Selfish Altruism in Orphan Black
The implicit argument throughout every episode of Orphan Black is that a clone is a clone in physical appearance only – and even then, the physical appearance isn’t an exact duplication. In other words, for Orphan Black, cloning is no different from what occurs with multiple births (twins to octuplets), they may look the same but their personalities and their souls are unique. In fact, the clones are so individualized that some have seemed superfluous, if not expendable – because (1) there are plenty of other clones to study, and (2) if you don’t have an interesting trait or ability, you’re probably not worth studying.
Sarah, Helena, and Cosima (the main trio of clones who typically propel the story) have always been more important than any of the other clones, to the point that other clones can be weaved in and out of the narrative in various sub-plots (or get killed off to save and protect the main trio and the children). The most important clone is Sarah, she’s the protagonist we’ve seen things through since the beginning and she’s the “Orphan Black” the title references (Sarah was an orphan on the black market that Mrs. S saved and then raised as a foster daughter).
Sarah is also the original clone, along with Helena – they’re actually twins and they happen to be the only clones capable of bearing children. So, Sarah’s daughter, Kira, and the twins that Helena is carrying (she’s been pregnant since the end of season two) are extremely important, too. And since Helena is Sarah’s twin, she’s also important. Cosima would be next in line of importance because she turned out to be an evolutionary biologist and she’s the only clone who seems to have any understanding of the science underlying the clone’s existence. Every other clone after Sarah, Helena, and Cosima are simply extra copies.
So, what do you do if you’re the odd clone out? Does being a secondary clone make you less worthy? And, are you free to make choices for yourself (as an autonomous, self-aware, free-thinking clone) or do you have a duty to your clone family?
The idea of the “self” versus the “group” is something Orphan Black explores well from both sides – not just in the sense that some lives are more valuable, but in the sense of whether or not our choices as individuals are selfish or selfless, which, for philosophy, is the debate between egoism and altruism. This debate is illustrated in Orphan Black’s two most recent episodes from season five (“Clutch of Greed” and “Beneath Her Heart”) when we see two clones – M.K. and Alison – choose to leave the group in very different ways. Are they selfish for leaving? Or are they selfless, deciding to do what they do for the sake of the group? Let’s explore some philosophy first, then we’ll look at M.K. and Alison to see how we can make sense of their leaving.
Buying Your Life
Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982), a champion of the individual and of being selfish, argued against altruism on the grounds that it devalues an individual’s life. Her point is simple: if you say that a worthy goal in life is to give yourself for the sake of others, then what is your life worth? Are you only worth something if you sacrifice yourself? And why are other people worth sacrificing for? Why are they more important than you? As she explains (and read this closely):
Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”
Rand’s rhetoric is compelling, isn’t it? Especially the part about having to buy our lives a dime at a time (and the sacrificial animal analogy is persuasive). But, the point Rand seems to miss is that being altruistic doesn’t necessarily mean you’re worthless. After all, isn’t buying your life more like an investment? If we borrow her metaphor, isn’t that what a mortgage is? Isn’t it an investment in the future, a way to save and build equity? And, what if the sacrifice isn’t just for another but also for yourself and your family (or loved ones)? Can we be altruistic and selfish at the same time?
Certainly, on Orphan Black, many characters have built up their equity, putting their lives on the line many times for the sake of each other and the payoff has been that the main group has survived (so far). If anyone of them had followed Rand’s advice, it’s doubtful that any of them would’ve made it this far – and if they had, they’d be alone instead of together (because selfishness isn’t a group thing). So, it’s not that they’ve had to buy or earn their collective existence, it’s that they’ve insured it (because they all have each other’s back). Rand’s right in the sense that we should look out for ourselves (beggars come in many forms), but she doesn’t seem to consider that looking out for others – especially those related to us – is the same as looking out for ourselves, just in a broader sense.
Born This Way
As Richard Dawkins (b. 1941) observes, we look out for ourselves and our loved ones because we have “selfish genes.” For Dawkins, it’s our nature to be selfish because that’s how our genes are programmed – to fight for survival. To be clear, Dawkins is only recognizing selfishness in nature, he’s not advocating it. In fact, unlike Rand, he wants humanity to transcend its selfish inclinations. As he writes:
Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to. […] Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives.
One way to disobey our selfish inclinations, as we pointed out with Rand, is to consider our actions as investments in our family and its future. Dawkins calls this an altruism investment (he initially calls it a parental investment, where parents, making certain decisions, invest in their children’s chances of survival). As Dawkins formulates it:
Individual A may be said to invest in individual B, when A increases B’s chance of surviving, at the cost of A’s ability to invest in other individuals including herself […] Thus a parent’s investment in any one child should ideally be measured in terms of detriment to life expectancy not only of other children, but also of nephews, nieces, herself, etc.
What Dawkins is getting at is that an individual’s life can be measured in its value to survival, not just for itself but for its family – and this means, logically, that if one child has a better chance of survival, then a parent or the family (including extended family) should invest in that child at the expense of everyone else. That’s why Sarah, Helena, and Cosima get the greatest benefit from their clone family. Of course, the payoff is supposed to be survival of everyone – because the bargain is that those who benefit from the group (like Sarah) will give back to the group (again, so far, that’s been the case).
For Dawkins, it’s an altruism investment because you’re giving to another to increase the odds of survival – but isn’t it also a selfish altruism? Paradoxically, by trying to fight our selfishness aren’t we simply extended it by being altruistic in a selfish way? Perhaps, if we think about it, especially in terms of social capital (where we utilize relationships of any kind to survive – or to get free tea at McAlister’s Deli even when it’s not Free Tea Day) we’re always being selfishly altruistic, not just for our families, but for all the social communities we belong to. So, can we ever just be kind for the sake of being kind? How do we teach altruism, as Dawkins advises, if we’re selfishly altruistic? Let’s examine M.K. and Alison to see what they can teach us.
The paranoid, computer hacker clone M.K. (whose name is Veera Suominen and who typically wore a sheep mask – a nod to Dolly the sheep) didn’t appear until the fourth season and we never really got to know her (because she wasn’t part of the group, she was a tool the group used when they needed her skills). M.K. helped Sarah (and by extension the larger clone group) but only sparingly (because if she’d really wanted to help, she would’ve shown up sooner than season four). And, she really only showed up because she was seeking revenge on Ferdinand – a completely despicable villain who loves S & M (especially when he’s physically beaten) and killing in seemingly equal amounts. Ferdinand had killed Niki Lintula, M.K.’s sister clone and only friend.
It’s fair to say M.K. was selfish, concerned with revenge and her own life more than anyone else’s (and, to be fair, the same could be said of Sarah and every other clone at one point or another over four seasons – they’ve looked out for each other, but they’ve also occasionally made some non-group decisions). Still, M.K. was a clone and therefore we automatically sympathized with her – as did her clone sisters on the show.
In fact, it’s M.K.’s clone status that made her death difficult to watch (like watching someone who looks like someone you love die). It was a painful, horrific, violent death – Ferdinand literally crushing M.K.’s chest with his boot (repeatedly stomping on her) as she lay on the floor helpless – and it was heartbreaking.
What’s significant, however, is that it was a self-sacrificial death. Ferdinand had been following Sarah (and if he’d caught Sarah, he’d have likely killed her), so M.K. offered herself as a decoy to buy time for Sarah to get away. It’s also worth noting that M.K. had a chance to get away, too. Sarah recognized this and tried to get M.K. to leave only to realize that M.K. wanted an opportunity to face Ferdinand. Thus, Sarah respected M.K.’s choice.
It’s also significant that while M.K. might’ve wanted an opportunity for revenge (she did find a knife and try to stab Ferdinand), she was dying anyway – because most of the clones eventually develop a disease inherent in the cloning process (it’s like a genetic flaw). Knowing that her death was imminent, she decided to make it count in the most noble way: by giving her life to save another (in this case, not just Sarah, but everyone) – sure, she tried to kill Ferdinand but she also knew, if she failed, he’d kill her and she seemed willing to accept that outcome (and remember, she could’ve escaped with Sarah). So, was M.K. selfish or selfless?
If she did sacrifice herself to give her life meaning, then that’s selfish, isn’t it? We want her life and death to mean something but shouldn’t heroism and altruism be less calculating? And if was really just about a chance for revenge, then she wasn’t being selfless, right?
Of course, we could argue that she should have the right to end her life on her terms and that revenge against Ferdinand would benefit everyone (because Ferdinand really has it coming – someone needs to seriously whack this guy). Rand might say M.K.’s literally a sacrificial lamb, while Dawkins would likely view M.K.’s death as an altruism investment in Sarah, the clone with the best chance at survival, and in the group (because Sarah has the best skills to keep the rest of the group alive).
In any case, M.K. had value – but here’s the twist: her value didn’t come from dying, it came from choosing how to live. If we see death as simply the end of life, then it’s not a different existence, it’s the end of our only existence. Thus, it’s not M.K.’s death that has value, it’s her life that had value, because she chose how to invest it. Again, this is what Rand misses: the importance we can personally and individually feel when we make a choice – we’re not sacrificing ourselves because we’re worthless, we’re using our worth to buy life (it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a redistribution, something we pass on). And, as long as it’s our choice, why should it matter whose life we buy?
The problem with this, as Rand would observe, is that some individuals still seem irrelevant (because Rand is so dogmatic she’d dismiss our position on principle) – important only so far as they help others survive (like parents having a second child so they can get a kidney match for the first child) and that doesn’t seem right, does it? People aren’t irrelevant, are they?
This is the problem Alison has had throughout the entire Orphan Black series – she’s not the cool clone like Sarah, the smart clone like Cosima, or the lethal clone like Helena, she’s the soccer-mom clone who performed in a community musical, spent time in a rehab facility (because she’s an alcoholic who began selling drugs to other neighborhood-moms to make extra money), ran for schoolboard, and almost bought her mom’s soap-store, Bubbles (to use it as a drug front). Alison cares about her clone sisters, but only to the extent that their nefarious clone business doesn’t interfere with her personal life (because it’s already nefarious enough).
So, it’s significant that in “Beneath Her Heart” Alison chooses to face Rachel, who’s been behind much of the mayhem the clones have endured (and who Alison has never met until “Beneath Her Heart”). Like Alison, Rachel values her own life a bit more than the lives of the other clones. However, Rachel takes it further, as she considers herself to be above the clones (as if she were an upper-class clone, somehow worthier and better endowed – she’s not, if anything someone forgot to download her personality because she’s cold, monotone, and almost soulless).
When Alison confronts Rachel, she does it to protect everyone (like M.K. did when she faced Ferdinand). Helena’s in hiding and Rachel wants to know where she is so Rachel torments Alison and Donnie hoping they’ll give up Helena. But Alison turns things around and convinces Rachel to leave everyone alone (for now) and this bears a brief explanation.
Rachel had the police search Alison’s home and when they literally find where the bodies are buried (because Alison and Donnie have, from time to time, inadvertently killed people and buried them in their garage) Alison brings the head of one the bodies in a box for Rachel to see. It was the head of a man named Dr. Leekie (a nice joke for those of us who remember Max Headroom, as the actor who played Leekie was Matt Frewer). Rachel was close with Leekie and seeing his head in a box disturbed Rachel – it also made her respect Alison, because until now she hadn’t. Like M.K., Alison made an altruism investment that also happened to be selfish. But Alison wasn’t looking for revenge, she was looking for self-worth.
Throughout the episode (in flashbacks and in the present narrative arc) we see Alison questioning her life, her purpose, her identity, her utility, and her meaning. She’s burdened with (if not haunted by) guilt for the many bad decisions she’s made and while she’s trying to atone for them (sort of) she’s more concerned with finding whatever value her life may still hold (and you get the sense that if she didn’t find it, she’d jump in front of a train, like the clone Beth did in the very first scene of the first season).
To make matters worse, Alison is even told by one of Rachel’s henchmen that she’s worthless. “Cosima is a real scientist and a very valuable one. Sarah and Helena are fertile, biologically priceless. And then there’s you,” he says to her coldly, to which she replies, “I’m a mother and a homemaker.” After giving her a condescending stare, he retorts, “As you go back today to your vapid existence, I want you to consider your worth, because even M.K. had more value than you.”
It’s heartbreaking because as secondary (and as crazy) as Alison usually is, we root for her. Perhaps it’s because she’s the most relatable clone – the every-woman clone we all know (she’s our sister or mother or wife or friend) who is never fully appreciated. That seems to be why Alison decides to leave at the end of the episode – and we not only understand, like her husband Donnie does, we continue to root for her because she’s always been a valuable part of the whole.
As the poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself, everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This is what M.K. and Alison teach us – that we all just need to find our place and realize how we fit in. M.K. and Alison made their choices (to face Ferdinand and Rachel) because they wanted their existence to matter and they wanted to contribute to the greater group. Is that selfish? Or were they being selfless (because their actions ultimately benefitted the group)? Is Rand right to see them as sacrificial animals? Is Dawkins right to view their choices as altruistic investments? Are they selfishly altruistic (or altruistically selfish)?
Consider what Alison tells Rachel near the end of the episode: “I know you look down on me, Rachel. You probably wonder why on Earth my sisters even bothered with me. But I’ve been in this fight since the beginning. With Beth. Even before Sarah. And I’m in it for the long haul.” Whether we define M.K.’s and Alison’s choices as selfish, selfless, or some combination doesn’t matter. What counts, in the end, is that M.K. and Alison felt useful and valuable when they made their choices, like someone who mattered (and isn’t defined by primary or secondary roles). Perhaps that’s the final lesson M.K. and Alison teach us: that the worth we find is the worth we create through the choices we make.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Orphan Black, Seasons 1 – 4, BBC America.
Orphan Black, Season 5, Episode Two “Clutch of Greed,” BBC America.
Orphan Black, Season 5, Episode Three “Beneath Her Heart,” BBC America.
Rand, Ayn. Aynrand.org.
Rand, Ayn. Aynrandlexicon.com.