Human Nature


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Human Nature
"Neatly put together, accessible and smart, Human Nature spends only a small portion of its running time mired in the usual debates, getting beyond them to explore much more interesting areas."

What do you know about CRISPR gene editing? Faced with this question, the average viewers may well think 'not very much' but as Adam Bolt's documentary quickly makes clear the chances are that you've already engaged in debates about it and you may well have wondered about it potential to improve your health or that of people close to you. The first section of the film provides a summary of how it works - one that should succeed in getting the main points across to you even if you have little in the way of scientific education. What follows is an exploration of its social meaning and discussion of how - and if - we should seek to regulate it.

The most challenging thing for a documentary like this to get across - and something Bolt just relatively well - is just what a big deal CRISPR is. One speaker compares it to the internet. Although there is a risk that films like this will leave viewers unprepared for the vast amount of work that needs to be done before it can be used effectively to cure or prevent most genetic diseases, it's fair to say that this is the biggest medical breakthrough we have made to date as a species, giving us the potential to engineer virtually anything at this basic level. In fact, the point that communicates this most effectively to those with some bioscience background is perhaps one whose significance was invisible at the time the film was put together: the mention, in passing, that we can identify and edit a gene called CRR5, best known for the resistance it provides (in one variant form) to HIV, but which has also been shown in the lab to provide some resistance to coronaviruses.

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Ethical concerns around gene editing are initially raised through reference to Brave New World, which may have been pertinent in its time but now seems a little too easy to dismiss in light of the directions the science has taken - we are, at any rate, very far from creating designer humans for any purpose, no matter what Vladimir Putin may hint at here. It might have been more useful to go back to HG Wells and his Morlocks and Eloi, because if there's one concern that doesn't get enough room to breathe here it's the danger of entrenched class privilege, which is looked at only in individual terms and not in systemic ones.

Popular yet intrinsically silly notions like the idea of creating people who can't feel pain are neatly put in their place with cautionary anecdotes. It's a shame to see time wasted on equally daft fantasies abut the risk of people cloning Hitler (even experts in the field apparently struggle to remember that genotype does not equal phenotype) and the idea that we need to suffer to learn is let off lightly for what seem to be sentimental reasons (notwithstanding that into each life some rain will always fall), but for the most part this film is sharper and better reasoned than most of its peers, not least because 90% of the participants are directly involved in genetic work. It is refreshing to see much of the basis of popular moral panic about the subject soundly demolished, and the notorious "they could... they didn't stop to think if they should" clip from Jurassic Park is featured only so that it can be given the response it deserves. No, we should not condemn people to succumb to vicious brain diseases in the prime of life simply because making velociraptors is a tad risky - it is not obligatory to do all or nothing.

Neatly put together, accessible and smart, Human Nature spends only a small portion of its running time mired in the usual debates, getting beyond them to explore much more interesting areas. It includes some good bits of animated material which help to clarify the science for beginners and it opens up the subject in a way that makes room for new questions and a proper appreciation of the breadth of possibilities that lie before us.

Reviewed on: 20 Mar 2020
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A consideration of gene-editing technology.
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