“To map the very stuff of life; to look into the genetic mirror and watch a million generations march past. That, friends, is both our curse and our proudest achievement. For it is in reaching to our beginnings that we begin to learn who we truly are.”
— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Address to the Faculty”
At the time this game was released, the effort to completely map a human genome was in the news. It was a terribly expensive process. With ’90s-era technology, it took a decade of work to get the first one done. And by the end there was a race going on between the publicly funded, traditional academic effort and one run by a private corporation. To listen to the breathless news reports at the time, everyone was expecting the human genome project to almost immediately reveal low-hanging fruit that would lead to major medical breakthroughs that would justify the expenditure.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that that didn’t seem to happen. At least not right away. What did happen, though, was that sequencing technology itself has proceeded very quickly in the past sixteen years. The cost has dropped way faster than even Moore’s Law for processors. It’s at the point now where it is completely feasible, technically, to file everybody’s genome sequence as part of their medical records if we so chose.
In fact, there’s a TV show running on PBS right now called Finding Your Roots. The idea is that they invite celebrities to be genetically tested and then talk to the host, Dr. Gates, about what was discovered in their racial background and the implications for their family history. Oftentimes, it turns out that people on the show have backgrounds that are considerably at odds with their self-conceptions and understanding of their inheritance.
This use of the technology is exactly in line with what Zakharov has in mind when he speaks of looking into the genetic mirror. The uncertainty and upheaval which the knowledge can bring is what he’s talking about when he says that it is a curse. But Zakharov and the University are all about searching for scientific truth, no matter where it might lead or what it might imply. Which is almost certainly one of the reasons why he considers it their proudest achievement to date.
The Human Genome Project, in the context of the game, almost assuredly doesn’t mean the generation of a single human sequence ’90s-style. The datalinks that the colonists brought with them on the Unity presumably included this information. Even in the ’90s when Reynolds was writing, it would have been clear that a similar effort wouldn’t be required by the same people that were able to cross the stars, even laboring under the constraints of the early days of colonization.
So what is it actually modeling? First, it’s worth mentioning that in the game, medical spending is modeled as psych spending. When a doctor is assigned to a colony as a specialist, he adds two psych energy to the base he’s in. And this psych energy turns workers into Talents, just like this secret project does. So it makes sense that this project requires Biogenetics to build and that it models public health advances from genomics research.
But the other interesting thing about secret projects is that they’re exclusive. Only one faction can benefit from the project at a time. This is cognate to the Wonders of the World that you can build in Civilization II. But in the previous history-based games, it was pretty clear why the second set of Pyramids wouldn’t have the same impact as the first. So what could possibly be going on with the Human Genome Project on Planet that would have the same effect?
My best answer to that question is that a lot of the effect of the secret projects in Alpha Centauri really does stem from their prestige. By building the first and biggest solution to any of these problems, the faction is going out of it’s way to say that this is so important that it should become part of the faction’s self-conception. So, in this context, the additional medical benefits come from the persistent willingness of the faction’s medical staff to go above and beyond when it comes to utilizing genomic research, until it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.