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Special Science Feature: The Individual and the Social

The Individual and the Social
by Cosima Herter, Science Consultant

What makes you an individual? Is it the separateness of your own body, in space and time, from another’s? Surely we are more than a mere aggregate of cells, more than our biology, more than a mere sum of our parts. Is it the personal, private inner workings of your own sense of self? What does it mean to refer to oneself as “me?” Some might say that what individuates us from others is our souls. Some might call it subjectivity.

Deep down, most of us believe we are unique and autonomous, that our choices are idiosyncratic, that we are the authors of our own personal experiences. But like the seventeenth century poet John Donne reminded us:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

We are deeply tangled up in, and influenced by, the heritage of our social structures – our families, our communities, our cultures, our species. We acquiesce to a certain amount of social conformity, if only in order to effectively communicate our wants, and needs, if only to avoid the impoverishment of loneliness. We are indeed individuals in that our bodies are distinct, but are our thoughts and self-identity entirely of our own making?

Philosophers and social theorists have spilt enormous amounts of ink trying to unlock the secrets of individual subjectivity – many claiming that we are individuals only insofar as we are molded through language, through enculturation, and through social mores and expectations. Some would say that our existential choices are not infinite, but rather constrained by the limitations of social pressures. Some would say that our lives are pre-destined – determined by some Divine power, or alternatively, by our very biology, our genes. Some have argued that we are what we do; we are the accumulation of our experiences, our environments, our choices – free agents subject only to time and contingency.

For the “Orphan Black” writers, the notion of the individual within a collective of clones poses an eerie and peculiar problem. They were created to be exact replicas of each other. They are biologically identical.  Yet they are separated not only by geography and social environment, but by the very mothers who birthed and raised them. They are not the same, yet they are.

Sarah and Cosima – the same, but different.

For Alison, who grew up in a world where her parents and peers care more about the conformity to appearances than they do about close, nurturing relationships, ‘fitting in’ is of paramount importance. To be a conspicuous ‘individual’ is not an ambition that she aspires to. But, despite her attempts to cling to the safety of the well-defined roles her social status has dictated, Alison nonetheless embodies an ironic uniqueness. She is not like the others she grew up with. She can never achieve the social identity of being just like her peers, or the comfort of being a kind of social clone, because she is, and always will be, a genetically engineered mutation.

Thrust through the looking glass, Alison is now forced to reconcile with new kin, new loyalties, and new rules. Her hysterical reaction to having a Monitor doesn’t simply stem from realizing that her privacy has been violated by constant observation; her whole life and sense of self have already been inculcated with the idea that to be a good citizen one should always be observed to do the right things, and to make what appear to be the most socially acceptable choices. Alison is no stranger to being scrutinized. She has always fully accepted that she is entirely domesticated animal.

Alison's playing by new rules.
Alison’s playing by new rules.

Instead, Alison begins to split at the seams because she realizes that formulas she has followed to the letter throughout her life have failed to give her the identity she hoped for.  She grasps at the last vestiges of normalcy only to risk exposing her real sisters to the dangers of being outed. Felix, no stranger to the vulnerabilities of coming out of proverbial closet, makes an interesting foil to Allison’s frenzied attempt to maintain correct appearances. He is as sympathetic as he is amused and repulsed by her futile grip on the straws of the status quo. And Sarah, who has never followed rules – who has always felt pride in her wild and untamed nature – now finds herself bound by a new sense of duty, not only to her protect her own and her daughter’s safety, but by the increasingly uncomfortable realization that her identity is also not her own.

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