For starters, I’m an unashamed fan. Orphan Black is fantastic TV. We’ve watched through the first 4 seasons now, but will have to wait until the release of the boxed set of 5 to see the conclusion of the matter (it is officially the last). It is totally addictive, cult viewing.

 

Tatiana Maslany by Gage Skidmore

Here’s the essential premise: human cloning is a reality. Sarah Manning discovers that she’s one of a number of clones, some of whom are ‘self-aware’. Each is played by the same actor, the simply awesome Tatiana Maslany (right). Season 3 then features a bunch of male clones too. But what is so fascinating, especially in Maslany’s hands, is not their similarities but dissimilarities.  She is the master of the minute gesture that conveys an entirely different personality – even more mind-boggling is when the plot demands that one clone pretends to be another. Such is her skill that each is clearly discernible.

But the reason for blogging, despite being a fanboy, is that it is a deeply thoughtful, not to mention provocative, show from an ethical and philosophical perspective. The storylines are complex, and while it clearly has science fiction/fantasy elements, it is striking, and even chilling, how close to science fact it may well be. There can’t be many pop-cultural phenomena that throw out as many questions as OB. Andrew Niccol’s film Gattaca might be one.

Which is why I have recently read Gregory Pence’s What we talk about when we talk about Clone Club. He is a bioethics professor of many years’ experience, and has come to prominence since writing extensively about human cloning since Dolly the Sheep‘s appearance. This book probes the scientific and ethical questions raised by the show (albeit up to the end of season 3).

Learning Science the pop-culture way

Pence knows what he’s talking about, and is able (on the whole!) to explain the scientific intricacies in a way that even this total humanities guy can follow. Human cloning is clearly not likely to start tomorrow – but there so many working on it, that it can only be a matter of time. After Dolly, who knows what is next?

The book covers a lot of ground – with inevitable concision – with brief chapters on issues such as:

  • stem cell experimentation, use and regeneration (described as biology’s Holy Grail because it avoids all embryo usage) – the discovery of induced pluripotent stem by Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John Gurdon won them the Nobel Prize;
  • the distinctions (ethical and biological) between test-tube fertilisation and cloning;
  • the biological challenges inherent in human cloning;
  • the thorny relationship between nature and nurture (which is a running theme of Orphan Black)
  • the reasons the Leda clones (the girls played by Maslany) and the Castor clones (the boys played by Ari Millen) seem to function so differently.
  • Etc. Etc

These are genuinely fascinating questions – and I felt my understanding had deepened considerably.

I was very struck by the reasons that no two human clones can ever be 100% identical. This is because a ‘host egg’ is required to carried the clone’s cells.

Host eggs with their original nucleus removed still contain something called mitochondria, literally ‘grain-like threads’ in ancient Greek. These threads are frequently referred to as the powerhouse of the cell; they fuel cellular processes and, when dysfunctional, can cripple the body.

More important for us, human mitochondria contain 37 human genes, which a cloned embryo would inherit. So, given that humans have between twenty-thousand and twenty-five thousand genes, it would seem the statement that a clone’s genes come from just one person is 99.9% accurate (or, more precisely, 99.9815% correct). (p61)

So that minute margin perhaps provides sufficient scientific grounds for the differences between Orphan Black’s clones. It was fascinating to discover that the show was quite this sensitive to scientific realities (although of course its dramatic demands likely as not trumped the science since little would be gained if the clones really were 100% identical).

So, I learned a lot from the book.

Presumptions and Prejudices

My primary struggle with was with the constant sense, sometimes quite explicit, that any conceivable opposition to cloning could only be based on prejudice and outmoded (often religious) belief systems. Historically, of course, every new scientific breakthrough has felt like a game-changer, a point of no return. And religious people have certainly been at the forefront of reactionary or prejudicial responses.

Technology image created by Kjpargeter (Freepik.com)

I may have missed something, but Pence’s presumption seems to be that anything less than full-steam ahead would be a betrayal of science. And his characterisation of opposing views tends to be weak, and, occasionally, downright bizarre.

Ironically enough, I felt that the show’s ethical stance on the science was more nuanced than this particular professor’s – and the battles that the cloned women face in particular (not least from the Prolethians, a weird quasi-religious cult, or from the Neolutionists (OB’s equivalent to the real world Transhumanists), quite apart from the decidedly dubious motivations behind those who cloned them in the first place, do cast doubt on the wisdom of the whole human cloning project.

And that is what it comes down to in the end. It may well be possible to do all this. But is it wise?

To give just one example of the tone, from early on, Pence writes:

Other objections to human cloning, those based on safety, unnaturalness, and harm to society, may actually mask religious unease. By far, the major source of all objections to human cloning is the idea that God makes babies, and that only God, not humans, should decide how and when babies come… (p26)

… Even if we understand genetics and how each parent contributes twenty-three chromosomes, including one sex chromosome, to the sexually created child, and even if we understand how the genetic roulette wheel mixes the genes of mother and father to create a new, unique child, we can still believe that the hidden hand of God guides the genetic mixer.

But in cloning, such belief wanes in credibility. Human beings choose to clone the genotype of a modern Leonardo da Vinci and not those of their neighbours, and that choice brings conscious human wants and decisions to the foreground. (Of course, if you believe God gave humans a brain to think and choose with, cloning doesn’t threaten you at all – but such theists seem both to be in the tiny minority and uninterested in control of public policy.)

Why, I can’t help wonder, should human choices about cloning be so feared and not those about, say, riding motorcycles, eating junk food, or not finishing college? (p27)

Where do you even being with that!? I mean, honestly… For starters, he seems to suggest that those who believe God gave us brains to think with would automatically accept cloning but that they tend not to get involved in public policy making!!! What?! Is cloning really as simple and clear-cut as riding motorbikes or going to Mcdonalds?!

Opponents of cloning tend to be dismissed with ease by resorting to ad hominem arguments and straw man summaries. Which is such a shame. Because profoundly significant and important issues at stake here. Yet, it illustrates what is the case far too often, namely that in the public square, a theological perspective is given short shrift before even making a clear case.

People image created by Pressfoto (Freepik.com)

Yet the idea that science can offer anything more than knowledge per se lies at the heart of its hubris. As if being informed how to do something is tantamount to whether or not one should do something. That is not wisdom. That is at best pragmatism.

So, in my experience, you are likely to find much more nuance and care even amongst many of the religious scientists (who are far more numerous than people realise) that I know at places like Cambridge’s Faraday Institute (from the likes of John Wyatt and Denis Alexander) and Biologos in the USA (set up by former director of The Human Genome Project Francis Collins – who is notably absent from Pence’s book).

It is to them, therefore, not Pence, that I will clearly need to go for thoughtful engagement with the bioethical issues raised by Orphan Black.

There’s so much more that the show provokes, though – but that will have to wait for another another day…

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