Investigators from the United States Food and Drug Administration raided the offices of the American Society of Human Genetics this week. The unusual raid was the culmination of what has been a three-year investigation of science journalist Carl Zimmer, who is now being accused of cloning himself in order to increase his writing output.
“We have reason to believe that there are at least three Carl Zimmer clones roaming the planet at this time,” said chief investigator Leslie Gellas, “it’s the only explanation for his prolific writing success.”
Zimmer has been under federal surveillance for years after several prominent academics tipped off FBI agents to the possibility that Zimmer’s incredible output might be the product of illicit activities.
“Every damn time you pick up an issue of National Geographic or The New York Times there’s a Carl Zimmer article in there,” explained evolutionary biologist and textbook author Doug Futuyma, “the guy definitely was flaunting some kind of abuse.”
“I always thought it was pretty unusual how he could keep feeding me manuscripts on top of all that newspaper writing,” commented a shocked Ben Roberts, publisher of several Zimmer textbooks. “But he was giving me good stuff, so I guess I just turned a blind eye.”
“Think about it,” crowed author-academic Neil Shubin, “how else could a journalist with only a Yale undergraduate degree manage to get so many science publications?”
Early investigations of Zimmer’s unbelievable publication record focused on two leads: “academic doping” and “sleep swindling”.
Academic doping has been a chronic problem amongst researchers at large universities, but its introgression into journalistic circles would be news. Both veteran scientists like Harold A. “Hal” Mooney and emerging scientists like Hopi Hoekstra have been the target of academic doping investigations.
“Sometimes when these folks put up incredible performances year after year after year,” said academic doping expert Lance Hirsch, “you just have to wonder if something is up.”
What’s often up is a complex cocktail of neurostimulants that graduate students like to call “impact dust”, a substance reported to be widely abused across academia. Although the exact mixture utilized by different labs remains proprietary information, those who have abused “ID” report that it increases compulsion, gives one a sense of exaggerated self worth, and allows a person to send pestering emails to collaborators and students from dusk to dawn. In the hands of an accomplished academic, impact dust can empower what appears to be super-human publication effort. Years of ID use can take its toll, leading to a what many academics call “losing it”, a condition that can compel sufferers to go on bizarre rants or to espouse pseudoscientific conspiracy theories.
The other lead with the potential to explain Zimmer’s absurd writing output was neurological rather than pharmaceutical. A largely-unknown practice that first emerged in Silicon Valley, sleep swindling provides a way for the swindler to cheat the body’s natural need for sleep.
“Sleep swindlers pay others to sleep for them,” explained Norwegian expert Dremt Stöln, “and transfer the resulting refreshed neurotransmitters into their own brain.” Reports of “sleep farms” first cropped up at the beginning of the tech boom, where Starbucks locations just outside of Mountain View, California reported sharp drop-offs of coffee sales during a three-month period. Investigators from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency were able to detect a correlation between this coffee sales decline and the recent emigration of Chinese programmers, who were later discovered to be entrapped as “sleep slaves” by a number of prominent tech firms. Rather than being asked to program, these recent immigrants were being asked to sleep for native-born programmers, who worked 23-hour days to ensure that Google Scholar always represents academic achievement fairly and accurately.
Initial reports of academic doping and sleep swindling in the Zimmer case later proved to be dead ends. Despite being stopped at writer’s conferences and book fairs for numerous random blood tests, Zimmer never tested positive for impact dust. And while FBI surveillance aimed at uncovering human trafficking related to sleep swindling did uncover that Zimmer often gets food delivered to his Connecticut home by FreshDirect in order to save himself the time it takes to shop, this behavior is neither illegal nor unusual for a busy writer.
Ironically, it appears that Zimmer’s own writing may have led to the discovery of his lurid adventures into self-replication.
“We actually were able to solve this case by reading Zimmer’s numerous lucid explanations of how epigenetics works,” explained Gellas. “If not for Zimmer’s commitment to making scientific findings clear to the layperson, this would have remained a cold case.”
While clones should — in theory — maintain the same genome, there’s no way to mask the effects of the environment on that genome. Different clones inevitably are exposed to different environments, and that leads to epigenetic changes that differentiate one clone from the other. By obtaining a series of autographed Carl Zimmer books on eBay, FDA investigators were able obtain genetic traces left behind by the author. Analyzing these genetic samples for differences in DNA methylation, FDA scientists discovered very small epigenetic variations for four distinct Zimmers, cracking the case wide open.
At first this finding baffled FDA scientists working on the investigation. While the technology for producing human clones has existed for decades, both ethical and practical concerns have prevented scientists from trying to make a copy of a person. It was those practical concerns that initially mystified investigators. While a clone would be endowed with the same genetic writing prowess as the original Carl Zimmer (OGCZ), any of his clones would have to still be in their teens… or younger. And even if these young budding journalists maintained the same genetic foundation as OGCZ, they would not be exposed to the same life experience as OGCZ. Using modern-day technology, there would be no way to produce multiple copies of the same hard-working, knowledge-filled, prose-wielding journalist that OGCZ represents. OGCZ has written extensively on human cloning, including these purported limitations.
“This guy thought he could outwit us by spreading propaganda about what was and wasn’t scientifically possible,” stated FDA scientist Jean Pheinda, “but we weren’t fooled.”
It now appears that OGCZ conspired with a series of top human geneticists to produce clones of himself that were rapidly converted into working copies of the journalist. The alleged conspiracy sheds light not only on the competitive nature of modern journalism but also on the shady world of proprietary scientific research discovery. Two previously-unknown technologies appear to have been utilized to provide OGCZ with three “minions”, clones that are of comparable age and journalistic experience. Given Zimmer’s cozy relationship with elite scientists, his access to these technologies is not surprising. After collaborating with geneticists to make at least three clones, the resulting embryos were first subjected to “developmental acceleration”, a procedure which allows a human zygote to reach adulthood in less than seven months.
“It’s possible to speed up development,” commented evolutionary developmental biologist Sean Carroll, “so in theory there could be several adult Zimmers out there reducing my book sales.”
But how would these newly-developed Zimmers be capable of matching the journalistic acumen of OGCZ? It appears that a second emerging technology, “neuroplastic transposition”, allowed Zimmer and his co-conspirators to map his exact neurologic configuration to his clones. With the brains of the clones re-programmed to be exact facsimiles of OGCZ’s unique brain, the clones could write articles that were indistinguishable from OGCZ originals.
“As you probably know from reading numerous Carl Zimmer articles on the subject,” explained neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, “we have no idea how neural connections produce intelligence. But by simply duplicating the pattern of neurological connections in one person’s brain, it is theoretically possible to duplicate their aptitudes.”
Human cloning using federal funds is illegal in the United States, so prosecutors are trying to determine if Zimmer collaborated with scientists in NIH-funded labs. If he did, he and his co-conspirators could be subject to up to ten years in jail for embezzlement of federal funds. It is not clear if each of the four at-large Carl Zimmers would be allowed to split the ten years of prison time amongst themselves.
Many in the field of popular science writing think that even a long jail term would be too small a penalty for Zimmer, as it appears that he has used illegal cloning to completely corner the market on the composition of pithy, intriguing science journalism of exceptional clarity.
“As long as this guy has a laptop and an internet connection,” lamented a struggling science writer who chose to remain anonymous, “he is going to be depriving the rest of us of decent jobs.”
What makes the Zimmer case fascinating is that he isn’t even an academic. “We have seen this kind of behavior from academics for years,” reported intellectual fraud investigator Kothcha Tscheting, “but we were shocked to see a journalist stoop to these depths in order to broaden his impact”.
“Mark your calendars folks,” investigator Gellas emphatically announced at a hastily-called Thursday press conferences at FDA headquarters, “starting tomorrow — April 1st, 2016 — the federal government is clamping down on writers and academics who use cloning to try to increase their impact.”A Major Post, Cognitive Ability, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Epigenetics, Ethics, Genetics, Intelligences, Memetic Fitness, Neuroscience, Scientific Fraud