Human Nature Review
It seems an age since we were debating the merits of whether Dolly the sheep should be cloned by scientists in a laboratory. For a while she was the world’s most famous four-legged jumper (until Shaun came along) and her creation suggested the start of a brave - if not somewhat scary - new world. Since then, genetic engineering has progressed at a rapid rate to the point where the technology is close to being 'officially' tested on people living in the West. China have already begun a number of trials and Human Nature delves into the many complex moral and ethical arguments surrounding its usage.
As director Adam Bolt’s debut documentary reminds us, manipulating DNA to alter our genetics has effectively been on the table since Dr. Josef Mengele's twisted Nazi programme. But perhaps it's not the tools that are good or evil, but the people who have access to them. Would we live in a better world if some of its most debilitating diseases could be cured? Or, once opened, will it become a Pandora’s box that could never be closed? Ultimately, who draws the line on what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to tampering with human evolution?
The task facing Bolt is a tough one, in that he has to simplify an extremely complex science into palatable terms before the moral arguments can be raised in the second half of the film. Supported by glossy photography from Derek Reich and engaging visual effects by Ben Kiviat, Human Nature succeeds in explaining how the discovery of a family of DNA sequences called CRISPR -Cas9, found inside bacteria, has proven to be a game changer in the scientific world. Put simply, it enables geneticists to precisely predict where man-made DNA sequences can be placed inside the body, giving them the ability to alter our physicality.
A number of field-leading experts fill the screen explaining the journey the scientific community have embarked on over the past few decades to reach this breakthrough. Bolt grounds these hard facts within the story of David Sanchez, a teenager with sickle cell anaemia. In America the average life expectancy of someone with the genetic disorder is somewhere in their 40s, while in Africa many children are lucky to make it beyond the age of 8. Yet despite his difficult childhood, David says he would have rather been born with sickle cell than not, as he believes it has made him the person he is today. We also hear from the Weiss family whose daughter Ruthie was born with albinism. They take a similar stance in the belief that her physical differences are advantageous to her in ways people without the congenital disorder cannot understand.
This opens up the moral implications that come with genetic engineering. Would a society that didn’t have people with needs be better or worse? Those who are not considered ‘normal’ are already stigmatised, and with the technology made widely available, would altering their DNA be the only way to gain social validation? You have probably realised by now there are a lot of questions raised in this review and that is because Human Nature doesn’t pretend to have the answers. Not even the scientists seem fully decided. And the deeper we journey into both sides of the discussion the harder it becomes to find a definitive side of the fence to stand on.
The scientists dedicated to exploring the possibilities presented by this finding also face a number of ethical conundrums. Once announced safe and ready to use, it will come with an extremely high price tag, meaning only a select few will be able to initially access it, potentially widening the class gap even further. Naturally, governments will be seduced by the idea of building super soldiers (a clip is shown of Putin talking about this, which although disturbing, is unfairly used) and parents able to design their babies from scratch. On the flipside the tech could be put to use to help climate change and solve agricultural problems. Right now, the full consequences remain unknown, but history repeatedly tells us that the advancement of our species tends to come at a cost.
A compelling point is raised in the latter stages of the film for those dead-set against the idea of tinkering with our genetic make-up. Pioneering archaeologist, Ian Hodder, recalls how humans were once in servitude to nature. We returned what we took in kind. Then we started to manipulate the land through agriculture, which became the building block of civilisation. These changers of the natural world weren’t referred to as scientists, but farmers, and we wouldn’t be here today without them. While these methods have since been abused to the point of harming the world we live in, it begs the question of whether or not our evolution depends on the implementation of this technology, despite the problems that will invariably arise in future generations.
Divided across six chapters, Bolt’s film manages to pack a lot into 90 minutes, and although he seems to sway more towards the use of the technology than not, he offers a fair representation of the concerns raised by both sides. While there is always a sense of ego that drives scientific discovery, Human Nature also displays the passion of those involved and a sensitivity towards the uncharted territory they are venturing into. In doing so, Bolt balances the factual with the emotional to produce a compelling documentary that asks us to question the essence of what it means to be human.
Human Nature plays in select cinemas from December 6. You can find out location details here.