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Slick visuals and compelling interviews render gene editing intelligible to nonexperts

Human Nature

Adam Bolt, director
Wonder Collaborative
2019
107 minutes

If you could cure a child suffering from sickle cell anemia, would you? This is the question at the center of Human Nature, a new documentary directed by Adam Bolt about the revolutionary gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. The documentary is visually stunning, thought-provoking, informative, and tightly focused on human health—which means that there are a few pieces missing from the overall picture.

The film packs a visual punch that adds to both the edification and entertainment of the audience. Comparing the technology to a word processor (an analogy made more effective by a simulated cursor), it is an amalgamation of visuals worthy of a nature documentary; slick digital illustrations; and clear, well-placed interviews with a cast of dynamic characters, including Rodolphe Barrangou, Jennifer Doudna, and Francisco Mojica.

The documentary focuses primarily on the potential benefits and dangers of human gene editing and human gene drives, although it skews toward the technology’s advantages. A shot of Russian President Vladimir Putin claiming that genetic engineering will allow us to make super soldiers immune to pain and fear is chilling, for example, but watching as a child sits through one of countless blood transfusions to manage his sickle cell anemia—a condition that could potentially be cured with CRISPR—gives viewers the sense that the pros will outweigh the cons.

So what can be done with gene editing? George Church’s quixotic quest to bring back the woolly mammoth illustrates the ambitious scale of some scientists’ hopes. But it is Church’s former postdoc, Luhan Yang—whose CRISPR-edited pigs (with a stunning 62 edits with no off-target effects) could soon provide organs for successful xenotransplantation—that illustrates where we are now: on the cusp of something monumental. We may soon be able to harness this technology to fundamentally change the way the human genome interacts with nature, virtually eliminating natural selection pressures of disease and the vagaries of random mutation.

As a tool for science, CRISPR represents a paradigm shift. As a policy question, it is quicksand. What happens to humanity if we no longer leave genetics up to chance? Are we capable of making smart decisions with our genetic futures? Should we be allowed to make changes to germ line cells—changes that will be passed on to future generations—or should we limit treatments to somatic cells only? And who has the right to make these decisions? Bioethicist Alta Charo guides the audience through these questions but ultimately gives few answers, allowing viewers to sort out for themselves what is acceptable and where we should draw the line.

Even the film’s protagonist David, the child with sickle cell anemia, makes the answers difficult. Despite his medical struggle and the promise of an easy fix through CRISPR, the young man is not sure that we ought to be pursuing such interventions. Without sickle cell, he says, he would not be him. Who is he to make that decision for future generations?

Of great interest to the filmmakers is the topic of eugenics as it relates to parents’ desires for “better” offspring. References to the Nazis and to Brave New World remind viewers that we are more than our genetics. But Stephen Hsu is skeptical that people would want to create a world full of blond-haired, blue-eyed athletes. He thinks that parents would instead elect to create sons and daughters that are more like themselves: physically attractive people will want beautiful children, intelligent people will want smart children, etc. “There will be a wide range of what people think is the right thing to select for, or engineer for,” he argues, “and actually there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Ultimately, however, the documentary falls short in scope. It touches only briefly on nonhuman applications of CRISPR, leaving viewers without an appreciation of the benefits and dangers posed by environmental gene drives, which could irrevocably alter local environments and the planet as a whole.

Still, Human Nature is well worth seeing for those looking to gain a better understanding of gene editing science and for those interested in meeting the people who are determining the arc of our genetic future. As with all science media, it should be ingested with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism.

***

Note: A previous version of this review included reference to a scene that appeared in the festival cut of the film. This scene has been removed in advance of the film’s theatrical release.

About the author

The reviewer is at Winkleman Consulting, Washington, DC 20002, USA.