Ask Cosima: Q&A with Series Science Consultant Cosima Herter
Do you think within our lifetime (100 years or so) human cloning will be accepted by science? By society? – roguecreations
Well, “science” isn’t an autonomous entity unto itself that exists outside humanity, so it doesn’t have an emotional capacity to “accept,” or “not accept,” anything. While that may seem like a trivial point, it’s actually very important to keep in mind when trying to make sense of what endows “science” with the kind of authority it has, and further, why and how we pursue certain kinds of scientific programs. It has to be taken in context of time and place. What constitutes our idea of “science” changes over time. There is something that we call “good science” and “bad science,” and that has a lot to do with the integrity of methodologies, checks and balances, and ways of interpreting data. Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum outside of society—it is both derived from and helps to shape society. Scientists are people; they’re not robots, they don’t stand outside of the rest of society and culture, unaffected. So as we learn more, collectively, and as cultural values—which are quite plastic—shift, so too does the level of acceptance regarding what could, and should, fall within the purview of science.
Many scientists already do accept the idea of cloning humans, and I’ve no doubt that some are actively pursuing this possibility in some way or another. I think the technical capacity to clone primates, humans among them, will eventually become a reality (indeed, some have claimed it already is). But to what end? I can’t say. I can think of a lot of dubious reasons that are easy to dramatize, but this is problematic in itself. The way scientists and science, more generally, is represented in popular culture really does affect what people think about it. And that, in turn, affects what kinds of support society gives to scientific authority, and scientific research. If we perceive something to be a certain way, we develop opinions about it based on that perception. I have a lot of faith in science, and what it can tell us about the world, and ourselves in it. But it isn’t the ultimate metric for social acceptance on certain issues. Orphan Black isn’t trying to offer a pat answer about what science is or does, but rather it seeks to pose provocative questions about what kinds of beliefs we hold, and why we hold them.
Whether or not, and in what ways, human cloning might become socially, morally, and culturally acceptable, I also can’t predict with much certainty. The level of acceptance, and the kinds of perceptions regarding genetic engineering more generally, is changing—and it’s not an homogenous perception across cultures and geographies. In the 1970s there was an enormous outcry against in vitro babies and recombinant DNA, for example. Yet both of these are widely, often unquestioningly, accepted now. I’m not sure it’s cloning in itself that is the most emotionally and morally confusing thing that people are worried about regarding whether or not it could be socially acceptable. One big issue is the anxiety people feel about experimenting on human beings, the suffering that causes, how we justify it, and what the consequences are. This is a totally justifiable concern! All manner of terrible experiments have been done on humans throughout history (and other animals for that matter) that have rightly forced us to establish ethical commitments regarding what can, and should, be done in the name of science. And these checks and balances on conduct effect what kind of scientific research is deemed socially acceptable.
Moreover, society hasn’t been able to collectively agree when “life” actually begins—at conception? at birth? at some stage in utero?—so if we don’t have an agreement on when life begins, then we have to continue to question what constitutes experimentation on humans. Also, if one believes that we are endowed with a God-given soul when a human being is conceived then this will have an enormous effect on how one perceives the importance of technological intervention in reproductive processes. So issues of human cloning are inherently bound up in the beliefs about how we understand what life is, and what it means to be alive. I’m not qualified to adjudicate these positions. But we need to appreciate how variable they are when we’re trying to establish ethical conduct.
For example, if you think that conception is where life as an autonomous human being begins, then embryonic stem cell research will seem abhorrent and sinister. But many people have various conflicting notions about this. And I don’t see how this will be resolved by simply finding some socially useful application for human cloning. Not to mention that what constitutes “socially useful” is another moving target that affects different populations in very different ways—benefit derived in one quarter does not necessarily translate to benefit in all quarters. So a utilitarian approach, i.e., calculating a social good by virtue of whether it offers the greatest benefit to the greatest amount of people—is problematic.
I also think a lot of fear comes from the fact that most people have the preconception that there is a strict equation that says “genes-equals-self” in totality, or that one’s genes are fully determinative, so if you clone someone’s DNA it will develop into an exact replica of the original. But we know this simply isn’t the case. There is an hereditarian fallacy many people hold which exaggerates the idea that because a particular trait (physical or behavioral) is heritable it will be inevitable. Certainly our genes do make a difference! No one doubts that! But what they do is code for an array of characteristics, and the way certain characteristics emerge is mediated by interactions with the environment (both in utero and out) throughout our lives. If you cloned a human being from my DNA you aren’t going to end up with the Cosima who is writing this. Perhaps it will be someone who looks like me, but all manner of things will contribute to what the person will become, physically and behaviorally.
Understanding the genetic transmission of traits is one thing, but what values we place on certain traits is another thing altogether. And when we’re talking about behavioral traits this becomes really slippery. For example, what we might have conventionally labeled as “aggressive” behavior in women throughout history is often be labeled as “confidence” or “boldness” in males. So what exactly is the behavioral trait that is being identified? Interpretations of behavior are affected by the social values we hold—especially insofar as gender, race, class, and sexuality are concerned. And this, in turn, affects the way those characteristics are defined, thus what it is we are looking for when studying what kinds of behaviors might be genetically transmitted. And if these definitions change over time—and we know they do—then it’s not clear that we could find a specific gene, or combination of gene sequences, that code for particular behaviors.
Do you think human cloning is ethical? Do you believe scientists should be allowed to legally explore human cloning? – docdelphinecormier
The legality of what should be “allowed” in biological research is something that is contingent on cultural values. I think if human cloning were deemed ethically acceptable then laws will emerge to reflect that. Ethics, too, are culturally contingent rules of conduct that change over time.
Do I, personally, think human cloning is ethical? Well, I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what’s happening in the fields of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. It’s mind-boggling and amazing, not to mention disturbing in some ways. I’m fascinated by it all, but that doesn’t mean I condone all types of biological research. I don’t know that I am instinctively repulsed by the idea of cloning per se, but I don’t know to what end it needs to be done. I mean, why do we need to clone humans at all? But I also believe we are the sum total of more than just our genes, so genetic cloning is only one part of larger ethical issues. There is a kind of hubris involved regarding our so-called human superiority in the world, and very complex reasons why some lives have been considered to be more valuable than others. These are ethical issues that need to be attended to, and this isn’t limited to science alone. Over time science has been used to both debunk pernicious social views, as well as to buttress them. The knife cuts both ways. Biology has been used as a political tool to make claims about what is “normal,” “natural,” “true,” and “right.” Biology as a scientific discipline and cultural beliefs are mutually influencing forces. I think it’s important to look at that relationship when trying to form any opinion about whether the science itself is ethical.
This season, bodily autonomy has been a running theme. Are there any other scientific themes you are curious to see on TV? Do you ever pick up Graeme and John in your car by yelling at them. “Get in, losers! We’re going to do some science!?” Because that would be awesome! – kimnrowdy
Ha! Yes, that would be awesome! If only they’d listen to me if I did yell at them! Unfortunately, I don’t have that much sway!
But yes, we do have conversations about what kinds of ideas—scientific and philosophical—might be interesting to explore. Part of my job with the show is to bring in issues and scientific research that they might not have considered, or been exposed to. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to call up Graeme at some strange hour, excitedly demanding he listen to some bizarre and wondrous thing I’d just learned and wanted to share with him (poor guy!). But there are the other writers involved too! I mean, what a remarkable, ingenious group of thinkers! What an amazing collaborative process it is to develop ideas with them. They often task me with research regarding science, and scientific ideas, that they want to know more about. So it’s not simply me bringing in reports and studies that I think they need to read. It’s more of a conversation about what kinds of things they want to explore, and in what ways.
What scientific themes would I like to see more of on TV? My personal interests are in the biological sciences and theories of evolution. I’m very interested in the commercialization of biotechnology, especially as pertains to genetic engineering and synthetic biology. This is an extraordinarily rich and complicated domain to dig into. Again, because biology is often marshaled into the service of politics, I’m always curious to see how it gets represented in popular media. The science itself is fascinating, but I’m also interested in how we understand the motivations and the consequences, and then how and why we represent them in media the ways that we do. For me, it’s about asking provocative questions that stimulate people to think critically. It’s not about answering all those questions, it’s about how we position ourselves within a conversation about them, how we challenge our assumptions, and digging down to the roots of certain kinds of beliefs people hold about the world. We can’t change damaging ideas if we’ve become blind to them. So making certain ideas visible as historical and social constructs helps us understand why we feel obliged to them.
If all the clones were to take an IQ test, would they have similar results? Or would Cosima win with flying colors? – dogweather
The IQ test!! Here is an excellent example about both the hereditarian fallacy AND how biology has been used to naturalize claims about people. Modern day Intelligence Quotient tests are based on techniques developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet in the early 1900s to identify how to help children who did not seem to do well in “normal” classrooms. The point was to develop a pedagogical strategy to help children with special learning needs. Binet eschewed using his test for making social or theoretical claims about intellect. Instead it was a scale meant to identify children who might need special education to help them succeed. It was not about defining people as somehow “innately’” cognitively deficient, or innately superior to those with normal learning capacities. It was about identifying where learning issues might be with children who were struggling, and then figuring out how these could be accommodated. It was not created to rank so-called normal learners amongst themselves, nor to make judgments as to why someone might have learning disabilities.
The idea that “intellect” is a single genetic characteristic that is inherited is a distinctly American construct. And we can identity through whom, and when, this idea emerged and was disseminated (for example, the eugenicist Henry Goddard and his designation of the “feeble minded” is one of the most famous). Again, certainly our genes effect certain characteristics that are passed down from parent to offspring, and I’ve no doubt that our genes do indeed influence particular cognitive capacities. But we have to remember that the idea of “intelligence” as some empirical entity that can be pointed to and measuresd, that it is a specific, singular “thing” is a fallacy.
So, would Cosima rank higher on an IQ test? Maybe. But she might do so for a number of different reasons; it’s not simply a matter of reducing it down to her education or how she was raised. There are a ton of factors that go into someone’s intelligence, and a ton of different types of intelligences we can have about the world. What makes us intelligent people certainly can’t be boiled down to European style “book-learning” pedagogy alone!
Is science the only similarity you and the character Cosima have? How about differences? – docdelphinecormie
Is Cosima’s personality based upon your own? – imrachelduncan
In many ways it’s really difficult for me to clearly see in what ways Cosima Niehaus and I are similar. I look at her in the same way I look at all the characters—as these amazing creations who have taken on a life of their own. Of course, in a strange and surreal way, I have a close connection to Cosima, but I have to be very conscientious about not inserting my vanity into what happens with her. So, it’s much easier to recognize the differences! She’s a fictional character. When Graeme asked me if I’d mind whether he named a character in Orphan Black Cosima, of course I said that was fine! But I hadn’t thought much about whether her personality would have any relationship to my own. I think, to some degree her personality has some likeness to mine, but again, she’s constructed by the writers, and fleshed out by Tatiana’s remarkable acting skills and imagination. I am pretty hands-off insofar as Niehaus’s construction is concerned. And if I stop and wonder whether I’m being observed and written into the character it freaks me out too much! So I really try not to think about it in that way!
When I look at Cosima Niehaus I see a number of different things: I see this amazing female character, with all her quirkiness, curiosity, tenderness of heart, fortitude, and driven commitment to ferreting out the “truth” of whatever issue is put in front of her. And those are characteristics that I admire, so of course I’d like to think that I embody them too, but in my life they’re certainly not motivated by a do-or-die kind of necessity as they are in the Orphan Black universe.
There are some similarities on the surface, with differences in the details. I had come from the West Coast (but from British Columbia, Canada, not from California) to Minneapolis to attend graduate school. But my studies are in the history and philosophy of science and technology (biology, to be more precise). So I am not a scientist studying evolutionary developmental—instead I study how, and why, people have tried to make sense of biological issues and evolutionary processes throughout history, and further, how certain attitudes and beliefs about ourselves (and other living creatures) have developed to become the foundations for certain kinds of social and political ideologies that we hold now; if we can see how certain ideas emerge, we might also be able see in what ways they can be modified.
More similarities: Like Cosima, I do tend to wave my hands around a lot when talking, and have been known to be quite irritating for going off on tangents and parentheticals when talking (I’m thinking that might be obvious by my long-winded reply here!). I wear a lot of big jewelry, and like wearing lots of bright colors and patterns. I am very sensitive and tenderhearted, and have an unfortunate tendency to fall in love with the “wrong” people and get my heart broken more regularly than I care to admit! There is no Delphine in my life, but I do have an old cat that seems to be quite fond of me.
Now the differences: I am much older than Cosima Neihaus. I’ve never had dreadlocks (although I contemplated it once a long time ago!). I do have tattoos (but that’s not so uncommon these days) but not the same ones. A lot of what makes up Cosima’s aesthetic—her hair, style of dress, pot-smoking, taste in music—is pretty in line with a lot of people you see on the West Coast (where Graeme & I both hail from). But it’s an aesthetic you don’t see positively represented on television very often. Usually, they’re represented as male characters who are made to seem like ridiculous, dead-beat stoners who do nothing but sit around stupidly in a haze of smoke. So Cosima quite consciously defies that stereotype. But Cosima’s style is uniquely her own, and also results from the tremendous ingenuity and vision of the hair/make-up/wardrobe team. And they’ve done a beautiful job with helping develop Cosima (and all the characters) and her personality in the ways that help Tatiana embody her.
This question is interesting in another, broader, sense insofar as how we try to see ourselves through the vision of other people. Many of us spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what others think of us, trying to understand how our relationships with others reflect certain characteristics back to us, attempting to interpret ourselves through what we think others’ perceptions of us are. We often behave, and self-censor, as though we are always being observed, as though our actions are being monitored, judged, evaluated. And then we modify ourselves in order to fall in line with whatever metric we think we are being measured by. But, I think, our freedom to be ourselves—sincerely and authentically—can be seriously curtailed by too much contemplation of what others think. So it’s something I try not to dwell on too much (and, oddly, I think the other Cosima is portrayed as being this way as well). And because of this, to be honest, I don’t know how much of Cosima’s characteristics are actually derived from how anyone who works on Orphan Black might observe me to be. I think they’d be able to answer this more coherently than I can!
Why do you think it’s important for a character like Cosima to be on television? – sarahcosima
I think that a character like Cosima has value for a number of different reasons. She’s complex and defies a number of stereotypes, but she’s not so far off the rails that her humanness is rendered ridiculous and beyond belief. She’s vulnerable and fallible. She’s an interesting mix of confidence and insecurity. She is neither of all “brains” and objectively clinical, nor all emotion-driven and entirely subjective. She isn’t interesting simply for her sexiness, or sexuality, she’s interesting because she’s complicated and self-contradictory—like all of us. Her personality isn’t blown out of proportion one way or another for the sake of making an easy narrative, or for prescribing particular ways that women should be in the world. And that in itself is valuable for TV. I think this can be said of all the women in Orphan Black, not just this character. They’re difficult characters to produce because they challenge—they aren’t derived from lowest-common-denominator concepts about what constitutes women, scientists, mothers, daughters, lovers, criminals, or Pollyanna tropes. I have to give a LOT of credit to the writers for thinking so critically about how they want to represent these women. And I think there are number of programs out now that also challenge calcified concepts of what it means to have personal agency, and how this affects women specifically. But it’s not just about women. It’s also about the variability and complexity of humans more generally, and offering different ways to contemplate those things.Read More