The Ascent of Man

About forty five years ago one of the best TV documentary series ever was broadcast by the BBC, and to the best of my knowledge it has never been repeated. In it was charted the progress of mankind, from its origins on the plains of Africa millions of years ago, to the discovery of the intricacies and structure of DNA in the 20th century. This 13 episode documentary series was written and presented by the scientist Jacob Bronowski. He went on in episode after episode to show the evolution of the human; how the increase in skull and brain size allowed man to fit himself to all environments; to use his imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness to change his environment.

He details man’s switch from hunter/gatherer to farmer, and how this allowed him and her to settle in one area. We learn how man’s use of fire allowed him to make new tools and weapons, and says that ‘there is nothing in modern chemistry more unexpected than putting together new alloys, with new properties; to turn iron into steel.’ We learn how the invention of the wheel and the domestication of oxen and the horse propelled man forward.

Along the way he lights our darkness with dazzling displays of scholarship on science, philosophy, art, literature, and all the achievements of the human race. He explains to us the huge importance of the Roman arch in architecture, and how a later refinement of this, the flying buttress, allowed masons to insert massive stained glass windows in walls that had previously been used to support a roof. This gave us the magnificent cathedrals of the 12th century.

He recounts for us how Copernicus and Galileo fought conservatism in thought with mathematics and imagination. He explains in understandable language the findings of Newton and Einstein, and how the pioneer of atomic science, Ludwig Boltzmann, came to commit suicide in despair before his theories were taken up and expanded and developed by Niels Bohr and Rutherford and others.

It is a work of immense scope; a wonderful celebration of the genius of mankind, and yet in one of the final episodes Bronowski is found kneeling beside a pond in Auschwitz, where he says the ashes of four million people, including most of his family, were washed away. And he says ‘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’. He quotes Cromwell  addressing people who wield power ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ; think possibly you may be mistaken’.

He goes on to say ‘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 as a witness’.

In this day and age of the primacy of the ignorant in politics, we could do with a repeat of this wonderful celebration of humanity.

*Man is used in the OED meaning: human beings in general; the human race.

Bronowski, J. (1973) The Ascent of Man. London: Published by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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