Review of National Geographic’s Origins: “Spark of Civilization”

Episode 1 of Origins: The Journey of Humankind

by Troy Lacey on March 10, 2017

A long time ago, in a galaxy called the Milky Way . . .

OK, so maybe that’s not the opening line of the new National Geographic series—but it sure felt like it should have been. This series, titled Origins: The Journey of Humankind, looks at what the producers consider key turning points in human history, both those which are documented historically and those hypothesized from a supposed evolutionary past. This first episode, “Spark of Civilization,” examines how the discovery and use of fire has transformed human history in multiple ways. Although most of this particular episode dealt with known historical events, there were quite a few which were pure speculation and from an obvious human evolutionary slant. In fact the opening line by the narrator/host Jason Silva left no doubt that human evolution from an ape-like ancestor was the starting assumption moving forward.

“Fire: no single tool in the human arsenal explains our existence more than fire. From an animal like any other to the dominant species on earth because we figured out how to steal from the heavens and harness the power of the sun.” Just a little later, Jason asked the big question: “How did we get here?” “How did Homo sapiens go from swinging tree to tree, naked apes on a rock floating in space, to walking on the surface of the moon?”

Fire and Ice

Well, the question doesn’t hang in the air too long before we’re whisked back to “12,000 BC,” somewhere in the forests of Eurasia. While we would certainly debate the date postulated here, the scenery is clearly meant to portray mankind during the Ice Age, which we would pinpoint as the first few hundred years after the Flood (for round number’s sake, let’s say approximately 2,000 BC). Mankind is portrayed as primitive, a tribe running in fear from a pack of hyenas. (It seems to me that long-furred wolves would have been a more obvious choice for what appears to be snow-covered taiga-like forests than shorter-furred hyenas, but that’s just a minor complaint). It is only by having a torch (which briefly goes out and must be restarted) that the tribe is able to fend off the vicious pack.

This notion that cooking food has driven the evolution of mankind has been examined and rebutted by AiG in several articles.

Richard Wrangham (PhD) author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, makes several appearances throughout the episode and stated on film, “Animals hunt, animals make tools, but only humans have mastered fire. This was the first great breakthrough that enabled humans to separate ourselves from the other apes.” Wrangham’s cooking theory is also endorsed and promoted in this episode.

Later we see this same tribe attempt to steal food from another tribe. But they are caught in the act, and, instead of being punished, are invited to stay and eat some cooked meat around a fire. One of the tribeswomen is pregnant and is obviously having a difficult time. We then hear the standard human evolutionary spiel that fire enabled us to cook food, which made it softer, which gave us more free time (4–5 fewer hours per day of chewing), which also drove our biology to develop smaller guts and bigger brains. This in turn is supposedly why childbirth became more difficult and painful, and forced humans to help each other. As the story goes, this led to social cooperation, language, empathy, and sharing—in other words a sense of community grew out of fire.

Scripture Paints a Different Picture

This notion that cooking food has driven the evolution of mankind has been examined and rebutted by AiG in several articles, most notably “Brainfood: Cooking” and “Cooking: The World’s Oldest Profession.” And of course the Bible states that man was created intelligent and capable of understanding and speaking a language right away (Genesis 1:28–30, 2:23). We also know from Scripture that mankind was vegetarian initially, and not given permission to eat meat until after the Flood. But it also states that pre-Flood mankind had already mastered fire, and was in fact smelting ores by the seventh generation from Adam (Genesis 4:22). In the evolutionary worldview of Origins though, that didn’t happen for several thousand more years after our friendly fire-carrying tribe mentioned above (or, by their dating, around 6,000–5,000 BC).

But of first importance is that mankind is not a “naked ape,” nor has kinship with any other animal. Mankind was created in the image of God, recently (about 6,000 years ago). Man is unique and was given dominion over the earth, including the animals. Mankind did not evolve smaller guts and bigger brains, nor did childbirth evolve into a painful procedure because of the evolutionary connection of cooking food. Childbirth became a painful process because of the sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:16).

Firestorms, Fireworks, Firearms, Fossil Fuels, and Fusion

No National Geographic program would be complete without paying at least a little lip service to the geological evolutionary age of the earth. We get a few seconds of “billions of years ago the earth was a molten blob bombarded by meteorites.” Then we’re told that the earth eventually cooled, oceans formed, and simple lifeforms emerged. Then plant life emerged and colonized the land, but all this plant life produced oxygen, and the conditions were right for wildfires to erupt all over the planet, supposedly lasting for millions of years.

But this episode doesn’t stay in the “primeval past” for long. Fortunately for the viewer, we need to move past fire as a source of heat and protection, and get into the more sophisticated human interactions with fire. We’re transported forward in time to AD 1232 when the Mongols are besieging the Jin Empire’s capital of Kaifeng. The Chinese had invented gunpowder a few centuries before and had used it in making fireworks. In desperation the beleaguered Jin Emperor thought of using gunpowder to shoot arrows at the enemy, and actually did successfully beat back the invasion (but only for a couple of years as it turns out).

Another historical segment looks at the 1666 London fire which destroyed much of the city. But out of this fire came building safety codes, sanitation laws, fire departments, and urban planning and development. The role of this particular fire had sweeping effects in almost all other major cities throughout the years.

Suddenly the episode takes us on a whirlwind tour of technology all thanks to fire—from fireworks to fire arrows to firearms to fighter jets. But weaponry isn’t the only thing that fire gave us. It gave us home heat and transportation. Next we move to fossil fuels and even to the pursuit of clean energy by fusion of atoms. It was refreshing (and surprising) to watch a segment devoted to energy production and not hear an extended diatribe about the CO2 emissions of fossil fuels and how our energy consumption is supposedly the primary or only cause of global warming.

Rocketing Forward

The last historical segment is the development of rocket technology, both in warfare usage and for transportation and space exploration. All of these segments were informative and concise, not deviating into unwarranted speculation and propaganda. The last line of the show is most probably meant as a subtle reinforcement of mankind’s evolution, but if stripped of the evolutionary background, it is actually quite poignant: “No longer do we carry fire; fire carries us.”

They were able to develop new technologies because they believed in an omnipotent and omniscient logical Creator who upholds the universe through natural laws.

God has indeed given mankind great intelligence, and the capacity to build and engineer technological marvels. From a technological standpoint, mankind has come a long way since the Ice Age, when just surviving in glaciated areas like parts of Eurasia would have been difficult. But this technological progress was not an upward evolutionary struggle, just a continual building up of knowledge from previous generations. And many of the scientific breakthroughs have been accomplished by Creation scientists of the past and present. And they were able to develop new technologies because they believed in an omnipotent and omniscient logical Creator who upholds the universe through natural laws.

So in a sense, National Geographic got it right. Fire is a very important tool, and has been used by man almost since the very beginning (just not the beginning they envisioned). Abel brought an offering from his flocks to the Lord as a sacrifice (Genesis 4:4), almost certainly a burnt sacrifice. And the first thing Noah did after getting off the Ark was to light a fire and offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to God (Genesis 8:18–20). As mentioned earlier, pre-Flood man used fire to smelt ores, and post-Flood mankind was building cities soon after the dispersion at Babel (Genesis 10:11). However, fire did not separate us from the animals; we were never animals to begin with. We are the uniquely created image-bearers of God.

The second episode of this series, “Cheating Death,” is said to look at the development of the scientific method and the role of medicine in our lives. Since we are created in the image of God, we have intrinsic value, and the desire to study anatomy and medicine and heal the sick, makes sense in a biblical worldview. But why should a “naked ape” care about another weak, sickly, or injured ape? And isn’t death the hero of the plot in an evolutionary worldview anyway? Join us next week as we discover how National Geographic handles this range of topics.


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