Chief Science Correspondent
Fair warning: This article contains spoilers
Veronica Roth’s young adult trilogy (recently adapted into a movie last March) might not appear particularly unique.
The story of a 16-year-old girl living in a dystopian United States who rebels against her government’s control, it’s a bit like The Hunger Games with some Brave New World thrown in. Tris Prior might seem small and weak, but she proves that she is tough, to the point where she can be emotionally distant. Somehow, Tris becomes the leader of an overthrow against her strange society. But no matter what, she still cares about her family and her boyfriend, Tobias. In fact, she’ll sacrifice herself for them any day.
Ok, it’s a lot like The Hunger Games.
Here’s a summary for anyone who hasn’t read the series yet:
Tris lives in a city that is split into five factions: Abnegation, Candor, Amity, Erudite and Dauntless. Each faction has its own set of cultural principles. The Abnegation value selflessness, the Candor value truth, the Amity value peace, the Erudite value learning, and the Dauntless value bravery.
It’s a bit sketchy because, as you can imagine, valuing one virtue over everything else isn’t that great. The Abnegation tend to be boring, while the Dauntless can be ruthless and cruel.
Children are raised in the faction of their parents, but at 16 years of age are given a simulated aptitude test telling them what faction they are most suited toward. Then, they must choose a faction that they wish to stay in. Most choose to stay in their own faction, as leaving would mean abandoning their parents and everything they have known. Tris, who was raised in Abnegation, takes the test and learns that she doesn’t fit into one faction perfectly.
Therefore, she is what is known as “Divergent.” This is supposedly dangerous, because it makes her different. So Tris joins Dauntless, because the book would have been pretty boring had she chosen anyone else. She learns that the city controls people through a variety of serums that produce hallucinations and other various reactions, but that she is somehow immune to them.
That’s pretty much the first half of the first book. And it’s really all you need to know. So I’m fast-forwarding to the middle of the third book, where Tris finds out how the world came to be so screwed up.
It turns out the United States government conducted a genetic experiment in order to manipulate people’s genes to give them desirable qualities. (Can you guess what the qualities are? Hint: look up five paragraphs earlier.) However, the experiment ended up being a failure, because the changes actually made the subjects exhibit undesirable traits.
The scientists refer to these new genes as “damaged.” Apparently, the botched experiment led to a Purity War between the “genetically damaged” (GD) and “genetically pure” (GP). What exactly the war was fought to accomplish, I’m not sure, but now the government is attempting to “heal” the GD.
But the vast majority of the population now has no idea about any of this.
Tris’ city was founded because apparently, these GDs could not get along unless they were grouped by their mutations. Supposedly, the sense of community and common values kept them from uprising against the situation.
Tris is Divergent because her ancestor underwent the genetic healing, and she is the product of “healed” genes. So she’s genetically pure. That’s why she does not lean towards one of the characteristics that define the five factions. And apparently, resistance to simulations is a marker that was placed in her genome to signal when the generational “gene healing” had been completed.
As interesting as this concept is, I finished the series with quite a few issues concerning the story’s credibility.
10. The test subjects would (probably) have been too old.
Although the book never says it outright, I assume that only one “trait” was manipulated per test subject. Apparently, the subjects were chosen “from the general population in large numbers, according to background or behavior.” So maybe serial killers were targeted with the “Amity” gene, and Snooki was targeted with the “Erudite” gene. (Maybe that’s why she hasn’t been quite so obnoxious lately.)
Okay, fair enough. I can buy that. Maybe the scientists actually found genes linked to these traits and found a reliable correlation between genotype and behavior.
Based on how the scientists explain the experiment, it’s likely that they would have used a process known as gene targeting to add, delete, or change specific genes via a bacterial vector.
The concept isn’t completely out of the question. However, gene targeting only works on embryonic cells, because the developing cells could more easily take up the change.
In general, if you want to make a change this big, it’s not going to work on a person who’s already born. The cell shouldn’t take up the vector.
9. The mutations shouldn't be heritable.
To my understanding, gene targeting (and most random mutations that would occur during development or an individual’s lifetime), would arise in the somatic cells, rather than the germ (reproductive) cells. So they shouldn't even be inherited by that individual’s children.
What really bothers me is the scientists’ explanation of their genetic “healing.” There’s almost no explanation here, except that several years ago, many of the defective individuals underwent some sort treatment. They then had to wait for several more generations, until the healing “kicked in.” These progeny (like Tris) were healed. So, normal, I guess. What exactly were they waiting for? How did the generations fix the problem? It’s almost described like that stained T-shirt that you keep running through the washing machine until it finally comes out clean.
If the scientists used gene targeting to fix the mutations, I don’t see how time would help it. As I said, gene targeting should not persist after one lifetime. With our current understanding of genetics, this explanation just doesn't hold up.
8. Why not just selectively breed?
Okay, so the experiment was botched and for some reason the mutations persist between generations. So humanity seems doomed.
The government clearly already closely controls these people. Why not just ban everyone who isn’t genetically pure from having natural children? (I realize that this isn’t plausible in the real world, but I’m sure in this post-society world, they could pull it off.)
If there weren’t enough GPs to sustain a viable population, a GD should still be able to give birth to “pure” children. Just cross two GDs who have different types of mutations. Let’s say an Amity GD and a Dauntless GD have children. They should have a 1/4 chance of having a normal child, because the Amity GD could use her “good” gene to cancel out the Dauntless mutation, and the Dauntless GD could use his “good” gene to cancel out the Amity mutation.
Theoretically, the government could just perform all fertilizations via in vitro. It’s now possible to perform genetic tests before birth, so they could just discard the “damaged” embryos. I know this sounds very authoritarian, but supposedly this is a government that has cameras in every single person’s home.
I’m assuming that the experiment only targeted one gene. It was probably much more complex. But it should still be possible to select for desirable offspring and avoid the persistence of the mutations completely.
With that in mind, it actually doesn’t make sense to group these people into factions by their mutations. That’s exactly how you would keep the mutations in the population. Which brings me to my next point…
7. Genetically, the factions don’t actually make any sense.
I just don’t understand the point. Supposedly, integrating all the GDs caused violence and uprisings. The scientist mutters something about how behavior isn’t completely genetic, and depends on environment as well. But if this polar behavior is a problem brought on by the mutations, wouldn’t it make sense to not, say, encourage the Dauntless mutants to take part in a reckless culture?
Although it’s not explicitly stated, I’m assuming here that Dauntless mutants are grouped into the Dauntless faction. Yet individuals are allowed to move between factions. Does that imply that an individual who chooses, and thrives, in Dauntless somehow has the Dauntless mutation? If nothing else, the mobility between the factions suggests that the genetic changes don’t actually affect personality to a very large extent.
6. I don’t know what this “healing” is, but it’s definitely not gene therapy.
In the book, the characters enter a “gene therapy room” to learn whether they’ve been healed. I’m guessing Roth chose this term because therapy implies the improvement of a condition over time. And to be fair, that is sort of what gene therapy is.
However, gene therapy involves the insertion of a gene to replace a nonfunctional gene. It requires a series of treatments and does not, to my knowledge, persist between generations. It definitely doesn’t become more effective between generations.
5. And “genetic code” is NOT synonymous with “DNA sequence.”
Honestly, this is just a personal pet peeve of mine because it is a very common mistake. But twice in the book, Tris refers to her “healed” genes as her “genetic code.”
The genetic code is the way in which RNA nucleotides are grouped in order to form certain amino acids. For instance, when the nucleotides A, U, and G align, in that order, the amino acid methionine is formed. The genetic code is considered universal because it can be used for any organism on Earth.
Grr. Come on, Veronica Roth.
4. What is the “serum-resistance” marker?
This one just confuses me. Supposedly Tris is resistant to the population-controlling serums, protecting her against their various mental, emotional and physical effects. It’s a marker they put into the treatment to show when a person has achieved genetic purity.
…I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve just decided I’m not even going to try to figure it out.
3. I don’t quite understand the “micro-computers.”
This is actually kind of cool. The laboratory technician injects Tris with a serum containing tiny micro-computers that read the genes of interest in her DNA, and report back to the machine.
I guess I just don’t see why they couldn’t draw her blood and read it in a sequencing machine. It shouldn’t take any longer and it would be a lot less wasteful. But I admit: I would love to see molecule-sized computers.
2. How did the mutations cause these new characteristics?
I’m not questioning how this experiment could have gone so badly wrong. But why exactly did inducing one trait cause another to occur? Did it have to do with interacting genes, or was it some more innate effect of human nature?
Honestly, I don’t buy it. I don’t the experiments were even actually effective in changing personality. I think people acted out because they were told they should, and when they realized they weren’t actually better people, they rebelled. The factions only actually behave the way they do a result of cultural behavior.
That’s actually partially the point of the book; the GDs aren’t really “damaged” and people have always had personality flaws. That’s what makes us human. Roth never directly says that the treatments didn’t actually change people’s personalities, but I do believe the book can be interpreted that way.
It is true that specific genes have been linked the behavior, but it was only found to be prominent in a few extreme cases. Most of us have personalities that result from both our environments and some “innate” part of our selves that likely has a genetic component. But most of us fall somewhere in the ambiguous range of “normal.” Really, there’s no evidence that personality gene enhancement would actually be effective in any significant number of cases.
1. The FDA would never approve this.
Even if we ever got to the point where the government was willing to genetically manipulate a large portion of the population in the name of genetic enhancement (Translation: I don’t see that happening anytime in our time, our children’s time, or our great great great grandchildren’s time), there’s no way something like this would have passed without extensive test trials.
Would we really embark on a supposedly permanent experiment that affected over half the population without testing it first? Don’t make me laugh.
Despite my criticisms, I did actually enjoy the Divergent trilogy. It was a fun read and although the science may have not been completely accurate, that actually made it more enjoyable to analyze.