“Humanity is cursed by the knowledge of our own mortality,” narrator Jason Silva notes during the second episode of Origins (NatGeo, 9 PM/8 CT Monday). It’s sobering to know that life will eventually end at some point—probably in a painful manner. But in the 21st century, we should be incredibly thankful that science has helped people avoid cheating death—at least for a little while. Up until a century ago, a bite from a mosquito or getting the common cold could cause a person to die. And this says nothing about infected wounds or even certain mental disorders. Instead, the advent of medicine has helped to bring about longer, more fruitful lives.
But what can we trace the rise in medicinal science to? How has medicine helped make us modern? Silva takes the viewer on a journey through the past, starting with older generations who used whatever they could from the earth to gain relief from an affliction. When something was found to work (bark, berries, or something else), the word spread and people began to see an increase in their life spans. But it wasn’t until 160 AD that the genesis of today’s medicine was found—in the form of Greek doctor Galen of Pergamon (below), who helped take care of wounded gladiatorial combatants using unconventional techniques for the time, such as cauterizing a wound to help it heal. The temples of healing in Greece led to many of the priests becoming doctors.
That was a good start, but people still got sick, and diseases such as the plague threatened to kill entire countries. Nostradamus (16th century France) is mentioned here—not for his prognostications, but indirectly bringing the concept of sanitation to the forefront of people’s minds by having people boil water and bury their dead instead of keeping them inside their residences. Robert Koch would later do research on bacteria that would lead to the germ theory of disease, prompting medicines and vaccinations to help heal and protect people from the things they couldn’t see that could kill them. As a result, people of today are living significantly longer lives than their predecessors. It could get even better, as genetics companies are working on personalized medicines that use a person’s DNA for healing.
I found this particular episode of Origins to be incredibly fascinating. Too often, we take pain for granted, like Jonas did in the book The Giver. Two tablets cause a headache to disappear. A little ointment on an infected cut and it heals with no noticeable scar. Chemotherapy may cause a patient to lose his/her hair, but can prolong their life by killing cancer cells. To say we would be in a world of hurt without medicine is not hyperbole.
Yet with all the progress science has make in keeping people healthy and well, it still hasn’t discovered the elixir to eternal life. Physical death still is an absolute.
Back in biblical times, the Roman soldiers knew wine mixed with gall served to deaden pain for those who were being crucified. They offered it to Jesus (see Matthew 27:34), but he refused to drink it. Instead, he died a horrifically painful physical death—but returned to life three days later, ready to grant eternal life for those who call upon his name (see Acts 10:43). Jesus doesn’t remove physical death (even with the medical discoveries that prolong life), but gives the people he died for hope and courage to face it.
Of course, it’s very important to take medicine and see the doctor when you’re sick—and we should be incredibly thankful for people like Galen, Koch, and even Nostradamus. Taking in the second episode of Origins can help remind us that things could be significantly worse without medicine. In fact, it should help us appreciate every breath we breathe a little bit more.