The Science of Assassin’s Creed
After an age of blogging uncertainty and diversions, I’ve finally got round to doing a post about the videogame series that inspired me to launch this blog in the first place! Betrayal, murder, love, murder, hidden blades, murder, epic storylines and…collecting feathers? That’s right – today, I’m-a talking about the science featured in the Assassin’s Creed series!
The Assassin’s Wha-?!
In this compelling and gripping videogame series, we play through the eyes of Desmond Miles, a twenty-something year old bartender who finds himself caught up in a war between two factions: the Assassins and the Templars. As we progress through the series, we find that this war is age old, spanning from the Middle Ages – at the time of the Crusades – to the modern day in the series. We also learn that Desmond himself was raised as an Assassin but chose to be a bartender instead because it meant less hassle and more freedom. …probably not one of his finer decisions, I must say. I mean…awesome Assassin weapons and training versus being able to do flair bartender tricks 3/10 …with a LOT of luck, that is. Bit of a no brainer…
As you play through the different games, you relive the memories of a few of Desmond’s ancestors: Altair Ibn-La’Ahad from the Middle Ages, Ezio Auditore de Firenze from the Renaissance Period and Connor Kenway (who also has a dang long Native America tribal name) from the American Revolution. As you play out key parts of each of his ancestors’ lives, you discover a plot that has been in motion since the Middle Ages (possibly earlier) and threatens those in the modern day…
But wait, I hear you ask! How on EARTH can Desmond play as his ancestors? Well, I’ll skip on spoiling the story for you and give you another heading to read!
Desmond is able to relive his ancestors’ memories through the use of a machine known as the ‘Animus’, which taps into the unexplored sections of one’s DNA. For some background information, DNA stands for ‘deoxyribose nucleic acid’ and is inside every living organism on the planet. The study of DNA is called ‘genetics’. Our DNA is essentially the ‘code of life’, a biological ‘blueprint’ to make us – with environmental factors also acting on DNA to produce what we are! The basic building blocks of DNA are four molecular ‘letters’ – A, T, C and G (note: they don’t actually look like letters through a microscope!). These letters pair up with each other, A with T and C with G, to form ‘base pairs’ and the resulting pairing is what gives DNA its ‘double helix’ structure. Awesome!
OK, OK. That’s all well and good but just how does that relate to the Animus and what it can do? Good question! DNA, as in the blueprint that makes us up, changes between generations. In a nutshell, you get half of each parent’s DNA which then reassemble and recombine in a process called ‘meiosis’ (me-oh-sis). This process of genetic recombination is what generates variety even within organisms of a similar species. It’s this variation that is really the basis of evolutionary change: without it, you really wouldn’t see such diverse and varied lifeforms on this planet! But meiosis isn’t the only way of changing your genetic makeup. Your DNA can, and does, undergo mutations – some of which can be potentially lethal (cancer) and others of which not so much.
Recently, scientists have found that the way your DNA works can also change through a process called ‘epigenetics’. Epigenetics isn’t a change in your DNA sequence but rather a change in how your genes are expressed – like how they’re ‘switched’ on and off again. That’s right! The workings of your DNA is a tad more complicated than simply ‘you have a gene, so it’ll make you look/act/etc like this’! Many work by being effectively being turned on and off by other molecules (called ‘gene expression’) Although difficult to prove, there is some evidence to suggest that epigenetic inheritance occurs, which can give us clues to thinks such as the eating habits of one’s grandparents.
The key crux of all the above being that there is a lot your DNA can tell you about your ancestry! But can it recreate memories vivid enough for us to relive? Well…
My Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather Could’ve Been An Assassin….COOL! Animus Me Up!
Hold up there. While there’s a lot our DNA can tell us about our ancestry, such as how closely related we are to other species and even other individuals of our species, we currently really don’t know if we can get anything close to what the Animus can do. It’s an interesting theory that, if we can relive memories, they’d probably be epigenetic memories, given that there is some research suggesting that epigenetic modifications can form ‘molecular memories’ in our brains. But I’d argue that, even if we could relive memories in this way, they would be significantly limited by the amount of epigenetic modifications. We also have to remember that there are also limitations even with studying the genetic differences between us, and say, a chimpanzee (or banana). We normally measure the difference as the difference between ‘base pairs’ but…any one base pair might have undergone any number of changes in that amount of evolutionary time! That brings up issues with interpreting the extent of what our DNA may be able to tell us, if it indeed can store ancestral memories.
The other issue is that, unfortunately, we don’t have access to technology as advanced as the Animus. That sort of technology would have to interpret our brain activity – which would really be us remembering our ancestral memories in some way or form – and ‘translate’ this activity to actual, vivid memories. Of course, the assumption of whether this technology can ever exist is really down to our own biology. It might be a bit of a copout but it’s a hard feat trying to get to know our ancestors when we barely know ourselves! So…while the jury is still out on whether our DNA stores some form of memories dating back from our ancestors, we can hold fast on saving up for our personal home-use ‘Animi’ systems.
I Can’t Explore Medieval England As My Assassin Ancestor!? Awww, sadface! 😦
Don’t sadface! Smile! 😀 As with all scientific fields, genetics (including the sub-field of epigenetics) is a vast and largely unexplored field! I’m personally incredibly excited for the discoveries that we are making, and will be making in these fields: especially epigenetics! Until then, we do have to be patient! In the past century, we’ve already unravelled at least a part of the story that our DNA has to tell. And you can bet your sweet hidden blade that there’s more! When we find that out, who knows what wonders our technological advancements will yield?
And if all goes to plan, I might see some of your ancestors as I blast through history itself! I wonder if they had tacos in the Middle Ages…?
Oh, and until then, let’s hope Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag lives up to expectations! IT HAS PIRATES!!!!!