(Fiction) The da Vinci Project

Human

—nothing if not ambitious. Like its namesake, it sought to answer some of the biggest and most persistent questions in science—particularly, how much of who we are is determined by our genes and how much by our environment? It was conceived by the curators of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci in Vinci, Italy, at a party, hosted by the Italian government, celebrating genetic confirmation of the authenticity of Leonardo’s remains, which had long been a mystery. After several glasses of wine, or so the curators claim, they began to speculate—and then, in typical Italian fashion, to argue—about society’s intractable problems, beginning with the perils of the geometric expansion of technology and ending with the global market economy’s reliance on endless economic growth, particularly given that every demographic model since the 1990s had projected global population growth would keep slowing and that the human population would actually level off around 10 billion sometime in the early 22nd century. While perhaps good news for the planet, it meant the dangerous game of musical chairs that had sustained post-war wealth would finally stop. As consumption approached a maximum in a more or less fixed population, a market economy would become a zero-sum game, where the only way those at the top could satiate their human greed would be to take ever more from those at the bottom, until ultimately everything collapsed.

They concluded, as many have since, that society’s reliance on endless economic growth meant that society, at least as we had known it since the Great Depression, was not viable long term, and that this was true regardless of any other existential threat, such as climate change or the rise of AI. According to Guglielmo Tocci, the museum’s scientific director, everyone agreed on this. Where the scientists differed was what, if anything, could be done about it. At some point, Tocci joked that since they then had Leonardo’s genetic material in the lab, they should clone him and ask.

Although the argument was forgotten, the idea stuck, and what started as a jest eventually morphed into an unprecedented and controversial project involving nine governments, seven universities, and an alphabet soup of private companies and NGOs. Widely abbreviated dVP, The da Vinci Project asked whether it was even possible to develop social systems that escaped a reliance on greed and endless consumption. In other words, could nurture—which is to say mechanisms of acculturation, sometimes called memetics—override nature, our biology, including our genetic code? The plan was as simple as it was controversial: create a baseline of maximum human potential by resurrecting the great minds of the past through cloning; rear them in a stable, emotionally healthy environment; measure every aspect of their mental, social, and material well-being.

“It’s no different,” Dr. Tocci said on Italian state television, “than twin studies. Studying twins separated at birth has long been common in the social sciences. Our children share a genome with their alters. Nothing more. But by using genomes we know, through history, represent the pinnacle of human possibility, we create an upper bound on what kinds of societies are possible. That is why—

 

—and later to convince the Pope that no bodies were exhumed as part of the project. In two cases, genetic material was recovered from the donor’s grave by probe. In all of the others, it had been preserved by other means. In 2019, for example, the television show Antiques Roadshow revealed that a ring found in a Welsh attic contained braided locks of Charlotte Brontë’s hair. Authenticity was later confirmed by multiple lines of evidence, both historical and scientific, including genetic comparison to several of the author’s heirs.

In the end, eleven viable embryos were produced with a 12th added later—a gift from the Russian government, which had originally declined to participate when the dVP scientists refused to guarantee that any donor would remain male. Rather than be left out, the Russians stunned the world by providing a female genome, which was required to balance the total. The donors were, in order of birth: an athlete, Muhammad Ali; a revolutionary, Ernesto Guevara; a novelist, Charlotte Brontë; a poet, Edgar Allan Poe; a spiritual leader, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama; an entrepreneur, Steve Jobs; a scientist, Albert Einstein; a model and cultural icon, Marilyn Monroe; an inventor, Nikola Tesla; a composer, Ludwig van Beethoven; an artist and designer, Leonardo da Vinci; and later, a political leader, Yekaterina Alekseyevna, better known as Catherine the Great.

Several Muslim and Christian organizations were approached initially and asked to participate. All declined on grounds of faith, including the family of Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote a lengthy and scathing—

 

—condemned by most Western governments, even as several of their universities participated, there being no laws at the time that expressly forbade it. The United Nations issued a formal approbation, as did the EU. Facing the threat of immediate shutdown, the embryos were taken from their home in the hills of Tuscany and flown to a laboratory just outside Taipei, Taiwan. It was the perfect climate. Being more communitarian than individualistic, the peoples and governments of East Asia were fascinated by the study, particularly what it might reveal about the origins of anti-social behavior, with which they had long wrestled.

The academic community discussed—at length—the range of ethical and legal issues raised, but the public fixated instead on charges of racism, imperialism, and sexism. Before any embryos were even produced, the internet had decided dVP was irredeemably flawed and there was nothing of genuine value it could possibly teach the world.

In response, dVP scientists produced an advertising campaign, funded by anonymous donors, that pointed out in colorful charts and graphs that, first, they could not simply pick whoever they wanted. Their goal was to answer a scientific question. It was their hope that the results of the test would eventually inform models of distributive justice. Even so, the ethnic composition of the project was limited by availability. All donor material had to be ethically sourced, to start. Although one of the genomes came from an earlier sequencing study funded by the British government, the rest had to be acquired individually, which was costly and time-consuming. Written permission from legal descendants was required, where they were known, and even though the project itself didn’t require government approval at the time it began—it was later banned by the EU—licenses and registrations had to be secured from multiple jurisdictions at multiple points in the process, even for such seemingly simple tasks as transporting the samples across a border. Gandhi’s family, for example, refused the request, and although the Mandela family agreed, the South African government would not permit transport of his genome out the country, classifying it as a “significant cultural artifact,” a legal decision that would later cause multiple deaths when the country’s blood-donor system was halted by injunction. Since blood contains DNA, the court had to rule on how it could be imported.

Second, the scientists pointed out that since DNA degrades, donors more than several centuries old had to be avoided as there would be significant chance that any recovered material would be incomplete, voiding the time and expense of acquiring it. Antique donors also raised questions of authenticity. No one knows where the Buddha is buried, or Genghis Khan. The researchers wanted to be certain that any genome acquired definitively belonged to the person in question, versus simply being “historically likely.” The aims of the test also required donors to have made “a lasting impact on human culture,” which meant some historical objectivity was required. To rule out the merely popular, the recently deceased were also excluded.

The end result was that the window of availability largely fell inside the so-called “imperial period” of world history, and donors were disproportionately (but not exclusively) European males. However, though the researchers could do little about race, gender was equilibrated. Because genetic males have both sex chromosomes, X and Y, male donors can produce female clones, but not the other way around. The dVP geneticists switched the genders of three random male donors—Nikola Tesla, Muhammad Ali, and Steve Jobs—by deleting their Y chromosome and replacing it with a second copy of their X. Although this meant they were not perfectly identical, it did expand the reach of the test to include possible gender effects. For example, would their talents convey?

To insure viability, multiple embryos were produced and frozen. Each was identified by its donor’s surname and a randomly assigned first na—

 

—until the dVP kids turned 13, when, inspired by reading their story in school two years earlier, 16-year-old Seung-Hi Choi claimed to have given birth to a clone of CTX, the stage name of Cheol Bo, 24-year-old member of the K-pop boy band Big Crush, with whom Ms. Choi was obsessed. The young woman purportedly acquired Mr. Bo’s DNA in a used tissue he discarded in a waste bin after a public appearance. A huge debate followed, during which many members of the public realized for the first time that there was no way to prevent the continual leak of their DNA,a ndindeed that anyone could be cloned surreptitiously. The singer’s fans were incensed—jealous, according to Ms. Choi’s supporters—but because he had clearly discarded the tissue in the trash, the acquisition of his DNA could not be defined as theft under any existing Korean law. Nor did the young woman break any laws by modifying the home DNA-testing equipment she used, probably at her high school’s biology lab, to isolate the material and later impregnate herself.

In a startling twist to the story that, for several weeks, captivated half the world, detectives hired by CTX’s recording company turned the tables on the young Ms. Choi by acquiring a used diaper from her trash, from which it was shown that it was all a hoax. The baby was not a clone, nor was it even related to Mr. Bo.

But the warning shot had been fired, and fiction became fact five years later when a couple in Lagos, Nigeria successfully gave birth to the genetic clone of a local land magnate, from whom they were able to exact child support payments, by law, commensurate with his income rather than theirs, which encouraged the very wealthy to isolate themselves even—


rough cut from my novel-in-progress