National Geographic Origins: Medical Breakthroughs are Making us Superhuman

From ancient Greek epics to modern Marvel comics, civilizations have loved making tales about mortals chasing immortality.

The tale of the twenty-first century and beyond, according to National Geographic “Origins,” has taken a dramatic twist: humanity is making astonishing leaps toward actually achieving immortality, or something close to it, thanks to recent breakthroughs in medical science.

Or so humanity hopes.

That, in a nutshell, is the tale at the heart of Episode 2 of National Geographic Channel’s riveting new series Origins: The Journey of Humankind. The newest episode, “Our Fight Against Death,” airs Monday, March 13, 9/8 Central Time, and will likely be available as a streaming episode at the “Origins” site (linked above) after it airs.

Here’s how NatGeo describes the episode:

From the “dark arts” to the scientific method to cracking our own genetic code, humanity’s endless pursuits in medicine have made us not only modern, but superhuman.

Sanvada recently enjoyed an advanced screening of the episode, which has inspired the following observations about the new series:

  1. National Geographic Origins turns the history of medical breakthroughs into an edge-of-your-seat Hollywood drama.
  2. It paints the future of medicine with bold colors.

The History of Medical Breakthrough as a Hollywood Drama

Probably the most unique thing about this series is its high quality dramatizations of a topic that most people don’t rush to learn about on their spare time. The series turns the history of medicine into a gripping Hollywood-esque narrative with feature film-quality directing, acting, special effects, and cinematography.

In this episode, we see some of the most important medical breakthroughs in history and learn about some of the thrilling, intriguing elements of each, everything from our discovery of the medicinal qualities in plants to the revolutionary affect of proper sanitation.

For example, we learn how Nostradamus made an important contribution to medicine by urging plague-infested populations to adopt hygienic practices such as boiling water and burying the dead.

National Geographic Origins screenshot from episode 2 clipThe most intriguing part, however, is the segment on Roman doctor Galen who worked on wounded gladiators. While treating gladiators, Galen documented his work on the human body and laid a monumental foundation of research for generations to come.

And it was NatGeo’s dramatic treatment of the Galen segment that really shined in the episode. (A feature film on Galen would be fun to watch.)

The Dazzling Future of Medicine

But the episode doesn’t just stick to the past.

It takes a brief look at the astonishing work being done at the Gen9 DNA Synthesis Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As one scientist put it, the famous Human Genome Project catalogued all DNA; the Gen9 lab builds DNA.

That’s right, if you can believe it, this lab “is to genetics as the printing press was to the written word,” as another scientist tells the camera.

National Geographic Origins screenshot from episode 2 clipThey’re essentially working toward making DNA available to everyone. Someday, perhaps, DNA will be available to purchase like milk at the supermarket. A person might someday have their own personal catalogue of replacement tissue synthesized to function in their body. This could have a revolutionary affect on treating the effects of aging and fighting disease.

It’s interesting timing because an announcement was just made that a global research led by NYU Langone have successfully created five new synthetic chromosomes. Geneticist Jef Boeke, PhD, the leader of the team, said, “This work sets the stage for completion of designer, synthetic genomes to address unmet needs in medicine and industry.”

National Geographic ‘Origins’ and Our Fight Against Death: Science, Faith, Philosophy, and the Question, ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’

I’m going to break from the professionalism of third-person and speak first person for a moment (disclaimer: these are my personal views, not necessarily those of Sanvada).

Despite all the positives above, one tired narrative that is perhaps subtly hinted at in “Origins”–especially with its quoting of ardent anti-religion novelist Alan Harrington–is the religion-is-the-adversary-of-science narrative that views science and faith as Batman and Joker arch-enemies who are, and will always be, opposed.

To Harrington, someone who is prominently quoted in this episode, religion and some types of philosophy are the enemies that blockade our one path to true eternal life, which can be granted by scientific achievement alone.

Others like Harrington, especially the exclusive humanists who established the worldview of Scientism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, feel that science is not only the only true salvation of humanity, but that it is superior to both religion and philosophy as the source and arbiter for all truth.

But, frankly, there is more religion (i.e. faith assumptions) in science than many scientists care to admit, and there is more science (i.e. the willingness to observe, experiment, hypothesize, test, and record) in religion than our modern world might realize.

Same with philosophy: unspoken philosophical world views have more influence on the way scientists interpret and steer their work than the public might realize. My conversations with theoretical physicists at UC Santa Barbara while I attended college there opened my eyes to this reality.

I’m more of the opinion that faith is not always opposed to reason and, in fact, in the right contexts, faith strengthens, compliments, and paves the way for the flourishing of reason.

There are brilliant scientists who agree with me.

For example: after meeting Dr. Walter Kohn, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and hearing his zeal for creating constructive cooperation between science and religion, I was convinced that such an approach was better than flippantly dismissing religious belief as poison.

But whether or not this National Geographic “Origins” episode really is saddling up wholeheartedly with the likes of Harrington and Scientism or just providing a dramatic, engrossing tour of the history of medical progress and a look at the promising future of medicine, one thing is certain: it raises some intriguing questions about humanity’s past and its future.