Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club: Bioethics and Philosophy in Orphan Black, Gregory E. Pence (2016)

May 20th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A fascinating look at the science behind Orphan Black.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Bioethics is one of today’s most exciting new fields. Orphan Black is one of the most exciting shows on television. Bioethics explores ethical issues in medicine and science. Orphan Black dramatizes ethical issues in medicine and science. What could be more appropriate than a marriage of the two?

Even casual fans of BBC America’s hit television show Orphan Black have no doubt wondered about the science that drives the plot: How much does the show get right, and where does reality diverge from the fictional world of our favorite sestra orphans? What are the moral and legal implications of cloning? Is it possible to own a person – or a piece of one, in the form of DNA patenting? If the Ledas (and Castors) share the same basic building blocks of life, how could they look, behave, and think so differently? What (if anything) does the creators’ choice to write Cosima as a lesbian, and Tony as a trans man, say about the idea that gender identity and sexual orientations are “lifestyle choices”? (Spoiler alert: it’s not what you think.) How does cloning fit into the history of eugenics, and how does the show acknowledge this connection? WTF is the Castors’ malfunction?

Well, wonder no more. Bioethicist and fellow Clone Club member Gregory E. Pence has got us covered. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club: Bioethics and Philosophy in Orphan Black, he examines the science and ethics of the show, giving us a greater understanding of both genetics and bioethics – and our favorite science fiction drama.

So here’s the thing: when I fangirl, I go all the way. Comic books, novelizations, unathorized guides, and (especially) pop culture analyses from an academic perspective. Luckily, these days there’s no shortage of such books, as television, movies, music, and the like have increasingly become legitimate avenues of academic exploration. Smart Pop is by far my favorite publisher of such books; Wiley’s Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series also comes to mind, though usually they’re a little heavy for me. (Philosophy, not my bag.) I’ve read a ton of Smart Pop’s titles: The Girl Who Was On Fire, Inside Joss’s Dollhouse, The Psychology of Dexter, Alias Assumed, Finding Serenity, Serenity Found, and (my favorite) The Panem Companion.

My enjoyment of these books seems to hinge on three criteria:

1. Does the author’s (or contributors’) enthusiasm for the show at least match, if not surpass, my own and

1b. Does her or his knowledge of the show put mine to shame? (Because, let’s be honest, they’re the experts here and I want to learn from them!)

2. Is the author able to explain their area of expertise in a way that’s accessible to lay people – while still meeting us on our level?

Pence checks off all the boxes with WWTAWWTACC: he has a firm grasp of the show’s plot, and is also attuned to more obscure details that us non-scientists might miss. For example, it’s rather obvious that Dr. Aldous Leekie’s name is a callback to Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey. But did you know that the Cold River Institute is a reference to “North America’s real eugenics headquarters,” located at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island? Likewise, I never quite made the connection between the STD spread by the Castors and the sterilization of the Ledas – inasmuch as the former is a way of preventing the reproduction of clones (though in a more roundabout – and dare I say sexist? – way than the latter).

Pence is also a loud and proud member of Clone Club, and his excitement over the show – and what it can teach us about science – is infectious. He had me at “sestras”!

In terms of the science, Pence does an excellent job of explaining cloning, genetics, and the biology of reproduction in a way that’s both engaging and (more or less) understandable. I learned some pretty surprising things about genetics. Chief among them: identical twins are more genetically similar than clones, thanks to environmental factors such as “small differences in contributions of mitochondrial genes in the egg that hosts the clone’s nucleus,” “differences in gestation,” and “forces that act on the expression of genes” (phenotype vs. genotype). Thus, while Sarah and Cosima might be 99% identical, genetically, Sarah and Helena are likely an even closer match (given that they’re twins, and have the same mitochondrial genes and were subject to the same forces in utero).

That said, I couldn’t read more than two or three chapters before my eyes started to glaze over and I needed a break. This isn’t a light and breezy read by any stretch of the imagination. Though it is fun as hell – not a compliment I’m quick to dole out to nonfiction books, especially those on the “hard” sciences.

The title’s a wee bit misleading, though; while bioethics forms the core of Pence’s discussion, he touches upon a number of fields, including genetics, biology, history, psychology, sociology, literature, and (more briefly) politics and the law. I feel like he’s at his weakest when he strays away from bioethics; the chapter on DNA patenting proved confusing at times (though, to be fair, this is due in no small part to shifting legal decisions on the matter) and, when talking about the personhood of clones, he relies a little too much on pop psychology to explain stereotypes and fears about clones and cloning.

On this point, Pence claims that people’s fears of/for clones – that they’ll be exploited as weapons, manual labor, sexual slaves, or sources of spare body parts – “tell us less about the future possibilities inherent to the existence of clones than they do about ourselves,” on both an individual and societal level. Put another way: I’m concerned about the potential subjugation of clones because I secretly want my own sixteen-year-old Johnny Depp lookalike boy toy.

To the first point, well, I find it personally offensive. I’m an ethical vegan, so I don’t even morally support the exploitation of nonhuman animals, let alone humans who were created by unconventional means. I relocate bugs when I find them in the house. I think the Cylons were justified in waging war against humanity (and have similar fears for the fate of sentient AIs, should we ever create them). I love watching the apes wreak vengeance against humanity in the Planet of the Apes reboots (and always cry harder over their deaths than those of their human oppressors). In alien invasion films, I typically root for the aliens, since by our own logic, they are mentally/physically/technologically superior to us, and thus totes justified in enslaving and exploiting us. The idea that I worry over how clones will be mistreated because, deep down, I’m a secret wannabe abuser is laughable.

The second point – that our fears are a reflection of society as a whole – Pence dispenses with quickly and rather naively: clones are clearly human people, and the law and society will be quick to recognize and accept this (e.g., “once a human fetus is viable and living outside the womb, it is a person”). Yet this ignores much of human history, in which various differences between groups of people have been cited as justification for their oppression. America was built on the backs of slaves, and though slavery was officially abolished in the US in 1865, it continues around the globe, in various forms, including right here in the good old US of A. Not all “naturally” created people are recognized as people, and it’s naive to take the personhood of clones for granted.

All the legal shenanigans and corporate profiteering that rose from DNA patents (detailed in this very book) hardly gives me faith in humanity and its evil megacorpeoples, okay?

I wasn’t entirely surprised to find myself disagreeing with Pence on some of the moral and ethical issues; I oppose animal testing, and that’s hardly a popular stance with bioethicists. Even so, I sometimes felt like it wasn’t that the chasm was so vast, as much as Pence just wasn’t explaining himself as clearly as he could have.

Additionally, some of the chapters were a little briefer than I would have liked. In particular, Chapter 13 (“Kendall Malone, Chimeras, and Sexual Anomalies at Birth”) seemed way too short given the material. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I LOVED the chapter on Helena, and why we love her (Chapter 19, “Helena, Freud, Henrik, and Foucault”), and Pence’s suggestions for future storylines were fun too (Chapter 20).

Bottom line: WWTAWWTACC is a must read for fans of the show, and would also make an excellent teaching tool for you “cool” educators (Greg Raiewski, I’m looking at you) looking to make genetics and bioethics fun and accessible for high school and college students.


01. Orphan Black and Bioethics
02. Personhood and Human Clones: The Orphans of Project Leda
03. Our Fears of Clones: And Their Reflections in Literature and Film
04. “These Crippled and Distorted Men”: The Island of Dr. Moreau and the Scientists of Orphan Black
05. “Ipsa Scientia Ptestas Est”: The Scientific Pedigree of Cloning
06. What’s Wrong With the Ledas?
07. The Ethics of Synthetic Biology
08. Orphan Black and the Ethics of Patenting Human Life
09. “Things Which Have Never Been Done”: Eugenics and Clonal Dynasties
10. Nature, Nurture, and Clonal Identity
11. Are the Ledas Really Genetically Identical?
12. Sexuality, Gender Identity, and Orphan Black
13. Kendall Malon, Chimeras, and Sexual Anomalies at Birth
14. Would Knowing You Were a Clone Damage Your Sense of Identity?
15. Kant’s Personhood and the Formation of a Clone’s Identity
16. “When Did I Become Us?”: Group Identity as a Leda or as a Castor
17. Stealing and Swapping Identities: Twins and Clones
18. Clones and Free Will
19. Helena, Freud, Henrik, and Foucault
20. Top Five Ideas for Future Orphan Black Episodes

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Given that the television show features gay and trans characters, yes! Specifically, Pence explores how and why the Leda clones might look and behave differently, from their hair texture and opposing personalities to differences in their gender identities and sexual orientations.

Animal-friendly elements: Quite the opposite: Pence discusses animal experimentation (particularly in the area of cloning) without any apparent concern for its moral or ethical aspects. Some of the animal research he cites is rather disturbing (although not unexpectedly so).


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