So it now looks as though the universal wheel of fortune is anything but random—it’s rigged, and rigged good. We asked the Onlooker’s resident intern to suss out the ramifications of the recent discovery of a human gene that bestows good fortune upon those who carry it. I mean, it’s gotta be totally unfair, right?
posted on 31/02/2012 at 10.34 am
The discovery last month of a hereditary unit for ‘luck’ is making waves in the gene pool. Actually, it’s caused the whole world to go troppo. Stop it, everyone! You’re all acting batshit, mad as bananas, stark raving bonkers. It’s like we’re living in that Lord of the Flies book, but on a worldwide scale. Crazy!
The gene, with the official scientific name FFTB128, has been quickly nicknamed the ‘lucky’ gene by pretty much every media outlet. (Admittedly, this latest example of nicknaming bucks the irksome trend for cock-and-bull that has heretofore accompanied the nicknaming of genes—like the invented ‘skinny’ gene or the hoax ‘frog-toed’ gene—as FFTB128 is now undeniably and scarily bona fide, scientifically speaking.) The discovery has been the catalyst for recent upheavals: the violent public riots, the months-long arguments in parliaments, the logjams in every judicial system, the rapid shifts within humanities and social sciences. It has of course been the talking point of every smoke break and dinner party.
FFTB128 is the latest human gene to be fully characterised. Unveiled last month by those gung-ho geneticists at Chengdu Polytechnic, it is in many ways like any other gene: made up of a distinct sequence of nucleotides (the building blocks that are the basic structural units of nucleic acids such as DNA), which in turn constitute part of a chromosome (the classic double helix; see Jurassic Park), the order of which determines the arrangement of monomers in a nucleic acid molecule that a cell may synthesise. Wikipedia gobbledygook, I know. In layman’s terms, FFTB128, like all genes, is a unit of genetic inheritance that is transferred from parent to offspring and contributes to the characteristics of the offspring. Ipso facto: you are your parents, and/or also their parents, and/or also their parents’ parents, ad infinitum. (You are also a product of your environment. As scientists are wont to say: the genetic template you are born with doesn’t function in a vacuum.) Your lineage is a great big slippery slide, with parts and pieces slewing straight from your ancestors to you. You have freckles? Because of your parents. You have big feet? Because of your parents. You love cheesy foods and watching soon-to-be-axed sitcoms, just to see if you can spot the reasons why the sitcom has been marked for cancellation, using your nonspecialist knowledge of socio-demographic considerations and cost-cutting budgets? Probably because of your parents, although also probably nothing to do with genetics. Still, the point is that although FFTB128 is a gene possessed by everyone, only a small percentage of people have the specific allele (the particular mutation) of the gene that means it will be active, and now that we know about it, now that it’s no longer hiding quietly between genes DEFB370 and SMAR884, it’s wreaking havoc like no other gene before.
What makes FFTB128 so extraordinary, so repercussive? Well, primarily it’s all because it is the first gene discovered in humans—in any living species of plant or animal—that acts upon its vessel in a constant, physical, manifest and, most importantly, instantaneous way. All other genes shoot their wads early, say at conception, and do it slowly too, but FFTB128 keeps shooting its wad, over and over, rapidly, throughout the carrier’s life, meaning that it is an active agent in the second-by-second existence of said carrier. On top of this, although geneticists can now comprehensively outline what processes the FFTB128 genes trigger, and can watch at a microscopic level the genes as they trigger together, none can say what outside influence actually triggers them. As far as we can tell for now, FFTB128 seems to function either completely on its own, or—and take careful note of this—by receiving signals from somewhere, signals that are at this time imperceptible to the most sensitive of scientific equipment. It’s a real mystery. The genes are not triggered by organic proteins, nor by electrical current, nor by chemicals, nor by naturally occurring radiations of the body. This is why FFTB128 is known by nicknames other than ‘lucky’, nicknames to do with religion, faith and spirituality. Some have started calling it the ‘divine’ gene, or the ‘holy’ gene, or even the ‘god’ gene. And what’s even curiouser is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue with them. As the New York Times reported recently:
From Christianity to Buddhism, Islam to Scientology, Wicca to Jediism, religions and spiritual groups around the world have scrambled to claim FFTB128 as the much awaited proof that backs up their long-held faith, proof that the sacred exists not on an astral plane or inside the mind, but physically within us (or at least the ‘chosen few’ among us). Yet for all the initial religious squabbling, disparate denominations do now seem to be in agreement that the discovery of FFTB128 heralds a new dawn for spirituality. And stranger still: thus far there haven’t been any dissenting opinions from those who typically challenge religious championing. Whether non-believers are simply gob-smacked (or god-smacked) is not yet known, but so far the expected war of words over the ‘lucky’ gene has been a wholly (holy?) one-sided fight. (NYT, ‘Jesus, Muhammad, Hubbard, Siddhartha & Skywalker: All carriers of the ‘lucky’ gene?’, 12 December 2011)
FFTB128 works like so: when a person who has the active variant of the gene is faced with a choice, be it an everyday one (e.g. what to eat, when to sleep, will I cut my toenails now or later) or a momentous one (e.g. should I quit my job and become a yoga teacher, should I murder my boyfriend because his nose whistles when he sleeps, should I push this button to launch all the nuclear missiles), the multitude of that person’s FFTB128 genes all immediately ‘switch on’ in such a way as to influence the decision in a manner that advantages the person. But how? Well, the term being bandied around at the moment is ‘rattling’. The genes oscillate—or ‘rattle’—when the person closes in on the option that is the most propitious or auspicious for them, and the genes will fall silent if the person moves towards any other option. It sounded a tad absurd at first, almost like an ongoing submolecular game of Hot or Cold. Are they serious? was the widespread reaction to Chengdu Polytechnic’s geneticists. Could rattling genes really be letting some of us know whether we are getting ‘warmer’ or ‘cooler’, closer or further away from good fortune? Obviously the interesting stuff is happening at a microscopic level. It’s the nucleotides that rattle in uncanny unison, which in turn gently vibrates the whole chromosome, and this vibrating shimmies up the chain of nucleic acid so that a person on the crest of making the most personally advantageous decision is almost literally humming with subliminal and subcellular good advice. But just why a carrier allegedly—and apparently unconsciously—proceeds to obey the chordal rattling of a coterie of genes is as yet undetermined. If this is our new reality then it seems that those of us who believe in the autonomous process of decision-making will instead need to accept that some of us are under the sway of a Stasi-like molecular constabulary. To call this discomfiting would be an understatement.
This is what we know: the active variant of FFTB128 pushes people—physically persuades them on a microscopic but incredibly forceful level—towards circumstances that will benefit them individually. Such circumstances can differ greatly: they could be tangible situations occurring in the ‘real world’ that you and I inhabit, or they could be completely cerebral and involve thought patterns and decision-making taking place in a person’s mind. But the point is that the vast number of infinitesimal biological scintillas that make you you in a purely physical sense also make you you in a metaphysical sense. In the same way that one ancient Egyptian on his own couldn’t possibly construct the pyramids or carve the Sphinx, but hundreds of thousands or even millions could, and did, one nucleotide or molecule mightn’t be able to cajole a person to do or say or think something, but millions of them working in harmony could. And do.
Exactly how the genes know which ‘choice’ will benefit the carrier the most is by far the biggest mystery. Just how is a squadron of evenly dispersed and allied genes able, in just a few microseconds, to comprehend the almost infinite possible futures of a person and recommend the best course of action? It is certainly possible that science is not the place to look for the answer to this question. What is known is that the genes have been correct each time they have been put to the test. It’s remarkable. Just think about how many times a day you make decisions, at home, at work, everywhere. Now think about the possibility that you have a vast molecular chorus that exists inside you, a silent choir that sings and shimmies in order to propel you towards the best option with every decision you make. You would never be conscious of the guidance your FFTB128 genes are giving you, but you would always follow their direction. If you have any thoughts about fate or destiny or free will, this is the time to revisit them.
Now to catch the really hot potato. Early figures indicate that around 4–6 per cent of the world’s population possess the mutant ‘lucky’ allele of the FFTB128 gene. This allele has thus far been classed as non-threatening. It has not been listed as a genetic disorder. (If you think about it, of course it’s non-threatening—it’s threat-reducing, really. And it’s the opposite of a genetic disorder, but I’m not sure what the opposite of that is. If a genetic disorder is an impediment, then is FFTB128 an empowerment? If a disorder is a disease, is FFTB128 a nourisher? An enabler? A godsend?)
Many celebrities and people in positions of power have already been tested. Tests have also been done on the DNA of certain deceased luminaries, and the results are astounding. The VIPs and dignitaries tested have been shown to possess the FFTB128 allele in a much higher frequency than the average: they record positive results 70–75 per cent more frequently than their subset population (compare that to the earlier figure for the general population of 4–6 per cent). So, what does this say about concepts such as fame, popularity and democracy? Some popular celebrities, in a seemingly vain attempt to quell the tumult, have made public their genetic test results. Those who have tested positive to having an active ‘lucky’ gene include (but are not limited to): Ashton Kutcher, David and Victoria Beckham, Oprah Winfrey, Paris Hilton, Jon Bon Jovi, Heidi Klum, Germaine Greer, Natalie Portman, Sarah Palin, Jonathan Franzen, Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton, Anna Wintour, Silvio Berlusconi, every member of the Osbourne family (Ozzy, Sharon, Kelly, Jack), Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford and Werner Herzog. Moreover, a joint raid by the hacktivist groups 4chan and Anonymous resulted in the mass infiltration of confidential US government files in which the health records—and more pertinently the genetic coding—of every US president was stolen. Expert examination of these files suggests that almost 90 per cent of US presidents possess(ed) the mutant FFTB128 gene, and particularly ‘rattly’ types of the gene for the most part. (I’ll give points for those guessing in the comments just which few presidents didn’t possess an active form of the gene, although you’d be surprised, for it’s not as obvious as you think.)
Like all genetic material, FFTB128 is hereditary, though not consistent. Still, it is rare for ‘lucky’ parents to have offspring with dormant FFTB128 genes. (There is speculation that this is due to the FFTB128 gene: from early analysis of ‘lucky’ parents, it has been suggested that the FFTB128 gene draws together people who are highly likely to produce children who will also have active ‘lucky’ genes. Keeping it in the family, so to speak.) Still, it is biologically possible for a person to have two ‘lucky’ parents and not be ‘lucky’ themselves.
An array of organised groups such as white supremacists, ardent nationalists, perfervid misogynists and other racialist and sectarian blocs have claimed that the mutant version of FFTB128 is more likely to be found in their chosen race, sex or creed. This claim has not yet been substantiated. Not at all. Not in the slightest.
One intriguing stream of tangential research that is coming out of Dorkin University in Melbourne, Australia, has revealed that there is a particular category of people who can possess active FFTB128 genes and yet somehow also have the ability to ignore the biological guidance. This means that they are choosing the ‘wrong’ option for just about every decision they face, but each decision can be ‘wrong’ in a way that is ‘right’ from a nefarious and immoral perspective. How? Each member of this tiny subset benefits from being ‘lucky’, but simultaneously enjoys a self-determination that allows them a rare type of independence. Whereas the vast majority of people who make a ‘wrong’ choice are those without the ‘lucky’ gene, this category of person is predisposed to making the most ‘wrong’ of choices while also being a carrier of a strong ‘lucky’ allele. Thus they survive what would ordinarily be fatal errant decision-making and go on to make choices that affect others in an extremely harmful way. The Dorkin researchers contend that we all know these human beings. We know their names, their faces, their deeds. They are infamous in our histories, for they are the tyrants and murderers and malefactors that we have tended throughout the ages to brand as ‘evil’. But evil now has a new name.
Another revelation, this time by palaeontologists working at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, is already causing the history books to be rewritten. Ancient human history, that is. You see, it looks as though a particular structural idiosyncrasy of the DNA of Homo neanderthalensis meant that it could never develop the FFTB128 gene. This information may help explain how and why Homo sapiens became the dominant humanoid species on earth. Ugly folk, those Neanderthals, and now unlucky too.
Unfortunately not all FFTB128-related revelations are resulting in such constructive reconsiderations. Many societal institutions are struggling to adjust to the discovery; legal systems, corporate entities, government bodies: all are at sea. Cases of total breakdown are becoming common. Civil courts around the world are backlogged with cases brought by people without the ‘lucky’ gene who are suing for discrimination. For example: a former bank employee in Scotland is suing his employer for unfair dismissal, maintaining that it’s his unluckiness (his lack of the active FFTB128 allele)—and not his poor mathematical ability nor his propensity for criminal behaviour—that explains why he kept accidentally giving out too much money to bank customers. A shopper in Cape Town, South Africa, successfully sued a department store after it was found that the claimant (who doesn’t possess the active ‘lucky’ gene) purchased a pair of quite expensive pumps from a particular bouffanted salesperson, and discovered a week later that an acquaintance (whose ‘lucky’ gene is active) had received a significant discount on an identical pair of pumps from the same salesperson without even having to ask. An ongoing industrial strike in Canada by the National Sewage Workers Union has evolved into a mass action, as it was recently revealed that not one member of the 2000-strong union possessed active FFTB128 genes; the union argues that the only reason all 2000 sewage workers work in the human waste industry is because they are genetically ‘unlucky’. A burgeoning posse of indignant residents in Wellington, New Zealand, are suing their local supermarket for not delineating special ‘unlucky’ parking spots for those genetically unlucky people who have to drive around the car park seven times before they find a parking spot as far as possible from the front entrance of the supermarket. A Facebook group called ‘Don’t you hate it when you drop your iPhone once and the screen cracks but your friend drops theirs all the time and their screen never cracks?’, which had just over 4500 members before the news of the ‘lucky’ gene broke, has now launched a class-action lawsuit against Apple for not immediately moving to provide additional safety features (e.g. stronger screens, foam padding, a bouncier shell) for ‘unlucky’ customers (the group’s Facebook membership now numbers 3.8 million).
By and large, the general public is not quite sure who to be angry at, and everyone is therefore turning on each other. Each person suspects everybody else of being more lucky than they are, and thus a worldwide feeling of bitter sullenness has begun to prevail. In the past, genetic alleles were rare enough to not really impede societal workings; minorities with burdens are no burden at all. And genetic differences were always either blamed on something (alcohol, drugs, the misbehaviour of nuclear energy companies) or were just put down to misfortune (instances such as people born with ugly feet, or three nipples, or ginger hair). Cases like this were not deemed harmful because they didn’t affect everyone.
Even before the ‘lucky’ gene was discovered, there were some real doozies of genes out there, with clever-cruel nicknames to match. There is the ‘tinman’ gene (where an embryo lacks the gene that eventually prompts it to sprout a heart); the ‘cheap date’ gene (this results in a hypersensitivity to alcohol); the ‘Van Gogh’ gene (this leads to a peculiar swirling hair pattern); the ‘amontillado’ gene (this affects poultry only, in that eggs are unable to hatch, as in Fortunado from ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, who was walled-in alive); the ‘Maggie’ gene (where a person’s development is arrested, à la Maggie Simpson); the ‘Methuselah’ gene (where a person lives a lot longer than average); and the ‘Lilliputian’ gene (where a person will be very, very small). But they all occur too rarely to have ever gained the limelight. Now, because of FFTB128, there seems to be a worldwide and preordained two-tiered genetic hierarchy: ‘lucky’ ones, and ‘others’, who are not so much ‘unlucky’ as ‘just not as lucky’. We are seeing global segregation. It’s Us versus Them, the Blessed versus the Ignored, the Rattlers versus the Quiets.
A solution that has been proffered—although it might create an even larger problem, if you think about it—is that we go down the path of widespread gene modification. This solution proposes that anyone with non-rattling FFTB128 genes can choose to have the gene stimulated in some way as to activate it. Some medical groups are already lobbying to have the procedure—when it is developed, and that will be sooner rather than later, it would seem—classed as gene therapy, meaning that those without the ‘lucky’ gene would be classified as having a genetic disorder. But what happens when a much larger percentage of the population suddenly becomes ‘lucky’? Is there a balance that would be upset? Is it even possible for so many people to be ‘lucky’ at the same time? What would a lucky society look like? How about a lucky world?
In the course of researching this article I have been genetically tested for the existence of an active ‘lucky’ allele. I won’t keep you in suspense: I tested positive. I possess a beautifully rattly bunch of FFTB128 genes. Now this might not come as a surprise to you, dear reader. You might have already assumed that I am ‘lucky’. Maybe it’s because I am only fourteen years old and yet somehow I’ve managed to procure this highly sought-after internship at this most respected of online publications. Maybe it’s because you’ve heard of my recent massive success as an amateur broker for one of the largest hedge funds in this country. Maybe it’s because you’ve seen me in tabloid rags and society pages on the arm of one very popular and good-looking star of the cinematic world. But before you commit to an opinion—whether you think of me as unfairly fortunate or as a member of a necessary elite—stop for a moment and consider how a ‘lucky’ person like me might feel. There are questions no-one wants to be forced to ask themselves. Has anything I’ve ever achieved been because I earned it? Could I fail even if I wanted to? Is this proof that God really does exist, and if so, why have I been favoured? Is that humming coming from me or from my computer?
I choose—nay, I suppose my FFTB128 alleles choose—to write and publish this article in the hope of bringing some measure to a dialogue that has thus far been anarchic. Because right now, among all this madness, I’m not sure if a single one of us, whether ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’, is feeling fortunate. As always, please offer your thoughts in the comments box below. #YOLO! M