The Crazy Science Of Orphan Black

Cosima Niehaus on the left, Cosima Herter on the right. Practically clones! CREDIT: STEVE WILKIE FOR BBC AMERICA / COSIMA HERTER
Cosima Niehaus on the left, Cosima Herter on the right. Practically clones! CREDIT: STEVE WILKIE FOR BBC AMERICA / COSIMA HERTER

When I tell Cosima Herter, Orphan Black science consultant, that one of my favorite things on the BBC America show is when Helena eats, she bursts out laughing. “I like watching her try to be a remotely normal person,” I say. Herter keeps laughing and says, “Emphasis on remotely.”

Herter is a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, but she’s also a longtime friend of one-half of the Orphan Black showrunning team. Since the series — which is part sci-fi, part action movie, part family drama — premiered in March 2013, she has served as the writers room’s biological compass. It’s her job to point out not just the scientific facts the show can portray, but the questions those facts raise that are worth exploring. Plus she’s the namesake and inspiration for one of the clones, Cosima Niehaus, a grad student with dreadlocks (editor’s note: awesome dreadlocks) who is studying evolutionary developmental biology while making crazy science with her girlfriend-slash-monitor-slash-lab-partner. I spoke with Herter by phone about her work on the show, the ethics of cloning and genetic patents, and just how fictional the science fictional universe of Orphan Black really is.

(If you aren’t caught up on season two and you don’t like small spoilers, don’t read below the last photo.)Tell me your Orphan Black backstory. How did you get involved in this show in the first place?Graeme [Manson, showrunner and creator of Orphan Black] and I have been friends for many, many years. It was something that he had been talking about, just in conversations like you have with friends — “I’m working on this, what are you working on?” We both do totally different kinds of things. We sort of came to realize that the research that I do on my Ph. D. had a lot of overlap with some of the questions and ideas that he was thinking about.

What are you studying?I went back to school late. I started out as a math student, and then I switched to philosophy of science and the history of science. So I work in the history and philosophy of biology, trying to understand how particular kinds of social issues, like body and gender and sexuality and class, and all these different kinds of things get naturalized or “normalized” by calling it, somehow, “biological,” giving some kind of scientific authority to it. So I trace how these things change over time, and they become invisible almost, especially in Western culture. You [tend to] think these things are just somehow true, and they exist outside of our own interpretations… I read The Origin of Species. It was Darwin, actually, for me. That’s what got me hooked.

Has working on the show changed your point of view on any of these issues? On nature vs. nurture or the role our biology has in determining who we are?Working on the show has changed my view about a lot of things, partly because it’s demanded that I’ve researched things in particular kinds of ways. And [I have to think about] how do you actually communicate really complicated concepts?

The short answer is, I don’t know that working on the show has changed my opinions or ideas, but it has forced me to look deeper into some of them, and reconsider how I feel about particular types of things, like synthetic biology and what the kinds of consequences for this kind of research are. We have this kind of fictional concept of scientists, that they’re either quite sinister, or stupid and naïve, or they’re somehow completely neutral. These are very fictional tropes about scientists. And I know a lot of scientists, and a lot of biologists. For the most part, they’re just hardworking people who are really curious. It’s not that they’re not conscious of the consequences of their research or labor, [but] most people are motivated by, truly, a sense of trying to understand something.

We make a family, yes? CREDIT: Steve Wilkie for BBC AMERICA
We make a family, yes? CREDIT: Steve Wilkie for BBC AMERICA

Talk me through the day to day of your job. Do the writers hand you a script that’s sort of like Mad Libs, with all the plot in there but the science left blank, and you fill it in? Or are you in on the story planning process from the beginning?Actually, it’s both. I often have conversations with Graeme… [The writers] give me ideas to work with, and I’ll do research for weeks, and then I come to the writers room to present them. I show them a million ideas, so they can choose one… I do read every iteration of every single script. So there are certain things where they ask, “If we wanted to do x, how could that be executed?” and I can say, “Here are logical ways to do that. If you do it this way, you’ll write yourself into a corner. If you do it this way, you’ll leave it open, you can bring up other biological or philosophical issues.” And I participate in discussions with writers as they’re hammering out the ideas. It can be grueling and it can be hilarious. We all have a kind of funny, dark sense of humor.

So it’s a lot of creative ideas being passed around, and part of my job is to vet them and make sure they have some kind of accuracy. No matter how outrageous a particular thing might be, we do want it to map on to reality in some kind of way, whether that’s a real procedure, or the provocative issues that those procedures actually raise in our everyday lives. So it’s not just the accuracy of the science itself, because some of that has to be plastic. But there are other issues that are actually really important that we work on as well.

What are some of the kinds of conversations you have in the writers room?One of the things that I do [is] bring in factual reality, I do bring in the science… I talk about very specific kinds of issues: this is what a clone is. This is what it looks like in various forms of nature, this is what it means when we clone cells, this is why we haven’t been able to clone a primate yet. But I also talk about the philosophy of science: how do we understand science, and why do we understand science this way, over this period of history? We look at the development of evolutionary sciences into molecular biology, and how it becomes commercialized. So we talk about huge issues and we narrow them down into things that seem particularly pertinent, or that seem very weird.

We’re not writing a documentary, so some things have to be a bit outrageous, because we’re trying to be provocative. And it’s a very complicated idea, in 8 seconds of dialogue, between three people. Naturally, something is going to have to get sacrificed. Or what if you don’t have dialogue? It has to be represented in some visual way. That’s been a really interesting process for me. There are lots of things where I want to say, “That’s not really how it happens.” But you don’t have a choice — you’re working with a different medium.

Is there anything specific in the show that you can point to as something that’s there because of you, aside from your name? Anything you’ve ever vetoed?There are things that I have expressed my opinion or dislike for, some of which I can’t tell you what they are because they don’t exist in the script so they’re not relevant anymore. [But] I don’t have the power to say, “This is what your script is.” I’m a hired gun. Those things are not up to me. I just bring in a particular kind of expertise, and I bring in my own creative opinions.

Insofar as what is recognizable, some things, if you knew me, you’d recognize them right away. There are things I hear come out of characters’ mouths, like Cosima, that it’s kind of surreal. It makes me laugh. I’ll hear it and say, “I would say something like that.” And Graeme will say, “That’s because you said it.”

There’s quite a few similarities [between Cosima and me]. I’m much older than Cosima on the show, but, like right now, I’m pacing around waving my hands. There are some things that are very familiar. Particular glib comments that she makes. But as far as the content that goes, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’m in a strange position. It almost makes me kind of embarrassed to comment on things that expose themselves as my contribution. Mostly what I bring are questions about evolution and biology. I’m also just kind of a weird thinker. So when you see particular ideas, like nature vs. nurture, and you look at the show and realize: there’s a lot more going on there, it’s not that simple, I think that’s one of my main contributions. Not just the research, but to bring up different kinds of questions that you might not see regularly.

Is the Dyad Institute based on a real scientific corporation? The show seems to come down on the side that these big conglomerates are inherently evil, that they can’t be trusted. Is that the feeling in the scientific community — that the big corporations are up to no good?You have to have a kind of corporate villain [in the show]… I think that trope gets used, primarily, to make it complicated, to show that it is complicated, that over time, people’s desires and their own motivations become convoluted, especially when you’re trying to figure out how you continue research. As far as the Dyad goes, that’s an amalgamation of several different biological companies, of people doing genetic research. So it’s fictionalized, but there’s a lot of research being done [in reality] that people don’t realize! We live in this kind of scientific fictional world, and it’s actually not all that fictional. It’s a bit shocking. Its sinister-ness, that’s part of the plot. But sinister is what you think sinister is. That’s really what it’s all about. What looks sinister to you might not actually be sinister to somebody else. Ethics and morals are kind of a moving target.

Up close and personal. CREDIT: BBC AMERICA
Up close and personal. CREDIT: BBC AMERICA

This season, the show is wrestling a lot with the question of: who has the right to know what information? The clones want to know their history, their genome, the reason they exist. And the Dyad Institute, and all these other forces, have that information, or pieces of it, and yet for their own reasons — which seem evil, but could not be — they’re being awfully stingy with the intel they share. Do the clones have the right to know everything about who they are and where they came from, or does that information not actually belong to them?When you see the clones trying to figure out what’s going on, and what kind of intel should be available to them, they’re approaching it with the naiveté of any normal person. They don’t know how to hold a gun, they don’t know how to run and hide, they don’t know how to use that science. Because most science is done collaboratively, you have to communicate what all the results are — so in reality, you don’t always have access to other people’s research, or you have access only in particular kinds of ways, and it’s not just [about] being protective of your own work. Some things are commercially protected. Some things, you just don’t know it’s going to be important to what you’re working on until you realize something is missing in your research.

I’m curious about the way that biology, in the show, is used to explain certain kinds of “connections” between characters. Helena says she feels a connection to Sarah, and it turns out they’re not just clones; they’re twins. Kira can tell, right away, that Allison isn’t really her mother, even though Allison and Sarah are identical. Is that based on real biology: that twins, or mothers and daughters, have that ability?There’s lots of research and literature about those issues. They often contradict each other, and we exploit that, because there aren’t any hard and fast answers. So for example, people have done studies on twins for thirty, forty years. And there will be another set of researchers doing studies on twins for forty years, and they come up with completely different conclusions. The authority of science is only as authoritative as your interpretations can allow it to be.

So we have this idea of genetics, that we can reduce ourselves down to something like nature, i.e. it’s in your genes, or reduced to nurture, i.e., it’s in your environment. No molecular biologist or geneticist would say it is entirely one or the other. You have to take great big leaps to say ‘it’s ALL your environment,’ and that assumes you know everything about what the environment is and what environment even means. And we also have this idea that you are your genes, that that’s the totality of your personality, your soul, your behavior. Well, we don’t know enough about our genomes to say that, and it’s complicated. It’s not like there’s a 1:1 correlation between, [for instance] one gene sequence that regulates sexuality. So I’m not making any claims that genetics don’t have importance; I think it does. We just don’t entirely know how.

We bring up issues about an intimacy between the twins, or intimacy of knowledge that Kira might have of her parent, for example. Those come from lots of different studies and conversations and stories and research. But we bring it up in a provocative way. We’re not trying to say, “here’s the answer.” We’re actually opening up a lot of questions… Most of us are trying to grapple with it on an existential level. What does is actually meant to have that kind of relationship with somebody? Maybe it comes from your body, maybe it comes from personalities. I don’t think anybody really knows. So we raise them as questions, because they’re interesting. But they do have a reality, insofar as people spend their whole lives and careers trying to figure this out.

Technically this photo is not 100% relevant. But look at Felix in those sunglasses! CREDIT: Steve Wilkie for BBC AMERICA
Technically this photo is not 100% relevant. But look at Felix in those sunglasses! CREDIT: Steve Wilkie for BBC AMERICA

The lab that Cosima gets at the Dyad, are there labs like that in real life? It reminded me of the superlab Gus gives Walt on Breaking Bad to lure him back into the meth business. Is it realistic that someone as young as Cosima would have access to a setup like that?It would be pretty awesome! I don’t know that Cosima would actually be too young. I have a lot of students. I have undergrads that come in who are eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, finishing up and applying for jobs at huge corporate labs; that’s where all the money is. So the youth isn’t so much the issue as much as what kinds of jobs are available. And clearly part of the Dyad is fictional, and there’s obviously another motivation for wanting to attract her. But I don’t think it would be unusual for young scientists to be working on remarkable issues.

I don’t think that’s too far-fetched, nor is it to imagine that there are, like you say, superlabs. That it would be all her lab, that would be far-fetched. That has to do with our narrative… Most labs, if you go to a university, they only have as much equipment and funding as they can get. That joke Cosima makes, how if she wanted an obsolete lab, she’d go to a community college, it’s a commentary on where funding is coming from. So absolutely, there are labs like that. But that opens up a whole other issue if it’s entirely within a corporate or private institution. There is kind of a background commentary about who funds your research, which directs what kind of research you can do.

Can you explain the issue of genetic patenting? It’s come up on the show at the same time as it’s come up in the Supreme Court, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. Does the fact that the clones are patented mean that they don’t have ownership over their own bodies?Patenting: that is a whole incredibly complicated can of worms… As far as biotech and bioengineering are concerned, it is so brand new in the history of humanity. We’re trying to understand how we patent these things based on how we patented other types of technologies, and they don’t necessarily map on to that 1 to 1… And to some degree, what gets done is mediated, or at least mitigated, by whether you actually have patents or licensing to certain types of materials. It’s really, really complicated. I’ve spoken to lawyers who work in this, and they’re really trying to figure it out as they go along. The patents for how they produced the Dolly clones, that wasn’t particularly difficult. They just tried to patent Dolly as a human product, but that was denied — not because Dolly is a living organism. It was denied because Dolly is a copy of something that already exists in nature… You can’t own life, that’s not what a patent does. It’s about being able to have commercial benefit from your research by virtue of not allowing someone else to commercially benefit before you actually reaped your own rewards. Because if you didn’t have patents, you wouldn’t get the private funding. Why would someone invest a billion dollars in private research if they weren’t going to recoup that money?… There are thousands of patent applications that are just sitting there, and there are thousands denied and granted, for very diff reasons. The common perception is that certain patents are denied because it has to do with owning life; that’s not really what it’s about. And each is taken on a case by case basis.

The clones are afraid that the patents mean that they belong to other people: that their lives and bodies and ideas are someone else’s. But you’re saying that’s not actually what it the patent means for them?Part of that is also a commentary on women and bodies that have been marginalized in the first place. We have a long history of whether you own your body and what does that mean — not only women’s bodies, but all bodies throughout history. So there’s the issue of patenting and the larger philosophical issue: when someone else has the power to regulate what you can and cannot do with your body, wha tdoes that mean? How do you view yourself as a result, and how are people expected to view you from the outside? Whether or not you have personal agency is more than just you and your genes and your environment. There’s you as existential agent, making choices about your world.

The patenting of genetic material, it’s fascinating, complicated, crazy, and it seems counterintuitive and in some ways it does seem kind of sinister, and yet we live in an economic and social system where I don’t see how we could have expected it to be otherwise. So things build over time, and you end up with a system that requires us to do certain kinds of things, like apply for patents, whether you want to or not… You’ll see more about [patenting].

In the show or in real life?From both the show and real life. But you should know that there are deeper issues that we’re raising, and we’re using that as a vehicle to do it. It has a lot to do with female agency and who owns your body. I’m Canadian and I live in the States now, and it’s fascinating to see social and political conversations about who can get married, who owns your body, reproductive rights. We’re raising those questions in really provocative ways. [The show] is not about giving you the answers. I don’t think anybody has them. It’s about who has the right to ask those questions and who regulates how they get answered. So it’s about agency on all these different kinds of levels.