Monday, January 10, 2011

The Ascent of Man

One of my all time favorite documentaries is the series Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski. The topic, content, and presentation are equally outstanding.

The quality and beauty of the series is  particularly due to the fact that more than a commercial attempt, its a result of  Bronowski's life long learning and personal word view.

Sadly Bronowski passed away in 1974, about one year after the series was released.

The 13 part series (list courtesy Wikipedia) :
  1. Lower than the Angels — Evolution of man from proto-ape to the modern form 400,000 years ago.
  2. The Harvest of the Seasons — Early human migration, agriculture and the first settlements, and war.
  3. The Grain in the Stone — Tools, and the development of architecture and sculpture.
  4. The Hidden Structure — Fire, metals and alchemy.
  5. Music of the Spheres — The language of numbers and mathematics.
  6. The Starry Messenger — Galileo's universe—and the implications of his trial on the shift to "northern" science.
  7. The Majestic Clockwork — Explores Newton and Einstein's laws.
  8. The Drive for Power — The Industrial Revolution and the effect on everyday life.
  9. The Ladder of Creation — Darwin and Wallace's ideas on the origin of species.
  10. World within World — The story of the periodic table—and of the atom.
  11. Knowledge or Certainty — Physics and the clash of the pursuit of absolute vs. imperfect knowledge, and the misgivings of the scientists realizing the terrible outcome of the conflict. Auschwitz. Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  12. Generation upon Generation — The joys of life, sex, and genetics—and the dark side of cloning.
  13. The Long Childhood — Bronowski's treatise on the commitment of man.
Part 13 and the final conclusions/suggestions made are very interesting and relevant. Some of the key concepts discussed are as relevant today as they were in 1973:
  • The need to democratize scientific knowledge, what Bronowski calls as "democracy of the intellect"
  • The importance of scientific thinking for the lay man
  • The danger of pseudoscience and new age thinking
  • A trend of declining scientific thinking in the Western world, and the possibility that Western dominance in Science will come to an end
The last point was very well put by Bronowski as follows:
"It sounds very pessimistic to talk about Western civilisation with a sense of retreat. 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 civilisation 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 civilisation.

That means a civilisation 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. Should I feel that to be sad? No. Humanity has a right to change its colour. 

And yet, wedded as I am to the civilisation that nurtured me, I should feel it to be infinitely sad.I, whom England made, whom it taught its language, and its tolerance and excitement in intellectual pursuits. I should feel it a grave sense of loss, as you would, if, 100 years from now, Shakespeare and Newton are historical fossils in the ascent of man, the way that Homer and Euclid are."

Some really good quotes from the series:
  • Man is unique not because he does science, and he is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind.
  • The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.
  • There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.
  • Dream or nightmare, we have to live our experience as it is, and we have to live it awake. We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game simple by taking sides.
  • 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.
  • Man is not the most majestic of the creatures; long before the mammals even, the dinosaurs were far more splendid. But he has what no other animal possesses: a jigsaw of faculties, which alone, over three thousand million years of life, made him creative. Every animal leaves traces of what he was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.
  • Man masters nature not by force, but by understanding. 
  • We are all afraid - for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilization, 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 intellectal commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.

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