For those of us who work in or around science and medicine, it’s easy to forget how little the average American knows or understands about basic scientific facts, let alone the process of scientific research. That’s where films like Human Nature come in: they’re the equivalent of popular science books, presenting basic knowledge in an attractive package that not only holds the viewer’s attention, but helps that knowledge to stick. Human Nature also performs another, equally important task—in a time when scientific expertise is regularly denigrated (witness the bungled American response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the disrespect meted out to people who actually know what they’re talking about in this regard), it explains why the work of science is important, and how our lives are better for it.
Human Nature, directed by Adam Bolt, is centered around discussion of CRISPR, a technique that allows modification of the genetic sequence in living organisms. That may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s already been applied in plants, and clinical trials are underway to test its effectiveness in treating specific human diseases. One of those diseases is sickle-cell anemia, which (as everyone who has taken Biology 101 knows) is a recessive disease caused by a single mutation in the genetic code. Rather than hit you up front with the technical details, however, Human Nature wisely begins its story with someone you immediately care about—a charming young man named David Sanchez, whom we meet in the hospital where he’s being treated for that very disease. David immediately complicates the story—certainly there are disadvantages to having sickle-cell anemia, on the other hand, he says, “I don’t think I’d be me if I didn’t have sickle cell.” Similar sentiments have been raised by other people sometimes regarded as problems that need fixing—from the deaf to the neurodiverse—and this film takes the time to consider multiple sides of the issues raised.
To that end, Human Nature gives voice to a diversity of opinions, including some that may make you think twice about the wisdom of editing human genetic material, particularly in the germ cells which transmit traits to one’s children. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World gets its moment, and Vladimir Putin pops up to share his opinion that it would be great to bioengineer people to order—this one a mathematical genius, that one a talented musician, and those soldiers who are impervious to fear or pain. Just when you’re thinking it may be time to put the genie back in the bottle and secure the cork firmly, bioethicist Alta Charo injects a little sanity into the discussion, noting that it’s not the tool that determines the result, but what we as human beings choose to do with it.
Above all, Human Nature is an inspiring film. Kids who already love science will find themselves even more enthused after watching it, and those who haven’t previously shown an interest may well find themselves wanting to learn more. Adults who already follow the latest science news can enjoy the attractive presentation of concepts already familiar to them, while those for whom the scientific process is a foreign way of thinking may come away with an appreciation of what science is and the role it can play in our world. | Sarah Boslaugh
The planned theatrical release of Human Nature was delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but due to its timely nature this film been made available for home viewing on Amazon, Apple/iTunes, and other platforms: you can find the current list by search on ReelGood.com.