‘We have a revolution going on. We’ve never had a revolution like this. The closest we’ve come is maybe the Internet,” says the Harvard geneticist George Church. For a change, the word “revolution” is the apt one for what he’s discussing. Buckle your seatbelts for what’s about to occur.
Church is one of many scientists and ethicists who walk us through the mind-boggling scientific advances in gene-editing described in the documentary Human Nature, an intensely engaging and important documentary. Thanks to a DNA sequence called CRISPR that was discovered in the process of finding ways to make the bacteria in yogurt resist destruction by virus, imperfections can now be edited out of our genes. Starting with a single heartbreaking case of genetic malady, that of a Bay Area boy named David Sanchez afflicted with sickle-cell anemia, this wondrous and provocative film uses elegantly designed digital imagery to illustrate how genetic mutations can be repaired by cutting out the faulty code and replacing it with a flawless one. The applications are of such a scale that the word “colossal” seems inadequate. Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, one of the key figures in the new science, notes that mastering genetic codes “fundamentally allows us to change our relationship with nature. It actually allows us to change human evolution if we want to.”
What if you could edit out mutations that cause breast cancer or Alzheimer’s? Moreover, science can even fix the “germlines,” meaning you could remove the threat of a genetic disorder such as hemophilia for all of your descendants. An impossibly young woman named Luhan Yang, a co-founder of the firm eGenesis, is altering the genes of pigs so that their organs might be transplanted into humans in dire need of a kidney or lung. She has wittily named a trial pig “Laika,” after the first dog in space, but unlike man’s extraterrestrial adventures, this generation’s scientific breakthrough seems likely to yield something considerably more important than Tang and moon rocks.
Adam Bolt, the director and co-writer of the documentary, nails the scientific aspects of the story, making them easily digestible yet mind-blowing in interludes set to stirring classical music, and even the talking heads he consults to explain lab work are endearingly wacky and memorable. Some of these people are, however, engaged in troubled soul-searching. Doudna, who co-wrote a landmark paper on gene-editing, had a chilling dream in which Adolf Hitler asked her to explain her research. Bolt includes a clip of Vladimir Putin musing about the possibility of creating super-soldiers. Scientists have already identified the DNA mutation that blocks pain receptors. What might happen if we could eliminate a person’s pain? On one end is what Putin dreams of, but on the other are terminal-cancer patients, who suffer unimaginably. Who would deny people in extremis the opportunity to conclude their lives without pain? Should we not even try for this breakthrough because some might misuse nature’s hidden code? And who is “we,” anyway? In 2018 scientists in China genetically altered the embryos of twin girls. Regardless of what American science does with gene-splicing, China is going to move full-speed ahead.
And CRISPR has been there the whole time, waiting for man to discover it, like everything else we’ve discovered. Geneticists altered the tomato, once a bitter thing the size of a pea, to make it a large, appealing fruit; these geneticists are known as “farmers.” Man’s entire history has been a tale of taking advantage of nature for good and ill.
Yet the stakes are about to be so much higher. Leaving aside super-soldiers, should gene-splicing be used in ways that could be considered frivolous? Blonde hair, blue eyes, math ability, height—what is frivolous, anyway? Toward the end of the movie, Bolt pivots back to Sanchez, an insightful kid whose disease figures to end his life before he turns 50. “I don’t think I’d be me if I didn’t have sickle-cell,” he says. We also meet a couple whose child was born with albinism and a resulting visual impairment; they have learned to appreciate certain aspects of what the mutation has done to their daughter, who seems delightful and happy.
Human difference, even to some extent human imperfection, would be a terrible thing to lose, and yet all technology is what you make of it. Perhaps, as one scientist muses, all of human history to this moment has merely brought us to the end of the beginning. Yep, there’s a clip from Jurassic Park in Human Nature. The questions raised by Jeff Goldblum in Dinosaurland are no longer matters for a future generation to mull.