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New documentary on evolution spotlights several local experts

Halifax writer and director Christine McLean explores evolutionary science and what people will possibly look like in the future with her documentary, 'The New Human'
TNH-Peggy's Cove,NS (Tamara Franz-Odendaal, Evolutionary developmental biologist)
Mount Saint Vincent University's Dr. Tamara Franz-Odendaal being interviewed for the documentary, 'The New Human'

A local filmmaker has investigated what humans will look like in the future.

Christine McLean’s new documentary The New Human aims to take viewers on a journey into evolutionary science with the experts and statisticians who study the ways in which humankind will biologically develop in the days to come.

“I have a high degree of interest in the natural world, and so what intrigued me about what’s happening with human beings is that we have this in common with the rest of the natural world,” says the Halifax-based filmmaker about her latest documentary.

“We all are impacted by what’s going on around us and we’re impacted in the same way in that we’re all subject to the process of evolution.”

With more than 35 documentaries under her belt that have been showcased on everything from CBC Television to Discovery Canada, McLean has gained much experience studying the human connection to the natural world. So when the opportunity to write and direct The New Human for CBC’s The Nature of Things came along, she jumped at the chance to explore the value of evolutionary science.

“When I started doing some research, (I realized) I could have done a whole series on this,” notes McLean. “There’s so many different aspects to how human beings are changing and we had more than a show full of people and ideas and locations — it’s just been a fascinating year at looking at what’s going on in science.”

It was also a challenging year however for McLean. With COVID-19 surges and restrictions causing travel disruptions over the past two years, the director headed into making The New Human isolated here in Nova Scotia. Luckily for McLean, the province is home to many experts in evolutionary science.

One such professional is Dr. Tamara Franz-Odendaal from Mount Saint Vincent University.

“She was the first expert that we interviewed at length during the pandemic,” notes McLean of the developmental biologist whose research has focused on comparative vertebrate development and evolution involving giraffes as well as embryos.

“As part of this show, in order to help people understand where we are as human beings and what our future could be as human beings, the audience needs to understand our past,” adds McLean, noting that extends to embryonic traits.  “She was very useful to talk about how the study of embryos helps us understand how we are impacted by the world around us.”

Other local experts featured in The New Human include bioethicist and author Francoise Baylis, Dalhousie University professor and geneticist Sean Myles and orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Ivan Wong.

“Despite COVID restrictions, we were able to film in a operating room in Dartmouth,” adds McLean, noting that Wong has helped pioneer the use of 3D printed models in surgery to use as a guide. As the surgeon outlines in the documentary, technological advancements in biological tissue have allowed for the potential to 3D print organs in the future.

“So that’s one thing that’s coming,” adds McLean. “As we move forward, we are going to have more technology inside of us.”

As McLean explores in The New Human, technology is certainly redesigning the way human beings are going to function and appear in the future — from losing our pinkie toe to gaining “smart limbs” and implanted chips.

 “I tried hard to help people understand that the different things that affect us — some affect us very quickly and some affect us very slowly,” says McLean, adding that natural evolution, such as the disappearance of an appendage like the pinkie toe, can take tens of millions of years. “Many of the scientists that we talked to said that it’s technology that is going to shape us (and) that it is going to reshape human beings much faster than any natural process.”

The New Human airs November 26 on CBC’s The Nature of Things. For more information, visit the website.


Steve Gow

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