'A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream': Film Review

Ambitious approach limits the impact of very worthy arguments.
9/28/2018

Stephanie Welch's doc looks at the lies behind eugenics and their impact on government policies.

A documentary about a sprawling issue in which science and politics are inextricably linked, Stephanie Welch's A Dangerous Idea demonstrates how wrong we are if we believe that junk science stopped leading governments astray around the time the Third Reich and Jim Crow entered history books. Containing enough ideas and episodes to fill a semester-long undergrad course, the debut doc is worthwhile but stumbles in imagining its audience: Art house lefties who're likely to see it won't need to hear so much argument for beliefs they already hold, while those conservatives whose minds may be open to change will likely be so irked by its political tone they'll close their ears. Better to offer two distinct docs, one of which does nothing but expose the public's misconceptions about genes and heredity, leaving the policy consequences of such widely-held beliefs to a more advocacy-oriented film.

On the first front, even viewers who consider themselves reasonably well-educated may come away questioning what they know about genes. As well they should, since, as the film puts it, even biologists can't agree on what exactly a gene is. DNA is only a part of it, we're told, since only 2 percent of our DNA is associated with making proteins, and even those bits must be acted on by other components before they're able to do anything. Humans contain far fewer genes than tomatoes, rabbits or wheat; how, Welch asks, can they alone account for the staggering diversity of individual humans? The popular notion of the genome as the key to everything — from hair color to musical preferences to deformity — has been perpetuated, scientists suggest here, by a mammoth industry hoping to sell drugs and therapies based on genome data.

Accepting that much present-day talk about genes might be as misleading as old claptrap about craniology helps us be skeptical about some of the dubious-sounding stuff we hear from supposed experts. Welch spends a lot of time talking about Nobel-winning DNA researchers James Watson and Francis Crick, who've said, among other things, that inequality is an unavoidable result of genetic difference and that weaker human specimens should be allowed to die so they don't muddy the gene pool.

People like Watson and Bell Curve author Charles Murray only appear here in old, preexisting interviews, unable to defend themselves if their actual beliefs aren't as ugly as Welch makes them out to be. They've had plenty of opportunities in the past, of course, but the number of interviews Welch conducts with their critics gives an appearance of lopsidedness that will weaken the film's position with those inclined to see it as liberal propaganda.

The film prefers to talk to familiar faces like Van Jones and Robert Reich, who speak persuasively both about the history of pseudoscience-based racist policies and the surprising links between eugenics and the first Gilded Age. Reich tells us that in the late 19th century, the rich invested in scientific research partly as a way to prove that the poor were biologically different from the rich, and that any attempts to level the playing field were therefore doomed.

The doc follows those and related notions through the 20th century, watching as an American boom in eugenics theory influences Adolf Hitler — and as, even well after the Holocaust, some American states had quiet-but-official policies of sterilizing the poor and people of color when they could find an excuse.

A sequence on America's too-brief War on Poverty finds ample evidence that poverty, low IQ and other things sometimes blamed on genes are much less linked to biology than they are to history and environment. But shifting political winds have put the brakes on that experiment in equality. The film's look at our own Gilded Age and the "backdoor eugenics" that accompany it shows how easy those truths are to ignore when the wealth of a nation's ruling class is at stake.

Production company: Paragon Media
Distributor: Passion River Films
Director: Stephanie Welch
Screenwriters: Stephanie Welch, Andrew Kimbrell
Producer: N. Jed Riffe
Executive producers: Mary R. Morgan, Andrew Kimbrell
Editors: Maureen Gosling, Sara Maamouri, Stephanie Welch
Composer: Jonathan Zalben

107 minutes