National Geographic ‘Breakthrough’ (Ep. 1)
At the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases — which quite possibly has the least cool acronym ever, USAMRIID, (they should’ve just went with S.H.I.E.L.D.) — they are fighting a war against Ebola. It’s one of many intriguing storylines presented in this riveting first episode called “Fighting Pandemics,” which premieres Sunday, Nov. 1, at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.
Although the recent 2014 Ebola outbreaks have been terrifying to witness on the news, Episode 1 of National Geographic’s impressive “Breakthrough” mini-series presents a startling fact.
We’re actually winning the war against Ebola.
I won’t say how or why because the episode saves the details of the revelation for the end, and I don’t want to spoil it. It really is quite amazing and encouraging how this breakthrough is developing. It just makes you shake your head in wonder and say, “Wow” — which is why, I suspect, the episode was included in a series about new breakthroughs in technology, even though the media paints a very grim picture about Ebola that makes it look as if all of civilization is doomed tomorrow.
The “Breakthrough” series is itself an innovation in the mini-series format. It presents six episodes: each episode covers a realm of technological breakthrough happening right now (i.e. stuff so new that much of the media hasn’t caught on yet), and each episode is directed by an award-winning, renown Hollywood director. The six directors are Angela Bassett, Peter Berg, Paul Giamatti, Ron Howard, Akiva Goldsman, and Brett Ratner. Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor”) directs “Fighting Pandemics.” (Read Berg’s bio at the bottom of my article, below the Parent Guidance section.)
To be clear, the episode does not treat the topic lightly. In fact, it looks closely at how and why pandemics are so lethal to human civilization, and it does it with such convincing, frightening scientific explanation that about halfway into it I was ready to move to a bunker, buy a tinfoil hat, and call Ron Swanson to see if he has any of his off-the-grid buried gold left. (“Parks and Rec” fans will know that last reference.)
Despite the grim nature of the content, the documentary presents some amazing — inspiring, even — breakthroughs happening in the fight against pandemics, for example:
A. Professor Alessandro Vespignani of Boston’s Northeastern University, an expert of complex systems and a pioneer of the Big Data revolution, has built a program that tracks and predicts movements of all 7 billion people on earth. Frightening in a way, yes, but he uses it for predicting the real-time spread of a disease as an outbreak is happening. The program cross-references the movements of all 7 billion people on earth with known data about disease outbreaks. The result is a weather forecast of an epidemic, which allows for strategic intervention.
B. One lab shown in the episode creates 3-D prints of protein molecular structures for strategic planning of attacks — much how a spy plane takes pictures of enemy bases to learn their weaknesses. The scientists can use the 3-D printing to pinpoint what is needed to make a vaccine.
C. A lab in Texas has galvanized the entire Ebola field in an unprecedented global collaboration between scientists through an innovative system. It’s inspiring to watch.
The episode also features stunning human drama, as we hear a doctor who survived Ebola tell his story in detail.
All in all, it was a fascinating — grim and disturbing at times — but encouraging report on the latest breakthroughs in the fight against pandemics.
You can scroll down to the bottom of the article to read about the Parental Guidance Content of this episode and the director’s bio, but first I’m going to address the episode’s subtle mentioning of evolution.
Let me explain why: I’ve seen other episodes of “Breakthrough,” and the theory of evolution plays a larger role in them (especially episode 2), so I’ve decided to tackle that whole topic now at the outset. I don’t see this as a reason to bash the series and avoid watching it (because it really is amazing to see what breakthroughs are happening) but I see it as an opportunity to engage our culture in a debate about science and faith. It’s a fascinating (though very heated) debate, of course, but it’s one of my favorite topics, so I can’t resist jumping into it. (And to be clear, I don’t have some personal dislike of anyone who embraces the theory of evolution. I simply disagree with them, and I love debating the topic. It blends many pursuits of truth in an intriguing way that I find irresistible.)
Yes, I’m Going There: Why the Theory of Evolution (As Anti-Faith Advocates Use It) Involves a Faith-Assumption
This first episode presents little hints of a Naturalist worldview that claims that evolutionary science provides the ultimate explanation for the origin of life. For example, when describing how killer viruses come into being, the narrator says, “Evolution has created the perfect
assassins.” To be clear though, the episode does not bash religious people. I’m venturing into tangential territory that is not addressed at in this episode. If this type of topic interests you, read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip to the Parental Guidance section below to read the rest of the review.
In any documentary tackling a scientific topic from a Naturalist worldview, the assertion that evolution explains our ultimate origin is usually inevitable. There’s also a belief that science is the superior form of knowledge for answering all of our questions. I love science, but I also love faith. I do not see them as irreconcilable. I relish documentaries like these that cover new technology. It’s incredibly fascinating to see what humanity is capable of creating. That being said, there are unspoken claims going around about the nature of science itself. It’s been happening for decades — for so long, in fact, that these assumptions have taken the form of cultural tradition. But I think it’s time we question those presuppositions.
For example, the use of the theory of evolution to explain our ultimate origin is, in its own way, a faith-assumption. Sure, some folks will prefer that faith-assumption over any religion any day of the week, but I’m tired of hearing that science itself contains no faith assumptions or metaphysical claims embedded deep within the layers of its process, its language, and its many theories.
Even biologists who embrace evolution admit that there are gaps in the “tapestry” of the evolutionary map. But let’s just stop there. Let’s not even attempt to disprove evolutionary science. In fact, let’s assume that these gaps aren’t enough to disprove evolution and that the science is sound. Even then, when you use evolutionary science to make the claim that there is no God or that evolution explains the ultimate origin of life, you are still making a faith-assumption.
I mention that because it bothers me when people claim that science is 100% empirical and 0% faith-based. That is simply not true. The faith-assumption required to uphold evolution as proof there is no God is just one minor example, really.
In general, this approach that tries to place science on a loftier platform than all other pursuits of truth never really works. One of the biggest examples of this is how the philosophy known as Verificationism, put forth by the Logical Positivists in the 20th century, particularly A.J. Ayers — the bedrock of today’s New Atheism — collapsed under its own weight and was eventually abandoned in the 1960s for being self-refuting (i.e. “Can the principle of verification be verified?” as they said) for this very reason: there are faith-assumptions and flecks of metaphysics that lie in the very foundations of science. It is not wholly empirical. It takes a little work, a thorough examination under the hood of science, to see this clearly, but nonetheless it is true.
However, people will use the claim that science is 100% empirical and say that Naturalism is superior to any other worldview that has an obvious faith-assumption on the surface (like a religious worldview). This leads to a deep sense of superiority among those who make this claim — an arrogance that actually (oddly enough) reminds me of the works-based, moralistic, religious arrogance of the ancient Pharisees. (And there is, by the way, a difference between works-based religion and grace-based religion. That difference is actually important to this debate, but I cover that in an another article.)
Sure, you may prefer the faith-assumptions embedded in science to the beliefs of a religious person, but — to be totally honest, here — it doesn’t help the situation when you make yourself out to be superior to religious people because you think your view is not “contaminated” by faith.
To be clear, this is a major tangent because, thus far, Episode 1 “Fighting Pandemics” does not make explicit claims about the superiority mentioned above. It’s certainly not bashing religious people. Its mentioning of evolution as a “creating” force is very peripheral and not central to the topic. Evolution does take on a more central role in future episodes, however — like in Episode 2 — so this debate eventually becomes more relevant.
[Editor’s Note: This section was modified on Nov. 7, 2015.]
Parent Guidance Issues at a Glance for this National Geographic TV Series…
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: Dramatized scenes of Ebola victims show bodies covered and dripping with blood — including eyes filled with blood. It’s not R-rated gore, but it’s meant to be sobering, disturbing, and somewhat gruesome for dramatic effect. The film features actual news footage that shows real Ebola victims both alive and dead.
Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
To read my reviews on the other five episodes in the “Breakthrough” series, follow these links:
Peter Berg (director-screenwriter) has enjoyed success as a writer, director, producer and actor.
His directorial film credits include “Hancock,” “The Kingdom,” “The Rundown” and “Battleship.” Berg wrote and directed “Lone Survivor,” the film adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s gut-wrenching true tale of an ambush by Taliban forces in Afghanistan that killed Luttrell’s three Navy SEAL comrades and nearly cost him his own life.
Based off his 2004 film of the same name, Berg created the widely acclaimed television series “Friday Night Lights” in 2006. The Emmy award-winning series ran for five years, chronicling the ever-present role of high school football in small-town Texas. Berg created and executive produced the HBO boxing documentary series “On Freddie Roach.” Currently, he executive produces and serves as moderator for the sports documentary series “State of Play” on HBO.
Berg is currently in postproduction on the film “Deepwater Horizon,” starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and John Malkovich. Current television projects include the HBO series “The Leftovers,” starring Justin Theroux and Liv Tyler, and “Ballers,” starring Dwayne Johnson.
[Note: if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]