Bill Nye Saves the World from Disabled People

Bill Nye Saves the World

Image Description: Bill Nye a 61-year-old white man with grey hair stands atop the earth with his hands on his hips and lab coat billowing out behind him like a superhero’s cape in a promotional image for his Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World.

When I first heard that Bill Nye would be starring in a new Netflix series, I was initially excited to relive some 90s nostalgia. The show is geared precisely towards us 90s kids who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy. Unlike the show of my childhood, however, Bill Nye Saves the World is entirely geared toward Nye featuring topics that have a global impact. The first episode deals with the politically contentious but generally scientifically accepted topic of climate change. Another episode deals with sex and gender and debunking myths around how sex & gender are binaries.

I, however, became concerned when I noticed that there was an episode on Designer Babies. A concern that was confirmed when I watched the episode.

The episode deals with issues pertaining to in vitro fertilization (IVF), genetic testing and gene editing. All three but the latter two especially have implications for disabled people but Nye and his guests only look at the implications for nondisabled people often in the context of the presumed negative impact of not being able to choose to not have disabled children. There is no discussion of the impact of such technologies on disabled people themselves even though both Nye and his guests acknowledge that not all disabilities can be tested for and thus screened out.

The episode starts badly with a somewhat off topic shoutout to Victorian evolutionary scientist Alfred Russel Wallace. Nye mentions him because he feels that Wallace has gone unrecognized for his contributions to helping create the theory of evolution.

Nye only asks but does not really engage with the question of whether gene editing is either playing God or toying with evolution. It is, however, worth looking at particularly with his shout out to Wallace.

Alfred Russel Wallace like many early evolutionary theorists (Darwin included) used the theory of evolution to shore up arguments of white supremacy. He believed that white people were so superior that eventually, non-white people would die out along with less desirable members of the white population to eventually create a utopia that did not suffer from any social ills*.

John Langdon Down would later expand on that to explain how the clearly superior white race could be tainted with congenitally disabled members. Down theorized that white people were more evolved than other races and that intellectual disability was actually an evolutionary throwback that proved this. He wrote,

Here, however, we have examples of retrogression, or at all events, of departure from one type and the assumption of the characteristics of another. If these great racial divisions are fixed and definite, how comes it that disease is able to break down the barrier, and to simulate so closely the features of the members of another division. I cannot but think that the observations which I have recorded, are indications that the differences in the races are not specific but variable.

These examples of the result of degeneracy among mankind, appear to me to furnish some arguments in favour of the unity of the human species**

John Langdon Down used this theory when he categorized what is now known as Down Syndrome but was originally classified as Mongolian Idiocy.

The history of evolution is full of white men arguing that they are somehow superior and classifying difference as inferior. These classifications had a real social impact on the people being classified. It helped shore up institutional racism. Gave birth to the eugenics movement and has lead to genocide.

This is why looking at the social impact of science on the people being classified as undesirable is so imperative.

Bill Nye however, does not do this instead the only social impact of genetic testing and gene editing given in the episode is the impact on the people doing the classifying. The overall assumption is that disability is bad and that avoiding it is inherently good. So when they consider the potential negative impact gene editing they look at the cost and the people for whom that cost will be prohibitive. They do acknowledge that this disparity in access will almost certainly benefit white supremacy. The downside as it is presented is only that poorer families (who will invariably be disproportionately families of colour) will lack access to the options of gene editing and thus be burdened with disabled children.

The show does not at any point consider the potential social repercussions of gene editing on disabled people themselves.

They do not consider what the ability to choose to not have certain kinds of disabled children (because they do acknowledge that not all disabilities can be tested for) will mean for disabled people whose conditions cannot be edited out.

They do not consider how the economic disparity in access to gene editing technology will expand existing economic disparities for disabled people.

They do not consider what happens when the technology fails because nothing has a 100% success rate. What of the children who were supposed to be born “healthy” but weren’t.

What will this mean for people who acquire disabilities (a population that exceeds the number of people born disabled)?

In a world where disability is not only almost universally considered bad and which contains options to opt out of having disabled children, will support for accessibility legislation like the ADA or AODA continue?

Bill Nye considers none of those questions because they are social ones, not scientific ones. This is the problem with a purely scientific discourse. It ignores the social impact.

At the beginning of the episode, Nye acknowledges the possibility of a slippery slope but he dismisses it by saying that a slope needn’t be slippery. He, however, does this despite forgetting to acknowledge the humanity of disabled people or their very real stake in this conversation. We are to Nye best served by not existing in the first place. It somewhat robs his argument of weight.

No disabled people were included in the episode.



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*Wallace, Alfred R. “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of “Natural Selection”” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 2 (1864): Clviii-lxxxvii. JSTOR [JSTOR].

**Down, J. L. H. “Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots.” London Hospital Reports 3 (1866): 259-62.

The History of Eugenics isn’t as Historical as it Should Be

This morning the following tweet caught my attention

I can’t argue with the premise, eugenics and eugenic ideals are indeed alive and well. However the methods haven’t always gotten more sophisticated.

Back in the day when countries like Canada and the United States had openly eugenic policies. They were ostensibly meant to stop people, usually labelled feeble-minded (I use this word only because it was the term in use at the time) from having children. It was believed that traits like intelligence were genetic and if such people were allowed to continue having children that they would just be creating burdens for the state. Intelligence was also linked to criminality so they thought it would have an impact on the crime rate as well.

In practice people with disabilities were certainly targeted and suffered from being forcibly sterilized (and often institutionalization).

However because eugenics was based on the premise that intelligence was hereditary by association things like wealth and success were seen as evidence of genetic superiority. This lead to eugenics policies targeting people we would no longer consider disabled.

Basically eugenics was used as a way to pathologize poverty. Some of the people most likely to be targeted were poor women of colour.

Unfortunately this demographic is also still at risk of being targeted for forced sterilization.

Recently there have been a couple of cases in Saskatchewan that have come to light where poor women have been coerced into being sterilized. Often closely following the birth. One woman tells how she was told that she would not be allowed to leave the hospital until she agreed to the procedure (a threat often used historically against women in institutions).

As recently as 2010 prisons in California were sterilizing female prisoners. This is not as shocking (though utterly indefensible) when you consider that the 1927 sterilization case Buck v. Bell still holds legal precedent in the United Stated and has never been over turned (seriously Americans get on that).

Canada is however a different story, while we share the shameful history of forced sterilization it is supposed to be explicitly banned. The 1986 Supreme Court ruling in E (Mrs.) v. Eve set a precedent more progressive than any other country.

Using a citizenship model, the court found that Eve was a citizen of Canada and that none of her rights could be infringed upon regardless of her level of intelligence, including reproductive rights. The court was very specific, they rejected the idea that someone could be sterilized without consent if it was believed they might find symptoms of puberty distressing (such as menstruation). An argument that has worked elsewhere. Further they rejected Mrs. E’s argument that if Eve had a child that it would fall to her to care for and she should be protected from this potential burden. Effectively saying that potential burden was not a strong enough ground on which to infringe on the rights of someone else.

Basically nonconsensual sterilization is completely forbidden in Canada. The only exception being in cases of medical necessity. The thresh hold for medical necessity being a life threatening situation. So in theory in Canada a person can only be sterilized without consent if they meet both of two criteria. First that they are unable to consent to the procedure AND they may die if the sterilization doesn’t go ahead.

In reality as the cases in Saskatchewan show, this standard is not being followed. There are also cases involving patients under custodial care who have undergone the procedure because lower court judges dismiss the Eve case as being to far reaching.

The Saskatchewan cases clearly show that the 1986 ruling had it right (and it’s not because the victims aren’t disabled). Don’t believe me read the comments (or don’t I’m already scarred).

Basically, they boil down to two issues. People disregard the clear coercion involved and fixate on the fact that a permission form was signed. This is bad enough but then there are the people who make moral judgements about the women. They gripe about how many children she has and complain about the burden she is placing on the system. Basically they are recycling the old eugenic arguments that targeted poor women under the eugenics legislation that was repealed in 1972.

The reason the Eve ruling is so easily ignored whether the victim is disabled or just poor is because people find it all to easy to see people not like them as the “other” and rationalize clawing back hard won rights.

So while as the twitter comment above is right and some eugenic arguments have gotten more sophisticated (*cough* human genome project *cough*).

The old ones are alive and well and being argued in Canada (and likely elsewhere).


***For further information on eugenics see

Angus McLaren’s “Our Own Master Race

The National Film Board of Canada’s documentary “The Sterilization of Leilanie Muir

Leilanie Muir also has a memoir (though I haven’t had time to read it yet–PhD problems), “A Whisper Past

Add more in the comments, particularly anything from outside Canada please.