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Review: Human Nature

October 4, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The possibilities of human genome editing through the discovery of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a specific family of DNA sequences, are explored in director Adam Bolt’s documentary Human Nature, which looks at the possibilities of a future where diseases or even certain traits could be cut out of our genetic code by literally altering our DNA.

Through interviews with a variety of scientists and researchers who are looking at using the protein Cas9, an enzyme that can alter DNA sequences, to perform gene editing therapies, as well as some of the individuals who would be most impacted by these discoveries, the film looks at this issue from multiple perspectives and angles.

The most well known of the academic subjects is probably the geneticist George Church, who has gotten media attention for wanting to clone and bring back wooly mammoths. On the personal side of things, we are introduced to David Sanchez, a boy with sickle cell anemia who has learned to live with the blood disorder, but could potentially be cured in the future through gene editing; as well as parents Ethan and Ruthie Weiss, who have a daughter with albinism and impaired vision who they have come to accept and love, but fear they would have chosen to abort her if they had found out about her disorder in utero.

The ethics of using genetically altered pigs to grow human organs and tissue for transplants is also brought up, as well as the particular risks of germline editing, that is to alter someone’s genetic code so that any changes will be passed down to their biological children as well. While there are some positive implications for all of this research, including the potential to cure cancer and other deadly diseases, the technology is also quite scary when it comes to the possibility of creating “designer babies” with parents being able to choose what traits they want for their kids while editing out anything that they consider abnormal, in a way that is eerily similar to eugenics.

Physicist and researcher Stephen Hsu is interviewed in the film, and he talks in a really chilling way about the economic potential of increasing productivity by raising the collective IQ through eliminating things like Down syndrome, either through gene editing or early testing so parents can abort. Bolt makes the very interesting cinematic choice to play part of an old Nazi propaganda film about eugenics during his interview, and the similarities are striking. Hsu of course denies this charge, but it’s hard not to see the comparisons between what he is saying and Adolf Hitler’s goal of creating a “master race.”

It’s this important moral debate about the ethics of removing things seen as “defects” from our DNA sequences that ultimately provides the most engaging and challenging part of Human Nature. The film offers a lot of science, but it’s done in a very engaging way, providing a fascinating and also somewhat terrifying glimpse into what the future could hold in terms of gene editing.

Human Nature is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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