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Postscript on Bill Nye and “Extra” People

Last night I watched Schindler’s List on Netflix and was startled by a contrast with what I had been watching, just the day before, the same place. In an episode of the Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World, “Earth’s People Problem,” Nye has an exchange with Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Travis Rieder. I pointed this out already.

Nye asks, “So, should we have policies that penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world?” Rieder is open to the idea, which I’ve called spiteful and inhuman, and Nye seems eager to get started. But what we really stuck with me was Mr. Nye’s choice of words, describing human beings as “extra.”

Watch the final, incredibly moving scene in Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, was a Nazi industrialist and bon vivant who woke up to what was happening to the Jews and was unexpectedly galvanized to take action. Rather than protesting, which would have been ineffectual, he nevertheless risked his life, using a combination of charm, lies, flattery, and bribes to buy and save lives. He pretended that these Jewish men, women, and many children were “essential” to the war effort in working in his factory. But for him, they would all have been murdered at Auschwitz. In this way, exhausting his own wealth, he rescued more than 1,100 Jews (including two, as my older daughter discovered the other day, with our family name, presumably distant cousins).

In the last scene, when the war has just ended, Schindler is saying goodbye. His “employees” present him with a ring, fashioned from dental fillings, inscribed with a saying from the Talmud, “Whoever saves a life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” He breaks down, crying that he could have saved more lives. Could have made more money to save them. Could have sold his car to the mass-murdering concentration camp commandant he paid off. He says that would have bought ten lives. He could have sold the gold Nazi Party lapel pin he wears throughout the movie. He berates himself, saying that would have saved two, or at least one life.

His Jewish accountant, played by Ben Kingsley, and others of his “workers” crowd around and embrace him, but he refuses to be consoled and weeps bitterly.

Compare that with Nye and his blithe talk of Earth’s “people problem,” what to do about “extra kids,” these extraneous human beings. There are two opposite views of the world and of humans. The debate about biological origins that we deal with here reduces, in the end, to the question of what a human is, what a life matters, whether it matters intrinsically, whether a person reflects a designer’s care and purpose, or not.

There is some heavy science behind the debate, but the ultimate meaning is about just that. The design view supports a humane vision. The evolutionary perspective, advocated by Bill Nye, easily leads down a path to revived and rebranded eugenics. To hear it discussed so lightly, amid dumb gags and gyrating song-and-dance acts promoting transgenderism, is just obscene.