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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

Biology as Destiny is “A Dangerous Idea” [Exclusive] 

What does thinking that “biology is destiny” mean? Is everything predetermined in your life and there’s nothing you can do to change it? If there’s no free will, there’s no point trying to make your own destiny, right? What a bummer. But it’s not true and it’s a truly dangerous idea that’s led to the mistaken belief that race is anything more than a social concept, the eugenics movement and forced sterilization, as well as atrocities such as the Holocaust and Darfur. This film is a radical reassessment of the meaning, use and misuse of gene science.

I had the chance to speak exclusively to director/producer Stephanie Welch about why she wanted to make this film, how the filmmakers chose the lens of “The American Dream” to make their case, how politics plays a huge part in this story and why this film is important right now.

TV GOODNESS: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this idea?

Stephanie Welch: “Well, the team that made this film, we began many, many years ago after the Human Genome Project results came out in 2003. By the end of 2004, we were doing interviews looking at those results and what the implications were. The more we looked into it, the more we learned about the history of eugenics in America, the concept of the gene itself and all of the issues around that.

The best way to tell the story about this gene idea and how we’ve all come to believe in it, mistakenly, would be to tell the story through the concept of social issues, so the idea of personality or intelligence and these things we’ve learned, if we get genes from our parents for these very complex traits. The more we looked into it, we thought that’s the story that needed to be told and a history that we need to reckon with.”

TV GOODNESS: Before I watched the film I knew a little about the shameful history of eugenics, but I did learn a lot. How did you decide what to include and how to present it?

Welch: “There’s so much that we couldn’t include, but there’s just so much rich history. We really tried to focus on using the frame of ‘The American Dream’ being the polar opposite idea and ideal to the eugenics agenda and eugenics in general.

This idea that you are who you are because of your biology was, we thought, and as we talk about in the film, in direct contrast to the notion that with enough hard work and opportunity you can do whatever you want to do in America. So we tried to fit everything within that frame and try to keep a historical thread. It’s in the battle that’s been waged between the two camps throughout American history in pushing one of those ideas forward.”

TV GOODNESS: I really appreciate that you put a human face on forced sterilization in Elaine Riddick. How did you hear about her story and was it easy or hard to convince her to be a part of the film?

Welch: “She was very happy to be a part of it and she’s just a wonderful human being. We came across the story researching the more recent history of eugenics. In the film we cover the early part of eugenic sterilization that was forced back around World War II and before.

Once we realized that it had gone on into the 1960s and 1970s, her story really stood out and was just so unfair. She was so young and when people see the film, they’ll see the details. But she wasn’t even told that she’d been sterilized and she didn’t find out until she was 19 or 20, I believe, when she got married and wanted to have kids. It’s just a really compelling story. She’s an activist that’s been pushing for reparations for victims of sterilization. She was very willing to do the interview and very happy with it. She’s a really amazing person.”

TV GOODNESS: I’m not sure people realize how big a role politics plays in all of this. Can you talk about making sure that was part of the film and exactly what you wanted to include? There’s so much information. How did you whittle it down?

Welch: “What was apparent from the very beginning when you look at the gene concept and how eugenics developed alongside it back at the turn of the twentieth century, it was clear that politics was front and center in terms of the inequality that was happening back then [and] which we’re seeing again today. That kind of inequality was just outrageous and people were in the streets and labor was really big. It was clear that something had to be done and one of the easy ways to dismiss the political concerns that people were having at the time was to say that people are poor and they’re not succeeding and the problems that they’re having, alcoholism or any of the social ills, were caused by their biology and by genes and not by the current social situation, the policies that were happening at the time.

It’s just so outrageous and so frightening that people were willing to believe that and they really did. Across the left, right and center people bought into this idea, and you wouldn’t have thought the left would’ve been into it. But the science seemed so compelling and people were just learning about it so much starting with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. That idea spread and it was tied into politics right from the beginning and we see that throughout the century.

When we chose what stories to include, we felt like there were so many terrible policies that came out of it, one of them being the 1924 Immigration Act that was passed by Congress. If you look back in history, they use eugenics arguments to close the borders to certain groups of people. So in the twentieth century we thought it was really important to include when that was overturned by President Johnson with the Great Society legislation in the 1960s. If you really look at the amazing amount of legislation domestically that he helped pass with Sargent Shriver and the War on Poverty, then you really see that they were saying this isn’t hereditary, these problems of inequality, and poverty especially. They really went after it, so we thought that was a really important thread to follow and include.

And today, as you know, at the end of the film, we look at the last few decades and how it’s not always an openly stated argument about eugenics or genetics, but basically these ideas that people are what they are because of something that’s inherently wrong with them — and we’re seeing the inequality over these last decades with budget cuts and seeing people in similar situations as they were at the turn of the twentieth century with a new gilded age. We start to see the same kind of arguments appearing again as you see in the film with Trump and some other characters. It’s pretty scary.”

TV GOODNESS: It’s true especially since the current administration is exacerbating the problem. It feels like it’s all coming back around again, like we’ve learned nothing.

Welch: “Yeah. Robert Pollack, who’s a wonderful professor here at Columbia in New York, he’s in the film and he says that. If we buy into this, we’ve learned nothing from the Holocaust, nothing from the capacity people have to hate or judge someone based on their birth.

That’s why I call it ‘A Dangerous Idea.’ We think that the gene the concept itself if a dangerous idea, something we’ve come to believe in that isn’t really true the way that we’ve been taught, this idea people are stuck where they are because of the biology. It is very dangerous and hopefully people will see this film and understand and spread the word that we can’t buy into these ideas as we start to see more of it being pushed on us.”

TV GOODNESS: I was going to ask what you want people to take away from the film and you just answered that, but why do you think that this film is important for people to see right now?

Welch: “When we finished the film, it was before Trump got elected. President Obama was in office and people were feeling pretty good about the amazing change that had happened in America, to a certain extent. I’d say that there were a lot of issues there and racism wasn’t over because Obama got in office, but definitely, we felt like the film was gonna be a bit of a hard sell because we were warning of a very near future in which a lot of these ideas would be promulgated again. And then with Trump, we just thought, okay well it happened a lot quicker than we thought and it made it so much more relevant.

That’s why, right now, it’s really important. People sometimes and say, it’s in our DNA and as you see in the film, and with the Trump Administration, white supremacists feeling emboldened to come out of the woodwork again, not that they ever went away, they’ve always been there, [but] Charlottesville, all this stuff is all related to the exact idea.

If you look at any of the supremacist rhetoric on their own websites and some of the mass murders that have taken place, people refer back to eugenics and these genetic arguments as part of the basis of their beliefs. And they reacted to our film online very, very strongly, to just the trailer actually, and they really know that that’s the basis of their entire form of hate. It has to be based on something. The only way you can explain away inequality in America is try to point to some sort of inherent biological element that is actually causing it.

So I think this is a really, really important time for people to understand that these arguments have zero basis — especially the concept of race, which has no biological basis. It’s a very real social concept that we’ve come to incorporate into so much of our social lives, but it has no biological basis. And the DNA studies and things that have come out will tell you that. It’s a little confusing with ancestry DNA and all that, so I think people really want to be informed about the real science behind a lot of the stuff. It’s a pro-science film and I think it’s an important thing for people to learn, as it was for me. I’ve learned a lot in doing the research.”

TV GOODNESS: I feel like people will learn a lot from this film. Is there anything else you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you about?

Welch: “One thing I want to make sure people learn is — because a lot of it’s historical — we also cover a story of a young man named Steven Thomas, who is one of the many children who have been horribly poisoned by lead, to the point where he’s had a lot of issues with learning disabilities.

It’s a really important story and I want to make sure it gets out there, especially with fact that lead poisoning is such a huge problem now in cities across the country, worse than in Flint, in fact. The lead industry has used genetics as a tactic to dismiss lawsuits by people who are suing the lead pigment industry over lead poisoning. And they were successful in their attempt to convince a jury in Milwaukee that Steven Thomas’ family was genetically unintelligent. That was their main argument. So instead of saying lead poising led to this learning disability that Steven has, basically, his family is just unintelligent. It’s a horrible outcome that we want to make sure that people understand that this is very real. Those kinds of beliefs can have real consequences for people. So that story, I definitely want people to be sure to check it out for that as well.”

TV GOODNESS: Thank you for reminding me about that, because I think it’s important for people to realize this is absolutely still going on today.

Welch: “Yes. Exactly and this became one of the lead pigment industry’s main strategies. They were very proud of that.”

Edited for space and content.

A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream is now available on VOD and DVD.

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