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Nature vs. Nurture, or ‘Why Does Cosima Wear Glasses?’

From Anne Karoline via Facebook: What is your favorite science-related quote in Orphan Black?
Cosima: Until this season, there were quite a few science-related quotes I really loved, in particular in episode 206 (“To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings”) when Cosima says to Sarah, “Well, science is what scientists do, Sarah.… We’re just, poking at things with sticks.” (Last season I discussed this idea about science being an activity that scientists do, guided by particular philosophies and methodologies, more comprehensibly HERE.) But now, by far, my favorite quote comes in one of the early scenes of 301 (“The Weight of This Combination”) when Cosima says, “I’m feeling, like, way better, thanks to science.”

Clearly the writers are having a bit of fun highlighting Cosima’s cheekiness (her delivery of this line makes me laugh out loud), but there’s something much more interesting about this then mere mischievousness. Orphan Black is indeed science fiction but we take seriously the very real socio-political and economic contexts that give rise to how science is practiced and to popular conceptions of what science is and how far its authoritative reach should extend. In particular, we play around with the notion that science—specifically medical science here—acts as the proverbial magic bullet that can defeat any and all ailments, regardless of whether the ailment (let alone how to cure it) is effectively understood or not.

In the case of our Clones, it’s not exactly clear what is making them sick, and of course we haven’t yet revealed how, to what degree, and why their genetics have been altered, so there’s really only so much I can say about it here! But we’re underscoring the assumption that if science created them, and caused their resultant illnesses, then science can also cure them. The irony here is that it is precisely the past mistakes in scientific understanding and experimentation regarding how the human genome “works” that created the unintended consequences leading to their illness that now needs to be “fixed.” Yes, science offers cures, but science can also produce pathologies that then necessitate countermeasures to fix the very mistakes resulting from scientific naïveté.

To me, this line is also a provocative reference to (often very hostile) debates about the relationship between science and spirituality—a debate that OB is in no way attempting to settle. Labeling something as “science” or “scientific” is a notoriously effective way of attempting to endow credibility to claims that may or may not have any scientific merit whatsoever. But it’s also an increasingly common method by which science is pitted against spirituality in rather unsettling ways that tend to convolute the importance of both in many people’s lives.

Another avenue we explored this season had to do with whether or not science and spirituality (or religion) necessarily operate in entirely separate domains of human activity. That is to say, if science is generally described as the domain of facts and rationality, then spirituality is often hostilely described as an exercise in irrational leaps of faith. But when confronted with grave illness and death, it’s not uncommon for the lines between these two domains to become blurred. In these scenarios staunch defenders of a “science-only” approach to understanding the nature of humanity and health often begin to question whether or not science can actually offer answers to the more mystical questions about life and meaning more generally. So while science is indeed a required component in healing the Clones’ bodies, it does not necessarily provide a salve to soothe the ruptures in their understanding of themselves as living beings who are clearly more than a simple sum of their biological parts.

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