential questions that our species is currently facing, before it is too late.”
Olivia’s closing note was highly personal and philosophical, something that the scientific establishment almost always looks down upon:
“Some feel that the answer to our existence lies in the future, in outer space: the galaxies, the supernovas and black holes that the technology titans tell us again and again are not only our destiny, but our obligation to explore. But I believe that our destiny is already here, in front of us, within us: it lies somewhere within the dark, mysterious vastness of our DNA’s most unexplored regions. Our genetic code has recorded all of our history, all of our past mistakes. If we learn to interpret it, we can rewrite our future history. We can attain the escape velocity that the human race desperately needs right now in order to save itself – from itself.”
(from the upcoming novel A New Earth)
to read from the beginning, go here
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books