Review: The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of ManThe Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.

I watched this series right after finishing Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, as I’d heard The Ascent of Man described as a companion piece. So like my review of Clark’s work, this review is about the documentary and not the book (though since the book is just a transcription of the series, I’m sure it applies to both).

The Ascent of Man is a remarkable program. I had doubts that anyone could produce a series to match Civilisation, but Bronowski made something that might even be better. Bronowski was a polymath: he did work in mathematics, biology, physics, history, and even poetry. In this program, his topic is the history of science. Yet for Bronowski, the word “science” not only refers to the modern scientific method, but rather encompasses all of humanity’s efforts to understand and manipulate the natural world.

We thus begin with Homo erectus, learning how to chip away stone to make tools. As Bronowski notes, this simple ability, to chip away at a stone until a cutting edge is left, is a remarkable indication of human uniqueness. Since the behavior is learned and is not an instinct, it requires a preconception of what the toolmaker wants to create, a certain amount of imagination is required to picture the goal before it is realized. What’s more, creating a stone tool requires a sense of the structural properties of the rock. (I’ve actually tried making stone tools with various types of rock, and let me tell you that it’s not so easy. Even with an archaeologist giving me advice, I was only able to create stone tools of the sophistication of an Australopithecus—randomly beating the stone until a sharp edge was created.) Thus both our creative drive and our knowledge are involved in this quintessentially human activity. “Every animal leaves traces of what he was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.”

This brings Bronowski to one of his main points, one of the themes of this series: that art and science are not fundamentally different; rather, they are two manifestations of the human spirit. What is this human spirit? It is a composite of many qualities, what Bronowski calls “a jigsaw of human faculties,” which include our wide behavioral flexibility, our capacity to play, our need to create, our curiosity about the natural world, our sense of adventure, our love of variety. Indeed, these can be pithily described by saying that humans retain many childlike characteristics throughout their lives. The name of the last episode is “The Long Childhood.”

One of my favorite sequences in this documentary is when Bronowski takes the viewer from the posts and lintels of the Greek temples, to the arches in the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, to the somewhat prettier arches in the Mezquita in Cordoba, to the cathedral at Reims with its magnificent flying buttresses. Each of these structures, he explains, is a more sophisticated solution to this problem: how do you create a covered space out of stone? The lintel and post system used by the Greeks leads to a forest of columns, and the Mezquita, although less crowded, is still filled with arches. The Medieval Christians achieved a magnificent solution by placing the buttresses on the outside, thus leading to the towering, open interior of Reims.

We’re used to thinking of this development as an architectural triumph, but as Bronowski points out, it was also an intellectual triumph. This progression represents better and better understandings of the structural properties of stone, of the force of gravity, and of the distribution of weight. And when you see it play out in front of your eyes, it’s hard to shake the impression that these marvelous works are also progressively more elegant solutions to a mathematical puzzle. This is just one example of Bronowski’s talent: to see the artistic in the scientific and the scientific in the artistic; and he does this by seeing the human spirit in all of it.

Here’s another example. Bronowski wants to talk about how humanity has come to understand space, and how this understanding of space underpins our knowledge of structure. How does he do it? He goes to the Alhambra, and analyzes the symmetry in the tiles of the Moorish Palace. Then, he bends down and spreads a bunch of crystals on the ground, and begins to talk about the molecular symmetry that gave rise to them. It’s such a stunning juxtaposition. How many people would think to compare Moorish architecture with modern chemistry? But it’s so appropriate and so revealing that I couldn’t help but be awed.

As the title suggests, this series is not simply about science (or art), but about science through history. Bronowski aims to show how humanity, once freed from the constraints of instinct, used a combination of logic and imagination to achieve ever-deeper conceptions of our place in the universe. This is the Ascent of Man: a quest for self knowledge. It’s sometimes hard for us moderns to grasp this, but consider that we are living in one of the brief times in history that we can explain the formation of the earth, the origin of our species, and even the workings of our own brains. Imagine not knowing any of that. It’s hard to envy former ages when you consider that their sense of their place of the universe was based on myth supported by authority, or was simply a mystery. I’m sure (and I earnestly hope) that future generations will believe the same about us.

Bronowski’s final message is a plea to continue this ascent. This means spreading a understanding and an appreciation of science, as his programs tries to do. This strikes me as terribly important. I’ve met so many people who say things like “Science is a form of faith” or “Science can’t solve every problem” or “Science is dehumanizing and arrogant.” It’s sad to hear intelligent people say things like this, for it simply isn’t true. It’s an abuse of language to call science a faith; then what isn’t? And yes, of course science can’t solve every problem and can’t answer every question; but can anything? Science can solve some problems, and can do so very well. And science, as Bronowski points out, is the very opposite of dehumanizing and arrogant. Science is a most human form of knowledge, born of humility of our intellectual powers, based on repeated mistakes and guesses, always pressing forward into the unknown, always revising its opinions based on evidence. Atrocities are committed, not by people who are trained to question their own beliefs, but by ideologues who are convinced they are right.

This is Bronowski’s essential message. But like in any good story, the telling is half of it. As I’ve mentioned above, Bronowski and his team are brilliant at finding unexpected ways to illustrate abstract ideas. This series is full of wonderful and striking visual illustrations of Bronowski’s points. What’s more, the man is a natural storyteller, and effectively brings to life many of this series’ heroes: Newton, Galileo, Alfred Russell Wallace, Mendel. He’s also a poet; one of his books is a study of William Blake’s poetry. This not only gives him a knack for similes, but helps him to explain how science is fundamentally creative. One of my favorite scenes is when Bronowski compares abstract portraits of a man to the ways that various scientific instruments—radar, infrared, cameras, X-rays—detect the man’s face. As he explains, both the portrait and these readings are interpretations of their subjects.

The cinematography is also excellent. There are some sequences in this documentary that are still impressive, saturated as we are with CGI. There are even some quite psychedelic sections. One of my favorite of these was a sequence of microscopic shots of human cells with Pink Floyd (who contributed music) jamming chaotically in the background. Unlike in Clark’s Civilisation, which uses exclusively ‘classical’ music and is devoid of special effects, the style of this documentary is surprisingly modern and even edgy. Another thing Bronowski does that Clark doesn’t, is include some information on non-Western cultures, from Meso-America, Japan, China, and Easter Island.

Yes, there are some parts of this that are outdated. Most obviously, much of the scientific information is no longer accurate—particularly the information on human evolution in the first episode. This is unavoidable, and is in fact a tribute to the ideals Bronowski championed. More jarring is Bronowski’s somewhat negative assessments of the culture of Easter Island and the lifestyle of nomadic peoples. Less controversially, he also has some negative words to say about Hegel. (Did you know Hegel published an absurd thesis when he was young about how the distance of the orbits of the planets had to conform to a number series?) Another mark of this program’s age is that Bronowski several times shows nudity and even a human birth. This would never fly on television today, at least not in the States.

But these flaws are minor in such a tremendous program. The Ascent of Man is a landmark in the history of science education and of documentary making, and a stirring vision of the progress of humanity by an brilliant and sympathetic man. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

View all my reviews

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