On Cyborgs and Gene Editing: Lessons from Orphan Black

Cross-posted with Biopolitical Times on June 1st, 2016.

The latest season of Orphan Black takes a cue from Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” to probe the boundaries of identity, humanity, and perfection, as it reminds us that mainstream genetic and reproductive technologies are closer to the show’s more radical technologies than we might think.

In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” originally published in 1985, Donna Haraway describes a cyborg as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.”

The clones of the BBC America television show Orphan Black seem to fit that definition well – they all possess snippets of synthetic DNA entwined in their genome, and often exist in an at least partially fictitious reality designed to better control their actions. However, the latest season explores the possibilities and meanings of cyborg-ness in greater depth. Fittingly, each episode is named with a quote from Haraway’s work: “The Collapse of Nature,” “Transgressive Border Crossing,” “The Stigmata of Progress,” “From Instinct to Rational Control,” “Human Raw Material,” and “The Scandal of Altruism.” And as Orphan Black engages with what it means to be a cyborg, this fourth season also situates itself in the ongoing conversation on new human genetic and reproductive technologies in the real world, including genome editing.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Neolution is the name of the show’s pro-eugenic movement, whose goal is to take control of human evolution. In the first episode of the season, a character reads from the book on Neolution: “The individual can only begin the journey to the extraordinary by casting off the genetically mandated human shell.” Sarah retorts that Cosima calls this stuff “sound bite science.”

The season reveals one of Neolution’s experimental genetic technologies: a synthetic worm-like organism implanted into people’s cheeks to act as an ongoing gene therapy delivery system. We find out that Sarah has had one implanted against her will and knowledge. But just as some transhumanists in real life choose to implant a range of devices in their bodies for numerous reasons, some Neolutionists in the show have opted for the “cheek worm” in order to produce a desired alteration to their body.

Whereas previous episodes have established a clear distinction between the clones as non-consenting research subjects and the Neolutionists as willing bio-hackers, the line between coercion and choice over one’s bodily autonomy is increasingly blurred in this season. In a particularly memorable moment, Cosima holds the decaying head of former Neolution leader Dr. Aldous Leaky to investigate his still-thriving “cheek worm” and asks, “Who’s the science now, bitch?”

In another heart-chilling scene, one of the clones agrees to withhold potential treatment from a child diagnosed with a genetic disorder who was made from her own cells, declaring the data learned from the disease’s progression to be more valuable for humanity than saving the child.

A more broadly relevant way in which the distinction between coercion and choice is tested comes in the form of a cutting-edge fertility program called BrightBorn. By this point of the show we know that Neolution’s leaders have extensive influence over the cloning programs; now we learn that cloning is only one mechanism of reproductive control in which they are interested. An acquaintance of suburbanite Alison has finally gotten pregnant thanks to BrightBorn Technologies, without having any idea that there may be a link between the company and more nefarious ends. Although BrightBorn keeps itself out of the public eye and does not publish its scientific findings, it is notably available to anyone willing to pay. BrightBorn is run by Neolutionists, but is marketed to all. In language reminiscent of the fertility clinic scene inGATTACA, the BrightBorn ad declares:

We can provide you with a healthy and thriving newborn, but why stop there? All of our children are born stronger and healthier. At BrightBorn Technologies we’re making the world a better place, one baby at a time.

Cosima points out:

Mainstream reproductive technology: it’s like a whole new side to Neolution.”

After sneaking into Brightborn’s facilities, Cosima not only finds a variety of experimental technologies ranging from embryo screening and selection to illegal germline modification techniques, but also what seem to be well-paid surrogate mothers under continuous surveillance while carrying the trial embryos. It is apparent that not all of the experiments go as planned, as Cosima witnesses the birth of a severely deformed baby in the limited time she is there. Afterwards, Cosima (italics) discusses what she saw with none other than the woman who created her:

“These are human beings that you’re tinkering with. Trial and error without consent.”

“These carriers are very well compensated.”

“And does that justify the baby that I saw? Look at me, I’m sick. I never gave permission for any of this.”

“No one gives permission to be born. I created you as a beautiful baseline to unlock the mysteries of the human genome.”

In a later conversation with the leader of BrightBorn who is competing for control of Neolution, Cosima learns that some people find cloning to be a crude mechanism for evolutionary control compared to gene editing:

“We don’t need your baseline. We can fix people now.”

“You can’t perfect the human genome. You can’t know what perfect is.”

“I do know. I was born sick.”

“I’m sick too. That doesn’t justify this.”

Season Four of Orphan Black also introduces the role of commercial genetic ancestry testing companies within the overarching project of understanding genetic identity, as Felix finds a “real [genetically related] sister” using an online DNA service. This poses a strange juxtaposition with the non-traditional clone “sestras,” as well as with Sarah, who was raised by a foster parent with Felix and who resents the implication that she is somehow less related than this “real sister” whom Felix has only just met.

Orphan Black has always been good at pushing the boundaries of what family and sexuality look like. The show has also made a move that destabilizes binary biological sex. Given Haraway’s claim that “the cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world,” it is fitting that we learn that the original DNA for both the female and male lines of clones came from a single chimeric woman.

Interestingly, even as everyone is enormously concerned with the well-being of “the original” in order to access her valuable DNA, she keeps secret the fact that she has leukemia. Perhaps she sees this as a way of reclaiming her death for her own, a kind of bodily autonomy she has been denied in her life.  Sadly, she is murdered in episode six, and so she is unable to have even that. But her desire to go untreated for her cancer is an interesting reminder that we often make different decisions when it comes to our own body than when it comes to the bodies of others.

This latest season of Orphan Black encourages us to question whether the kinds of technologies and ideologies presented in the show are less radical than they seem, and are in fact already with us in more innocuous forms today. Now that we have effectively donned smartphones as additional appendages and live in a world mediated by algorithms, to what degree are we all already cyborgs? And with the increasing normalization of assisted reproductive technologies to select and possibly even modify embryos, how far are we really from Neolutionism?

The quest towards perfection is a powerful narrative – in the show as in real life. But as the characters in Orphan Black prove repeatedly, biology and identity are marvelously complex and never compliant with even a single notion of perfection. And thank goodness for that. The show would be a lot less compelling if the clones really were all the same.

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