- Orphan Black, biocapital and venture science
Orphan Black asks us to think about what might happen as biology becomes a science of engineering life rather than merely investigating and taxonomising it. Its focus on issues of commodification ties into a myriad of bioethical issues, from the sale of human tissues and body parts in transnational transplants to the economic relations between the global North and global South that structure much of the current IVF industry. Rather than presenting abstract facts or issues surrounding what harm might be done via various levels at which biology is becoming commodified, Orphan Black embeds these well-researched concerns into a narrative world in which viewers cannot help but see their connections: cannot help but trace the links among lobbying legislators and reporting increased value to stockholders, shiny pamphlets that entice prospective parents at IVF clinics, and the difficult life choices that compel others to sell biological materials or bodily services to these same providers.
The series does not condemn any of these technologies–or other aspects of synthetic biology–but rather reminds us to think through how the potential for even beneficial research can come at a high social cost in research motivated by profit above all else. Indeed, as the series progresses it becomes apparent that the most sinister element of Dyad is not its biological research but rather its lobbying efforts. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer) is the spokesperson for the transhumanist vision represented by the Neolutionist element within Dyad, and his speculative grandiloquence is typical of the hype that characterises the biotech industry in its marketing and promissory mode. As Mike Fortun analyses in his ethnography of the genomics industry, the practice of telling compelling fictions about a company's future value enables its stock price to rise and its value to circulate in a variety of financial instruments. Thus, we can understand it as using the methods of speculative fiction, even as it turns these tools to quite different ends. These industries are able to survive by making promises in part because of the provisions of the Private Securities and Litigation Reform Act [End Page 372] of 1995,1 which sought in part to expand the 'safe harbour' for the forward-looking statements of corporations seeking to attract venture capital and to reduce the 'frivolous lawsuits' believed to be burdening American competitiveness in the volatile economy (Fortun 187).
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The definition of forward-looking statements in section 102 of the Reform Act (adding section 27a to the original Securities Exchange Act of 1934) includes 'a projection of revenues, income' and the like, 'plans and objectives of management for future operations', 'future economic performance' and 'assumptions underlying' any of the above. The Reform Act further provides for the addition of a section 21E that explains what it means by 'safe harbour' for such statements. So long as the forward-looking statement is identified as such and is 'accompanied by meaningful cautionary statements identifying important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those in the forward-looking statement', and so long as the statement was not made with 'actual knowledge … that the statement was false or misleading', then the corporation cannot be held liable nor sued by its investors if material reality proves different from the one anticipated in the forward-looking statement. Indeed, value based in the future is so central to the genomics industry that 'it would be more accurate to say that it is based on the promise [End Page 373] of genetic information–based on what genetic information may become in an anticipated, contingent, open future' (Fortun 196) than to say that it is based on genetic information.
Among the many reasons to celebrate the masterful achievement of Orphan Black is the fact that it fully understands that the economic and judicial context in which biotech research–and the commodification of life–takes place is central to the social impact that these technologies will have, either for good or for ill. In the second season's...