Friday, June 6, 2014

The Brave New World of Orphan Black

Oh, Brave New World that has such people in it!”—Minerva in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and John the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
Human cloning recently made a media comeback when three different research groups created embryonic stem cells out of embryos cloned from adult cells. Scientists insisted that the cloned embryos are meant for research and therapeutic purposes—not to create human clones (shades of “The Island”?). John Farrell of Forbes Magazine wrote, "The breakthrough also means that it is now just a matter of time before reproductive cloning is achieved. Probably within the next decade."
Enter Canadian science fiction thriller Orphan Black, written by Graeme Manson and directed by John Fawcett—now in Season Two. The show stars the extraordinary multi-talented Tatiana Maslany in multiple roles of herself—really. Shot in and around Toronto, Ontario, the series focuses on Sarah Manning, a fringe-dweller with questionable friends, who assumes the identity of her clone, Elizabeth (Beth) Childs, after witnessing her suicide. In Season 1 alone, seven clones are revealed.
Told in the format of a high-speed thriller, Orphan Black is a slick, sophisticated and edgy exploration of human evolution that raises issues about the moral and ethical implications of bio-engineering and genetic tampering—specifically human cloning, personal identity and intellectual property.

Toronto is filmed brilliantly in a vague every-city pastiche that combines the look of London’s eastside, NYC and northern Europe all in one. Like its characters, the show is both sparsely existentialist and baroque funk. Besides Sarah’s own diverse clones there is foster brother Felix and his various friends or cronies who add significant colour to this film-noir set. Unsavory antagonists not only add intrigue but provide significant texture from sophisticated and subtle to the banal and truly terrifying. And like biology itself—perhaps the true main character here—all the characters are shape-shifters; looking for balance in a shifting world where “normal” keeps chasing itself.
Masterful storytelling by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett elevate the series from the mundane obvious (so typical of episodic TV) to the powerfully subtle. Manson and Fawcett enlist symbols and clever metaphor to enrich the story with layers of depth—no item is free of meaning: from the seemingly innocuous naming of a transit station (Huxley Station) in the show’s premiere, or Delphine’s passing reference to “a brave new world” to a terse discussion between a religious extremist and a restaurant proprietor over the merits of factory-farmed eggs: “They’re not normal,” the extremist complains. “They’ve been interfered with.” There is nothing normal about Orphan Black.
Then there are the titles of each episode…
Episode titles in Season One quoted parts of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary text On The
Origin of Species. Titles like “Natural Selection” (series premiere) and “Parts Developed in an Unusual Manner” elucidate concepts of evolution and survival of the fittest. Season 2 adopts the works of Sir Francis Bacon, reflecting the ethical and moral implications of scientific pursuit in a world of contrasting philosophies and values. “The frequently antagonistic relationship between ‘sound reason’ and ‘true religion’ and the attempt to reconcile the two,” says SlantMagazine, “emerges here as the structuring principle of Orphan Black's sophomore season—exemplified by the decision to title each episode after the writings of Francis Bacon, whose body of work at once advocated empiricism and abhorred atheism.”
The Season 2 Premiere title, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” excerpts Bacon’s “Plan Of The Work” published in 1620:
“Next, with regard to the mass and composition of it: I mean it to be a history not only of nature free and at large (when she is left to her own course and does her work her own way)—such as that of the heavenly bodies, meteors, earth and sea, minerals, plants, animals—but much more of nature under constraint and vexed; that is to say, when by art and the hand of man she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded…seeing that the nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom.”
Intrigue unfolds as Sarah and Felix discover that her clones are being systematically killed and/or getting sick. They unravel a frightening panoply of stakeholder villains, spanning from ultra-sophisticated to deranged fanatics: the Proletheans, religious extremists, seek to systematically eliminate clone “abominations”; Pastor Henrick, a Waco-style cult “prophet” who quotes Einstein conducts Mengele-style “breeding” experiments. Sarah and Felix trace the origin of her clones to The Dyad Institute, a bio-tech corporation with arcane connections to eugenics; they patented the clones as theirs to do with as they please. One of the institute’s scientists heads Neolution, a transhumanist movement whose notion of “self-directed evolution” to recast humanity in the image of “perfection” evokes social Darwinism and the Übermensch. It brings to mind the early American eugenics programs that inspired the fascist sonderweg and Hitler’s aggressive application of eugenics in the Holocaust.

Conditions of Existence…
Simply put, eugenics uses science and/or breeding techniques to produce individuals with preferred or "better" characteristics; the practice of eugenics is based on the notion that not only physical traits but mental and behavioral attributes—like mental capacity, musical ability, insanity, sexual licentiousness and criminality—are inheritable and therefore can be directed through breeding, sterilization and now through genetic manipulation.
1883 Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, gave the practice a name. He called it eugenics, which comes from a Greek term meaning “good” or “noble” birth. Eugenic strategies flourished in the USA in the early 20th Century when thousands of people underwent forced sterilization. Ultimately, these same principles inspired the Nazies to exterminate people with disabilities and “lessor” ethnic or philosophical backgrounds.

“Perhaps more than any other science, biology has consistently been employed as an accomplice to moral claims because it has tremendous social utility in translating scientific findings into political imperatives,” says Cosima Herter, science consultant for Orphan Black. “Historian of science, Garland Allen, argued that the “decline in economic and social conditions” gives strong indications ‘of our potential to find eugenical arguments […] attractive once again,’ albeit ‘clothed in the updated language of molecular genetics.’ The social importance of genetics lies not only in how genetic research has contributed towards advances in biology (and undoubtedly it does in many, many beneficial ways – medicine not the least among them), but because we have yet to counter ‘simplistic claims of a genetic basis for our social behavior’ with modern facts. Our understanding of genetics has changed, but many of our social aspirations for its uses have not.  Deeply embedded in the public consciousness is the hope that social problems can be solved with ‘scientific panaceas’.”   
“We may indeed have a richer understanding of the science of heredity and genetic mechanisms, but public attitudes as to their social relevance have changed very little in the last 100 years.  And we might be well advised to remember that science can as easily act as an ally to existing institutions and justify pernicious prejudices – racism, sexism, homophobia, and class disparity to name but a few – as it can produce wondrous, beautiful, and beneficial fruits in the service of a better world where these prejudices could be overcome.  Many of us still hold on to ambitions that we can build ‘perfect’ people and genetically engineer ‘perfect’ societies, yet do so without much pause as to how we measure what ‘perfect’ is, and what horrendous and inhuman costs this aspiration towards perfection might incur.  Many traits we value, and are wont to consider ‘perfect,’ are historically plastic.  And ‘genes are not rigid pieces of information’ that necessarily lead to a particular behavioral trait.  If our definitions of many behavioral traits we study today are known to be highly subjective, then our attempts at studying the genetics behind them is likely to remain on precariously shifting grounds.” 

Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World describes a society based on eugenic principles. It is a stratified genetic caste society where the lower orders are deliberately stunted both mentally and physically. The destiny of its five main strata is determined from an early age. The strata consist of Alphas, destined for leadership positions; Betas, who hold less exalted but still intellectually demanding jobs; Gammas and Deltas, who occupy roles needing some intelligence; and finally Epsilons, happy morons capable of only the most menial and unskilled tasks.

Transhumanism is an intellectual and cultural movement that promotes eugenic principles through science & technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities.
In 1923 British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane predicted great benefits to humanity from applications of advanced sciences to human biology. He also suggested and that every such advance would be considered blasphemy or perversion, "indecent and unnatural".
In 1929, Cambridge crystallographer J.D. Bernal, speculated on radical changes to human
bodies and intelligence through bionic implants and cognitive enhancement. Two years before that, Fritz Lang’s expressionist SF film Metropolis introduced the first robot depicted in cinema: the Maschinenmensch, the machine-human.

Biologist Julian Huxley, brother of the writer, first used the word Transhumanism in a 1957 article, where he presented the concept of the technological singularity, or the ultra-rapid advent of superhuman intelligence. Huxley defined Transhumanism as “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”

The founders of Transhumanism were educated wealthy individuals of mostly British and European descent. They were an elite ruling class, who considered themselves the forward-thinking intelligentsia.

While early Transhumanists advocated the elitest pseudoscience of Eugenics or “racial hygiene”, many of today’s Transhumanists argue that market dynamics and individual choice will drive twenty-first century eugenics. However, this argument contradicts the movement’s own dialectic: that of achieving the Singularity. The Transhuman quest for the Singularity of the Übermensch consists of the ability to upload the minds of all individuals to a Hive Mind, a symbiotic collective consciousness, in which all peoples can link to an artificial “brain” or global hard drive, to achieve super-intelligence. The Mind Upload Research Group (MURG) is currently researching this possibility.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines and co-founder of the Singularity University, predicts that humans will be uploading their minds to computers by 2045 and that bodies will be replaced by machines—essentially achieving “immortality”—before the end of the century. “We’re going to become increasingly non-biological to the point where the non-biological part dominates and the biological part is not important any more,” says Kurzweil. “In fact the non-biological part – the machine part – will be so powerful it can completely model and understand the biological part. So even if that biological part went away it wouldn’t make any difference.”

Author Paul Joseph Watson reminds us that—even if desirable—such a utopia would not be available to everyone; rather, it would remain the domain of a wealthy aristocracy, creating yet another class system.

Kurzweil seems to agree: “Humans who resist the pressure to alter their bodies by becoming part-cyborg or are unable to afford such procedures will be ostracized from society. Humans who do not utilize such implants are unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do.”

In Kurzweil’s brave new world of “biological and non-biological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light,” will such an elite see the mass of humanity as worthless parasites and either prevent them from reproducing via mass sterilization programs or simply slaughter them outright?

"And it seems to me perfectly in the cards that there will be within the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda, brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods."—Aldous Huxley in a speech at the University of California

Related Novels & Movies:

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
  • MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood
  • Natural Selection by Nina Munteanu 
  • The Island
  • Gattaca
  • Elysium
  • Metropolis


Roma said...

Nina, this article is fabulous as is the show Orphan Black and the references just add to the appeal of this story!

I'm going to maintain that Beth Childs isn't dead. As you taught us in class - nothing is mentioned in a story without purpose - despite Beth's death she is mentioned in some way in almost every episode. There are also other things that suggest that the suicide victim may be another clone.

Nina Munteanu said...

I'd welcome more examples to fill out the list I started... Thanks!


Nina Munteanu said...

"The Arc of Time", found in my short story collection about humanity and evolution "Natural Selection", hints at a transhumanist style elitism that results in a perversion of "the Rapture". I suppose that at the root of the argument for or against certain practices is whether you are tolerant and include vs intolerant and exclude...

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks for your wonderful comments, Roma!

OMG! What you suggest is very interesting--and intriguing! This show has me so caught up! Now with season 2 drawing to a close, I'm going to have to wait several months before some of these questions are answered...