Commentary Magazine

The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski

In Defense of Science

The Ascent of Man.
by Jacob Bronowski.
Little, Brown. 448 pp. $15.00.

The public image of science is in one of its periodic declines. For the past thirty years the fear aroused by the destructive powers of modern technology has cast the entire enterprise of science (which at its highest levels has very little to do with technology) into the role of the chief villain of modern times. The downswing began at Hiroshima, whose aftermath is epitomized by the remark made to Leo Szilard, and quoted by Bronowski: “It was the tragedy of scientists.” Szilard's reply, “It is the tragedy of mankind,” can also be taken to stand for a much larger argument—the argument whereby Bronowski seeks to restore the innocence and brilliance that seemed to characterize science for most of its history since the 17th century, and that even in the period just past has surrounded daring experiments like the demonstration of continental drift.

As sheer propaganda devoted to one major end, The Ascent of Man is a tour de force. Blending homespun moral philosophy with sheer joy at the marvel of man, constant reminders of the links between art and science, a few quite difficult technical analyses, and reverence for the powers of genius, Bronowski weaves a wondrously persuasive web. From his very title, a confident adaptation of Darwin, to his peroration on the democracy and ethics inherent in the quest for knowledge, he proclaims his near-Whiggish belief in the rising progress of our species. And at the heart of the ascent is the achievement of science.

That there are dangers he does not deny. Scientists can be used for evil ends, and Bronowski appreciates the reasons that impelled a number of physicists (Szilard among them) to shift their interests to biology in the years after Hiroshima. The recent concern among geneticists about the effects of their research shows that this field, too, is by no means immune from perilous applications. Bronowski's response, however, is unabashedly optimistic. Although he does not confront directly the possibility that discoveries in genetics may be misused, he dismisses with confidence the problems raised by possible tamperings with nature: since cloning runs contrary to evolution, and “diversity is the breath of life,” such manipulations will find no allies in the great life-enhancer, science. Evil men may come and go—the most moving passages in the book juxtapose the research performed at Göttingen, whose results undermined the belief in certainty, with the world view of the Nazis, whose closed-minded certainty annihilated open inquiry as well as human life—but the fundamental purity of science persists. Even if its location changes, from Germany to America, perhaps from a declining West to a resurgent China, there is no reason to despair: the ascent continues, despite hesitations and perversions, for man will never abandon the search for understanding.

Like Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which I reviewed in these pages some years ago,1 The Ascent of Man was originally a BBC television series. The two series were in fact intended to be complementary, and the books that have resulted from them resemble each other physically, especially in their sumptuous production. Nevertheless, although it is more prone to small slips, The Ascent of Man has undoubtedly provided a more original, suggestive, and analytic treatment of Western history, both for a general audience and for the 25,000 students at 200 colleges who have already used it as the basic text in a specially designed course.

One of the ways the improvement over Clark becomes apparent is in Bronowski's readiness to be provocative and controversial. He dismisses Hegel as a fool, and he puts the Watts Towers of Los Angeles alongside the Parthenon, in a chapter which also discusses Gothic cathedrals and Michelangelo. It is hard to imagine a historian who will not bristle regularly. Yet that is precisely why Bronowski is so successful. He invites demurral; he forces the reader to realize how many different ways one can judge the accomplishments and failings of the past; and he opens up for the layman a series of subjects (Boltzmann's definition of entropy, for instance, or the structure of DNA) that often are considered too technical and mysterious to be widely accessible. Moreover, his passion for the discoveries of the great scientists forces us to agree that they should be as familiar as the creations of painters and musicians.

Sometimes he becomes so caught up in his advocacy that he does leave the reader hanging. Though he takes the trouble to introduce most of his characters, including “the sculptor and architect, Gianlorenzo Bernini,” he offers no explanation of who Giordano Bruno was or what he did, which renders the three references to that esoteric and his fate rather difficult to comprehend. There are other such examples, not to mention asides like “where does a British gentleman walk in the Alps?,” which are not exactly designed to carry his audience along with him. But it should be remembered that this is inescapably a work of faith, an engaged COMMENTARY on man's development motivated by the desire to give science its proper place as a civilizing and progressive force. Elusive moments are swept up by the powerful undercurrent of argument.

That is not to say that the aims and linkages are always clear. Some passages, notably the musings on the hand guiding the brain as the brain guides the hand, are private and almost mystical. The last chapter, which manages to touch on the Icelandic parliament, the brain, the thumb, the courtship of the ring dove, Hamlet, the Bakhtiari, Erasmus, Jerusalem, von Neumann, and the decline of the West, among many other topics, is an extreme (and ultimately unsuccessful) example of a method that relies on multiple and unlikely juxtapositions to achieve its mosaic effects. There are times when the central theme gets lost, for Bronowski is interweaving strands that do not always cohere.

In his view, biological evolution, great art, technology, and science provide the chief evidence of the growing skills and awareness that constitute the ascent of man. But these are four very different aspects of life, and they do not always tell the same story. Pythagoras and Kepler pursued ends that had little in common with the concerns of Carpaccio and Dürer, yet all that seems to matter in Bronowski's sweeping discussion is their common interest in underlying forms of nature. One wonders why this particular grouping has been chosen, and what the uniting theme is supposed to be. Similarly, the combination of a swordmaker, Cellini, and Priestley blurs the essential differentiations among an artisan, an artist, and a scientist in order to stress that each was interested in a hidden structure, whether in molten metal, gold, or air. Amid such diversity, both the qualities that distinguish a scientist, and the purposes served by the particular references, can easily vanish.

In most of these cases the possibility of confusion may seem to be a minor problem when measured against the stimulation and the opportunity for unexpected insights. But in one area the problems outweigh the benefits, and that is in Bronowski's sense of history. The exposition takes account of chronology, starting as it does with Homo erectus and ending with von Neumann. Yet the appreciation of historical periods and of the progression of ideas is almost completely missing. The few references to general historical developments, such as the Reformation, humanism, or the shift from Mediterranean to Northern cultural leadership, are stripped so bare, and fitted in to the immediate argument so awkwardly, that the result is more distortion than illumination.

Even in treating scientific advance, an overall perspective seems lacking. With the exception of Darwin and Wallace, there is almost no effort to portray scientists as men of a particular period. The setting seems almost irrelevant, for Bronowski leaps across the centuries, unencumbered by forces of gradual change. To move from Paracelsus to Priestley is to enter a totally transformed world, but the reader makes the transition without any hint of what had intervened, not even a mention of Boyle. And the one sentence permitted to Descartes is little short of travesty. Bronowski conveys neither a rationale for the attention that he pays to some people or ideas, while omitting others, nor an appreciation for the process of advance itself. The hauteur with which he treats the mistakes of the past (particularly those of Hegel and Archbishop Ussher) suggests that he regards creativity as an almost ahistorical phenomenon. It is just as senseless to rap the knuckles of the dead for their foolish theories as it is futile to blame Newton for not having seen what Einstein saw—an error Bronowski would never have made. A more powerful sense of time would have prevented such difficulties, and in general would have given the book a dimension and a coherence that it lacks. The BBC might do well to consider yet a third series, dealing with the behavior of society at large in different periods, so as to provide a context for the geniuses whom Clark and Bronowski celebrate.


To end this review on a negative note, however, would be entirely inappropriate. Anyone who watched Bronowski on television will know that the book represents an extraordinary intelligence in action. On the printed page one loses his hesitations, his grapplings, the evidence of deliberate confrontation with serious issues. And some of the personality disappears when one cannot watch the face or delight in phrases like “ragamuffin irreverence,” delivered in the inimitable Bronowski manner. But most of the joy and the expressiveness remains. And there will not be another chance for the audience he deserves to become acquainted with his views. Bronowski's death last summer removed not only a unique and zealous teacher, but also a humanist-scientist, equally at home with the verse of Blake and the curves of Gauss, whose very breadth of concern is not likely to be duplicated. Through all that he wrote ran a fervent commitment to the powers of the mind, and to the good that it can achieve. No better emblem could therefore be chosen to epitomize the qualities that animated both this book and its author than the epitaph he himself bestowed on Einstein, whose obituary he wrote for the American Jewish Yearbook in 1957: “Universal idealism and faith in men.”



1 June 1971.


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