Adam Bolt’s new documentary, Human Nature, watches a bit like prequel to dystopian science fiction. His cameras tells of the rise of CRISPR. What is CRISPR, you might ask? Don’t worry, the film explains that. The acronym stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. What it is, is a revolutionary new development in genetic manipulation, one that has epic, sprawling, far-reaching implications across numerous fields.
This technology could be used to delete genes that cause everything from sickle-cell anemia to predispositions for cancer and other diseases. Scientists may be able to re-engineer the environment, resurrect the Wooly Mammoth, or design a custom baby. You can edit out cancer, pain receptors, and maybe even personality traits eventually. To paraphrase one interviewee, we haven’t even begun to imagine the possibilities. It’s fascinating stuff for sure, with the potential to do incredible good for the world. And as usual with new technology, major potential for abuse also exists.
Out of the gate, Human Nature delves into the specifics of CRISPR; what it is, how it was developed, tracking it’s story and interviewing the scientists involved in the process. Bolt and company do a solid job laying out the topic and making it accessible for laypeople. I don’t entirely grasp it on a technical level, but they generally show what it is, how it works, and what it does. Then the film dives into the various applications and ethical ramifications on both sides of the issue.
Human Nature is by turns awe-inspiring and chilling. Looking at the possible uses, it’s like, damn, this might very literally reshape the world. And as some people point out, it’s the ways in which this might reshape the world that give them pause. The film never takes a side, presenting differing viewpoints, letting the various players state their case.
We hear the Jurassic Park, just because they can, doesn’t mean they should, argument. Some people point to the potential to eradicate disease and save lives, among other positive impacts. Still others invoke Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where you can wholly engineer your children to be smart or athletic or left-handed or whatever you want. To be honest, both sides bring up that idea, though each has a distinctly different view on whether or not that’s good or bad. Whatever your stance, whether you see this advance as playing god and interfering with nature, or a logical next step for humanity and an overwhelming positive, it’s hard to watch Vladimir Putin talk about armies of super soldiers who feel no pain and not get the willies.
While it’s all big-idea, heady stuff, Human Nature also puts a human face to the topic. Among the various scientists and experts, Bolt intersperses the story of a young boy name David with sickle-cell, a condition that could potentially be done away with by using CRISPR. This is someone who could directly benefit from this technology in a concrete way and present a real person, not a theoretical argument. And though he’s young, David has what may be the most insightful take on the whole matter.
Perhaps not the most thrilling subject for everyone, Human Nature offers a fascinating, timely look at a breaking technological advancement and a field that has the potential to be hugely important very soon. For good or ill, this isn’t the last you’ve heard of CRISPR. [Grade: B]
Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an earlier review.
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