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Family's sad saga burdens Nova's exploration of genetics

This is an age of genetic idealism. We still know precious little about our DNA, but we can glimpse enough to fantasize that dread diseases could have simple cures -- that benevolent mutations, a la "X-Men" and "Heroes," could turn out to be our salvation. That could be why the producers of "Family That Walks on All Fours , " the Nova documentary that premieres tonight at 8, keep referring to their subjects as "extraordinary."

It sounds like the stuff of joy and wonder. But the Ulas family, from rural southern Turkey, has one of the sadder stories imaginable. The parents are near cousins, and five of their 17 children share the same strange genetic disorder. They lack the ability to balance on two legs, so they walk using both palms and feet, their buttocks raised uncomfortably into the air, as if they've taken a yoga move and made it ambulatory.

They're also mentally disabled and hopelessly poor. And that last fact might be their biggest challenge.

Billed as a mystery of science, "Family That Walks on All Fours" begins with a false premise: One Turkish scientist's notion that the siblings represented "backward evolution," a case of missing links, in the modern-day flesh. This theory, it turns out, has been roundly repudiated. Still, many scientists have found, in the Ulases' predicament, a window into the role genes play in human development.

As such, the film makes for a cogent primer into human genome research. But at its heart, this is a story less about the genes themselves than about how genetics can intersect with culture. The most compelling footage is the hardest to watch: the way the Ulases are ostracized by their neighbors, the lack of power they've had to help themselves. Their society exists in a sort of pre-Scopes Monkey Trial state, led by a fundamentalist brand of Islam that says humans are descended straight from Adam and Eve. Any aberration must be God's will, a burden to be accepted.

Thus, it never occurred to the Ulas parents to seek medical help. Until recently, the siblings never used walkers or practiced with parallel bars. Genetics became their destiny, but it didn't have to be. As a British psychologist points out, a Western child with this affliction would have been rushed to physical therapy and promised a partial cure. Even, presumably, a child whose parents believed in Adam and Eve.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at She blogs at

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