Last night's viewing: Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fittest, Channel 4
Storyville: Hitler, Stalin and Mr Jones, BBC4

Johnson's discovery of his own slave ancestry was part of the process

I hadn't heard of Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder before I watched Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fittest, but then, since 1988, he hasn't had much of a public profile. He lost his job that year after saying that black athletes were better because they'd been "bred to be that way", a remark that was instantly condemned by all. What Jimmy had failed to understand – beyond the fact that such a thing wouldn't be sayable in any form for years to come – was that if anybody was going to say it they had probably better be black themselves. And last night, give or take a few very important reservations, that was what Michael Johnson was saying. The Olympic gold medallist wanted to understand why it was that so many of the fastest sprinters in the world have slave ancestry, and he was prepared to edge towards hazardous ground to get his answer.

It was a cautious film, properly concerned to acknowledge how important culture and personal qualities are in the development of athletic excellence. But it also addressed an unpalatable possibility: that the very cruelty of the slave trade, its indifference to human suffering and its waste of human life, might have conferred an unexpected genetic advantage on those who survived. Partly, this was unnatural selection, the rigours of the slave caravans and the middle passage killing off the weaker individuals and leaving the strong. But there was also an element of selective breeding, with slave owners treating their captives as an improvable livestock.

Johnson wasn't blind to the awful irony involved here, that a kind of accidental eugenics might have contributed to the humiliation of Nazi fantasies about eugenic supremacy, after Jesse Owens had enraged Hitler by taking four golds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But there was a further twist too. After meeting a biologist who had studied the unexpected rebound in the elephant seal population after near-extinction, Johnson floated the idea that a seriously stressed group might find itself unusually free of detrimental genes. And when that quality was combined with the unusual level of genetic exchange brought about by slavery (that indifferently mixed populations that might otherwise have stayed separate), the result could have been an evolutionary bounce. In another rebuke to Hitler, miscegenation may have been part of the story.

It was hard to know how you might go about proving any of this, and there was an anxiety that such a theory might open a door to things you might not want admitted at all. But within its limitations (the genetics was pretty broadbrush stuff), it was fascinating and often moving, with Johnson's discovery of his own slave ancestry part of the process. Perhaps its very existence was the most interesting thing about it, proof that what was unsayable in 1988 can now be addressed without paranoia, and with a reasonable confidence that it won't be maliciously twisted out of shape. There might be further to travel but we've come quite a long way since then.

Family history was also at the heart of George Carey's Storyville film Hitler, Stalin and Mr Jones, which investigated the tale of Gareth Jones, a journalist-adventurer who carved himself out an interesting niche as advisor and investigator in pre-war Russia, Germany and Manchuria, where he was finally shot by bandits. Or possibly the Soviets, who'd been enraged by his genuinely courageous exposure of Russian famine. Or possibly the Japanese, who thought he was a spy. A little over-portentous in style and distinguished by the most surreally inappropriate use of music I've encountered for months, this was nonetheless an engrossing film, a story of personal bravery and shabby intellectual betrayal by Soviet fellow-travellers, further lifted by Jones's Zelig-like brushes with Hitler, Lloyd George and William Randolph Hearst. George Carey goes further than most people to make his films and he always brings something valuable back.

twitter.com/tds153

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor