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Sunday 8 December 2019

Human Nature, Documentary Film 2019, co-written with Regina Sobell and directed by Adam Bolt, 10* out of 10

The award-winning Human Nature is a spellbinding, entertaining, informative and moving natural science documentary about the recently discovered revolutionary CRISPR technique for targeted changes to the genes in the DNA the building block of all living things on earth. The implications are probably as far-reaching as any technology ever invented. Bolt shows through his protagonists who present CRISPR in their own words that not the subject but also the scientists dealing with it can be funny, witty, wise and moving. 

Nature or nurture is a question we ask ourselves when it comes to many human traits good or bad. To change nature is an evolutionary process taking generations, while with nurture we may such traits of individuals in their lifetime by education and upbringing at least if we get there when the individual is young. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and is pronounced “crisper”; it is a natural method bacteria have developed through evolution and used for millions of years to make themselves immune against known viruses which attack them, has the potential to turn the preceding statement on its head.

Beautifully filmed, and lucidly written by Oscar-winning director Adam Bolt and Regina Sobell, Human Nature explains in some depths the CRISPR technique and its use for targeted changes of the DNA, the building block of all living cells. As one of the highly articulate witty and engaging scientists participating in this film says: “This is going to get quite technical, but good technical” and indeed it does: there are excellent illustrations of the technical aspect of what laypersons should understand about CRISPR. And there are prize-winning scientists from top universities speaking enthusiastically about their discovery which will probably as much of an impact on our societies' future as the internet and Artificial Intelligence combined. Indeed, combined with the internet and artificial intelligence CRISPR provides us with the most profound and precise way in which we can intervene in nature at the molecular level. These scientists, some of the most important one’s young women, are articulate, witty entertaining. Jill Banfield my major contribution to science which will probably the one on my tombstone “The person who over coffee in the Berkley Free Speech Movement CafĂ© told Jennifer Doudna about an article on CRISPR she had seen in the scientific Journal”. One of the amusing aspects of its discovery is that it happened when the Yoghurt-culture-provider Danisco needed to address a problem with the Yoghurt culture bacteria it was selling to its yogurt-producing clients.

For the most part, these scientists are also thoughtful and concerned about using CRISPR carefully and responsibly in a complex and interconnected natural world. 

We also hear from a resilient and articulate youth with severe sickle cell anaemia, who now has a chance to be cured of the frequently painful disease that would cut his life short. There are some thoughtful remarks as he reflects on his life so far and on what makes him the person he is. 

And Adam Bolt also shows us business people emanating from elite universities and providing gene-editing services and working on revolutionary research for profit with great drive creativity. They are visibly having an enormous amount of fun but with the potential to get society and nature into serious trouble. The ambition of recreating the ancient woolly mammoth from antediluvian skeletons does evoke some of the more frightening scenes of the dystopic Jurassic Park.

Nature is not human, but it is human nature to want to harness nature for human wants and needs. When people do this, they are often necessarily unaware of all the consequences. We interfere in nature at our peril and create serious problems if we are not extremely careful and sometimes even when we are. 

Thanks to its clarity and its carefully chosen protagonists, Human Nature is an excellent, informative entertaining and indeed spellbinding film. The personalities of its protagonists are encapsulated in the way they speak about themselves, their work and their lives. And there is some great archive material. While the film mainly adopts a carefully optimistic stance, the dystopic potential for the future does seeps through now and again, not least when Vladimir Putin speaks to young Russians about CRISPR's potential for warfare. 

The title Human Nature contains a double meaning which is a factual statement and a warning in one. Will our human nature allow us to recognize that human interventions into the delicate interconnected system of nature can have unforeseeably dangerous consequences for the future of all living beings? 

Go see this film, if you want to learn about CRISPR and the important women and men behind it. Human Nature gives you a fascinating and entertaining introduction into the state of play of this most important of technologies. You can’t ask for much more from a natural science documentary.

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