National Geographic's New Series, Origins, Explores How Our Inventions Also Invent Us

National Geographic tells the story of how humans became modern in its new series Origins: The Journey of Humankind. Its host, Jason Silva, is billed as a modern-day philosopher, and is best known for his Shots of Awe videos that introduce novel and complex ideas in short, graphically stunning vignettes. I got a chance to talk to Silva about the new series, and it seems custom designed for his unique style of engrossing communication.

Jason Silva promotional picture for  <em>Origins: The Journey of Humankind</em>.
Jason Silva promotional picture for Origins: The Journey of Humankind.

"I am really excited for this show," Silva exclaimed at the beginning of our talk. "There are several things that are unique about it."

The first is its format, which was used recently for the National Geographic series Mars. Silva describes it as "a mashup of non-fiction documentary story-telling with cinematic, movie-like, historical recreations."

Silva feels, "mashing up those formats gives it a real dynamic intensity that I think is going to blow people's minds."

However, unlike Mars, Origins has not one, but two viral video producers. Silva is joined by, Melodysheep, whose real name is John Boswell. Boswell is a musician, and his videos rely heavily on his compositions. In fact, National Geographic and Silva refer to the videos Boswell has created for Origins as "symphonies."

Silva says there are four "symphonies" per show, each introduce a new act. According to Silva, "they also serve as standalone explosive nuggets of big ideas."

"I kind of specialize in the short form, explosive, big idea stuff," says Silva. He narrates the "symphonies," and people familiar with his work will recognize his style in them as well.

Besides the mashup of documentary and cinema, Silva believes Origins also approaches the content it is tackling in a novel way. He says the unique angle of the series was inspired by famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who, as Silva explains it, examined the idea "that we build with tools, but then the tools build us."

"We tend not to think about our cultural history that way. We tend to go, 'oh this is when we invented this, this is when we invented that,'" explains Silva. "But we never think about the ways in which our inventions have invented us in return. Everything we design, designs us right back."

For example, Silva says the use of stone tools, over a couple of generations, lead the human jaw to shrink.

"There is a symbiotic relationship with technology. Technology will actually effect us physiologically over time," says Silva.

Such is the case with the topic of the first episode of Origins, which is about fire. He explains that once we harnessed the skill to build fires and cook our food, our food was, in a way, "predigested." Our food was more energy dense, and energy efficient.

Ancient humans enjoy a home cooked meal. Scene from the series <em>Origins: The Journey of Humankind</em>.
Ancient humans enjoy a home cooked meal. Scene from the series Origins: The Journey of Humankind.

"All of a sudden we had more leisure time and did not need to forage all day, and that lead to the development of culture, arts and crafts," explains Silva. "So in a way, cooking made us human."

"This is a great metaphor for the whole series," Silva continued. "Whether it is the episode on transportation or communication or war, it is all about how these origin moments, these inventions, invented us. We made ourselves. We created ourselves. That is what the show is about."

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