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The Ff Gene

It’s been five years since the Human Genome Project successfully sequenced the over 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up our DNA, an achievement so ennobled and applauded by the press that scientific laboratories around the world subsequently enjoyed a population explosion. The event marked another milestone in man’s long and arduous quest to strip away the mysteries of Nature.

DNAMaking available a blueprint of the naked ape’s genome proved to be an irresistible lure for Classicists. These partisans of the universe-is-a-pocket-watch theory of life suddenly saw genetics the way a seven year old engineer sees an Erector Set, as a reticulated bridge of interconnecting struts and trusses. Thus the discipline passed from the flamboyant stewardship of phrenologists and social anthropologists into the laptops of anonymous mathematicians. Genetics, like so many isms and ologies, was ferried away from the island of observational intuition to the linear flatland of numerology and formulae.

But before the pennant on the top gallant of the good ship Genome completely disappears from sight, I would like to make one last parting observation. I suggest the number crunchers of the Human Genome Project may have overlooked something.

It’s well known that the HGP did not fully study the entire DNA structure of a human cell. Certain heterochromatic areas (about 8% of the total) remains unsequenced. Centromeres, the mid-regions of each chromosome, contain millions of base-pairs and have been inaccessible by modern sequencing methods. The telomers, the ends of the chromosomes, are similarly unexplored for the same reason. Both of these sources of base-pairs are presumed to contain no genes because of the nature of their redundancies.

There are also several loci in each individual’s genome that contain members of multigene families difficult to disentangle with shotgun-sequencing methods. These multigene families often encode proteins important for our immune functions.
So it’s conceivable the Project may have overlooked something, a codon with chameleon-like properties, changing its amino acid profile to echo receptor sockets of nearby mRNA strands, for example. Or a reiterating fragment of ‘junk DNA’ coding, eternally picked up by mRNA template action, perhaps to ultimately mature into a despotic protein when conditions were right. Anything might manifest from that unseen, unresolved eight per cent. So why not a regulating gene?

The gene I am proposing is very old and patient and would be difficult to find. It’s utterly dormant yet in its long history has managed to guarantee its perpetuity through replicase enzyme action. With a robust latency, it has sat like a mantra on a rug for over two million years and only recently was quickened by, ironically enough, technology’s ability to globalize communication.

How does communication vivify this occult substance? Through the lure of anonymity inherent in an IP signature, an email address or the veil of a cellular phone which, unlike a regular telephone, doesn’t trail a telltale umbilicus to its whispering owner.

The stirring to action of this gene (which I propose to call the Ff gene) invokes a uniquely human hankering for identity cloaking. This hunger for anonymity betrays its long lineage of incipiency in mankind’s experiments with totemism, Totemismshamanism, tattoos, makeup, camouflage, ventriloquism, masked balls, Halloween, minstrel shows and mirrored sun glasses. We want to act from a vantage of safety, dispose without being deposed. And it’s the reason some primitive tribes will not utter a name while others will not suffer a photograph. When an actor is unrevealed, the action cannot be made accountable. Obscurity is a fortification against regress, a wall that protects the nucleus it surrounds.
Walls are important to us. As metaphoric sheaths, they bequeath levels of psychological security, as tendered by our various lexicons. For example, the word paradise means “around” and “wall”. Town, which has a lattice of walls to hide behind, comes from the German word zaun, meaning fence. The original Chinese word for city, ch’eng, also meant wall. And it’s no coincidence the effects of an active Ff gene compels its host to use a cellular phone which, like its namesake, protects and hides the nucleus of his or her identity.

A behavioral norm is a fictitious concept, easily debunked by the global reportage of the various news medias. The relentless visual and printed barrage of our inexhaustible strangeness makes it quite clear we all possess a ‘behavioral phenotype’. A phenotype is an outward trait or collection of traits that arise from one’s genetic constitution. Certain dispositions and actions are now believed to be genetic in origin. An infant boy born with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, for example, appears normal at first but within three months becomes what is known as a ‘floppy baby’ and can’t sit or hold his head upright. When he cuts his first teeth he starts using them to bite himself. Over time, he chews away the ends of his fingers and gnaws off his own lips. Drastic precautions have to be exercised to ensure protection against himself. As the boy grows older his self-destructive behavior becomes more subtle and devious. He devises new ways to injure himself. Often, in a kind of Tourette’s ferocity, he spits, curses and strikes out at the very people he likes the most. He eats food he detests and vomits on himself. He says yes when he means no. He’s horrified by his own behavior but is powerless to alter it. Yet when he’s not being visited by such dysfunctional impulses, he enjoys the company of other people, likes being the center of attention and makes friends easily.

In Lesch-Nyhan syndrome a protein called hypoxanthine-guanine phosphoribosyl transferase (HPRT), which is present in all normal cells, seems to malfunction, or rather, not function at all. The job of this particular enzyme is to help recycle DNA.

In the early 1980’s researchers decoded the sequence of letters (A,T,C,G - adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine) in the human gene that contains the instructions for making HPRT. It includes 657 letters that code for the protein. Researchers also began sequencing this gene in people who had Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. Each had a mutation in the gene, nearly all unique. There was apparently no common single mutation that caused Lesch-Nyhan. In the majority of cases the defect consisted of a solitary misspelling in the code. For example, one victim had a G replaced by an A --a lone character misplaced out of the 6 billion letters of code in the human genome.

Other genetic mutations have been associated with behavioral changes beyond the ‘norm’, such as Rett or Williams syndromes.

There are about 25,000 active genes in the human genome, each having 1000-1500 letters of code. The smallest change in this chemical symphony is enough to provoke chronically bizarre behavior. Who’s to say a culturally accepted modern ‘norm’ doesn’t have its roots in one of these behavioral phenotypes? An Ff gene, perhaps unique to X chromosomes and recessively linked to them, may have traveled across the ages within female carriers, sentencing half their male offspring to its effects and half their female progeny to the status of a carrier.

The influence of this covert gene might today be so consummately established in our society that the entire races have adopted a correlative genome of conduct, comprised of immensely complex permutations of A, T, C and G –acquisition, totalitarianism, cupidity and gratification. It’s possible the Ff gene, whose signal trademark is pure greed, has managed to overpower the tremendous impetus of countless ages of ceremonial mitosis.

The plausibility of this accomplishment, whose fulcrum is a whimper, not a bang, is demonstrated by the exorbitant behavioral distemper of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome victims, now explained by geneticists as a dropped consonant in the endless filibuster of life.

So what excessive deportment do the strings of the Ff gene elicit from the population puppetry of our modern society? A mildly mitigating description of our affliction would be to call it Nature’s gift of perjury. The Ff gene is literally a genetic mutation of fact. It uses the lash of greed to whip words and actions into contradictory absurdness. Actually, that is how one knows a person’s Ff gene has been activated --they profess one thing while following a lifestyle that openly negates their words. Mrs. D declares her overheated fondness for animals as she sits down to a dinner of lamb, duck, roast or fish. Mr. P denigrates the worlds’ deadbeats as he negotiates the tricky union paths that separates him from a 100% disability pension.
The anonymity worn by such people is metaphored by a drop of water hidden in a wave. The contradiction has become the ‘norm’. The behavioral phenotype is universalized, shared to a state of sameness.

As shocking as the behavior is to someone whose Ff gene remains archived and dormant, it goes completely unnoticed by the pervasive majority, who inherit and disseminate the gene’s influence. Like a throng of penguins, their inscrutability lives in a hall of mirrors.

The lion's share of the world’s population is non-technical. For them the Ff gene exercises its mandate through this shared hypocrisy. But for the few who embrace technology as an ally, the gene ramps up its effects. These people see the nebulous quantum field of the worldwide web as a haven for obscurity. Masked as a web site or spam letter, they become virtual particles that momentarily condense out of a fog of electrons, pitch their confidence deal, harvest the money and then dissolve back into the ethernet.

Modern society abets these grifters by fostering a culture that erodes our ability to detect deceit. According to Hitler, the public will always believe a Big Lie. And so big lies have been drafted into the service of governments, advertisements and news. Thespians have discovered the Method and draw upon the roster of their own emotional experiences to convincingly covey passions and sentiments they do not feel once the curtain falls.

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When Hemingway was asked what a good writer needed most, he replied, “A 100% shock-proof shit detector.” Studies have been made to determine our ability to detect lies. Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan of the University of San Francisco says the average person knows when they are being deceived only about half the time, which is like saying half the population judges the veracity of condominium and used car salesman by regarding a tossed a coin as a financial advisor. Yet within society there is a small percentage of people who seem to have an unerring ability to detect deceit. Of 13,000 subjects tested, Dr. O’Sullivan found 31 wizards, as she called them, who were usually able to tell if a person was lying, whether the lie was about an opinion, how someone felt or dealt with a theft.

According to Dr. O'Sullivan, "There are two categories of clues to a lie: thinking clues and emotional ones." Examples of emotional clues are facial expressions, body language and spoken words. Does the person react normally? Is their facial expression consistent with what they are saying? Does their body language accord with their words? Do their words match their emotions?

Thinking clues are what betray liars when they are making up the ‘truth’ or trying to narrate details they formulate in their head. Examples of thinking clues are hesitations in speech, stuttering, groping for words, strange word order, or speaking incoherently by choosing inappropriate words or not completing sentences.

In the 1960s William Condon pioneered a study of interactions at the fraction-of-a-second level. In his research project, he examined a four-and-a-half-second film segment frame by frame, where each frame represented 1/45th second. After studying this recording for a year and a half, he noted interactional “micro-movements”, such as when a wife moves her shoulder exactly as her husband's hands came up, which when taken together yielded what he called “microrhythms”.

American psychologist John Gottman began video-taping living relationships to determine how couples interact. By studying these micro-movements, Gottman became adept at predicting which relationship would hold together and which would break up.

Most people do not perceive these microexpressions in themselves or others. In the Diogenes Project, researcher Paul Ekman found that these tiny movements can often expose lying. Like Maureen O’Sullivan, he found that a very small percentage of those he studied had a preternatural knack for detecting them.

We seem to be duped easily by a smile. In fact, we tend to implicitly trust a smiling face. In one experiment Dr. George Rotter, professor of psychology at Montclair University in New Jersey, cut out yearbook photos of college students and asked people to rate the pictured individuals for trustworthiness. In almost every instance people chose the students with smiling faces as the most honest. Women with the biggest grins scored the best. Men needed only a slight curve of the lips to be considered truthful.

"Smiles are an enormous controller of how people perceive you," explained Rotter. "It's an extremely powerful communicator, much more so than the eyes."

Early in the mid-19th century a French scientist named Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne set out to discover which muscles are involved in different facial expressions. After taking hundreds of photographs of a subject whose facial muscles were electrically excited, Duchenne uncovered the secret of the fake smile. When mild shocks were applied to the cheeks of the face, the large muscles on either side of the mouth - known as the zygomatic major - pulled the corners of the lip upwards to create a grin. Duchenne then compared this smile with one produced when he told the subject a joke. The genuine smile involved not only the zygomatic major, but also the orbicularis oculi muscles around each eye. In a genuine smile these muscles tighten, pull the eyebrows down and the cheeks up, producing tiny crinkles around the corners of the eyes. Duchenne discovered that the tensing of these eye muscles was beyond voluntary control. When the muscles were not employed, the smile was artificial.

There are so many ways liars betray themselves that it seems incredible half the population can be duped at any time. A short list of telltale clues will illustrate just a few of their potential pitfalls:

  • Liars tend to move their arms, hands, and fingers less and blink less than people telling the truth.
  • People who lie tend to avoid details in favor of bold facts.
  • People who are uncomfortable or lying often repeat the question you ask them.
  • When liars smile, they tend to just move their mouths, not the small muscles around their eyes.
  • Liars may feel fear, guilt or delight at deceiving other people. Such emotions can trigger microexpressions, a change in facial expression so brief most observers do not detect them.
  • Liars may mispronounce words, mumble or take longer pauses between a question and a response than honest people.
  • A liar often will not look you straight in the eye.
  • A liar’s pupils may change in size. This happens because when under stress adrenaline is released causing the pupils to dilate.
  • Liars are afraid of getting caught and may express their guilt as anger. They may storm around as a show to hide their anxiety.
  • Liars may act inappropriately for the given situation. They may laugh at the wrong time, become serious during a light moment, suddenly start talking fast or abruptly change the subject.

It’s true some politicians, real estate people, contractors, used car salesmen and advertising writers have taken prevarication to pseudo artistic levels. Even so, why can’t we be a better judge of who is the swindler or fraud among them? Maybe it’s because we want to believe what they are telling us. We want to trust a smile, whether it is fake or not. The alternative is unthinkable. And besides, these people only promise us exactly what we want. To make money. To save money. To be honest.

These days the effects of the Ff gene are epidemic. Electronic anonymity empowers con men and cyber grifters. They’re rapidly chipping away at the percentage of people who had some capacity to detect a lie – when they could see the other person’s eyes, smiles, gestures or hear the strain in their voices. Tools like Photoshop, email marketing, computer aided phone soliciting, on-line shopping carts and a hundred other virtual veils have relegated the cogent half of the population to the same fate as their easily duped counterparts, tossing a coin to make their prudent judgments. In a way, it’s rather appropriate. If they’d care to look close enough, they’d see the head on the coin is wearing a fake smile.

What does Ff stand for? Why, flim-flam, of course.