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

Editor’s Note: We culled your questions from this blog, Facebook, and Tumblr for this week’s questions. See Cosima’s responses below and be sure to submit your own! From Sarah Waits via Facebook: If you were asked to make a small appearance on the show, like to play Cosima's mom, would you say yes? (Also, that's a wicked idea haha) Cosima: For years now I’ve had terrible cavities in two of my lower bicuspids. It’s even gotten to the point where it’s very become difficult to chew on that particular side of my mouth, the pain is so bad. I continually make appointments to go to the dentist, but inevitably I’ll cancel them the night before. Or, even more disturbingly, I’ll actually make it into the dentist’s office, check in, and then leave in a panic moments before I’m called in. One thing I like to believe about myself is that I’m a fairly brave person and can willingly challenge myself to do things that scare me, but going to the dentist is just one of those things that I can’t seem to bring myself to do. This is highly problematic for a number of obvious reasons, not least being the fact that I eat enormous amounts of chewy candy while I work (don’t judge—it’s part of my "process"!) And even in my most paranoid moments when I’ve convinced myself that I’m surely going to die an agonizing death due to an abscessed tooth, I still won’t go to the dentist. I enjoy being in front of a camera even less than I like going to the dentist. 5 From Rachel Dryce via Facebook: Hey Cosima! What similarities do you and the fictional Cosima have, and what traits of hers that you may not share would you like to have? and CommanderniehausWe all know you inspired Cosima, but is there anything [about] Cosima that inspires you? Cosima: To both of these questions: I’ve often wished I had a greater ability to charm the objects of my amorous yearnings—Cosima Niehaus is enviably adept at this. From Elisa P. Medeiros via Facebook: Shouldn't Sarah and Helena have the same type of hair since they're twins? Cosima: This kind of question seems to come up a lot, and just like Cosima’s need for glasses, there are a number of reasons why each of the sisters may have different types of hair, be larger or smaller in size, or display discordance in the expression of genetically dominated diseases. Identical (monozygotic) twins do indeed share the same DNA because they develop from the same parental egg-sperm combination. But if you’ve ever met a pair of identical twins you will notice that they do not at all appear as exact copies of each other! While their genetics are identical, physical (and some behavioral) differences are generally attributed to something called "epigenetics." Epigenetics refers to the processes that change genetic activity, which, while they do not change the actual DNA sequence itself, can be heritable to offspring. These are the effects of the interactions between varying environmental influences, both in utero and out, and an organism’s genetics. You’ll often hear this described as the contest between so-called "nature" (i.e. genetics) and "nurture" (i.e. environment). Researchers have been working on making sense of epigenetic mechanisms and their effects on the expression of phenotypic traits, with rapid advances in their understanding especially within the last 5–10 years. Studying the physical differences between twins has been crucial in assessing how the environment impacts the expression of complex traits, and what kinds of factors may be involved. Here are a few excellent, and very short but quite comprehensive, videos that will give you a better sense of what is meant by epigenetics: I quite like THIS SHORT VIDEO from the University of Utah’s Health Sciences, Genetic Science Learning Center on epigenetics and twins. I also really enjoy the science related videos produced by Scishow. HERE is their discussion of epigenetics. You can follow HERE on Twitter. And, one more offered by Bozeman Science:, which also is very accessible to the lay audience: You can follow Paul Andersen, who hosts them, on TWITTER. If you’d like to read more, I recommend THIS wonderfully informative explanation of epigenetics from the National Center of Biotechnology Information. And again from University of Utah’s Health Sciences, Genetic Science Learning Center on epigenetics: While there are certainly concrete biological reasons why the sisters may have differences in their appearances, there are some very practical non-science related reasons as well. One, of course, is so that they can be visually distinguishable onscreen. But perhaps more poignantly it’s important that they are seen as very distinct people with their own idiosyncratic personalities, and as such we continue to emphasize the richness of each character’s personal agency. Insofar as they may make choices to act in the world according the principles and concerns that drive them, they also make choices about how they choose to present themselves stylistically (like, for example, one may simply decide to artificially color her hair). And further, they have each have led very different lives that have affected their physical development (like, for example, Cosima’s deteriorating eyesight may very well be due to prolonged close-vision eye strain from reading). Again, we stress that simply because they may be genetically the same, their choices—especially as pertaining to their bodies, aesthetically or otherwise—may be influenced by a whole host of factors unrelated to their DNA! 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.