Review of National Geographic’s Origins: “Cheating Death”

Episode 2 of Origins: The Journey of Humankind

The second episode of National Geographic’s Origins, titled “Cheating Death,” takes a look at the history of medicine. Like the first episode, many of the events take place in known historical time periods, but of course even then there is a human evolutionary slant both given and assumed. Of particular interest is much of the opening dialogue of host/narrator Jason Silva. Much more so than the first episode, rather than simply having history unfold before us, with sparse dialogue, this episode contained much more narrative and commentary from guest authors and doctors. Jason opened the episode with an extended dialogue, much of which I will include below, as it sets the tone for the entire episode and also highlights the underlying assumptions of the writers and producers:

Humanity’s struggle against death has been our most enduring fight. History has given us one weapon in this existential battle—we fight back with medicine. Tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors scavenged the natural world for remedies. Imagine the incredible leaps of faith we had to take in an effort to ease the pain, mend the broken, revive the sick.

Medicine was a dark art full of false starts and false gods. When we struck upon some form of relief, it swept like wildfire through humankind. We built on every success until medicine became a form of science. That’s when we discovered the real killers within us, microscopic armies hidden within our bodies, waging war with our species for thousands of years. Medicine is our greatest weapon to fight back against invisible, unthinkable death.

From superstition to science, medicine has become one of humanity’s most powerful tools. And though with each new challenge we may stumble, we find a way to get stronger and smarter, to beat back fatal diseases and extend our lifespans—even crack open our genetic codes. This is the story of how our fight against death has determined our fate; how it became the driving force of our evolution; how our tireless pursuit of medicine has made us modern and even made us superhuman.

Medicine is the name we gave to the magic that allowed us to cheat death again and again and again. How we learned to fight, how we managed to survive, in fact all the little miracles that medicine bring us today—all of it adds up to a story about who we are as a species.

Schizophrenic Storytelling

It’s quite revealing that medicine is described in so many ways: magic, superstition, miracles, weaponry, and science. To be sure, the rest of the episode walks a tightrope between pointing to our ancestors (even in some ways including medical practice up to a hundred years ago) as superstitious primitives or well-meaning but woefully ignorant healers, yet possessing a knowledge of natural remedies, which are the envy of modern medical science.

Perhaps the realization that “death is the enemy” does not come from an evolutionary worldview but from the Bible.

But even more telling in this episode is the heavy emphasis on death—especially fighting and cheating death. Although there are a few token evolutionary statements sprinkled throughout the episode, it almost seems as if the writers don’t want to draw too much attention to it. Perhaps the realization that “death is the enemy” does not come from an evolutionary worldview but from the Bible (1 Corinthians 15:26) has something to do with their restraint? Even admitting that medicine brings “little miracles” is contrary to an empirical and materialistic evolutionary worldview. If there were one word to describe this episode, it might be schizophrenic—the episode tries to embrace two seemingly incompatible positions.

The Iceman Comes . . . and Goes

But back to the progression of the episode. We are soon whisked away to the border of the Italian and Austrian Alps, where Ötzi, the Iceman, was discovered on the Italian side. While the show claims Ötzi is 5,300 years old, we would place him after Babel (c. 2200 BC) and probably closer to 2100–2000 BC, or around 4,100 years old. Now we have written about Ötzi before and discussed how he was carrying much more sophisticated tools and medicine than evolutionary hypotheses predicted. Much is made in this episode of the herbal and natural knowledge of Ötzi and his tribe. There was even speculation that the (preserved) birch polypore mushrooms he was carrying in his pouch might have been for his intestinal parasites. A couple of quotes below will highlight this.

Natural Folk Remedies Being Studied Today

Amanda Foreman, PhD and author of A World on Fire, stated, “Everyone thought these ancient folk remedies from thousands of years ago had nothing left to teach us, but now that these synthetic drugs have reached a plateau, scientists are beginning to realize that in order to go forwards you need to go backwards and discover what nature has to offer us.”

Rahul Jandial M.D., PhD brain surgeon and neuroscientist, confessed, “Today we’re inventing medicines in the laboratory, but the best medicines, the most effective medicines, were discovered from nature. We learn from plants and nature and then go to the laboratory and try to copy them.”

We’re next transported from the icy Alps to the steamy Everglades, where we are introduced to a few herbal medicinal sources. The first is the Brazilian peppertree berry, which produces a compound that doesn’t eradicate, but is said to “disarm” bacteria, and is being researched for a number of cures for various bacterial infections. The next two sources have been in use since at least the US Civil War. Oak tree bark, which was brewed in a tea and used to treat wounds, and Spanish moss, which was also made into a tea and used to treat fever. Both of these herbal remedies are also being looked at in labs for possible use in new medicines.

Jason Silva again goes on an extended dialogue that is just as fascinating as the opening one:

Humanity is cursed by the knowledge of our own mortality. The terrifying realization [that] life is a fickle flame—we and all our loved ones are destined for the grave–drives us to find solace. Religion told us death is not the end. The flesh is weak, but the soul survives. We can be reborn in infinite loops of reincarnation or live forever in the kingdom of heaven. To our ancestors, religion offered more than solace; it offered to cure our suffering. For thousands of years we invoked the supernatural in search of remedies. Medicine and superstition were woven tightly together.

Fear of Death?

Let’s pause here to examine some of these statements. We would claim (based on Genesis 3) that humanity was cursed with mortality at the time of the Fall. It was also God who then and there gave mankind the seeds of a promise that one would come who would defeat Satan (Genesis 3:15) and eventually defeat death (1 Corinthians 15:20–22, 42–45). It is interesting that Silva here uses the phrase “the flesh is weak” because this is taken directly from the Bible, and is what Christ said in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion (Matthew 26:41). It is precisely because “His spirit was willing” that He went to the Cross to conquer death. And the fear of death, that “terrifying realization,” is used as one of Satan’s strongest tools (Hebrews 2:14–15) to keep us in bondage, not, as Silva stated earlier, used to “[drive] our evolution.”

It is also ironic that Silva here mentions that religion told us death was not the end. While that is true of Christianity and true of some religions (in the case of reincarnation, it is obvious they had Hinduism in mind), it was the exact opposite of what Jesus and His apostles had to contend with. Christ had to refute the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23), who denied any resurrection. Luke assures us that they denied not only bodily resurrection, but also the immortality of the soul (Acts 23:8). And the Apostle Paul was ridiculed by the Epicureans as soon as he mentioned resurrection (Acts 17:18, 32). In other words, both believed that when you die (to coin a Bill Nyeism) “you’re done.”

Superstition Gives Way to Surgery?

Yet, in the very next segment, we are whisked away to ancient Greece (fifth century BC), where we are told that modern medicine began in the temples to Asclepius, which started in Greece and later spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Those seeking healing would make pilgrimages to the sites, perform prayers and sacrifices, and make monetary gifts. Many would spend the night in the temple. Through trial and error, the Greek priests slowly began to accumulate knowledge, learn from their experiences, and start to make diagnoses. In time, medicine moved beyond the temples to schools, many established during the reign of Alexander the Great. The most famous being the Empirical School, founded the third century BC in Alexandria, Egypt. Quite unlike his “superstition” statements throughout, Silva narrates that starting with the Greeks, “medical skills that make us who we are today were built upon a slow and steady accumulation of knowledge over centuries.”

Next we meet the Greek doctor Galen of Pergamum in the second century AD, who worked as a surgeon on gladiators. Again through trial and error, but also with some accumulated knowledge on which to draw, Galen made several innovations, using what worked and discarding what didn’t. He kept meticulous records and is considered by some historians to be the real father of the scientific method. His “observe, experiment, format hypotheses and then test those hypotheses” approach is indeed the scientific method at its core.

Nostradamus, the Black Death and Sanitation

Next we are taken to France in 1528 as the Black Death is ravaging Europe, and has been periodically for 200 years. There we meet a young physician named Michel de Nostredame, who is better known to us as Nostradamus. Before he became associated with “future visions,” he was a doctor who practiced during a time when half of the population of Europe had been wiped out by the plague. He apparently encouraged hygiene, fresh air,and the removal of infected corpses from populated areas. He became known for his invention of the “rose pill” (which was depicted in this episode), derived from rose hips to provide protection from the plague. According to this episode, he also encouraged the boiling of water, and his actions set the stage for improvements in sanitation, most notably sewer systems to remove standing sewage from urban areas.

As if visions of Plague carts carrying away bodies was not vivid enough, Jason Silva reminds us that invisible armies inside our bodies have killed billions of people through the years. That leads us to a brief historical mention of the microscope and the discovery of bacteria, and we are introduced to Robert Koch.

Invisible Killers and the Germ Theory of Disease

Koch has been wrestling with the question of whether microorganisms are the product or cause of disease. While studying anthrax, he is successful at describing its life cycle and transferring the bacteria from a diseased animal into a healthy animal, which then causes that animal to be infected with the same bacteria. Koch’s repeated experiments on several bacteria (anthrax, tuberculosis, cholera) determined guidelines to prove that a specific organism causes a disease. These four basic criteria, now called Koch’s postulates, are:

  1. A specific microorganism is always associated with a specific disease.
  2. The microorganism can be isolated from the diseased animal and grown in pure culture in the laboratory.
  3. The cultured microorganism will cause disease when transferred to a healthy animal.
  4. The same type of microorganism can be isolated from the newly infected animal.
Because man has intrinsic value, finding out what caused disease, and being able to prevent it, was a noble pursuit.

Although Koch was probably not a Christian, he was either apathetic toward or even antagonistic to Darwinian views and often sided with Creationist doctors rather than evolutionary ones. Koch had a friendly rivalry with Louis Pasteur and was friends with Joseph Lister, both Christians and creationists. In this episode, Koch is listed as the father of germ theory, but in reality, it was all three: one anti-Darwinist and two creationists who each contributed to the development of the germ theory of disease. Part of Lister’s and Pasteur’s motivation was their acknowledgment of a creator God who had made man in His image. In other words, because man has intrinsic value, finding out what caused disease, and being able to prevent it, was a noble pursuit. Once again we could ask why an evolutionary worldview is concerned with saving human life and preventing diseases.

We Are Linguistic All the Way Down

In the last segment, we return to the present at the Gen9 DNA synthesis lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There we learn about new procedures and techniques to build DNA. We are told of the positives it could do for humanity, and that the negatives could never happen (where have we heard that before?) because each genetic engineer has signed agreements stating that they will not manufacture anything harmful to humanity. Making designer cures for diseases like cancer is among the things discussed, and we agree that trying to find remedies is commendable, and, in fact, a God-honoring pursuit. Although Jesus’ intended meaning in Matthew 9:12 was primarily of spiritual ailment, it is based on truth in the physical realm. Physicians are supposed to try to heal their patients. The Apostle Paul traveled with the physician Luke who no doubt learned medicine from the Greek schools of medicine mentioned in this very episode.

Toward the end of this section, Jason Silva makes a startling claim about our DNA, which he refers to as the “language of life.” He says, “We are linguistic all the way down,” How very true, Jason! And no language has ever been developed without intelligence.

This episode struggled with deciding whether ancient and up to pre-twentieth century medicine was barbaric and shamanistic, or was enlightened for its time. Superstition has been intertwined with medicine, something that hindered medicine and something that can contribute to medicine today. The multitudes of religions have offered solace throughout the centuries, but biblical principles (such as Levitical hygienic laws) were practical measures that improved lives, and Christianity has had many notable contributors to the medical field—both in terms of concepts and innovative practitioners.

You Can’t Cheat Death, but Christ Conquered It for Us

This whole episode has been about cheating death; but no amount of human knowledge and ingenuity can help us escape God’s decree that we are dust and to dust we will return (Genesis 3:19) and that all men are appointed to die (Hebrews 9:27). We cannot cheat death; but we can escape the bitterness of it. Jason Silva mentioned that Christianity teaches we can live forever in the Kingdom of God. This statement is the truest one on this show. God can and will overcome death for those who believe in Christ—they will not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Rather than living in fear of death, discover the life that is available in Christ:

For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?" The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:53–57)

Join us here next month when we cover episodes three through five.


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