- Not your average ancestryGenetic testing and family identities in Orphan Black
Family is often a slippery word, not least within the episodes of Orphan Black. Although the word 'family' immediately connotes actual relatives, it also extends to a variety of interpersonal relationships that are not always biological in nature: adopted siblings, close friends, neighbours and many others can be 'just like family'. These relationships are vitally important to the human experience and have been a matter of ongoing study and evolution. We quite literally study interpersonal communication as a science, but we also harbour a general set of socially embedded skills or methods for more effective communication that dictate how we act in certain situations. This includes guiding our interactions with those whom we define as 'family'. However, in season four, episode five, 'Human Raw Material' (12 May 2016), Orphan Black offers us a perspective on interpersonal relationships that struggles to adapt to shifting notions of family identity and communication in the age of the genome. By showcasing the conflict between Sarah and Adele, Felix's biological sibling per the results of a genetic testing company, the series identifies a challenge for families who know how to communicate with those they traditionally define as family members, but who may not know how to accept a new relationship based on a genetic–rather than interpersonal–foundation. Though the show does not offer a concrete solution for successfully building genetically foundational relationships, it does suggest that by upholding appropriate knowledge and consent, we can better embrace our extended genomic families.
In her book Representations of the Post/Human, Elaine Graham writes that 'knowledge of the human genome is represented as delivering up the definitive account of human nature' (118). Despite our constantly evolving understanding of genetics, a cultural perception of genetics as capital-S Science often causes us to view our genome as something concrete and unchangeable that determines who we are. In a typical interpersonal relationship, we actively decide how to represent ourselves to other people: much of our relationships is about what we choose to share with each other. We reveal or conceal certain facets of our identities, personalities or behaviours to facilitate a connection between ourselves and someone else. Genetic identity is somehow perceived differently. [End Page 406] Its association with 'hard science' means that we often see it as less capricious than the other aspects of our identities. We can still choose whether we share our genetic identity with someone else–by discussing genetic testing results or seeking out a long-lost family member, for example–but the stakes seem higher. This no longer concerns the choice to erupt in laughter at the lukewarm joke of someone with whom we would like to be friends; this is about our biological code.
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Thus, we may be able to distinguish between interpersonal relationships and genetically foundational relationships. On one hand, most of our relationships today–even if they are biological in nature–are truly interpersonal. We love our family not because of the implicit genetic connection we have with them, but because of the interpersonal relationships we have cultivated with them over years of interaction. These bonds extend to family members who are not linked by blood, like Orphan Black's Felix and Sarah, who are not genetically related, but who were raised as brother and sister. On the other hand, our exposure to more advanced technology at a consumer level means that we are more likely than ever to be asked to begin a genetically foundational relationship that relies exclusively on a genetic bond and lacks the long-term interpersonal components usually seen among family members. Actual companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com serve as the real-world versions of Orphan Black's Gene Connection and permit the possibility that [End Page 407] we may at some point be introduced to a genetic cousin we never knew we had. This is not your average ancestry.
In this episode, Orphan Black does what good sf does best by giving us...