The Ascent of Man by J. Bronowski

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I was led to reading this book by Carl Sagan. He spoke to me in a dream.

Actually, I read of Jacob Brownoski in The Dragons of Eden, where Sagan explores the evolution of human intelligence and introduces the famous concept of the “reptile brain” (a term I find so fascinating and evocative that I could read an entire book of those words repeated over and over).

Sagan opens and closes The Dragons of Eden with Bronowski. And since I admire Sagan, his intellectual rigor coexisting without dissonance beside his childlike wonder of the world and cosmos surrounding him, I decided to give The Ascent of Man a shot.

A large, intimidating book, I was relieved to open it and find that nearly half of the pages are occupied by full color pictures.

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It is important to understand that this book was first a television series (that I have not seen), because that seems to account for the somewhat haphazard narrative thread running through the book. It is presented as a series of essays loosely aspiring to document man’s evolution from primordial sludge (though it doesn’t start there, but chronicles the beginnings of life in a later essay) to singular creature, shining star on the top rung of the evolutionary ladder.

The book offers a brief historic tour of scientific luminaries: Newton, Galileo, Franklin, Darwin, Einstein. When Bronowski talks about the “ascent of man,” what he really means is the ascent of European, primarily white men. Non-whites are incidental; the “savages” spoken of by Darwin, the backwards nomadic tribes of the Bakhtiari. The only indication that the female of the species exists is in discussions on sex and reproduction. Besides Eve, figurative mother of the human race, the only woman mentioned by name is Marie Curie, because she happens to be in a group photo standing near Einstein.

I understand that the majority of the great scientific achievements of modern human history were accomplished by white men, but Bronowski’s ostensible celebration of the achievements of the human species is in reality limited to celebration of a few geniuses who, yes, propelled science and knowledge forward, but never operated in a vacuum. For example, Watson and Crick are given their due for discovering the structure of DNA, but would they have gotten there without Rosalind Franklin?

A paragraph near the end of the book betrays Bronowski’s true vision, when he writes that: “We are a scientific civilization…If we do not take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere, in Africa, in China.”

At best, Bronowski is an Anglophile, at worst a hedgehog draped in the guise of a fox. When he proclaims we are a “scientific civilization,” he is clearly indicating western civilization. As though advances in China or Africa would be instantly detrimental to white, European culture; as though scientific discovery is a zero-sum game. China wins, therefore England loses.

This book was written in the 1970’s, but carries an 1870’s flavor. There is a false inclusiveness, a tunnel-vision the author pretends desperately doesn’t exist. “History is not events, but people,” Bronowski writes. But only certain people, he implies. The geniuses, the white men, the Europeans. The rest of us are merely filler.

2 thoughts on “The Ascent of Man by J. Bronowski

  1. Pingback: “Hey Girl Hey!” A Half-Assed Deconstruction of a Title Trope | respekt

  2. Pingback: Get in them Genes! A Summer of Origin | respekt

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