- True crimeOrphan Black's Cold River and the history of American eugenics
Orphan Black, season two, episode six, 'To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings' (24 May 2014): out of the glare of a hot afternoon, Sarah Manning enters the cooling gloom of a small-town church. She and Helena have come here in search of answers to questions about their origins, about Project Leda. The ensuing scene taps into the rich vein of history of the American eugenics movement of the Progressive era–meanwhile demonstrating Orphan Black's facility with the history of science. Solid historical grounding enables the show to address, with a dexterity rare for television, complex moral and ethical issues surrounding contemporary uses of the genome and reproductive technology. As the series demonstrates, good history may indeed be the best guide to the big issues.
In the scene, photographs are visible hanging along the back wall. A deacon asks pointedly if she can help Sarah. 'What is this place?', Sarah asks, pointing at stills of a compound of imposing brick buildings. 'That's the Cold River Institute', the woman answers. Her aggression ticks up a notch: 'What's your interest in it?' Sarah melts her interlocutor's defences and talks her way downstairs, into the Institute archives. The dark secrets she learns there about the origins of Project Leda–her origins–are clever fictionalisations of the real history of American eugenics. Looking at the history behind the fictional scene provides an opportunity to look at continuity and change from the factual history of genetics to a fictional clonal future. It enables us to look at the consequences of human biological engineering at once prospectively, retrospectively and synthetically. [End Page 377]
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'Cold River' is a riff on Cold Spring Harbor, a village built around whaling, on the north shore of New York's Long Island. From 1910 until 1940, across the small harbour lay the Eugenics Record Office, a research institute/training school/ propaganda and education clearing-house for eugenics, alongside two other laboratories, all under a single director.2 By the time the Office was shuttered, on New Year's Eve, 1939, it housed millions of 'eugenic records' containing a mélange of descriptions of traits, inheritance patterns (real or imagined) and pedigree information. The Office had by then descended into self-parody, its leading figures having long since left behind any traces of objectivity or clean experimental design in favour of supporting their increasingly dogmatic norms of race, ethnicity, class, gender, ability and religion. But in the 1910s and 1920s, Cold Spring Harbor had substantial cultural influence in America. Social and scientific interest in eugenics has been global for more than a century, but the US has the dubious honour of having been, during the 1910s and 1920s, the world leader in active eugenic policy–and Cold Spring Harbor was the flagship institution of American eugenics.3
A church was an apt location choice for the archives of a eugenic breeding program, as eugenics and religion do indeed have a long and tangled shared [End Page 378] history. By setting the Cold River Institute archives in a house of worship, Orphan Black draws out the rich narrative possibilities implicit in the tension between religion and science–a theme the show develops extensively with the Proletheans, religious extremists who believe that cloning and synthetic biology are spiritual practices. In so doing, it picks up on themes explored by authors of the time, such as Sinclair Lewis, whose Arrowsmith (1925) and Elmer Gantry (1927) both satirised the twin faiths of science and religion. Scientists often portrayed the need for eugenics in apocalyptic terms, offering explicit religious justifications.4 They also used churches–some doubtless similar to the one in the episode–as mouthpieces for eugenic propaganda. In 1926, the American Eugenics Society sponsored a 'Eugenic Sermon' contest. They encouraged ministers and preachers across the country to deliver sermons on genetic improvement–especially one's duty to not burden future generations with 'defective' offspring. In...