The Failure Gene by Chris Klassen

At precisely ten o’clock on the morning of March 23, the spokesperson of the World Health Organization entered the press room and walked up to the microphone. Assembled in front of him were reporters and bloggers from the international media community. The majority represented mainstream newspapers, television channels, podcasts and websites. A few were fringe and radical. All were in attendance because they had been promised an extraordinary announcement.

“Good morning and thank you for coming today,” the spokesperson began. He shuffled his notes and adjusted his tortoise-shell glasses. “On behalf of the World Health Organization and our partner researchers, I am pleased to be here with you to share a monumental discovery. Over the course of the last ten years, the WHO, along with several of the world’s most respected universities and hospitals, have been conducting a comprehensive worldwide study involving hundreds of medical and research officials and thousands of volunteers. The full scope of our study with all its parameters will be available to you as a download on our website at the conclusion of this briefing but, for our purposes today, I’d like to succinctly present the highlights to you.”

The reporters shifted in their seats, some murmuring quietly to themselves, some exchanging glances with others. Over the last month or so, rumours had been circulating in the medical and scientific communities that a major breakthrough in genetic research was imminent. A few unsubstantiated leaks had surfaced but nothing could be confirmed.

“We are supremely confident,” the spokesperson continued, “in being able to report the discovery of the Failure Gene.” He paused for effect and stared at the media representatives who stared back. “Just as genetics decides who has blue eyes and who has brown, who may be more prone to addiction or anxiety, who may be social and who may be solitary, we now know beyond any doubt that genetics can also predict and, amazingly, even dictate failure. This is the Failure Gene. In essence, as its name suggests, it can identify who is prone to failure. And not just prone to failure but guaranteed for failure. For those with the Failure Gene, it is tragically unavoidable.”

Voices from the media audience erupted at once, increasing in volume until the room was engulfed in unintelligible noise. “Please,” the spokesperson interrupted loudly, “there will be time for discussion shortly. Allow me to finish.” The din retreated back to silence.

“At the outset of our study,” he continued, “we conducted full genetic analyses of approximately ten thousand volunteer participants across twenty-three different countries. We then tracked the courses of their lives. Did they marry? Did they get divorced? Did they have or ever have secure employment? Were they financially stable? Did they own a home? Did they consider themselves content? Many factors were involved, with hundreds of questions asked, all of which you will be able to read later at your leisure in our detailed findings. We were not interested in their trivial day-to-day activities, just the big picture. Once a year over the course of the ten-year period, our interviewers repeated the same survey, asking the participants to describe their life status, where they stood both professionally and personally and how they felt about their own levels of happiness and fulfillment.

“Once all the surveys were complete, we compared and contrasted the genetic profiles of all ten thousand volunteers. It was an enormous task. But its results were astounding and constitute a monumentally important discovery. Twenty-two percent of the volunteers shared one specific gene that did not appear in the analyses of the other seventy-eight percent. That same group of twenty-two percent also, and remarkably, had other similarities. They all lived below the poverty line, no matter their country of residence. They all described themselves as either working a menial job, part of the gig economy, or were unemployed. They all had, at most, a high-school education. None were ever accepted to a college or university. They all had criminal records, some offences petty, some more serious. They all had, in their own words, either unsatisfying or no friendships or stable romantic partners. None of them had travelled other than as children with their parents. Never on their own. And finally, they all said that, over the course of the ten years, they had tried again and again to succeed at various endeavors but were unable. They did not understand why their efforts were never fruitful. But now we do. They all share the Failure Gene.”

The room was briefly silent. The spokesperson then announced, “I can now take any questions or comments.”

 A brown-haired woman stood up. “Good morning,” she said, “I’m with the New York Times. Can you please describe the demographic make-up of the volunteer pool.”

“Of course,” the spokesperson replied. “Our volunteer pool was cross-cultural and representative of all walks of life. If, for example, you are concerned that the twenty-two percent who identified as living below the poverty line were all members of low-income families or shared underdeveloped economic lineages, that is not the case. Some came from very wealthy households where all their siblings were able to get a post-secondary education and find a high-paying job. They were the only members of their families who could not. Our volunteers came from both rural and urban areas. Their politics, religions and languages were varied. Their ages ranged from eighteen to sixty-five. So basically, we took all necessary steps to ensure there was no bias in our volunteer selection that would lead to skewed results.”

The woman from the New York Times nodded and sat down. Another woman from the other side of the room raised her hand. “From the Guardian in London,” she began. “Are you suggesting that people with the Failure Gene cannot succeed at anything? I mean, they obviously could dress themselves, find their way to and from home and answer your questions. These were successes of a kind, no?”

“Yes of course,” the spokesperson answered. “The Failure Gene is not related to memory, so day-to-day simple tasks are not affected. People with it can still be logical and can still be happy in the short term. They can, therefore, be successful with individual little challenges. But in the big picture, concerning life’s more daunting challenges, and here is where we will be continuing our research, this specific gene seems to actually attract failure. It’s like a magnet. Failure is powerfully attracted. Success is powerfully repulsed.”

“But success is subjective,” she countered.

“Ideally, yes,” the spokesperson agreed. “But if someone is poor and unemployed and they don’t want to be, yet they continually fail at all attempts to improve themselves…”

“And you’re saying that almost one person in every five on the planet is destined to be a failure? That is incredibly depressing, no?”

“Well, based on our results, the evidence seems indisputable and…”

“So how do you envision this new knowledge being used?” a dark-haired man interrupted from his chair, adding “I’m with Reuters.”

The spokesperson hesitated briefly, carefully selecting his words, sensing the increasing tension in the room and not wanting to lose control. “At this point, our research has involved identification only. The next steps will consider its possible applications. But, if I can extrapolate now, I could see a day where children’s genetic make-ups are analyzed and, if the Failure Gene is discovered, perhaps their futures could be planned in a way that could avoid excess frustration and disappointment. For example, they could be encouraged to work towards employment or education more fitting to their capabilities and discouraged from making attempts at a future that is genetically impossible for them to achieve. Adults too, who find themselves lost or disillusioned, could also undertake genetic testing and, if the Failure Gene is identified, they may be able to use this new insight to their benefit. On a larger scale, the results of our research may even lead to a more peaceful world. Less frustration, less aggression, less anger and violence. But, to repeat, the application possibilities of our discovery will be addressed in the next phases of our continued research.”

From the back of the room, another woman stood. “Thank you,” she began, “I’m from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.” She looked around the room then spoke again. “Are you not fearful of where this discovery may go and how it may be used? I see a terrifying potential of eugenics, of selective abortion. I see the testing of fetuses where, if your Failure Gene is discovered, the child is aborted. It is one step away from shopping for children from a catalogue.” She sat back down. The room had again become frosty and uncomfortable.

“That’s just scientific progress,” a husky voice stated brusquely. “It’s just the improvement of humanity.”

“Sounds more like neo-Nazism to me,” someone else blurted back.

“Well, if we’re looking at it from a purely scientific level, the Nazis…”

“Don’t even finish that sentence,” another voice, offended and angered, cut in. “Don’t you dare!”

“People, please,” the spokesperson interrupted. “Please stay civil.” He paused, gathered his thoughts, and allowed the room to decompress. “I guess my only response to your concerns,” he continued when the tension had somewhat abated, “is that all knowledge has the potential for good and bad. There are saints and there are sinners. Nuclear power is a great source of energy but it also can destroy the world. Airplanes allow easy and efficient international travel but they can also be used as weapons. I can’t argue that the knowledge of the Failure Gene won’t ever be used maliciously. It would be naive to think so. But we can’t stop learning based on a fear of how the learning will be applied.” He paused again.

“What would you do if you learned that your baby had the Failure Gene?” a voice asked softly.

“I hope I would love it unconditionally,” the spokesperson replied. He scanned the silent crowd for a few moments. “With that, if there are no further questions or comments, this concludes our discussion today. Feel free to download our complete report. I thank you for coming and I hope you enjoy the day.” He gathered his papers and left the room through the door on the left of the stage. Slowly, the media representatives gathered their belongings and exited as well, unsure how to process their thoughts and a bit more fearful and unsettled than before.

Chris Klassen is a hobbyist writer and resident of Toronto, Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in history and living for a year in France and England, he returned home and worked the majority of his career in print media. He is now living a semi-retired life, writing and looking for new ideas. His work has been published in Short Circuit, Unlikely Stories, Across the Margin, and Fleas on the Dog.