Before James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed, before Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and before David Attenborough’s Life on Earth or any other great multi-part science and nature documentary that you care to name, there was 1973’s The Ascent of Man. Intended as a complementary series to Sir Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation (1969), which focused on the history of the development of Western art and culture, The Ascent of Man was a wide ranging, thirteen-week documentary on the history of science, from the ancient world right up to the modern day. Presented by mathematician and scholar Jacob Bronowski, the series and its companion book stand as a monument to human achievement in the never-ending effort to make sense of the natural world, and to use that knowledge to improve human life. Bronowski, or “Bruno,” as he was known to family and friends, who also wrote books on such diverse subjects as the poet William Blake to Science and Human Values (1956) was approached by the BBC to make the series. He had become something of a household name in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, known from such radio programmes as The Brains’ Trust (sadly, he does not appear on the only recording I own of this iconic series). In the U.S., The Ascent of Man was broadcast on some affiliates of the fledgling PBS network.
Whether in documentary or book form, The Ascent of Man established a template for the big-budget science documentaries that were to follow in its footsteps. Each chapter of the companion book represents an episode in the series, and each is a self-contained part of a greater whole which tells the story of a particular aspect of the history of science. The chapters, or essays, as Bronowski called them, took the viewer right around the world, from one locale to another, as the narrator built the threads of his story. In some instances, we may snicker a bit at some of the dated aspects of the production: the clothes are a bit 70s, doubtless. The computers are primitive, although impressive for the era. And Bronowski’s accent is curious, with a slight hint of a lisp (he was born in Poland, moved to Germany and then Britain before finally settling in southern California – see what kind of accent you end up with after a similar set of experiences). Fortunately, in book form, none of these forms of shallowness need have any expression (although none of these are reasons to avoid the programmes themselves, and I think they contribute to their charm).
Bronowski’s method, in conjunction with series editor Adrian Malone (who would later be known for his work with Carl Sagan on Cosmos), for creating each episode was unusual. Rather than working from a script, many of Bronowski’s speeches were extemporaneous, based on notes and outlines and Bronowski’s own extensive understanding, but given without any prompting from behind the camera. That, in combination with extensive and elaborate location filming around the world, enhanced with emotive selections of music, made The Ascent of Man fascinating and unique. Despite that fact that its content has now dated by some forty years in places, as a coherent, beautiful whole it is a series worth revisiting, viewing and reading.
The immediacy of Bronowski’s narrative is largely preserved in the companion book to the series. Although the text has been modified, particularly for those instances where the lack of images would make the text unclear, it preserves many of the cadences of Bronowski’s speeches. Whether he is discussing evolutionary biology, the origins of chemistry and mineralogy, or the development of astronomy and physics, his mastery of the subject and presentation of it is fascinating and compelling. When he discusses the men who made the atomic bomb, he does so from personal knowledge: some of the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project were personal friends of his. And Bronowski himself was a part of a team which visited Japan after the war to assess the effects of atomic weapons for the British government. Equally, his moving discussion of the horrors of the concentration camps under the Third Reich, where many of his family died, reinforces a notion that is often perverted by anti-science voices: that science is the search to know more, realizing that human beings do not know everything. What he says as part of his concluding remarks on this subject is worth repeating:
“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. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”
— The Ascent of Man, p. 374
Sadly, The Ascent of Man was to be Bronowski’s final curtain call. He died within a year, in 1974, of a heart attack, at the age of sixty-six. But this magnum opus still has the power to move, inspire, and educate, even forty years later. Find a copy of the book. Search for the series on the web, or buy it on DVD. Read it or watch it.
Reviewed 13 November 2015.
Find your copy of The Ascent of Man, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).