“The Ascent of Man”, Forty Years On

In the late 1960’s, the British Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Jacob Bronowski to prepare a television series entitled “The Ascent of Man”. Apparently, the series was meant to be a scientific bookend to Kenneth, Baron Clark of Saltwood in the County of Kent OM CH KCB FBA’s “Civilisation” series, which was an historian’s view of how we ended up where we are.

Bronowski’s series aired across the world (and even this benighted high-school student watched it gobsmacked in Brisbane, Australia). Bronowski died in 1974, not long after the series was published. He also wrote a “book of the series”, which came out in 1973 (it is one of my treasured possessions, moth-eaten as it is).

A brief biography:

Jacob Bronowski was born in 1908 into a Jewish family in the Polish city of Lodz. His parents moved to Britain in 1920 and Bronowski pursued his senior studies in mathematics at Cambridge University. He later studied and conducted research in physics. He taught at the University College of Hull during the 1930s. During the Second World War, he conducted research on the effectiveness of Allied bombing campaigns, culminating in being part of a British Government survey of the results of the attack by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a result of his experiences in Japan, he turned from physics to biology to try to understand the nature of violence in humans.

His subsequent career includes many writings on what knowledge means: he concerned himself with the epistemological question of “what can we reliably know?”. The Ascent of Man series seems to have been his attempt to answer this question.

(I may have his history wrong, in which case, I apologise).

If you wish to see what he said in the series, fragments of the Ascent of Man series are available on Youtube via a search for “Bronowski Ascent of Man”.

My question is this:

Now, after forty years, how much did Bronowski get right?

My personal view is that Bronowski is mostly right. My version of his argument is that we construct useful knowledge out of a combination of imagination and observation. Science is philosophy (what can be) constrained by evidence (what is).

I am interested to know what this community thinks about Bronowski’s work, with the benefit of forty years of hindsight.

(my thanks to Gregory for alerting me to my misattribution of the “Civilisation” series to Sir Arthur C Clarke CBE FRAS).

61 thoughts on ““The Ascent of Man”, Forty Years On

  1. There’s an important difference between “strategizing to get the girl” and “language was invented to woo women.”

    And there’s a difference between poetic licence and peer reviewable writing.

    Big brains enable lots of things. Among them, accumulation of wealth relative to competitors. Strategizing, another. Courtship displays, including romantic verbiage, yet another.

    Human societies have included lots of ways to win women. Romantic love — including poetry and courtship displays — seems to be rather recent.

    More traditional would be wooing one’s potential in-laws with gifts or displays of power or wealth.

    My point (and I think Alan’s) would be that big brains appear not to be necessary to feed oneself and ward off predators. They don’t hurt, but they have their own high costs. If big brains automatically enhanced survival, we might expect to see a Red Queen brain size war in many species. What we apparently see is stasis with regard to brain/weight ratio.

    I would assume that some — presumably unknown — combination of factors triggered the brain war in hominids. One theory centers on hands. The invention of opposable thumbs may have synergized the selection for brains. It seems almost self-evident that the cost of big brains has to be justified by being able to do something with them.

    I’m still interested in dolphin brains. What else are they for?

  2. petrushka: I’m still interested in dolphin brains. What else are they for?

    More work needs to be done. Isn’t a certain Dr. Elsberry an expert on dolphin communication? 🙂

  3. keiths: Miller (and Alan) are arguing that the latter kind of selection explains the huge increases in brain size in the lineage leading to Homo sapiens.

    Yes, we are. (And I can say “we” cos I read his book!)

  4. petrushka: My point (and I think Alan’s) would be that big brains appear not to be necessary to feed oneself and ward off predators. They don’t hurt, but they have their own high costs. If big brains automatically enhanced survival, we might expect to see a Red Queen brain size war in many species. What we apparently see is stasis with regard to brain/weight ratio.

    I would assume that some — presumably unknown — combination of factors triggered the brain war in hominids. One theory centers on hands. The invention of opposable thumbs may have synergized the selection for brains. It seems almost self-evident that the cost of big brains has to be justified by being able to do something with them.

    Yes, but the additional factor is though that big brains seem to be a requisite for complex language needed for close cooperation and manipulating those clever hands, the additional factor is all that unnecessary (for survival) ability in art. I bet there was dancing round those camp fires. And we all know where dancing leads!

  5. timothya: The 1950s and 1960s had seen the elevation of science and scientists to an almost mythic status (Harold Wilson’s “white-hot technological revolution”! The moon shot! Miracle grains abolishing poverty in the Third World!). Most popular coverage on television of “science” at the time was either news coverage of the latest technical advance in engineering, or expository shows of the “Why is it so?” or “Brains Trust” type (Bronowski was a staple expert appearing on the Brains Trust).

    At the same time we saw the rise of the counter-argument that exploitation of scientific knowledge unconstrained by social responsibility could be disastrous (Rachel Carson, the unleashing of US technical war-making prowess on Vietnam, the appalling experiments in inner-city high-density housing for workers across any of the world’s large cities).

    The election of Wilson’s Labour government in 1964 was a notable moment in UK history. Many less wealthy kids, including me, would not have had a University education but for that push to spend the money (bigger than the defence budget) to build new universities and promote pure science research.

    PS sorry for derail.

  6. keiths:

    There’s an important difference between “strategizing to get the girl” and “language was invented to woo women.”

    petrushka:

    And there’s a difference between poetic licence and peer reviewable writing.

    It’s not a quibble. Alan and Miller are talking about excess brain power as an ornament used to attract mates, not as a strategizing tool.

  7. keiths:
    keiths:
    petrushka:
    It’s not a quibble. Alan and Miller are talking about excess brain power as an ornament used to attract mates, not as a strategizing tool.

    Okay, but I wasn’t referring to any opinion other than my own. It’s a bit like opinions regarding origin of life. Some opinions are better than others, but among plausible opinions, none are provable.

    There is no reason why brains have to be one or the other. One can strategize about the most effective ornamentation. Diamonds, poetry, whatever. Brains are Swiss Army knives. In fact, I would say that the demonstrated ability to strategize is in itself, an ornament. It certainly looks that way in lots of fiction.

    My question remains. Why have a few lineages of animals evolved big brains, when critters with smaller brains seem quite capable of survival?

  8. petrushka,

    There is no reason why brains have to be one or the other.

    Oh, definitely. Brains clearly have survival value in addition to their “bling” value.

    In fact, I would say that the demonstrated ability to strategize is in itself, an ornament. It certainly looks that way in lots of fiction.

    I agree. A trait doesn’t have to be useless (in terms of promoting survival) to count as a fitness indicator that potential mates can scrutinize. However, Miller is emphasizing stuff that he considers to be purely ornamental, with no apparent survival value, such as music.

    My question remains. Why have a few lineages of animals evolved big brains, when critters with smaller brains seem quite capable of survival?

    Sexual selection is one possibility. From the summary of Miller’s book that Alan linked to:

    Sexual selection often creates an evolutionary positive-feedback loop that is highly sensitive to initial conditions. It therefore tends to produce extravagant traits that have high costs and complexity, yet these traits are often unique to one species, and absent in closely-related taxa. By contrast, natural selection for ecological utility tends to produce convergent evolution, where many lineages independently evolve the same, efficient, low-cost solutions to the same environmental problems.

    Sociality is another potential explanation, and one that could, like sexual selection, ignite a positive-feedback loop. You could argue that intelligence makes complicated social behavior possible, and that the existence of complicated social structures favors the evolution of still-higher intelligence.

    I’ve also wondered if habitat is relevant in some cases. A species with a limited and relatively static environment can afford to rely on instinctive behaviors, whereas a varied and dynamic habitat may require a more flexible intelligence.

  9. I agree that “The Ascent of Man” is great. I have watched the entire series three times.

    If one could compare it to a restaurant, the first time I went as a customer. I was absolutely delighted by the experience and vowed then and there to become a historian of science. The second time I went as a critic. I was in graduate school, and I saw all the shortcomings of Bronowski’s presentation. The third time I went as a fellow chef. That was about ten years ago, and I was again amazed by Bronowski’s skill and insight.

    The three stages of my response correspond to Vico’s three stages of civilization. The divine is how I saw Bronowski as a child (someone omniscient). The heroic is how I saw him as a graduate student (someone above me, but still flawed). The human is how I saw him as an adult (someone who is a great colleague).

    Has anyone else had this experience?

  10. Unfortunately I’ve never been able to consider myself in the same league as anyone like Bronowski.

    But I have stayed at a Holiday Inn, and I’m getting the Bronowski DVDs for Father’s Day. I haven’t seen it since the original broadcast.

  11. By “great colleague” I didn’t mean “nice guy,” but rather someone I aspire to be like. I didn’t mean to come off as arrogant. My point was more that when you struggle to make something decent you come to appreciate the true masters of the craft.

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