INTERVIEW: Nat Geo explores ‘ORIGINS’ of humankind with Jason Silva

ORIGINS: The Journey of Humankind is hosted by modern-day philosopher Jason Silva. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Some of life’s big questions are going to be answered. Well, sort of.

ORIGINS: The Journey of Humankind is the new eight-part series from Nat Geo. The show, hosted by Jason Silva of Brain Games fame, explores “how man become modern” and mastered fire, medicine, war, money, communication, transportation, exploration and shelter.

ORIGINS premieres Monday, March 6 at 9 p.m. with an episode focused on fire and how the phenomenon separated humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

For Silva, a media artist, futurist and contemporary philosopher, his hosting duties placed him like a kid in a candy shop. These topics and these big questions are in his wheelhouse.

“About a year ago, when I was promoting season five of Brain Games and kind of wrapping that process, just figuring out what was next, National Geographic had made a deal with Asylum Entertainment, the production company, for this show concept called ORIGINS,” Silva said recently in a phone interview.

The creator of the series is John Boswell, otherwise known as Melody Sheep, a man famous for his Internet films, music and remixes. “He’s an amazing editor, and he used to do a lot of really cool content about science,” Silva said. “He and I had actually worked together on a video collaboration like two years before, so we were already friendly and were fans of each other’s work. So when I found out that he was the one that conceived of the idea … there was talk about having me host it, and so it was kind of a perfect storm because Nat Geo wanted to find something for me post-Brain Games. And both John Boswell and I were friends. He was a fan of mine, and I was a fan of his. It all just came together really fast. Yeah, it’s been amazing.”

Silva believes the audience’s collective minds will be blown by how the TV docu-series covers these pivotal origin stories. The media artist called them “momentous occasions” in human history that changed the game and transformed the future path for humans.

“I use the famous line by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan to really describe the theme of the show,” Silva said. “He used to say, ‘First, we build the tools, and then the tools build us.’ … So if you look at the first episode, it’s about fire, and the origin of our domestication of fire is really the origin of us really becoming human, starting to employ technology that really distinguished us from other species in the animal kingdom. Even as rudimentary but transformative as burning our food, cooking our food changed the game.”

In the greatest adventure saga ever told — the story of the human species — National Geographic presents ORIGINS: The Journey of Humankind — an eight-part series that celebrates how man became modern. Episode 1 focuses on fire. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Silva knows a lot about these origin stories. He’s well-versed and well-read on the subject matter. He referenced Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham and the theories about humans eating raw food and then switching to cooked food.

“Once we could cook, we could stay full for three to five hours,” he said. “That freed up all this cognitive real estate that resulted in the development of art and culture and all these other things that changed humanity, so something as simple cooking ends up changing the game. And every episode is going to look at crucial moments like the written word, spoken language in the communication episode or the episode on war or the episode on transportation. We’re going to look again at these seed moments, these origin moments and how they counter-intuitively ended up changing the game.”

Silva’s background is in film and philosophy, and he has carved out a unique career that brings both interests together. He originally went to school to become a filmmaker, and he became fascinated by philosophy and some of these big questions. This led to an interest in science, technology and futurism.

“I’m always interested in the philosophical implications of these things,” he said. “Like the episode on communication, so we start with spoken language, right, which is still sort of disputed how that came to be. There’s some fringe ideas. Like Terence McKenna used to say … early hominids ate magic fungi, psychedelic mushrooms. That catalyzed us into language and how language itself is so mysterious. It’s like we can encode symbolic meanings from within our mind and transport them as sound vibration through the air to another mind.”

When Silva starts going, he turns into that kid in a candy store. Here’s how he continued the discussion on language: “The world we live in today, where you and I can share the insides of our thoughts interfaced through devices made of plastic and metal that send our thoughts through space and time into each other’s mind instantaneously, all began when early humans started encoding their thoughts into language. So again to trace back the miracle that we take for granted today back to their origin, that’s endlessly fascinating to me.”

Silva has explored some of these profound queries on his website and online videos. His series, Shots of Awe, features three-minute brain explosions about technology, creativity, innovation, humanity and philosophy.

“I think that Nat Geo recognized that sensibility and was like, wow, as a good project after Brain Games, Origins really is very much in my wheelhouse,” he said. “So it was really a chance to unpack my passion and interest, and work with a great team to bring it to life.”

Inevitably, some of the theories on ORIGINS are mere theories. One day they may become dated or move into the fringe, displaced by further evidence and inquiry. This scholarly debate also keeps Silva mesmerized.

“I think in terms of format, in terms of how we’re presenting these ideas, yeah, I think it’s 2017 in the sense that we’re basing it on the latest and the greatest insights from experts and historians and all the resources that we can amass being National Geographic,” he said. “In terms of the aesthetic flavor of the show, I think we’re doing that mash-up format where we have dramatized historical creations that really look cinematic. That’s more scripted, and then you have my element in the studio, the hosting quality where I try to bring an intensity and a philosophical wonderment to setting up these vignettes and setting up these so-called dramatizations.”

Silva’s business card could be pages long. He is a multi-hyphenate of the first order, someone called upon to host TV shows, offer keynote speeches at technology conferences and stump the public with questions that cause some serious head scratching.

“I kind of think myself as a media artist in the sense that I play with this different kind of mixed media,” he said. “I think I’m interested in a lot of things, and because I’m media savvy, I’m able to turn all those interests into content.”

By John Soltes / Publisher /

ORIGINS: The Journey of Humankind premieres Monday, March 6 at 9 p.m. on Nat Geo. Click here for more information on the show. Click here for more information on Jason Silva.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

2 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Nat Geo explores ‘ORIGINS’ of humankind with Jason Silva

  • March 14, 2017 at 9:27 am

    The first episode was disappointing and very Eurocentric and male centered. His archaeological research was limited. How do you have a show about the origins of humankind and start brush over Africa with a heavy emphasis on Europe? This series is an insult to the original Journey of Man on PBS. PBS’s Great Human Odyssey was well researched.

  • April 16, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    This show is absolutely horrendous. But it’s somehow even worse because of thr narrator, Jason Silva. Someone muzzle him. Any human who speaks with such pompous arrogance should be shut up, not given a show. Absolutely unwatchable.


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