The Jovian DiseaseTarek Raimo
In EVE’s backstory, the Jove are the only known race who had a largely uninterrupted development since humanity’s arrival in New Eden, but today they are all but vanished. Only remnants of their once immeasurable power remain to confound us in the form of ancient outposts, vanished stargates, Sleeper sites and Drifter attacks. What caused their downfall was at the same time their greatest achievement. Over centuries the Jove learned to transcend the human condition through advanced genetic engineering. Base urges that drive so many of us to greed and senseless aggression became alien to the Jove. Without knowing, however, they also stunted their own survival instincts and built a lethal psychological condition right into their genes: the Jovian Disease.
In this article I want to take an in-depth look at the source of that condition, how it affected the Jove, and where its theoretical base in real-world science lies
The Fictional History of the Disease
From the EVE lore we know that the Jove were originally colonists who did not possess the technology of superluminal travel. Instead, they developed massive generational ships and sent them on long trips to found new colonies. That method of colonisation required considerations and developments unique to their race. The Jove had to plan decades or even centuries ahead for their settlements on new worlds.
To avoid psychological problems that can develop during long trips in the enclosure of a spaceship, they had to find methods for strong mental conditioning. The physical consequences of extended cryosleep such as muscle atrophy and aging had to be compensated for as well. Due to their long isolation, they would reproduce slower, necessitating measures to protect the population against depletion through disease or internal conflict. To meet all of those conditions, the Jove began to modify their behavioural patterns and physical makeup. Initially, they would have done this through medication and different forms of physical and psychological therapy, but eventually they arrived at a point where they could integrate all prerequisites directly into their genetic code. At the same time, they did not want to remain idle during their travels, so they developed extensive virtual reality simulations. In this way, scientific research did not stand still, and a group of colonists who arrived at their destination could immediately begin the process of implementing any new knowledge they had gathered during their trip.
Apparently, the Jove did not fully account for the fact that simulations and experiments have their limits. They can form a basis for new developments, but they can not reliably predict the long-term results of actual implementation in a changing environment that can not be fully controlled. The Jove had become so far removed from humanity that they probably did not even consider the possibility of a problem. In theory, it looked perfect: a species free of the base animalistic nature that creates so many problems. While the remaining settlers of New Eden struggled through a dark age of primitivism and war, the Jove prospered and remained in control of themselves and their society until they realised that they had lost something vital along the way.
Like all forms of life, humans develop through adversity. The very basic biological imperative to preserve the species and compete can bring out the worst in us, but it can also serve as a strong motivation for great achievements. Our quest for knowledge, the drive to explore and the inspiration for great works of art and groundbreaking inventions can all be triggered at a very basic level by those same animalistic urges of which the Jove worked so hard to rid themselves. Through their genetic modifications, they created a trap for themselves. Bereft of a strong subconscious motivation that would push them further, they built the preconditions for a severe depression into their own genome. The effect of the condition could become so extreme that the subject would lose every sense of self-preservation, eventually dying from fatal negligence of their basic needs for survival.
When that realisation sunk in, different factions of Jovian society proposed their solutions. One group suggested that the Jove as a whole should leave the physical condition behind completely and use their bodies for nothing more than a biochemical reactor to keep their brains alive. Their salvation—they said—would lie in the complete retreat into virtual reality. Others were of the opinion that genetic modification needed to be pursued further. They admitted that mistakes had been made, but also insisted that those could be fixed by pressing on. Yet another faction proposed that salvation lay in interacting more directly with the other societies of New Eden. According to this group, new challenges and motivations could be found there and potentially keep the disease at bay. Finally, one group advocated an end to further genetic modification. They argued that the disease was simply another step in the evolutionary ladder. In their view, the Jove had to overcome the disease in the “old-fashioned way” by solving it through cybernetics and eventually evolving past it naturally.
To this day, none of the Jovian factions seem to have found a cure for the disease, but how about the actual scientific basis for its cause?
A friend introduced me to the novels of Peter Watts. He is a marine biologist who turned to science-fiction writing, and he supplements his books with references to scientific research upon which he bases his stories. There are many aspects to his books, but one deals with the modification of human behaviour based on biology. In his stories there is an elite cadre of operatives assigned to do the most incisive and dangerous work. Thousands of lives depend on their actions and they have the highest possible security clearance. To prevent those agents from abusing their power, they are all infected with a biological agent that profoundly influences their behaviour.
This substance is based on the workings of toxoplasma. While you are welcome to read more on the subject, I want to spare you the time and quickly explain how that works.
Toxoplasma is a parasite that affects the brain chemistry in ways that can alter behavioural patterns. The toxplasma gondii linked above gestates in certain mammals. It spreads through cat feces and inflicts its carrier host with behavioural changes that ensure its propagation. In particular, it influences the flight response small rodents have in relation to felines. Instead of being repulsed by the smell of cat urine they are instead attracted to it, and they lose all fear of cats. Another species infects insects and gestates in sheep. The parasite compels its host to climb to the highest blade of grass where it is most likely to be grazed by the sheep it requires to complete its cycle. In Watts’s stories, toxoplasma is used as an engineered substance for many different purposes, mainly as a way to profoundly influence biologically conditioned reflexive responses. This could have also been the method Jovians used during the early stages of their development.
Still, how do such “infections” become part of the genetic makeup of a human being? Even if the Jove changed their biological reflexes by means of tailored biochemical substances, how did those changes become part of their reproductive system?
To answer this question we would have to turn to the theory of endosymbiosis, or as it is more commonly known, the “Theory of Gene Transfer.” In a nutshell, this theory is based on the assumption that at the early stages of evolution, different organelles join together to form cells as we know them today. An example for this could be the mitochondria which fulfill many important functions in the chemical processes of our cells. They possess their own DNA and could potentially reproduce independently, but instead they propagate together with the rest of the components that make up our cells.
If this is indeed how cellular biology evolved, then it is entirely imaginable that complex organelles introduced into a body could merge with the cells and reproduce with them through endosymbiosis. In other words, this would be a genetically engineered toxoplasma that ensures a desired behaviour as part of the basic reproductive blueprint. If we consider that option, a phenomenon like the Jovian Disease is entirely possible according to what we know and assume about microbiology.
On the other hand, we could be entirely wrong and maybe future generations will laugh at us for our limited understanding of biology just as we now laugh at people who believed the Earth was flat or that the Sun revolved around the Earth. The importance of a good science-fiction narrative, however, does not simply lie within the ability to predict an accurate future. Ideally, the genre carries a message that refers critically to contemporary society or explores deeper aspects of the human condition.
In this respect the Jovian Disease and its origins are an interesting narrative device that proposes several puzzling questions about human nature. Are we capable of becoming “better” by tampering with our own genes, and would we still be human if we change ourselves like the Jove? Would we end up trapped by our own hubris like they were? It is unlikely that any one of us will ever know the answer to those questions, but the purpose of interesting science fiction is to ask such questions so we can ponder them.