A Personal View of Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”

Here the great age opens.  Physics becomes in those years the greatest collective work of science — no, more than that, the great collective work of art of the twentieth century.

J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, p. 330


When I was twelve years old I watched a most remarkable television program.  This program did not so much change my life — I was twelve, just barely conscious of a life as something my own — as it set the primary intellectual course of my life.  My parents generously bought me the big book that was basically a transcript of the show.  I have treasured that book for forty years.

I’ve recently finished a reread of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and I found it an exhilarating, inspiring experience again.  But the sweetness is tempered by a sad and tragic bitterness on which I will touch.  Bronowski’s gentle, wise voice confirms the reality of what I am always nostalgic for: a time when the “developed” world valued science, when evolution was not a battle ground, when pseudo-sciences like astrology were a joke or entertainment, like today’s reality television or Fox News.  I am always nostalgic for a time I remember when knowledge was something to be strived for through science, and belief was expected by all to be challenged.

I’ve mentioned to friends that I feel today as though at the moment I started studying the Middle Ages in 1980, the world around me began an intellectual rush backward to that very time.  This backward rush is exactly something Bronowski dreaded and perhaps expected:

Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts.  Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures.  You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs.  That is really crucial today.  You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming.  And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.  The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.   p. 436-7

We sit now with eleven years left in the half-century Bronowski mentions.  Will the schoolbook commonplaces be those necessary to our existence?  I wonder.

If it were to be dropped by his own, Bronowski expected the torch to be lifted by another culture:

We are a scientific civilisation: that means, a civilisation in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial.  Science is only a Latin word for knowledge.  If we do not take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere, in Africa, in China . . .  p. 437

When I look around the world today, I’m not sure the torch will be held high again any time soon, anywhere.

Science as Art

In Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul cautions us all of the rise of the technocratic class, the Men of Reason who have come to be humanity’s actual rulers.  It may seem that Bronowski, in his celebration of the great discoveries of scientists, is promoting the sort of technocratic rule Saul asks us to struggle against. But, The Ascent of Man is not some sort of technocratic celebration of the rise of white coated Analytical Man.  Rather, Bronowski is emphatic that Science is nothing, cannot exist, except as engagement with humanity as a whole:

the aristocracy of the intellect is a belief which can only destroy the civilisation we know.  If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect.  We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed.  And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.  p. 435


. . . the intellectual leadership of the twentieth century rests with scientists.  And that poses a grave problem, because science is also a source of power that walks close to government and that the state wants to harness.  But if science allows itself to go that way, the beliefs of the twentieth century will fall to pieces in cynicism.  We shall be left without belief, because no beliefs can be built up in this century that are not based on science as the recognition of the uniqueness of man, and a pride in his gifts and works.  It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.  p. 429-432

I can’t help but notice that today there has been a resurgence of belief based not on science, but on rejection of science, from anti-vaxers, to climate change deniers, to chem trailers and to all the various shapes and stripes of New Age philosophies, health plans, diets and conspiracy theories.  Bronowski warns us against such rejection:

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers.  That is false, tragically false.  Look for yourself.  This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz.  This is where people were turned into numbers.  Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  And that was not done by gas.  It was done by arrogance.  It was done by dogma.  It was done by ignorance.  When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.  This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge.  We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped.  Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.  Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.  In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’.

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness.  We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.  We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.  We have to touch people.  p. 374

Science is not absolute knowledge. In fact, Bronowski argues that the method of Science is the method of Art, indeed, in the epigram at the head of this post, that Science is Art, that Art is Science.

. . . We are aware that these pictures do not so much fix the face as explore it; that the artist is tracing the detail almost as if by touch; and that each line that is added strengthens the picture but never makes it final.  We accept that as the method of the artist.

But what physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge.  There is no absolute knowledge.  p. 353

As long as I can remember, I have felt no distinction between art and science, these two unnecessarily separated fields of human, endeavour, exploration and discovery.  Reading The Ascent of Man today is like tasting again the intellectual mother’s milk that fed the child that is the father of this man.

I’ve mentioned, probably too often, that as a child I discovered the poetry of Yeats in a book of science by Shklovskii and Sagan.  Just today I discovered that the BBC producer, Adrian Malone,  and one director, David Kennard, of The Ascent of Man a short time later produced Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  Another piece of the puzzle of my own intellectual development fell into place.

The 1970s, the years of all but the first, childish part of my schooling, were years of Science as Art as Science and Art as Science as Art.  And they were years of hope.  Humans walked on the moon, space stations, Salyuts and Skylab, were in orbit, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had shaken hands in the Apollo-Soyuz docking adapter.  In my little world, I watched Residential School survivor Alex Janvier paint a magnificent mural in the government building across the street from my school.  In that same building I learned the rudiments of television production.  Paolo Soleri’s monumental, inspiring, and perhaps absurd Arcology: The City in the Image of Man was on the very full shelves of my High School Library.  When I was able to, I bought my own copy of Soleri’s book:


Here, in this scientific/artistic ferment of hope for humanity, my intellect was formed.  Sometime later I discovered the work of Hugh Ferriss, a purveyor of human scientific/artistic hope of a previous generation to mine.

A few years before the revelation of The Ascent of Man I had watched Lord Clark’s Civilisation.  I’m watching it again now as I write.  Although I later studied and published on the very periods Clark discusses in his series, I don’t think it was then, and it certainly is not now, in any great way, inspiring.  Why is it that Clark’s Civilisation, while a brilliant presentation of culture, has so little to inspire the child I was and perhaps still am? And why is Bronowski’s program, in spite of a few flaws of prejudice or fact, such a powerful spur to my desire to learn in every waking minute?

My immediate explanation:

Bronowski provides a play-by-play of Humanity’s physical and cultural evolution, with the clear emphasis being on the fact that the life of Humanity, the Ascent of Man, is a never ending game.  Meanwhile, Clark gives a dry description of the footprints and blood stains in the sand after the players have gone to the dressing rooms in the completed stadium we call Civilisation.  The game that continues in Bronowski’s world is long ended in the world of Clark.  Perhaps it doesn’t help that Lord Sir Kenneth Clark is a stiff and stuffy Englishman of ossified privilege.  Dr. Jacob Bronowski, on the other hand, is a Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who, in spite of the horrors of his century, retains a stunning, arresting hope in the continuing rise of human knowledge, wisdom, and morality.  Interestingly, the great art critic seems cold, to have little human sensitivity while the mathematician/scientist exudes wisdom, hope, generosity, warmth and, in all of the best ways, humanity.

And, diagnostically, Clark says in the last episode: “I know next to nothing about science. . . ”

Whither the Humanities?

There has been much soul-searching of late in the Academic Humanities about the supposed fading of the importance to society at large of the arts of living in a free society — the Liberal Arts.  “Where is the Niel DeGrasse Tyson of the Humanities?” is a question that was asked after the launch of the new, Tyson-hosted, version of Sagan’s Cosmos.  Well, if a previous generation’s experience is any indication, the Humanities’ Tyson today will be a Bronowski rather than a Clark, perhaps a scientist rather than a cultural scholar.  If the Humanities want to inspire they must tell the world what they drive Humanity toward, not just whence Humanity has come.

Bronowski shows us a glow of this future road.  But, I feel, with horror, that we seem to be heading down a dark turning he anticipated:

And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into — into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery.  They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it.  An understanding of man himself.  We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex.  Knowledge is our destiny.  Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.  p. 437

Knowledge, ever broadening but never complete, is our destiny, if we don’t lose our nerve.  If we lose our nerve, if we become complacent in our ignorance, or worse, in a feeling of absolute certainty, then we are lost to the rule the dictators, the autocrats and the technocrats who have concerns far different from the well-being of humanity.

Brownowski concludes The Ascent of Man with a behind-the-scenes note on the making of the television series.  On the morning of the day the first words of the series were to be filmed, a camera plane crashed.  Remarkably, the pilot, cameraman and sound technician emerged shaken but unhurt.  I will close with Bronowski’s words of hope for our continued progress into the future, despite the momentary set backs of ignorance, reactionarianism, or plane crashes:

…naturally the ominous event made a deep impression on me.  Here was I preparing to unfold the pageant of the past, and the present quietly put its hand through the printed page of history and said, ‘It is here. It is now.’ History is not events, but people.   And it is not just people remembering, it is people acting and living their past in the present.  History is the pilot’s instant act of decision, which crystalises all the knowledge, all the science, all that has been learned since man began.

We sat about in the camp for two days waiting for another plane.  And I said to the cameraman, kindly, though perhaps not tactfully, that he might prefer to have someone else take the shots that had to be filmed from the air.  He said, ‘I’ve thought of that.  I’m going to be afraid when I go up tomorrow, but I’m going to do the filming. It’s what I have to do.’

We are all afraid — for our confidences, for the future, for the world.  That is the nature of the human imagination.  Yet every man, every civilisation, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.  The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.  p. 438

6 comments on “A Personal View of Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”

  1. Cracraft says:

    Interesting Read

  2. Jarkko Hietaniemi says:

    Have you read Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World? It touches upon the very same points, although from a “harder” (as in physics) scientific viewpoint.

    (I found this blog entry by searching for reviews of the wonderful Ascent of Man. So glad that other people felt the same way about the series.)

    • Yes, I certainly have read The Demon Haunted World! I am always saddened when I think of how disappointed Dr Sagan would have been in the even more haunted world we have today.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  3. I’m an MD of 32 years and have come to realized after studying Complementary and Alternative Medicine modalities of treatments that my formal medical training, 1979-1997 was simply brain modification to be an obedient ghost.

    My role and programming was to manage tormented ghost with 3 options; 1. Being a traffic manager to funnel innocent souls to and from specialists. 2. Treat with medications. 3. Refer for these tormented souls to have surgery.

    Today, I 100% certain that I was a loyal blinded obedient ghost who fulfilled my role with the best of my ability from 1979-2003.

    After a few courses in the world of CAM and using them with profound success in 2003, I can for certain conclude that we, as a scientific society, have crossed the line of reality into playing Gods.

    We began to play Gods in 1968 with the first knee replacement for the treatment of pain.
    This was never suppose to happen and something afterwards someone would have stopped it from happening again. Profits have always been able to alter human behaviors negatively. We took a step backwards from truth and light to that of lies and darkness.

    The most common primary location of pain is in the muscles. Plain old hands-on physical therapy is all that is needed to free someone from pain.

    Muscles cause leg pain.
    Muscles cause back pain.
    Muscles cause shoulder pain.

    The skeleton, nerves or the brain cannot cause pain.

    For surgeons to continue to replace joints or attempt to treat the spine for muscle pain, they had to alter human anatomy and how we all view where pain is located.

    Then they went behind the education scenes to alter all of the medical education books. So now when someone thinks “knee pain, they automatically go to have and MRI in preparation for their knee replacement.

    Wondering why healthcare is crashing??

    No one in charge to look after and maintain “the of integrity of who we are as ethical creatures.”

    May God help us all when this system crashes.

    Thanks JB,
    Thanks John,

    Dr Rodrigues

  4. […] I have written at length about Bronowski’s masterpiece elsewhere, so, a link. […]

  5. penwithlit says:

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    This series like that of Kenneth Clark is worth looking at once again. Naturally- very different in their approach.

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