The final season of the award-winning SF series Orphan Black will soon be upon us. And beyond the exemplary performances by star Tatiana Maslany and the rest of the cast, beyond the top-notch production and effects that made this series so incredible to watch, we should stop and consider the real science behind the series concept.
We all know the show is built around the concept of cloned humans: In 1984, an private organization used in-vitro fertilization on a number of women to have them bear cloned boys and girls. The clones were then monitored through their lives, many of them secretly monitored as they lived normal lives, to see how they would develop. Sarah Manning is a clone who was spirited out of the system by an underground group as a child, and doesn’t know about her clone status until adulthood when she sees one of her clone sisters, just before the clone kills herself. Sarah slowly learns more about her clone identity when she encounters more clone sisters, and later brothers, and the conspiracy surrounding them.
The greatest aspect about Orphan Black‘s backstory is that none of this is theoretically impossible; The first successful birth of a child after IVF treatment, Louise Brown, occurred in 1978 (from Wikipedia), and experiments in artificial cloning of organisms has been going on since the 1920s. Further verisimilitude is provided by the fact that the clones are not all perfect: Many of them have a genetic disorder that, so far, has proven fatal to all who carry it. Also, the cloned girls are all supposed to be sterile, yet Sarah has given birth to a natural child. And at least one cloned sister was born transgender.
But most obvious about the series is its essential premise: The conflict between nature and nurture, whether your life and personality is governed more by your genetics or by your environment. So far the series has sided with most reputable science, and has mostly shown us that when it comes to clones, nurture triumphs over nature. Throughout the series we are presented with Sarah’s clones, and each of them (and, as is suggested by the series, the many more Sarah never meets) are all very different people, directly as a result of how or where they were raised. Where Sarah is mostly a con artist, her sister Cosima is a brilliant biologist, sister Alison is a suburbanite with adopted children, Beth (the suicide) was a crack police officer, Helena is a trained assassin, Krystal is a slightly-dim beautician, Rachel is a no-nonsense businesswoman, etc. The cloned boys showed similar differences, though most of them were raised inside a military organization.
The series has also shown that individual human nature asserts itself eventually; for nothing about Sarah’s upbringing by a loving and no-nonsense foster mom would have driven Sarah to becoming a con artist… Sarah’s own choices did that. The show suggests that the clones who were raised outside of the system took various turns based on their own decisions, as well as upbringing… a clear indication of nurture over nature.
When you get past the decades-long conspiracies, the 1984-style surveillance, the secret corporate and government programs, the illegal medical experiments and the colorful characters, you get a TV show that believes in science and its very real potential to society and the world. The characters are also what science would have you believe: Individuals with their own unique reactions to the evidence that they were not born like others, but created in a lab and monitored like mice in a cage. And most heartening is the fact that most of the clones are, by and large, able to overcome that dark past and live their own lives. Like Pinocchio, they may have been born as puppets… but ultimately, no one holds their strings.