SXSW 2019 Review: Human Nature
By Andrea Thompson
It's very telling that the documentary “Human Nature” begins by trying to give us a sense of perspective. Through the use of old black and white footage, a scientist discusses how all of our discoveries have taken place in a fraction of the time it took to make canyons. Think 100,000 years versus billions. In the time it took to make one foot, our entire history occurred. It is also through him that “Human Nature” posits its central thesis, which is how the new technology it discusses is “awesome in its potential for deliverance, or equally, for disaster.”
This attitude is one most of the scientists share even as the doc presents the arguments and progress of a very recent breakthrough called CRISPR, which gives us unprecedented control over our DNA. Not only that, we can apparently now do it with an ease and lack of expense that would've been unthinkable even a few years ago. The topic is actually surprisingly dull as “Human Nature” insists on going into detail about how this process works, but things liven up considerably once it gets to all the implications.
All of this has been discussed before, but what once was potential is now possibility. The kind that now would allow people to be manufactured to do a specific job, which was the stuff of dystopian sci-fi such as “Brave New World.” Altering people might even become job requirements in the future. Should the DNA of air traffic controllers be changed so they could run on four hours of sleep? Should those of Special Forces to make them immune to pain, and thus able to withstand torture? More benevolently, should they be changed for cancer patients to ease their suffering? As Putin said in a clip when he discussed engineering ideal musicians, mathematicians and soldiers who can fight without fear, “What I have said may be more terrifying than a nuclear bomb.”
The goal for “Human Nature” however, is less hysterics than nuance. The age-old questions of playing god aren't new, just more urgent. The doc is quick to point out that much of what we regard as the natural world is in fact man-made, especially in regards to agriculture, which altered the face of the environment. If many people who are already involved in genetic engineering completely dismiss its potential for eugenics, “Human Nature” does not, even if it skips how these new discoveries could sharpen class differences in our already divided age. Are the rich on their way to literally being a different species?
But then, as Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a self-professed believer of the '“Star Trek” vision of progress' pointed out, people have never needed technology to commit evil. “Human Nature” also mentioned the failure of what was dubbed the “Nobel Prize sperm bank.” Turned out, most women were willing to accept imperfections as long as the donor looked like their partner. As the documentary goes on, it becomes more of an exploration of what humans actually value, which turns out to be a complicated question.
What kinds of prejudices will be passed down with our DNA as we grow more intolerant of imperfection? A kid with sickle cell anemia spoke equally of the pain he went through yet had no desire to wish he never had the disease that used to be a death sentence. The parents of a girl with a vision disorder spoke worryingly of how attitudes towards people with different needs would change. If traits we value are still the most genetically complex, we're still a long way from building the ideal human being. But as “Human Nature” points out, we are at the end of the beginning, for better or for worse though it may be.