Review: ‘Human Nature’ (2020), starring Fyodor Urnov, Jennifer Doudna, Antonio Regalado, Jill Banfield, Alta Charo, George Daley and Stephen Hsu

March 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Human Nature” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“Human Nature” (2020)

Directed by Adam Bolt

Culture Representation: This science-intensive documentary about human genetics includes interviews with a racially diverse group of scientists, medical professionals, entrepreneurs and people affected by health conditions who are mostly in the United States.

Culture Clash: The ethical dilemmas over altering human genetics continue to be debated in scientific communities.

Culture Audience: “Human Nature” will appeal mostly to people who like documentaries that go into great details about human genetics, but the movie might bore other people who have no interest in this topic.

A visual representation of Cas9 in “Human Nature” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

Should people have the right to alter their own genetics? And should they also have the right to decide how their children will be genetically engineered? Those are the dilemmas presented in the fascinating but very slow-paced documentary “Human Nature,” which bites off a lot more than it ends up chewing.

The movie (directed by Adam Bolt) ambitiously examines this very broad and wide-reaching issue by taking a deep dive into all the scientific breakthroughs and progress that have had led up to where scientists are now—having the capability to alter human genes before someone is born. It’s a step that most medical professionals aren’t willing to take yet on humans (it’s been done for years on plants and non-human animals), but the step has reportedly already been taken with unidentified twin girls born in China in 2018, according to the documentary’s epilogue.

Most of the documentary’s experts believe it’s only a matter of time when genetic engineering will become a possibly widespread option that people will take for themselves and for their unborn children. Whether it’s genetic cloning, selecting the genetic qualities that a living being should have, or removing unwanted genetic qualities, it’s now possible for science to do this on humans.

The movie goes into a lot of detail about how the family of DNA sequences known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is the key to the science of altering genetics/DNA in humans. Cas9 (an immune-system protein that helps bacteria fight off DNA viruses) is also mentioned as extremely important in the area of genetic altering that aims to get rid of genes that cause health problems. Without going into all the details that the movie does, the simplest way to put it is that CRISPR is a DNA system that can be programmed to prevent viruses from attacking the immune system, and Cas9 is like the “police inspector” for the system.

But instead of spending so much time covering the “how” of altering human genetics, “Human Nature” should’ve spent more time covering the “why” and answered this question: “What are we going to do about it, now that it’s already happened?” The fact that human genetic engineering is no longer science fiction and there are already at least two known genetically altered people who are living right now (something that should’ve been mentioned in the beginning of the film, not the end) makes much of this documentary look like a long-winded science lecture.

For example, the documentary explains that most people who want to alter human genetics have two main motivations: (1) to stop or prevent life-threatening diseases and (2) to pick and choose which types of genetic qualities they want for themselves or their children. The first reason doesn’t present as many ethical dilemmas as the second reason.

But even the first reason prompts a major question which the documentary doesn’t adequately address: If genetic alterations can get rid of genes that cause life-threatening illnesses, then that will result in millions and possibly billions more people who can live longer and healthier lives. But is planet Earth prepared for this massive surge in the world’s population? Are there enough resources in the world to sustain this population?

Scientists have been warning that Earth is already overpopulated. Experts are predicting that by the end of the 21st century, the world’s environment and resources will reach dangerous levels of depletion, based on how things are going now. It’s one thing to tout these genetic breakthroughs that will help millions or billions of people live longer. It’s another thing to look at the long-term consequences and discuss how or if the world is prepared for these consequences. Unfortunately, “Human Nature” missed this opportunity by focusing more on the “cause” than the “effect.” (It’s ironic, considering that “Human Nature” is a movie about scientific research, and the “cause and effect” rule is a basic rule of scientific research.)

To its credit, “Human Nature” has an impressive list of people who are interviewed, even if the documentary is a little too overstuffed with these talking heads and should have interviewed at least a few experts in population science. The documentary’s talking heads include Harvard Medical School dean George Daley; Fyodor Urnov of the Innovative Genomics Institute; University of Wisconsin at Madison bioethicist Alta Charo; and University of California at Berkeley scientists Jennifer Doudna (a biochemist) and Jill Banfield (a microbiologist).

Also interviewed are Jorge Piedrahita, who works in transitional medicine at North Carolina State University; Harvard University geneticist George Church; Max Planck Institute biochemist Emmanuelle Charpentier; the Broad Institute bioengineer Feng Zhang; Stanford University sickle-cell researcher Matt Porteus; University of Alicante microbiologist Francisco Mojca; MIT Technology Review reporter Antonio Regalado; and Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder.

“Human Nature” does a great job of illustrating (with eye-catching graphics) a lot of the science that’s discussed in the movie. It’s a big help for people who are not scientists. But it won’t be a big help for people who don’t want to feel like they’re stuck in a biology class, because much of the documentary looks like something that would be shown in a school.

“Human Nature” (which is divided into six chapters) also could’ve been edited with better focus. The documentary jumps around from profiling a young sickle-cell anemia patient in the beginning of the film, and then goes into a very long section with the talking heads discussing CRISPR and genetic research. Somewhere in the middle of that, the movie introduces viewers to a couple who has an albino daughter. And then toward the end, the documentary finally explores what should have been the movie’s focus all along: How and why will this genetic science effect the world’s population?

UC Berkeley’s Banfield gives one of the more memorable quotes in the documentary when she says that she sometimes has a nightmare where she dreams that she’s met Hitler, who asks her: “So, tell me how Cas9 works.” Banfield says, “I wake up thinking, ‘Oh my God! What have I done?'” It’s that very real possibility that human genetic alteration will be used for nefarious purposes which is keeping it from being a mass-market science for now.

However, “Human Nature” does interview people who’ve started businesses that are involved in pushing research for human genetic altering for the greater good. They include Synthego co-founders Paul and Michael Dabrowski; Genomia Prediction founder Stephen Hsu; and eGenesis co-founder Luhan Yang.

Of these entrepreneurs who are interviewed in the documentary, Hsu seems to be the most eager to make this science available to the general public. On the one hand, he says it’s “insanity” to think that people might use this science with Hitler-like intentions. On the other hand, he also freely admits in the documentary that people who want to alter genetics on others (their own children, for example) will usually gravitate to choosing genetic qualities that will make the genetically altered people look more like them.

Unfortunately, the movie barely acknowledges what it would mean if humans could preserve DNA of dead people and use that DNA later. (It sounds creepy, but that’s a dark side to this genetic science that “Human Nature” doesn’t really mention it at all.) And the movie only scratches the surface of what the long-term consequences would be if people use science to mess with the natural evolution of the human race. Likewise, the issue of genetic alteration being available to only those who can afford it is briefly mentioned but not adequately explored.

Ultimately, “Human Nature” excels if you want to know the details about what goes on in the science labs that are part of this groundbreaking research. However, the movie falls short if you’re the type of person who wants to know how this research is going to apply to the real world, not only today but also for decades to come.

Greenwich Entertainment released “Human Nature” in select U.S. theaters, on digital and on VOD on March 13, 2020.