Special Science Feature: Chance

Chance by Cosima Herter, Science Consultant

"Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine…" – George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)

Despite their common origins, the lives of Sarah and her sisters have each had uniquely different paths. They’ve been bred to be genetically identical, yet being nurtured in radically different environments molded different personalities, and provided them each with their own novel ways of adapting to the vicissitudes of life. Their lives are as much a product of the conditions in which they were raised as they are built from the intentions of whomever it was that designed them. They are strange variations of the same template – their cells identically assembled, but their identities constructed by profoundly disparate worlds. They all share a crucial historical commonality – their Frankenstein origins – but their lives could not be more different. That is, until their worlds unexpectedly collide. [caption id="attachment_557" align="aligncenter" width="540"]Sarah meets her 'soccer mom' dupe. Sarah meets her 'soccer mom' dupe, Alison.[/caption] Until the moment when each of them individually becomes aware of their collective existence, there is nothing in their lives that could have given them any reason to predict this reality. Nothing in their biology, nor their upbringing, could have prepared them for the various chance encounters that eventually led them into each other’s lives. If Helena appears different in this respect it is only because she seems to have long been aware that there were others. She’s been hunting them down, and killing off what she thinks are abominations. But she could not have anticipated that startling, visceral feeling of connection she has when she encounters Sarah. Sarah is something new, something unexpected, something not part of Helena’s plan. None of them could have planned for any of this. [caption id="attachment_831" align="aligncenter" width="540"] "We have a connection...Can you feel it?" - Helena[/caption] Yet now their paths have converged, and they are forced to make very difficult choices. They've each come to the same fork in the road, each turned in the same direction towards each other, but each have uniquely different ways of rationalizing that decision. This is a decision that ties them together in such a way that now they could not foresee their futures without each other. Despite Alison's protestations, or Sarah's desire to flee to a better life, or Cosima's attempt to reduce them scientific formulas, or Helena's pursuit to eliminate them all – their lives have become inextricably bound, and their futures now uncomfortably contingent on the choices they individually make.

NEXT: Leading double lives and the 'nature vs. nurture' debate >

  [caption id="attachment_670" align="alignnone" width="540"]Connected by cloning. The double lives of clones.[/caption] The cataclysmic disruption of discovering the existence of one another has forced them to adapt to new circumstances, and their strategies for survival are now modified by entirely new concerns. Sarah makes a choice to sacrifice her autonomy and her plans to run away with daughter by committing herself to the common cause with her sisters. Alison finally acquiesces to the reality that she has to lead a double life. Cosima allows herself to begin falling down the rabbit hole of scientific research. And Helena is derailed from her monstrous mission to eradicate them all when she realizes she cannot kill Sarah. If their lives once seemed directed by the dual fates of both their nature and their nurturing, it now seems equally subject to the interventions of chance. In ancient Greece the idea of ‘chance’ did not mean what it typically means for us today. Chance had nothing to do with random, undetermined events, but rather referred to a notion that when the right circumstances converge the underlying order of the universe is given the chance to reveal itself. Now many of us generally think of chance as an unpredictability of events, accidents that seem to defy to the natural order of things. But it is unclear how, if at all, either of these forms of chance have directed Sarah and her sisters toward the road they now travel together on. Whatever ‘chance’ might be, it clearly undermines the possibility that their lives could be entirely determined by either their biology or how they were raised. [caption id="attachment_917" align="aligncenter" width="540"] "Dirty little copy cop." - Helena[/caption] The 'nature vs nurture' debate rears its head throughout this episode. But so do questions of whether this framework might have been faulty from the outset. It's a dualism that reduces us to simplistic fatalisms, and doesn’t take into account how the stakes change with unforeseen upheavals in our social landscapes. How we adapt to our changing environments can’t be predicted by either our origins, or by our social conditioning. The role that chance might play in evolutionary processes is at the heart of many long-standing, impassioned debates. And it is precisely the contention that there is no place for randomness in God, the Almighty Designer's Plan that fuels bitter disputes between Creation theorists and card-carrying Darwinians. Have questions for "Orphan Black" Science Consultant, Cosima Herter? Leave them in the comments below.