A new film called A Dangerous Idea argues that the concept of the gene will be looked back on (if humanity lives long enough) in the way that we look back on claims of “royal blood” and skull size as justifications for power and social status. The film makes the case that eugenics and (its more recent name) genetics has been driven by the same interests as those past claims.
It’s very strange to me that the most unequal nation among wealthy nations contains so many people who are able to claim that inequality is inevitable and to invent something called “human nature” that routinely ignores 96% of humanity as somehow not entering into its definition. It’s refreshing to see a film that systematically debunks this ridiculous project by examining history, science, and the history of science. Yet it’s a bit frustrating to notice that even A Dangerous Idea does not make use of the existence of the rest of humanity. One would think that claims that the poor must always be poor would be handily debunked by the existence of nations that used to have poverty and inequality and, in great measure, got rid of those things. Surely it’s harder work to build your case using only one corner of the earth and digging back through many decades than it is to mention other nations. In any case, harder or not, this film does an excellent job.
Those who have pushed eugenics/genetics have been, not only plutocrats, but also financial interests such as lead paint manufacturers defending themselves in court against those they have harmed. Eugenics, understood as controlled reproduction, never went away; it just added “genetic engineering.” But its promises have proven as empty as its analytical powers, even if its promoters do seem to believe their own claims to the extent of investing great resources and energy into researching the “genetic basis” of “human nature.” It’s turned out that humans have only about one-fifth as many DNA sequences as wheat, and 90 percent of them identical to those of mice. The film debunks the idea of DNA as the determination of one’s future, and also notes the flaws in studies of identical twins. I wish that it had also taken the time to note the flaws in studies of separated identical twins.
That gene science may be junk science does not, of course, tell us that nature (as contrasted with nurture) doesn’t exist. But it does tell us that scientists are perfectly willing to swindle the public on behalf of powerful prejudist parties that have no more interest in pure knowledge for its own sake than does Lockheed Martin.
Eugenics was quite popular during the previous gilded age, and was largely imported from the United States to Nazi Germany. It shaped U.S. immigration policy, including the refusal to save millions of Jews. Then it changed its name, but it stuck around. When the Great Society programs under Lyndon Johnson reduced poverty in the United States by 40% without altering any genes, this was not taken as new data to be considered by our scientific heroes. It was taken as reason to reshape the lies and defund the programs.
And that’s exactly what Richard Nixon did, except that he boosted funding for birth control and sterilization for the poor, resulting in at least 400,000 non-consensual sterilizations. We watch footage of both President Reagan and President Clinton explicitly praising the racist nonsense of Charles Murray as grounds for tearing down welfare — a step that was predicted to push millions of children into poverty and which did so. And poverty is now killing large numbers of people in what most of those people proudly call “the richest nation on earth,” and which is in fact not the richest but near the top.
Poor Charlottesville has now made it into quite a number of films as the location of a fascist rally last year. This film frames the rise-of-fascism / footage from Charlottesville ending a bit differently from how some others have. Here we see these trends as part of a long-standing aristocratic struggle driven by greed but propped up by pseudo-scientific myth and mass-cultural repetition.
If we get rid of the idea that people’s fates are significantly determined by their biology in some manner that can be observed and predicted, we’ll have to abandon the notion that a population of born sociopaths are dominating us, along with the notion that certain disadvantaged groups must inevitably suffer and should therefore be made to suffer (which we could, if we preferred, abandon just because it makes no sense whatsoever). But we’ll be left with the fact that how we treat people from the moment they arrive on this doomed little blue dot can radically open up possibilities for them to become better than any of us — much less genetic scientist Nobel laureates — have ever dreamed of.