Theater of Cruelty

Ambivalent about gene manipulation

Human Nature
Regissør: Adam Bolt

GENREDIGERING / The new gene technology is putting a lot of risk on patients, parents and researchers. When letting nature take its course becomes controversial, choice itself becomes a problem.


Adam Bolts Human Nature (shown on NRK 3 December and available on NRKTV), with its many awards and awards, sails up as a definitive documentary on the new revolution within genredigering. Many have already learned the basics: CRISPR is a cut and paste technique for genes, which makes encroaching on cells' genes and the inheritance material far easier, cheaper and more accurate than anyone dared to dream 10 years ago. Do we move out on a slant if we allow for such changes, where we end up with mandatory and all-inclusive laboratory control over human reproduction? The interventions are becoming more and more precise, but the societal consequences remain unclear.

To treat gene technology in documentary format is thus a cinematic line dance, since the editing of the documentary material also allows for dangerous manipulation and unintended effects. The frame story of a boy with a hereditary blood disease is told with an impressive look for nuances. It may still seem that the main development of the film, supported by powerful musical choices in the soundtrack, is a journey from the dark nightmare of racial hygiene to the hopeful future dreams of new technology. At the same time, this progress story is portrayed with a cinematic irony and a glance for scientific excess – which incites us to skepticism without taking a clear position.

What has changed?

In fact, the film, in turn, is superb in its clarity. Technology's efficiency is illustrated and explained – and its eye-catching efficiency means that we are surprised by a future we thought would be waiting for us. The first CRISPR-edited humans have already been born in Ukraine and China. Since the legislation is up to each country, no restraint can protect us from the fact that we face a crossroads: Not only human history, but the whole history of evolution, can now be divided into time before and after man's conscious and technical evolution. Jennifer Doudna, who discovered the CRISPRcas9 technique along with Emanuelle Charpentier, has consequently called her own book on the breakthrough A Crack in Creation (2017) In the film, as in the book, she also portrays a nightmare where she meets Adolf Hitler in a conference room. He turns to her with a cool and flattering zeal: "Tell me about this wonderful technology you have discovered ”.

The problems we thought we chose in the settlement of Nazi racial hygiene now come back in the form of a thousand intrusive choices. It is relatively uncontroversial to conduct gene therapy, where we affect the body's cells to fight cancer or the like. The battle question is whether we should allow ourselves to weed out genes before children are born, and create supposed improvements that will be inherited. More than the changes of the individual, letting man take the step to become a self-modifying being, the essential.

Banalization and dramatization

A prominent bioethicist, Alta Charo, is given a striking amount of space in the film. In an indignant tone, she belittles people's anguish over genetic engineering, and delivers some hair-raising thin arguments. For example, she claims that for decades, the societal effects of gene manipulation of humans have been talked about – without these having come to fruition. Couldn't this have to do precisely with well-motivated and restrictive laws, or the fact that the technology is actually only five years old?

It's hard to understand who the irony is supposed to hit when Charo's handsome dramatizations of public skepticism are intersected with over-dramatic 1970 television appearances and scandal headlines about designer babies, accompanied by Modest Musorgsky's theatrical horror fanfare One night at Blokksberg.

Through phrases that technology is neither evil nor good, and that it depends on whoever uses them, Charo jumps over the core of the problem: that well-meaning actions can have unintended and bad effects. The fact that her self-interest and profit in medicine disguises herself as care makes the question of good intentions more complicated, and her own consultant-like statements – and the many segments she is given in the film – become correspondingly worrying.

The coincidence of nature and the plans of science

"Sex is for recreation, science is for procreation," said Stephen Hsu, founder of Genomic Prediction. Rather than beating the dice or leaving the choice of test tube embryos to chance, they can be scanned and parents can make an informed choice. There is little doubt that this is something many worried parents may wish for. We meet both parents and children who have suffered enormously from hereditary diseases and they conclude that it is inhumane not to prevent the suffering if we can. So with the new technology, we have to account for the changes we make not does.

Will we have hyper-robust super soldiers in the future, Vladimir Putin asks with genuine concern in a speech. Do we want to have children with super powers? Or mass-produced mankind people? Stephen Hsu from Genomic Prediction is in principle open minded that a free market for genetic modifications will cause parents to choose children with different characteristics. Some will emphasize the athletic, while others will prioritize intelligence or beauty – and so "a thousand flowers will flourish". What happens when children are made into goods in a product catalog or reprogrammed with a computer program? Will parents claim the right to claim?

A new creation

Towards the end of the film, a priest sermons on genre editing and asks what it means to be created in God's image – now that we increasingly seem to be playing God. The film cuts abruptly to a section featuring the most dangerous genius of gene technology, George Church – which has a large white beard that reminds him of Michelangelo's painting of the ancestor. Michelangelo's painting of creation also adorned the cover of his wild book from 2012 with the title Regenesis – How Synthetic Biology Will Transform Nature and Ourselves. The documentary follows up here, slightly ironically, with an angelic song and harp music in the soundtrack, while Church talks about how unreasonable he feels that he has already become 63 and will soon be walking the moor. He wants to use his knowledge to reverse the aging process – then he can research for another hundred years. He will also bring extinct species to life, most spectacularly among them, the mammoth. It stated the goal of the project Revive & Restore is to repair damaged ecosystems, but he does not hide that the desire to push the boundaries of what is possible is an equally strong driving force.

Trendy neutrality or exquisite ambivalence?

The film is wise in giving a voice to moderate and extreme optimists, to give a full picture of how far the development has actually come. The trend in Human Nature is, however, that the critical and pessimistic input – often in the form of eerie music and intermittent film clips – often comes from the past, from fiction films, or from non-scientific teams – as if to suggest that the objections are based on fearful fantasies or antiquated performances. The absence of strong really strong objections from the time – apart from a scanty and contextless clip by the steep critic Hille Haker – means that the film is dominated by moderate and extreme optimists. The film allows the audience to decide for themselves and we can only hope that the director does not overestimate his audience with his neutrality, which borders on the tendentious.

However, this exquisitely ambivalent film is highly successful and can hardly be accused of being frivolous. It ends in a tone of cosmic seriousness, carried by a cautiously smacking music that invites a kind of fatalistic wonder: "After two billion years of evolution we have come to the end of the beginning," we hear a voice say. So where are we going?

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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