By Alison Roth
Teenager David Sanchez suffers from sickle cell disease, an incurable genetic blood disorder that causes pain, frequent infections and other complications. What if, an interviewer asks Sanchez, a simple technology could erase it from his DNA?
Sanchez pauses for a moment. “I don’t think I’d be me if I didn’t have sickle cell,” he replies.
Sanchez’s words personify the ethical dilemma presented in the 2019 science documentary Human Nature, now available through libraries subscribing to Academic Video Online or ProQuest One Academic.
The film, directed by Adam Bolt, explores the breakthrough gene-editing technology called CRISPR, which opens the door to a world of possibilities, some only seen in science-fiction novels: eliminating disease, reshaping the biosphere, even creating designer children. Through interviews with scientists, bioethicists, journalists, parents and patients, the film asks its viewers a provocative question: will engineering our DNA give us a better future?
That answer is left to the audience. And that was precisely the goal, said Elliot Kirschner, who executive-produced the film alongside Greg Boustead and renowned television journalist Dan Rather.
“Some documentary films are polemical, pushing people towards a specific action or belief,” Kirschner said in an interview with ProQuest. “But with Human Nature, our hope was that everyone would be challenged. No matter where you come from or what you believe, when you’re presented with knowledge and viewpoints, the goal is to adapt and to engage, not to retreat. This film can be used to spark all sorts of conversations.”
An Emmy-winning producer whose credits include 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning, Kirschner got involved in this film to give more airtime to the often-overlooked process of scientific discovery. The CRISPR idea came from a Dan Rather interview with Jennifer Doudna, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Emmanuelle Charpentier and is prominently featured in Human Nature.
“We thought, wow, this is really big,” said Kirschner, who has collaborated with Rather for decades. “Scientists often downplay things; they don’t want to feed into hype. But when we started hearing more about [CRISPR], even normally cautious scientists said ‘this really is that big.’ We wanted to take this topic and show that something you might see in a headline has all these tendrils of origin.”
The Human Nature team made a conscious decision to tell the story through the eyes of those involved, which is why there is no narrator and why the cast speaks directly into the camera – and directly to the viewer.
“We’re living in a time where science is under assault in many ways, where people are questioning expertise,” Kirschner said. “There’s a whole culture around science that needs to be demystified. By letting people tell their own parts of the story…I think we were successful in conveying the science and the ethics and the other issues through people who know it best.”
Documentaries like Human Nature are being increasingly used in both live and virtual classrooms. They encourage critical thinking and important discussion, and they give viewers a direct line to the experts. This film is ideal for science classes – but clearly, the questions it poses reach far beyond the lab.
What if something goes wrong and leads to the development of a more serious disease? What if parents-to-be can create children who are not just healthier, but also smarter, taller or stronger? And what if this technology is accessible only to those with money, further deepening society’s already-growing class divide?
These questions span many disciplines, and Kirschner said they’ve seen an interest in Human Nature from legal, business and social-justice programs. The film also helps break down stereotypes about what it means to be a scientist, a researcher, or even someone suffering from a genetic disease. It features people from all fields and backgrounds and focuses on a myriad of conditions. “Not everyone will be a scientist,” said Kirschner, “but at some point, everyone will be a patient.”
(For more on diversity in science, check out another Kirschner-produced film, Picture a Scientist, coming soon to Academic Video Online and ProQuest One Academic.)
Kirschner said the process of making Human Nature felt like being back in school, when you discover a topic and really open yourself up to new ways of thinking. “It’s okay to be conflicted,” he said. “There’s often no right answer and you need to weigh different interests."
The film features prominent scientists who are passionate about CRISPR, but balances these views by including patients like Sanchez, and Palmer Weiss, whose daughter Ruthie was born with albinism and worries where scientists should “draw the line” when trying to edit out genetic abnormalities.
One of the film’s most outspoken interviewees is Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Near the end of the film, she assuages the fear that society will use CRISPR to create a dystopian future.
When given the chance, she said, most people prefer to have a child that resembles their partner – flaws and all. “Every change does come with risks that you’ll make changes you didn’t intend,” said Charo. “I think it would a be a long, long time before you would take that risk for anything other than something that was pretty significant.”