In the 1980’s an eccentric billionaire named Robert Graham wanted to create the world’s smartest kids, so he funded the largest legal genetic experiment in human history. He felt that unintelligent people were breeding too often and smart people weren’t breeding enough, so he decided to do something about it. Today, 30 years later, the children of his eugenics experiment walk the streets of America as adults. These super babies seem normal enough, but there is a hidden struggle to understand who they are and why they came to be. They struggle to understand if the Genius Factory rewarded them or condemned them.
The founder is dead, the sperm bank is closed, and the records were burned. But now, for the first time, people who worked at the bank are ready to talk, the genius children are going to meet each other and find out who their fathers are. Never before has nature vs nurture ever been tested quite like this.
Discovery+ documentary Genius Factory tells a remarkable story. In the 1980s a wealthy optometrist became fixated on creating the world’s smartest babies through selective breeding, or as it’s more commonly known, eugenics. Now the children from the largest legal genetic experiment in the U.S. are in their 30’s. As one might expect, they have decidedly mixed feelings about their origins.
The documentary takes viewers on a journey from the eccentric billionaire Robert Graham’s personal philosophy behind the clinic to first-person accounts of clinic operations with a colorful cast of former employees in sequences reminiscent of Tiger King. Some of the most intriguing interviews, however, are with the adult children of the genetic experiment. They grapple with the knowledge of where they came from and whether their lives measure up to the grand expectations that they were born into.
Genius Factory is a fascinating watch that mostly does an adequate job explaining complex subjects like the dark history of genetic science, the racist personal beliefs of many of the clinic’s supporters, and how the experiment weighs into the “nature vs. nurture” debate. That being said, I question the decision to include commentary from an uncompromising supporter of eugenics here. For decades, the public debate on this issue has been closed. I am not sure it is the right choice to provide a tv credit to an unapologetic eugenicist in 2021. Overall, however, the documentary does a good job shining a light on the darker aspects of this science.
It is telling that the first frame of Genius Factory is the legendary quote from Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” As a lifelong fan of Jurassic Park, I found the introduction to be an absolute delight. Genius Factory spends the next 75 minutes detailing how much thought actually went into creating a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners and how many people thought on balance that it seemed like a good idea.
Streaming on discovery+ May 20, 2021
Directed by Daryl Stoneage (Donkey Love, Pizzicato Five, Shlomo Arigato)