An Astonishing Ascent

It seems somehow to have always been there. I cannot remember when it first came to my attention but I have long been aware of it as a landmark or rather a landscape in the background of my mind.

Jacob Bronowski’s documentary series, The Ascent of Man, was first broadcast on BBC2 in 1973. I was only nine years old at the time and am almost certain I did not watch it. But I guess I must have seen a re-run some time later because Bronowski’s face and voice have long been familiar to me, along with the sense that his program is highly regarded.

It was one of those TV series that I always meant to get around to watching. The DVD had been languishing on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years. But only recently, when I came across a blog post by David Colquhoun, was I propelled into action. The post was a fascinating reflection on the nature of scientific investigation and ended with a video segment from the series of Bronowski, who was originally a Polish Jew, standing in Auschwitz and talking about the humanity of science. It is an extremely powerful piece of film. I decided I would wait no more and placed my order.

The Ascent of Man consists of thirteen programs, each lasting 50 minutes. Knowing that I would struggle to find the time in the evenings, I ripped the DVDs to MP4 files that I could watch on my iPhone during the commute to work. It was sitting on a train that I started on episode one.

Ascent of Man

A tiny figure silhouetted by the rising sun ascends to the top of a rocky mountain in East Africa, the cradle of humankind, and declares slowly but emphatically:

“Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts that 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.”

From that eloquent opening, I was hooked. I could barely tear myself away and watched it on the train, to and from work, in bed last thing at night and first thing in the morning. I got though the whole series in under two weeks. It was magnificent.

Bronowski sets himself the task of recounting the history of mankind, focusing on how the development of his intellectual faculties and his scientific achievements have contributed to the rise of civilisation. The emphasis is scientific but Bronowski’s knowledge and understanding are broad and deep, embracing history, politics, architecture, art, literature and psychology.

The scope of the tale is breath-taking. Starting with the evolution of man, it wends from the development of early human society and agriculture, to the first hints of man’s understanding of the world around him, to his growing mastery of matter and energy, and leads inexorably to our late 20th Century conception of the universe and man’s place within it.

Much of the material will be familiar to viewers, particularly those of a scientific bent, but it is the span and completeness of the narrative, recounted in Bronowski’s signature style that makes viewing such a sumptuous and rewarding experience. He has a talent for exposition that I have never seen bettered and a eye for colourful detail that is charming. His presentation is enriched by his sympathetic humanity and shows no trace of condescension towards the viewer.

For me, the particular delights of The Ascent of Man are Bronowski’s longer disquisitions to camera that reveal both his passion for his subject and his total command of the material, whether it be the manufacture of a samurai sword, the trial of Galileo or Mendel’s theory of inheritance. No subject is too abstruse or difficult to defy Bronowski’s ambition for his story. His emphatic pauses and gestures — that hand carefully reaching up to touch his forehead for a moment, the oft-repeated “And yet…” — may be part of a performance, but there is never any serious doubt that you are in the presence of a quite wonderful teacher.

The Ascent of Man is nearly 40 years old and in some ways shows its age. The look of the program will seem a little dated to some, but it is still astoundingly beautiful. Recorded on 16 mm film, the program may have none of the spectacular high-definition of modern television, but nor does it suffer from the more recent obsession with fast cuts and shaky, hand-held camera-work. In fact the evident care taken in the composition of many of the images presented and the set-up of lengthy tracking shots imbue the films with a quality that has stood — and will yet stand — the test of time.

I don’t want to say any more; I fear I may have gushed too much. My account may have too much of the lover’s uncritical eye. But I would like you to be able to enjoy it, to discover it, to re-discover it for yourself.
Bronowski himself said of the project:

“…my ambition has been to create a philosophy for the 20th Century which shall be all of one place. One part of that is to teach people to command science — to have command of the basic ideas of modern science, so that they can take command of its use.”

In that part of his ambition, he has succeeded in full measure.

I will only tell you finally that I found The Ascent of Man to be utterly compelling. I think I would also like it to be compulsory.

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21 Responses to An Astonishing Ascent

  1. Nature Network Team says:

    And the ascent of man never slows. You were able to watch the entire history of our species unfold on a rectangle of glass no bigger than the palm of your hand, while hurtling through the countryside three times faster than the fastest horse.
    An impassioned recommendation, Stephen. I’ll have to track this series down. And Cosmos – I still haven’t got round to seeing that.

  2. Matt Brown says:

    Gah, the above comment was from me. MT is playing silly buggers with accounts.

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

    MT5 will fix that.

  4. Lou Woodley says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, Stephen. Having almost got to the end of back-to-back watching of all 5 seasons of The Wire, I need something to move on to next!

  5. Bob O'Hara says:

    I bought it on DVD a couple of years ago, but it’s still in the shrink wrap. This is another reminder to watch it with Grrl and The Menagerie (but only once we’ve finished going through Scrubs).
    Life on Earth next? It’s another show that’s wonderful, but show its age (especially when he show the Hallucegenia fossil – I wanted to shout “it’s the wrong way up!” at the screen).

  6. Mike Fowler says:

    I agree with Bob, it sounds much like the early Attenborough documentaries, which were an inspiration for me. And still are – I’m working through the “Blue Earth”: DVDs, but lacking anything more than a 10 min stroll to work, it’s not so easy to get through them quickly.
    I’ll have to flag up the quote you quoth…
    bq. “Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts that 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.”
    It’s a terribly anthropocentric view of things. I think a major prediction of evolutionary theory is that organisms have to arrive at different ways of doing the same thing (surviving and reproducing), so we’re all wonderfully unique.
    There are so many other examples of species that _shape_ the landscape (I’d say everything does, but just think of anything that builds a nest), as much as, and sometimes in combination with humans (building nests with/around man made objects), that this is certainly not something that distinguishes humans from other species.

  7. Matt Brown says:

    Yes, that is a very strange view of life. I guess people thought about ecology and environment a lot less back then. Perhaps we can amend it to ‘he is the shaper of the landscape of other worlds’ – which remains a uniquely human activity within our knowledge.

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    I think you’re being a wee bit picky Mike. For sure it is true that birds’ and termites’ nests, for example, are modifications of the environment but it’s hard to think of them as landscape changers on anything like the scale achieved by humankind. Which is Bronowski’s point.
    Lou – I’ve watched The Wire too (also mostly on my iPhone). It is superb but I think I enjoyed AoM just as much!

  9. Austin Elliott says:

    I can see why Mike is critique-ing that sentence, but in a way one can read it as prophetic – no other animal has ever shown the ability to figuratively “eat the planet” the way mankind is busy doing – something that is far more evident now then when Bronowski was writing the scripts nigh-on four decades ago.
    Great blog, BTW, Stephen. Being a couple of years older than you I _might_ even have seen some of the programmes when they originally went out, thought I guess it is more likely that I watched re-runs some time in the mid-to-late 70s. Anyway, after reading this I too am tempted to go and buy the DVDs.

  10. Mike Fowler says:

    Stephen, I haven’t watched _The Ascent_ (at least, as far as I can remember), so I could be missing a lot of context.[1] Mibbe I’ll add it to my wish list as well.
    But if it’s a question of _scale_, I’d still argue that what we do isn’t that much more special than anything else, far less unique. In terms of population numbers, it’s easy to argue that there are masses of species that have more individuals than there are humans. And they shape and respond to their environment. An example here might be gut fauna, modifying gut PH and adapting rapidly to what goes on throughout the digestion of a normal meal. They have the power to do us some serious damage if they want to… I bow before my intestinal overlords.[2]
    And Austin, my paleontology ain’t what it could be, but I gather it’s a tricky science to practice. And we’ll see where we are once the dusts settles after the next great extinction 😉
    Thinking about things in terms of what we do to the planet earth is still anthropocentric. At that scale, we undoubtedly have a huge impact. But it wouldn’t have been possible without a host of other species acting in concert with us and our needs. Without a variety of insects, agriculture would never have taken off as it has. Who knows where we’d be then? Trying to get a wifi signal for our iRocks from our caves?
    fn1. And you must have realised by now that I’ll only open my trap if I’m going to be picky about summat.
    fn2. especially after a hard night on the sauce.

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    Cheers Austin – you are right to see it as prophetic. But more than that, Bronowski’s aim is to explore how humans, uniquely among the animals, have developed the faculties to understand their situation in the universe.
    Mike – I’m sure your understanding of evolution and ecology is far deeper than mine. I don’t mind being picked up on such technicalities though we shouldn’t perhaps expend too much energy dissecting the opening line of a 13-part series!
    Bronowski does go on shortly thereafter to amplify the explanation of his theme but I can’t recall the exact words at the moment. I’ll try to dig them out.
    And as for Trying to get a wifi signal for our iRocks from our caves?, oddly enough I was struggling with just that in my own cave yesterday afternoon. I was on the point of sacrificing a Virgin but decided to call their tech support instead…

  12. Cath Ennis says:

    I’ve never seen it, although my parents have the book that accompanied the series and I seem to remember flicking through it on the odd rainy afternoon. I have a backlog of videos to watch, but will put this on my list!

  13. Bob O'Hara says:

    Ah, “Connections starts here”:
    (someone mentioned this on twitter, so I thought I’d cross-post)

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    Hope you find the time for it Cath – well worth the effort!
    Thanks for that link Bob – though I think I may have to find a way to upload it to my iPhone to carve out the time to watch (streaming probably not feasible on the way into London).
    Mike – Bronowski’s expansion of his objectives (to give a better idea of the themes in the series):
    “Man’s 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 series of cultural peaks The Ascent of Man“.

  15. Mike Fowler says:

    Thanks for that quote, Stephen. It certainly adds some useful context.
    ‘Culture’ could, perhaps, be defined as the outcome of a collection of behaviours (or one of “164 other possibilities”: viewed at the population level… there’s plenty of discussion of levels of selection (genes, individuals, groups) in the literature at the moment, which I haven’t followed closely enough. Needless to say, humans aren’t the only ones who can be categorised this way. I’m going back to the question of scale here. Sorry for repeating myself.
    I really am going to have to get my hands on this series!

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks Mike.
    By the way, this post elicited an email from Ron Newby who knew Jacob Bronowski (Bruno to his friends, apparently) when they were both working at the Salk Institute. He set up and curates The Bronowski Art & Science Forum which has a web-site.
    For anyone in the San Diego area, they have a meeting coming up on May 27th!

  17. Austin Elliott says:

    Must remember to ask my dad if he ever met Bronowski. I often have the impression that the British scientific scene in the 50s, and even early 60s, was sufficiently small that everyone knew everyone.

  18. Stephen Curry says:

    Please do – it would be great if he had met him.

  19. Austin Elliott says:

    My father Gerald tells me he’s pretty sure he only met Bronowski once, in the early 70s when Bronowski visited the Open University where my dad was one of the founding Professors. As a kind of Great Experiment in tele-education the OU used to get quite a lot of visiting dignitaries in the early years.
    Gerald also says that he knew _of_ Bronowski in the late 50s via Bronowski’s regular appearances on the TV version of BBC programme “_The Brains Trust_.”:
    BTW, there is a website devoted to Bronowski “here,”: which includes “this interesting short reminiscence”: by Bronowski’s _Brains Trust_ co-panelist, the philosopher A.J. Ayer

  20. Stephen Curry says:

    You are a fount of knowledge Austin – thanks for the comments and the links, even if it did hold thing up for a while (when are ‘known’ commenters going to have the freedom to include >2 URLs…?).
    How delightful to learn from Ayer’s profile that Bronowski sat on the Brains Trust with Julian Huxley, who was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, another massive hero of mine.

  21. Austin Elliott says:

    I thought 3 URLs was OK, as on the old platform. Would have liked to include a link to AJ (Freddy) Ayer’s wiki profile too, but that would have made four…!
    Julian Huxley was of course brother to Aldous _”Brave New World”_ Huxley, and half-brother (same father) to the much younger “Sir Andrew Huxley,”: who is still with us aged 92. Some readers might remember me posting a picture of Sir Andrew (or “AFH”) in a “post a month or so back”: about Jean Hanson and the other pioneers of the sliding filament theory.

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