|Run Time: 107 minutes|
Release Year: 2019
Directed by: Adam Bolt
Adam Bolt’s Human Nature opens with the montage of a young boy, David Sanchez, in a hospital in desperate need of blood transfusion. He describes how his blood contains sickle-shaped red blood cells unlike round blood cells found in a normal human being. This rather emotional scene sets the stage for a top-notch scholarly documentary, the stellar production value of which could surprise you.
Human Nature centers around the ramifications of CRISPR – a pathbreaking technology that allows scientists to edit the human genome and cure people of terminal illnesses. For many like David Sanchez, CRISPR could be a boon.
What is CRISPR and why is everyone talking about it?
CRISPR expands to Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. Essentially, it is an immune system that contains a string of repetitive DNA sequences.
In nature, CRISPR systems give immunity to bacteria from viruses. When a virus attacks our system, bacteria make a copy of the attacker and pass it on to Cas9 (CRISPR-associated protein) – a programmable RNA protein that finds and cuts DNA. It stops the invader in its tracks.
Today, with CRISPR technology, scientists can edit genomes. They can detect and fix gene mutations that cause life-threatening diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and cancer. This is where the major thrust of Human Nature lies – exploring the incredible potential of CRISPR that may go beyond human health.
Speaking of incredible possibilities, the documentary features scientists who want to use CRISPR to reverse aging, revive coral reefs and cope with climate change. If that sounds like a stretch, George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School wants to use it to bring wooly mammoths back.
To cut the long story short, this technology has the power to change the biosphere.
After hyping up the Genome sequencing and CRISPR in the first half, Human Nature takes a dystopian left turn.
Adam Bolt inserts clips of Vladimir Putin and Aldoux Huxley with the former alluding to raising a race of super-soldiers immune to pain and the latter prophesying about the terrifying possibilities of gene alteration.
The problem is that these are not just scenarios anymore. We have already ventured into this dangerous domain.
Challenges with CRISPR
Like any cutting-edge technology, CRISPR’s potential to serve mankind may get tempered with some of its alarming facets. Human Nature cites various scenarios where CRISPR can open a can of worms and result in long-lasting ill effects. However, like with most ethical dilemmas, here too, it all comes down to – where does one draw the line? How to determine that a scientific advance has become a step over the line? Some in the scientific community may have breached the line already.
In 2018, in China, the DNA of twin girls to be born was edited. First time in the history of mankind, humans edited the gene code of a future generation.
Antonio Regalado of MIT Technology Review reacts to this attempt of creating designer babies in the documentary. He remarks, “We may be creating things we can’t put back into the bottle.” George Daley, Dean of Harvard Medical School, echoes his sentiment, “CRISPR makes that original worry about engineering human heredity actually feasible.”
What do the proponents of CRISPR say?
In the final third, Bolt’s documentary introduces a host of scholars who jump to the defence of CRISPR’s dark side. Alta Charo, a Bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin sidesteps the uncertainty about genetic engineering. To her, any radical technology has critics who’d go to lengths to manufacture a bogeyman around it.
These are strong words, but they don’t alleviate the fears about some of the possibilities that could stem from CRISPR.
Soon, genome sequencing will become cheap enough, affordable enough, and accurate enough to tell you everything you want to know about your genetics. The question arises: should you mess with Mother nature by effecting a genetic change that is going to last into the next generation and forever? This is a bigger, more complicated debate, you know.
Think from the perspective of an expecting parent whose yet-to-be-born child has been diagnosed with a congenital disease. Would you even think twice before instructing your doctor to get those genetic abnormalities edited out right away? No, you won’t.
So it’s hard to decipher or take a stand or pass a value judgment on the scientists favoring such interventions. Human Nature features one such interventionist – Stephen Hsu, the co-founder of Genome Predictions, who envisions genetic alterations paving way for a smarter and more efficient population.
Even if you believe that human gene editing is not intrinsically evil, you can’t deny the perverse outcomes a free hand into this technology could lead to. For example, once the tech becomes pervasive and affordable, parents would want the best attributes for their kids. Most will choose qualities such as tall, handsome, beautiful, creative and so on. Don’t you think that it would to lead to an increasingly homogeneous society? More efficient yet boring.
For the uninitiated, this film is a great primer. It gives deep insights into gene-editing and viruses. It also sneaks a peek at designer babies, eugenics, xenotransplantation and more of such other-worldly stuff.
Some viewers may have a problem with the science-heavy approach of the documentary. Some of the technical jargon can also flummox you. Still, the informational aspect far outweighs those little niggles.
I think Human Nature does a great job of answering uncanny questions and starting a debate around some of the morally loaded circumstances that may arise in near future.
Finally, I would to cite one of the many brainy experts featured in the documentary, Fyodor Urnov. He says,
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