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American eugenicist Robert Klark Graham in a scene from the CBC documentary 'Genius Factory,' which will air 8 p.m. Thursday.


As I understand it, the geniuses in charge of the NHL schedule have allowed a small gap and that gap allows a doozy of a documentary to air on CBC on Thursday. The word “genius” is key here.

Genius Factory (Thursday, CBC, 8 p.m.) has a lot of talk about geniuses and yet in the story it tells you meet a motley assortment of messed-up, deluded and shifty characters. It’s a terrific story, actually (made by Canadian Daryl Stoneage) and has more twists and turns than most good thrillers. Eventually, it’s poignant.

The 21 best TV series to stream so far in 2021

It begins with a touch of science fiction from a few decades ago. These days, we are transfixed by speculation about robots and artificial intelligence. Goodness, we think, what does the future hold? But not long ago what transfixed people was the idea of better, smarter human beings, not machines. Yet how would this betterment happen?

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Well, we meet Robert Klark Graham, a U.S. businessman who tells the tale of a rich industrialist who was good and kind. It wounds Graham to report that the man died childless. Graham himself made a vast fortune by developing shatterproof plastic eyeglass lenses. Being rich and thinking himself benevolent, he had some ideas about what to do. One idea was to establish an independent country on an island somewhere, fill it with scientists and encourage them to create stuff to make the world a more efficient place. That proved unattainable.

He settled on using his wealth to establish, in 1980, the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank for geniuses, with the aim of enacting what was essentially a eugenics program. He wanted sperm from Nobel Prize winners in the sciences. The sperm would be donated to women who were Mensa members.

There were a few hitches. First, Graham was an ophthalmologist, not a scientist. He had to rely on others, some of whom might be called wacky. Also, not many Nobel winners were willing to donate. Some who were approached thought it was both ludicrous and unethical. Still, the project went on. There is some evocative news footage from the early 1980s featuring TV reporters who have the look of people both bemused and bewildered. The bemusement stopped when it emerged that a donor to Graham’s sperm bank was Dr. William Shockley, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics for work on semiconductors. In later life, Shockley was openly racist and proposed that individuals with IQs below 100 be paid to undergo voluntary sterilization.

The shambles that the sperm repository became is a well-told story here. It doesn’t require embellishment or sarcasm. It is only necessary to listen to the guy who was hired to find donors, and went to universities, armed with plastic cups, found the mathematics department and asked some guys to donate sperm on the spot.

What adds texture and humanity are the portraits of the children born from this experiment. We meet Nick, now an adult, who says his IQ is high and, yes, he was very bright in high school. “That didn’t really help me,” he says. Other kids hated him, he reports. “You’re smart?” they’d say. “Yeah, so I can beat you up.” He was expelled from school and his girlfriend became pregnant with his child when she was 16. His life so far is a story of bad luck, bad choices and his own bravery in dealing with it. He sets out to meet his biological father who, it turns out, also fathered many children with many women. It’s a memorable encounter.

We meet other children who were born through Graham’s sperm-depository experiment. The first born was Victoria Kowalski, in April, 1982. That created heavy media attention and her mother sold her story to the National Enquirer. Later the mom was discovered to have a conviction for child abuse. Among the other offspring of the Repository for Germinal Choice we meet is Leandra Ramm, a singer and actor with a successful career and a happy life.

The surface story in Genius Factory is about intelligence and the matter of it being innate and nurtured by environment. The real story, however, is about the people who were involved in an experiment that many geneticists dismiss as preposterous, far-fetched and unprincipled. Certainly, from the interviews seen here, it was shambolic. Yet the full texture of the narrative is found in the focused and often moving portraits of the children who were the offspring of it all. That’s a matter of woes, disappointments and some triumphs. Essentially, life as it is lived, no matter the father or donor.

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