Leiden Anthropology Blog

Ipsa scientia potestas est

Ipsa scientia potestas est Photo via Donna Rowland (flickr.com)

If knowledge itself is power, then how should we relate to data-hungry companies eager to improve our lives and lifestyles? The science fiction TV-show ‘Orphan Black’ might offer us some interesting answers.

In brief, Orphan Black follows a group of female clones in their quest for knowledge of their own biology. These women were created in the 1980s as a scientific experiment. They were born via in vitro fertilization and raised with no awareness of their origin.

As adults, they gradually come to know each other and attempt to uncover the truths of their existence. They learn that they were created by scientists at the Dyad Institute, a company specialized in biotechnological innovation. Moreover, they discover that Dyad has paired them with secret monitors – their best friends, their husbands, etc. – who have tracked their health and safety over their lifetime. 

Sci-fi and social criticism 

This blog perhaps seems like an odd place to discuss a sci-fi TV-series on clones. Yet, to steal some words from prominent scholar Donna Haraway: “The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.”

Sci-fi often holds a wealth of social criticism. Think of the sudden surge in the popularity of George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale after the 2017 US presidential elections. These novels speculate on the nature and dangers of totalitarian political regimes.

Orphan Black SE01

Orphan Black, in turn, tells a mesmerising tale of biotechnologies (such as cloning and medical implants), biomedical data, and corporate power. Rather than presenting us with a clear-cut dystopian view of the world, Orphan Black invites us into the messy borderlands between right and wrong.

One of the most gripping scenes that explores such moral ambivalence takes place in the first season. Cosima Niehaus, one of the clones and a PhD student in Developmental Biology, tries to crack an encryption from Dyad that contains her DNA code. She succeeds, and at first, this seems to be a euphoric moment: she has outsmarted Dyad and asserted control over her own genetic code.

But in addition to her identification tag, she then finds that her genetic sequence contains a shocking text. It says: “THIS ORGANISM AND DERIVATIVE GENETIC MATERIAL IS RESTRICTED INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY” – effectively making Cosima and her clone sisters the private possession of Dyad.

The value of data

Now, you might think that the whole clone business is a bit far-fetched and unrealistic. Yet Orphan Black taps into pressing moral questions and contemporary real-world issues.

It confronts us with questions of (female) autonomy, freedom, and ownership over one’s body and biology. What do these rights and values mean in a context of science-for-profit? How does biotechnology change the way we relate to our physical bodies? In particular, the series invites critical reflection on the ethics of medical monitoring and biomedical data collection. 

These are not futuristic issues. Consider the growing popularity of technologies that monitor your health and wellbeing. You can keep track of your calorie intake, count your steps, monitor your heart rate, measure your insulin level, etcetera. Not surprisingly, institutions in the health and insurance sector are very interested in these types of voluntary data collection.

Indeed, Swiss Re, one of the largest and most influential re/insurance companies in the world, presents wearable tech as the future of health and life insurance. With the knowledge that such devices and applications generate, health and insurance companies wish to stimulate positive lifestyle changes, create new healthcare solutions, and develop individualised insurance products.

The value of our biomedical data thus should not be underestimated. The positive potential of biotechnology, however, doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of asking some difficult questions. Do we truly understand the technologies we use? Can we foresee the consequences of sharing our biomedical data with commercial institutions? Who has rightful ownership over and access to the data we generate with wearables, implants, and electronic applications?

Ethical engagements

Orphan Black doesn’t offer us any straightforward answers to such moral questions. The main characters in the series move in and out of engagement with the Dyad Institute to find out more about themselves and their biology. To do this, however, they continuously and actively have to renegotiate and protect their bodily autonomy.

Moreover, they refuse to be reduced to mere scientific experiments or subjects. Orphan Black thus invites us to reflect critically on the role of biotechnology in our everyday lives. The series pushes us to think about the impact of biomedical and technological innovation on our notions of autonomy, identity, and kinship. 

To return to Donna Haraway: Orphan Black presents us with pleasure in the wondrous world of science, yet simultaneously calls for responsibility in our creation of an engagement with new technologies. And, even if you’re not in the mood for profound reflections, watching award-winning actress Tatiana Maslany play about fourteen different characters is at least good fun... 

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