(This is the second in a series of reviews of the seven best classic documentaries of broadcast television. The first review in the series , published in the April 2007 issue of
TNI, was of
Civilisation by Kenneth Clark
“Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals, so that unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape, he is the shaper of the landscape.”
With these words, Jacob Bronowski articulated the central theme of The Ascent of Man and everything that his title implies: man is the knower and the creator. Bronowski’s series is a history of the advance of human science and technology. But he provides more than just a fascinating, creative tour of what we know and how we know it, though it certainly is that. In each episode, he also highlights the deepest aspects of the human mind and soul.
Bronowski was born in Poland in 1908. By 1920, his family had moved to Britain, where he studied both mathematics and literature at Cambridge and eventually obtained a doctorate in the former. During World War II, he was part of the official observing team that studied the effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, Bronowski turned to biology, and in 1964 he was appointed associate director of the Salk Institute. He died in 1974, just a year after filming this series. It was to be the capstone of his career, as the multifaceted nature of his interests and expertise made him the perfect guide for a tour of the ascent of man.
Man the Creator
In the first episode, “Lower Than the Angels,” Bronowski begins with biology, looking at animal evolution and our own. He observes that, in contrast to its impact on other animals, evolution “has not fitted man to any specific environment ... This is the paradox of the human condition—one that fits [man] to all environments. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it. And that series of inventions by which man from age to age has remade his environment is a different kind of evolution—not biological, but cultural evolution. I call that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks, ‘The Ascent of Man.’”
This statement from three and a half decades ago seems even bolder today, since the ruling ideology tends to damn man for just this, his unique means both of surviving and flourishing, materially and spiritually.
Medieval stone masons were an “intellectual aristocracy …intoxicated by their newfound command of the force in stone.”
Bronowski offers an example of man’s spiritual quest from his own life. In 1924 a two-million-year-old fossil skeleton was discovered. Called the “Taung” child, it had a small, pre-human brain; it walked upright and thus could use its hands; and its teeth were small, unlike the canine teeth of an ape. In 1950, Bronowski, who knew nothing of fossils or teeth, was asked to combine measurements of the size of the teeth with their shape, so as to discriminate this fossil’s teeth from the teeth of apes. He tells us that his findings “transmitted to me a sense of excitement which I remember this instant. I, at over forty, having spent a life time on doing abstract mathematics about the shapes of things, suddenly saw my knowledge reach back two million years and shine a searchlight into the history of man. That was phenomenal.” From then on, he thought about what makes man what he is.
He traces the evolution of the human brain, our ability to use our hands, to walk upright, to make tools. Standing before the skeleton of a giant dinosaur that dwarfs him and holding in his hand a small tool made by an early human ancestor, he observes, “Every animal leaves traces of what it was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.”
He proceeds through man’s mastery of fire and his invention of primitive tools, then takes us into a dark cave where, on the wall, prehistoric men painted figures of the animals they hunted, drawings that could only be seen by firelight. In this, the earliest human art, the “power that we see expressed here for the first time is [the] power of forward-looking imagination.” Through art, early men tried to familiarize themselves and perhaps younger, first-time hunters with the dangers they had to face. “Look along the ascent of man, because what we call cultural evolution is essentially a constant growing and widening of the human imagination.”
Creator vs. Predator
In a later episode, “Harvest of the Seasons,” Bronowski demonstrates that there could be no real civilization until humans ceased to be nomads. There was no room for innovation when humans, like the Lapps of the north or the Bakhtiari in Persia, simply followed herds of animals. Theirs were lives without futures because every day was like the last: a never-varying routine. It was only when humans began to farm wheat that they created surpluses beyond their immediate needs, and it was only from such surpluses that civilization could begin to take root and grow.
Bronowski then contrasts the creator with his nemesis, “the predator,” defining the age-old conflict between the producer and the looter. “[T]he predator poses as hero because he rides the whirlwind. But the whirlwind is empty” because whether it carries “Genghis Khan or Hitler or Stalin, it can only feed on the labors of other men.” Bronowski rejects the premise that warfare is something we can’t help. “War, organized war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and cooperative form of theft, and that form of theft began 10,000 years ago when the harvesters of wheat accumulated a surplus and nomads rose out of the desert to rob them of what they themselves could not provide.” Later, “Genghis Khan and his Mongol dynasty brought that thieving way of life into our millennium. From 1200 to 1300, they made almost the last attempt to establish the supremacy of the robber who produces nothing and who…comes to take from the peasant, who has nowhere to flee, the surplus that agriculture accumulates. Yet that attempt failed.” Such looters eventually “became settlers, because theft—war—is not a permanent state that can be sustained.”
Man the Builder
In “The Grain in the Stone,” Bronowski introduces us to man the builder. “Man has also become an architect of his environment, but he does not command forces as powerful as those of nature. His method has been selective and probing, an intellectual approach in which action depends on understanding.” Building is a matter not just of the hands, but of the mind.
He takes us on a tour of the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, and of Greek and Roman architecture, the last of which gave us the arch. “In a sense,” he says, “the arch is the triumph of the intellectual method, which takes nature apart and puts the pieces together in new and more powerful combinations.”
Medieval stone masons “carried in their heads a stock, not so much of patterns, as of ideas that grew by experience as they went from one site to the next…” These “wandering builders were an intellectual aristocracy, and they called themselves ‘free masons’ as early as the 14th century. One has the sense that the men who conceived these buildings were intoxicated by their newfound command of the force in the stone.”
Bronowski links those who study atoms and DNA today with the cathedral builders of our past. “We see science as a description and explanation of the underlying structures in nature. And words like ‘structure,’ ‘pattern,’ ‘plan,’ ‘arrangement,’ ‘architecture’ constantly occur in every description that we try to make.” In this, we draw upon those early masons, who “took a dead heap of stones which is not a cathedral, and . . . turned it into a cathedral by exploiting the natural forces of gravity—the way the stone was laid, the brilliant invention of flying buttresses and the arch, and so on. And they created a structure out of the analysis of nature into this superb synthesis. The kind of man who is interested in the architecture of nature today is the kind of man who made this architecture nearly 800 years ago.”
In this way, Bronowski ties both the arts and sciences to a necessary prerequisite that is embodied by creative individuals in all ages: a strict respect for objective reality and for the natural laws that govern it.
But what motivates human creativity? “There is one gift above all others that makes man unique among the animals, and it’s the gift displayed everywhere here: His immense pleasure in exercising and pushing forward his own skill.” Indeed, it’s the dominant motive in human history. “The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well. And having done it well, he loves to do it better.” Monuments, he notes, are supposed to commemorate kings, religions, heroes, and dogmas, “but in the end, the man they commemorate is the builder.”
The Challenge to Dogma
Next, in “The Starry Messenger,” Bronowski takes up the story of the beginning of modern science and the crucial social condition for its advance: the freedom to think.
Galileo made and used a telescope to do basic research into the heavens between September 1609 and March 1610. He discovered four satellites orbiting the planet Jupiter and mountains and other irregular features on the moon. Observations published in his book “The Starry Messenger” suggested that, contrary to Ptolemy’s theory of 1,400 years before and the dogmas of the Catholic Church in his time, the earth was not the center of the solar system; rather, as Copernicus had maintained, it orbited the sun.
Hearing that his views did not sit well with the church, Galileo visited Rome for clarification. He obtained a certificate saying that he could not hold or defend these views as being true, but, presumably, that he could continue to discuss them, which he did during the following years. However, after his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was published in 1632, Galileo was ordered by an angry Catholic hierarchy to Rome the following year to appear before the Inquisition.
There it was claimed that he had been barred not only from holding or defending the Copernican view, but that he also had been prohibited from teaching about the theory in any way. The proof? There was none. Bronowski shows us the document the Inquisition produced that had supposedly barred all his teaching. It was either a manifest forgery or, at best, a draft that had been rejected. In any case, it was not signed by anyone. Galileo was shown the instruments of torture, and with that threat before his eyes he was forced to denounce his works. He suffered house arrest for the rest of his life.
“Did the Inquisition really have to stoop to the use of legal quibbles between ‘hold’ and ‘defend,’ ‘teach in any way whatsoever,’ in the face of documents which could not stand up in any court of law?” Bronowski asks. “Yes, it did. There was nothing else to do. The book had been published” and, therefore, “some remarkable public display had to be made to show that the book was to be condemned.” He concludes: “There was never any doubt that Galileo would be silenced because the division between him and those in authority was absolute. They believed that faith should dominate, and Galileo believed that truth should persuade.”
The Heroic Age
In “The Drive for Power,” Bronowski discusses the revolutionary implications of man’s productive power. The Industrial Revolution, he says, “forms a triad of revolutions of which the other two are the American Revolution that started in 1775 and the French Revolution that started in 1789. It may seem strange to put into the same packet an industrial revolution and two political revolutions. But the fact is they were all social revolutions. The Industrial Revolution is simply the English way of making those social changes. I think of it as the English Revolution.”
Most of its early inventions were for practical use. We have a portrait of that paradigm of the practical man of reason, Benjamin Franklin. We see the red sky of the forge and factory that was the symbol of Industrial Revolution in England. And to the music of Beethoven’s revolutionary Third Symphony, we see iron bridges. “Did the architecture of iron really rival the cathedrals?” Bronowski’s answer could not be more Politically Incorrect: “It did. This was a heroic age … The monuments of the Industrial Revolution have Roman grandeur. The grandeur of republican man.”
The revolution was rooted in the countryside. “We dream that the country was idyllic in the 18th century. A lost paradise like Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village. That’s a fable. The country was a place where men worked from dawn to dusk. And the laborer lived not in the sun but in poverty and darkness.”
“The monuments of the Industrial Revolution have Roman grandeur. The grandeur of republican man.”
Not surprisingly, the most far-reaching social effects of the Industrial Revolution were to be found among the masses that, until then, had seen their miserable lives little changed for thousands of years. “The good life is more than material decency. But the good life must be based on material decency.” As Bronowski reminds us, “It’s comic to think that cotton underwear and soap could work a transformation in the lives of the poor. Yet these simple things—coal in an iron range, glass in the windows, choice of food—were a wonderful rise in he standard of life and health. By our standards, the industrial towns were slums. But to the people who had come from the cottage, a house in a terrace was a liberation from hunger, from dirt, from disease; it offered a new wealth of choice.” And more than just choice: “Probably the iron bedstead saved more women from childbed fever than the doctor’s black bag.”
All these advances came from mass production in the factory. Sure, Bronowski acknowledges, through today’s eyes, we see conditions in these factories as ghastly. But so were conditions in mines and workshops long before the Industrial Revolution. Factories simply carried on as village industry had done before them. And pollution from the factory was not new, either.
Mind and Morality
The twentieth century, of course, brought the horrors of war unimaginable in the past, especially in Nazi Germany. In “Knowledge and Certainty,” Bronowski speaks of that time and place as the “betrayal of the human spirit,” and he condemns “the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts—obedient ghosts or tortured ghosts.”
“It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers,” he continues. “That’s false. Tragically false.” In one of the most moving scenes in the series, our guide stands at the Auschwitz death camp before a pond in which the ashes of some four million murdered individuals—including, he believes, some of his own relatives—were dumped. “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 they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave.” By contrast, “Science is a tribute to what we can know, although we are fallible.”
In the final episode, “The Long Childhood,” Bronowski returns to the fundamental distinctions between humans and animals. “The ability to plan actions for which the reward is a long way off is the central thing that the human brain has to which there’s no match in animal brains…”
This capacity to plan is part of our biological nature, and it accounts for the long human childhood, when the young put off mature decision-making in order to accumulate knowledge so that they might later act wisely. Indeed, the theme of the seminal drama in English, Hamlet, concerns a hero who, facing his first great decision, was not ready intellectually and emotionally.
Evolution has invested much in the human brain and its need for a long period of development. Yet “for most of history, civilization has simply ignored that enormous potential … For most of history, children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” There have been many past civilizations, “yet by one test they all fail: They limited the freedom of the imagination of the young.” Bronowski calls these “minority cultures,” because in them “only a tiny fraction of all that talent that mankind produces is actually used.” The quintessential example is the Middle Ages, when the few individuals who were allowed to ascend the church hierarchy found one last commandment: “Thou shall not question.”
Bronowski issues a moral call for individual responsibility. “Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts; it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are—above all, of what we are as ethical creatures.”
Man’s Next Step
It is chilling to hear him telling us from a vantage point thirty-five years ago that “fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the school books, we shall not exist. The commonplace of the school books of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that’s what we’re engaged in. And I’m infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the West by a sense of a terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into…into what? Into Zen Buddhism—into profound questions about ‘Are we not really just animals at bottom?— into extra sensory perception....”
Isn’t that what we have come to today? As the West, especially in Europe, abandons so many of the principles that made it civilized, its youth retreat into the mindless, the uncritical, and the superficial.
“It sounds very pessimistic to talk about Western civilization with a sense of retreat,” he admits. “I’ve been so optimistic about the ascent of man, am I going to give up at this moment? Of course not. The ascent of man will go on, but don’t assume that it will go on carried by Western civilization as we know it.
“We are being weighed in the balance at this moment. If we give up, the next step will be taken, but not by us. We have not been given any guarantee that Assyria and Egypt and Rome were not given. We are a scientific civilization. That means a civilization in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial. ‘Science’ is only a Latin word for knowledge. If we don’t take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere—in Africa, in China.”
With globalization, low-cost travel, and instant communications, ideas—for better or worse—are now global as well. Which ideas and values do we want to see adopted by giant, emerging powers like India and China, and by all the other smaller but still potentially important nations? Values that celebrate man, the proud creator and thinker—or values that foster man the envious looter and dogmatist?
Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man is perhaps the most philosophically profound and insightful of any of the classic documentaries. For this reason, and for the unique way it transports us through the development of humanity’s understanding of the world and itself, it may possibly be the finest documentary series ever made. Bronowski the man was fascinating, insightful, lucid, and thought-provoking; and his series has stood the test of time because it highlights timeless truths. It is a one that no individualist should miss.