Orphan Black’s Neolution is Tryborg and Eugenicist
CN: spoilers for all of Orphan Black (the TV series. I haven’t listened to the audio series Orphan Black: The Next Chapter yet.)
Trigger warnings: sexual, physical, and medical violence; murder; suicide; eugenics; genocide; ableism
Orphan Black was a Canadian, sci-fi TV show that aired on Space and BBC America from 2013–2017 and followed groups of human clones. After Sarah Manning, the protagonist, witnesses the suicide of Beth Childs, a stranger identical to Sarah, she goes down the rabbit hole of discovering her own origins. Sarah is one of many clones created by top-secret, experimental Project LEDA. Other clones include Cosima Niehaus, a brilliant scientist; Beth, a police officer; Alison Hendrix, a suburban mom; and Rachel Duncan, who was raised knowing she was a clone. The scientists say this makes Rachel “self-aware.” In contrast, they call clones who don’t realize they are clones “naïve subjects.”
LEDA is affiliated with the Dyad Institute and its more extreme Neolution faction. Neolution is an explicitly eugenicist venture in the show. As eugenicists, Neolution and its followers, the Neolutionists, are inherently ableist, sexist, antisemitic, and white supremacist. The diverse staff and clientele does not negate this.
In my interpretation, the Neolutionists also fit the definition of tryborgs, a term disabled writer Jillian Weise (pronoun Cy) coined in The New York Times in 2016. Cy’s essay contrasts disabled people, who often rely on technology for accessibility, with tryborgs, who view technology merely as a fad, artifice, or luxury. Cy wrote in the NYT essay: “The tryborg — a word I invented — is a nondisabled person who has no fundamental interface. The tryborg is a counterfeit cyborg. The tryborg tries to integrate with technology through the latest product or innovation. . . The tryborg adopts the pose of a cyborg. But no matter how hard they try, the tryborg remains a pretender.” Cy has a prosthetic leg and views statements like “Cyborgs will exist in the future” as erasure of disabled people who use computerized limbs and other tech.
As tryborgs and transhumanists, Neolutionists seek to transcend and improve upon humanity and consider disabled people defective and inferior. Although some of their tryborg tech may resemble the assistive tech that disabled people use, their eugenicist ideology is diametrically opposed to disabled people, diversity, and accessibility. Neolution wants to be or control the next stage of human evolution.
I checked Google and Twitter, and I think I may be the first to call Orphan Black’s Neolution tryborgs. I first called them tryborgs on my Twitter and in this WordPress blog post on March 27, 2022. Many other writers have discussed the eugenics integral to Neolution and its allusions to real history. Neolution explicitly uses the language and tactics of eugenics, including murder, sterilization, and genetically engineering traits they considerable desirable or superior.
Neolution is a portmanteau combining the Greek word for new, “neos” with evolution, with a possible pun on revolution. Aldous Leekie, the director of Neolution, has a name that alludes to Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World. In 2018 on Book Riot, I wrote that Brave New World imagined the cloning process 65 years before it would become a scientific reality.
Aldous Leekie’s first Neolution lecture in the show starts with an ableist joke, mocking an ageing Plato becoming deaf and blind. Leekie then assumes that, of course, Cosima Niehaus would want to cure her eyesight and stop wearing glasses. When Cosima jokes back that she’ll stick with LASIK surgery instead, Leekie interprets this as approval of his more experimental ideas, not as caution or sarcasm.
As a scientist, Cosima is confident in her own judgment and loves new ideas. Ironically, this makes her more susceptible to the Neolution ideology than the clones who are less educated, like Sarah. Cosima jumps to the conclusion that Rachel Duncan, a LEDA clone and “the first child raised by Neolution,” was raised without love or warmth. Ironically, Sarah is simultaneously watching the affectionate home videos of young Rachel with Drs. Ethan and Susan Duncan, her adoptive, scientist parents. The evidence contradicts Cosima’s baseless speculation.
Dr. Leekie and the other Neolutionists abducted Rachel from her parents when she was around six or seven, to complete their goal of making her “a child raised by Neolution.” According to Ethan, the Dyad Institute itself wasn’t even the source of the eugenics and murder within the research programs. As he explains to Sarah when they meet in S2E6, perhaps partly to distance himself: “It was the Neolutionists WITHIN Dyad!” I’m not sure this distinction matters.
Fashion and body modifications are frequently expressions of bodily autonomy for both individual and cultural reasons. This is especially true for people of color, LGBTQIA people, and disabled people. While the Neolutionists initially appear to be pro-bodily autonomy, this is ultimately a hypocritical, shallow message. They support bodily autonomy only for themselves and for people exactly like them: educated, wealthy, non-disabled, and conventionally intelligent and attractive. They believe they are improving themselves — becoming increasingly smarter and stronger than other people. As transhumanists, they consider themselves superior, even super-human. They do not want equal rights for everyone. The Neolutionists are bio hackers “enhancing” themselves. Most appear wealthy, white, and cisgender.
Felix: Is that (cyborg eye) permanent?
Neolution club goer: It will be.
Olivier, a Dyad operative and the owner of Club Neolution, is a tryborg who surgically added a tail to his body. He included blood vessels and nerve endings, so it really hurts when Helena cuts it off.
On Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility podcast in 2017, guests Rebecca Cokley and Maelee Johnson discussed how Orphan Black’s villains imitate real histories of eugenics, including forced sterilization. Neolution performs frequent, non-consensual experiments on the clones. It covertly hires trusted people in their lives to act as their “monitors,” which enables more medical abuse. Monitors make clones’ whole lives experiments and lies. Neolution deliberately infects Sarah to study her immunity to a virus that affects her sisters. They later cause a little girl named Aisha to die of cancer.
In real life, J. Marion Sims invented gynecological procedures by abusing enslaved, Black women. Nazis were fascinated with identical twins, who were often the subjects of their torture disguised as “experiments.” The show’s monitor program seems like Dyad’s perfect opportunity to study “nature vs. nurture” non-consensually.
Dyad’s programs sterilize people without their informed consent. The LEDA clones were genetically engineered to be infertile. Most are infertile, except for Sarah and Helena, who were not only clones but also natal twins (with the same birth mother, Amelia). Neolution wants to remove one of Sarah’s ovaries, after lying to her that they would only harvest eggs. Sarah prevents the surgery only by shooting Rachel with a makeshift gun rigged from a fire extinguisher. Rachel has a TBI and loses her left eye after Sarah’s weapon shoots a pencil, impaling Rachel.
Rachel still seems eugenicist for a while even after becoming disabled, despite her increasing qualms. Rachel now has aphasia, neurological, and mobility symptoms and works with therapists on mobility, motor, and cognitive tasks. She uses crutches and a motorized wheelchair.
Becoming disabled does not automatically make anyone anti-ableist. This is especially true for Rachel, who was raised in an overtly ableist environment. Charlotte Bowles is a young LEDA clone and Art Bell’s foster daughter. Charlotte is immunocompromised and has a mobility disability and a limb difference, which Rachel calls “malformed.” Rachel tells Susan that Charlotte’s genetic “data is more valuable than her life,” although she admits that’s what Susan wants her to say. Internalized ableism (towards oneself) and lateral ableism (towards other people) often work together. This is apparent in Rachel’s ignorant, lateral ableism towards Charlotte as Rachel starts to adjust to her own disability. For me and many other disabled people, unlearning lateral and internalized ableism is a life-long process.
As “pro-clone” and Neolutionist as Rachel is, after she becomes disabled, she is a cyborg, NOT a tryborg. Her pigmented, cyborg eye, like her motorized wheelchair, is her choice for her body. However, because Neolution developed her new eye with eugenics and profit as motives, Rachel cannot trust it. Rachel’s eye is “glitching” because it’s implanted, Neolution tech. Its goal is profit and power, not primarily assistive tech for disabled people. Westmoreland programmed Rachel’s new eye to give her messages, including visual hallucinations. These are so frightening that she initially mistakes them for neurological symptoms from her TBI.
The show also defies and complicates the false gender binary. Viewers initially learn that LEDA created “female clones” and CASTOR created “male clones.” However, like the gender binary itself, this turns out to be an oversimplification. Tony is a LEDA clone who is a trans man. He is genetically identical to Sarah and all the other cisgender woman LEDA clones.
Orphan Black also contradicts the idea that sexual orientation is necessarily genetically predetermined at birth. Among the identical LEDA clones, many, including Sarah, Helena, and Alison, are cisgender women and attracted to men. Cosima is cis and gay, and Tony is gay and transgender. We know several LEDA clones and learn in the finale there are 274 worldwide. It seems inevitable that, like in the general population, they aren’t all cis het.
In the reductive “nature vs. nurture” (genetics vs. environment) debate, Orphan Black makes the case that nurture is more influential. Catherine Eaton observed that this question drives the entire show. The LEDA and Castor clones are diverse. They have vastly different gender identities, sexual orientations, personalities, careers, interests, and styles, to name a few. They were all raised in different circumstances, and some never realize they are clones.
Kendall Malone, Siobhan Sadler’s mother, is a genetic chimera. Kendall explains: “I got two cell lines, me” when she is introduced in S3E8. A set of fraternal twins, one male and one female, combined to form Kendall. The female twin was the “original” or template for the LEDA, as the male twin was the template for CASTOR. As a chimera, Kendall “looks nothing like” the LEDA clones, as Sarah Manning points out. Kendall resembles neither twin after their genomes have been isolated and cloned. When Kendall has leukemia, her cancer cells enable scientists to isolate LEDA only. All of this complicates the idea that LEDA is female and CASTOR is male. Biology is more complex than our reductive attempts to classify it.
Cosima explains the meaning of the name LEDA on the show. In Greek mythology, Leda was a human woman whom Zeus raped and impregnated after transforming himself into a swan. Maybe this explains the swan that Rachel keeps hallucinating while her implant is “glitching.” In Greek and Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux were Leda’s twin sons. In some versions of the myth, one is human, while the other is a demigod, the result of her rape by Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon).
So, while I understand the symbolism in the program names here, it’s an imprecise comparison. In mythology, Leda and Castor are mother and child, not twins. CASTOR clones apparently have a tattoo depicting Castor and Pollux. They’re both male, not a male and a female twin, like the LEDA and CASTOR clones. Perhaps this reference hints at the convoluted relationships cloning creates. Malone is Siobhan Sadler’s mother, so by raising Sarah as her own daughter, Siobhan essentially raised her own genetic mother or aunt.
In Season 4, Susan creates a LEDA and CASTOR blastocyst, seeking pluripotent embryonic stem cells, which can turn into most cell types. This is a desperate attempt to treat Cosima’s autoimmune disease after Kendall Malone has been murdered and her DNA destroyed. Malone had been the only source of both CASTOR and LEDA DNA.
Although this blastocyst was created through IVF, not incestuous sex, this is still horrifying on multiple levels. LEDA and CASTOR both originate from Kendall Malone and are the genomes of fraternal twins. Combining Ira and Sarah’s gametes in a lab is still combining the sex cells of genetic siblings. Cosima later feels betrayed when she learns that Susan used Cosima’s cure as a ploy to restart the human cloning program.
The word cult is vague, but cults in many forms exist in Orphan Black. Within Dyad, the Neolutionists function as a more extremist subculture, an ideology, and a cult of personality around powerful individuals. The Proletheans and Westmoreland’s Revival commune on Neolution’s private island are both cults in the popular meaning of a fringe group.
Neolution is obviously pro-eugenics. Ironically, though, so are the the Proletheans, the patriarchal, semi-Christian, extremist cult who abduct Helena. They have two distinct factions: European and North American, and both abuse Helena. I initially incorrectly assumed the Proletheans were anti-science, but they just want to be the people controlling the science, in their God’s name.
Believing, as Prolethean Gracie does, that clones are “soulless,” is absurd and dehumanizing. Genetically, clones are just identical twins. They are commonplace in real life, as are babies created via IVF, of course.
Brightborn Eugenics Program
The name Brightborn evokes white supremacist, genocidal, and intellectually ableist connotations. The real, Nazi eugenics program Lebensborn meant “fount of life.” Westmoreland later uses a similar “fountain” image on his island.
As I Tweeted in 2019:
“Positive” eugenics = encouraging people with desired traits to breed
“Negative” eugenics: sterilizing/euthanizing, etc. “undesirable” people
2 sides of the same coin!
Or really, a 2-pronged strategy.
No form of eugenics is good, or any less evil than another. The words positive and negative describe opposite strategies towards the same goal. Brightborn practices both positive eugenics, offering genetically engineered babies to parents as a product, and negative eugenics: murdering or “euthanizing” babies born disabled.
Brightborn client Kendra Dupree is terrified Brightborn will murder her son Jacob, who was born blind. Evie Cho tells Rachel: “Euthanizing severely deformed newborns was the most humane way forward.” Evie is unaware this is being recorded and leaked to the news media. Neolution considers disabled babies expensive mistakes and failures. They are collateral damage to their scientific “progress.”
Brightborn’s marketing is horrifically ableist. They offer children as a commodity: designer babies. A scientist alludes to the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins: “Our genes have a selfish urge to propagate.” Brightborn “enhances embryos” via germline editing. Evie Cho says, “Clones are obsolete” now that direct, germline editing is possible. Ironically, Brightborn would probably murder an infant who was born with a tail — an adaptation tryborg, Neolutionist Olivier paid to acquire as an adult.
When Cosima infiltrates Brightborn, pretending to be Donnie Hendrix’s surrogate, Dr. Moffat delivers a stillborn infant with facial differences. The child is a result of unethical, non-consensual experiments.
Clones as Property
Cosima makes a shocking discovery in the Season 1 finale: “They patented us!” Dyad owns the LEDA genome because they can’t legally own people. It’s considered their “intellectual property.”
I’m not a scientist, and I generally think this show’s science seems good. But I have no idea how this works. The only four letters used in DNA sequencing are A, C, G, and T. Seeing Cosima reading a long copyright disclaimer embedded in the genome sequence makes no sense to me. Even if this were another complex cypher she decoded, wouldn’t it change the DNA?!
Late in the show, we learn that P. T. Westmoreland, the 170-year-old founder of Neolution, is supposedly still alive. P. T. Westmoreland’s name could be an allusion to infamous, racist, ableist con artist P. T. Barnum or to the colonial expansion of “Western” countries (including westward across North America). He has an explicit, personal link to Darwin, Victorian England, and early eugenics. Darwin’s principle of “survival of the fittest” becomes eugenics, or social Darwinism, when applied to humans.
Susan calls him “the man behind the curtain.” This reference to The Wizard of Oz seems very ironic in context. Maybe it’s a Freudian slip, showing that Susan knows he’s a fraud. His real name is John, and he’s barely in his 70s, not 170.
Westmoreland was educated at Eton and Cambridge and published a paper titled “The Management of Reproduction in Feebleminded Populations.” As this recap points out, that’s explicitly eugenics. More specifically, it’s eugenics targeting people with intellectual disabilities. It’s eerily similar to “Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough,” the words of the real, 1927 SCOTUS decision Buck v. Bell, which has never been overturned.
Westmoreland has no respect for bodily autonomy, especially for women. Ironically, he uses “the future is female,” that vague, 2017 slogan, to promote his plan to harvest prepubescent Kira Manning’s eggs. He has his team induce Helena’s twins early because he wants her umbilical cord blood.
He finally medically emancipates Rachel, but only because she’s “earned” it. “Do you actually think Neolution would let a clone have a position of real importance?” Evie says to Rachel more than once. This shows Neolutionists always think of clones as their products, not autonomous, capable people.
To free herself from Westmoreland’s surveillance and programmed messages, Rachel pulls out her own cyborg eye. I think this is NOT primarily symbolic or narrative prosthesis. The overused term narrative prosthesis is important in disability literary theory, but it is only one perspective.
Cosima still has hope that Dyad can cure her life-threatening, respiratory illness. It’s hard for Rachel and Cosima to divest from the Neolution ideology. “Controlling human evolution is the ultimate power,” Rachel says to Ferdinand Chevalier, in a textbook example of an unsafe S & M session and relationship.
The Neolutionists’ tryborg pretensions are inseparable from their eugenic goals to improve the human genome. They appropriate some assistive technology for shock value, but they despise and murder real, disabled people. When one of their own, Rachel Duncan, becomes disabled, they exploit assistive technology to further manipulate and surveil her. As a disabled person, I think Neolution demonstrates some of the worst tendencies of corporate greed. Prioritizing profit and power (such as monetizing biometrics) over disabled people’s autonomy and safety is untrustworthy. In the end, all the clones, even Rachel, have kept their scientific knowledge and disavowed eugenics.