Robert Fulford's column about After Darwin

(The National Post, May 3, 2001)

Martin Lavut, a TV writer and director much admired for wit and brio, apparently set out to accomplish the impossible: make a science documentary that you just can't switch off. Genetics as a subject may be terrifyingly complex and just plain terrifying, but that doesn't stop Lavut. In After Darwin (on the Discovery Channel tonight at 9 p.m.) he's trying to tell us about the greatest event in science since nuclear fission. This calls for all his ingenuity, and he gives it everything he's got.

He mingles old-fashioned pop music, heart-rending interviews with brave parents of genetically damaged babies, bits from naive films of long ago, even footage of Hitler dancing on the terrace at Berchtesgaden while someone mentions, voice-over, his plan to produce pure Aryans through eugenics. Lavut even conscripts Stephen Hawking's digital robot-voice as occasional narrator.

The soundtrack, exploding now and then with I Found a Million-Dollar Baby or Makin' Whoopee, evokes Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. The historic documentaries bring back for cameo vocal appearances two voice-of-doom narrators, both long dead but once familiar in Canadian living rooms, Raymond Massey and Lorne Greene.

Lavut has to herd a flock of talking heads, from philosophers to lab technicians, but he sorts them so ingeniously that he never lets interest die. Even so, his film made only a modest stir when it first appeared on TV last year, running 90 minutes. Last fall it won a Gemini award, and now it's back, cut to an hour, giving Lavut a second chance at the audience he deserves.

Lavut plays tour leader rather than teacher. He takes us to all the great sites, from the sheep pen of the famous Dolly to China's overcrowded streets, but he lets us form our own opinions, if any. That's the right approach for a subject whose implications no one really understands and most of us fear.

Just how much do we fear them? Lavut introduces Andrea Shugar, a genetics counsellor at North York General Hospital in Toronto, who has learned not to disclose her profession casually to people she meets on social occasions -- it frightens them too much.

One reason, of course, is history. If Hitler loved eugenics, most of us will be tempted to hate it. But Lewis Wolpert, an eminent British biologist, insists that we must "disentangle genetics, genes, Hitler, concentration camps, the Holocaust." What happened was terrible: bad science (they got it all wrong) used by bad men. But if we are to understand the world, we must make the enormous effort required to see these things separately, without prejudice.

Speaking of which, the talking heads include J. Philippe Rushton, the University of Western Ontario psychologist who believes Asians are generally brighter than whites and whites generally brighter than blacks. He usually gets treated with contempt in shows like this, but Lavut allows him to express a few of his highly controversial ideas about racial intelligence. Unfortunately, Philip Kitcher, the Columbia University philosopher who disagrees with Rushton and comes on right after him, brings to this subject such a simple-minded and condescending approach that he may well nudge a few viewers toward Rushton's camp.

Ursula Franklin, the University of Toronto physicist and relentless critic of scientific pretensions, shows up wearing her patented mischievous smile, and suggests that those who dream of a wonderful future created by genetics should recall that many of us once believed in the endless benefits coming our way through the peaceful atom. That sort of misgiving doesn't bother Leroy Hood, a University of Washington molecular biotechnologist. He says, without hesitation, "We will capture the whole process of evolution and we will make rational decisions about where humankind should go."

His confidence is breathtaking, and he's not alone. Dr. Perry Phillips, a Canadian with specialized knowledge of in vitro fertilization, says: "Eugenics in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it's used for the right reasons and in the right ways."

That sentence goes by so fast that it almost sounds sensible. In fact, the 11 words following "provided" imply a vast speculative universe of private ethics, public politics, and human judgment. I was watching a tape and had to play the passage three times to be sure he was saying what I thought he was saying. When, exactly, was the last time humanity used scientific innovation solely or even mainly "for the right reasons and in the right ways"?

No one knows how our beautiful, corrupt, brilliant, greedy and totally unpredictable civilization will apply the genetic knowledge now unfolding. We haven't even begun to define "the right reasons." For the moment, Lavut's intense fascination is entirely justified. So is the terror with which he leaves us.

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