We live in a time when science and technology are having an impact on our society in more and more ways. And the decisions that shape how these new fields of knowledge develop ultimately affect all of us.
When I studied biology in high school, I didn’t learn about DNA for a very simple reason. The work of Francis Crick, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin and others who unlocked the structure of the basic code of life was still years away. The idea of engineering human beings? Well, that was firmly the stuff of science fiction, like Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World (published a year after my birth). It seemed as likely as, say, going to the moon.
There are a few inferences you can make from this framing of my life. One is that I have been on the planet for a while. The other is the speed of change in what we know about what life is, and how we can control it, has accelerated at a rapid rate. Now we as a species are on the precipice of being able to manipulate the very building blocks of human evolution, not to mention wield unpredictable change on the greater world around us. Even as I commit that thought to paper, I pause in awe at its implications.
I have lived through eventful times and my job as a journalist has been to chronicle wars, presidents and sweeping social movements such as civil rights. I have seen a world in flux, but when I try to peer into the future I come to the conclusion that this story of humankind’s ability to understand life on its most intimate level and be able to tinker with it for our benefit or detriment is likely to be the biggest one I will ever cover.
We are living in one of the greatest epochs of human exploration and it will shape our world as profoundly as the age of the transoceanic explorers. It is just that the beachheads on which we are landing and the continents we are mapping comprise a world far too small to see with the naked eye. Some of it is even invisible to our most powerful microscopes.
This brings me to a term that has become a big part of my life over the last few years: Crispr. Perhaps you know of it. Perhaps you don’t. When I first heard of it, I thought it might be a new brand of toaster. I now know it’s an extremely powerful tool for editing genes in seemingly any organism on Earth, including humans. Scientists doing basic research have been uncovering the mechanisms of life for decades. They have been creating tools for modifying individual genes but Crispr is one of those revolutions where what researchers thought might be possible in the distant horizon is suddenly available now. It’s cheap, it’s relatively simple and it’s remarkably precise.
I immediately knew that this was a story that needed telling. Human Nature, the resulting film – full disclosure, I am executive producer – came out of our conversations with scientists. They tend not to be the type of people who hype things but when they talk about Crispr you can feel the urgency in their voices. This is something you need to know about. All of you. If you are worried about your health or the health of your children. If you are concerned about how we might need to engineer our planet in the face of the climate crisis. If you are in finance, law or the world of tech. This will shape all of it.
And as we grapple with the unintended consequences of the internet and social media, as we try to make progress against a heating planet, I humbly submit that we as a species tend not to be good at thinking through where we are going until a crisis is already upon us. I fervently hope with Crispr that we can start the conversation sooner. That we can start it now. That’s why we made the film.
To be clear, we are probably a long way from designing babies to be more intelligent or more musically inclined. Life is just too complex for that, at least right now. More immediately, there is so much about this technology that is very exciting. As someone who remembers a time when my classmates were struck down with childhood diseases for which we now have vaccines, I know science can have profound applications for human health. Crispr could cure genetic diseases such as sickle cell and Huntington’s. It is being tested against cancers and HIV. It could also potentially be used to make crops more drought-resistant or food more nutritious.
On the other hand, we are walking closer to a world Aldous Huxley foresaw. What does it mean to be human? Where should we draw the boundaries beyond which we dare not cross? The inspiring researchers we talked to for the film know that the ethical and moral questions this technology raises are not for them to decide. Science has given us the tools, but not the answers. This is up to us, all of us. We need to be informed. We need to be honest with what’s real and what’s not. And we need to add our voices to a global conversation. That’s part of our responsibility as humans living on Earth today.
Dan Rather is one of the US’s most feted journalists. He anchored CBS Evening News for 24 years
Human Nature is in UK cinemas now before a university town tour in the new year, wondercollaborative.org/human-nature-documentary-film/#screenings . It will be shown on BBC Storyville in spring/summer 2020