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Monday, December 17, 2018

On Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man

In Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man we see that our complex modern culture is a product of not only the advancements that mankind has made after civilization began about 3000 years ago, but also of mankind’s learning and experiences during the pre-historic, pre-agricultural, and even the pre-language era. Every learning creates an avenue for new learning; new innovations can result from chance discoveries, collective efforts, as well as the work of geniuses working by themselves. The ancient cave dwelling of the stone age man became an inspiration for the huts when the first agricultural settlements appeared, and the huts, in turn, became an inspiration for the modern palaces.

Here’s an excerpt from Bronowski’s book (Chapter 1: “Lower Than The Angels”):
Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment, but to change it. And that series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution—not biological, but cultural evolution. I call that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks The Ascent of Man.  
I use the word ascent with a precise meaning. Man is distinguished from other animals by his imaginative gifts. He makes plans, inventions, new discoveries, by putting different talents together; and his discoveries become more subtle and penetrating, as he learns to combine his talents in more complex and intimate ways. So the great discoveries of different ages and different cultures, in technique, in science, in the arts, express in their progression a richer and more intricate conjunction of human faculties, an ascending trellis of his gifts. 
Of course, it is tempting – very tempting to a scientist – to hope that the most original achievements of the mind are also the most recent. And we do indeed have cause to be proud of some modern work. Think of the unravelling of the code of heredity in the DNA spiral; or the work going forward on the special faculties of the human brain. Think of the philosophic insight that saw into the Theory of Relativity or the minute behaviour of matter on the atomic scale.  
Yet to admire only our own successes, as if they had no past (and were sure of the future), would make a caricature of knowledge. For human achievement, and science in particular, is not a museum of finished constructions. It is a progress, in which the first experiments of the alchemists also have a formative place, and the sophisticated arithmetic that the Mayan astronomers of Central America invented for themselves independently of the Old World. The stonework of Machu Picchu in the Andes and the geometry of the Alhambra in Moorish Spain seem to us, five centuries later, exquisite work of decorative art. But if we stop our appreciation there, we miss the originality of the two cultures that made them.

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