The Descent of Man

In 1973, the BBC televised The Ascent of Man, the brilliant series by Jacob Bronowski on the development of science and society. In his final episode, The Long Childhood, Bronowski sums up what he regards as special to being human, and the essence of a healthy scientific society:

If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, people and power, by which Babylon, and Egypt, and Rome failed. And that distance can only be … conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits here, and not up there.

That seems a hard lesson. After all, this is a world run by specialists. Isn’t that what we mean by a scientific society? No, it isn’t. A scientific society is one in which specialists can indeed do the things like making the electric light work. But it’s you, it’s I, who have to know how nature works, how electricity is one of her expressions, in the light, and in my brain.

And we are really here on a wonderful threshold of knowledge. The ascent of man is always teetering in the balance. There’s always a sense of uncertainty as to whether, when man lifts his foot for the next step, it’s really going to come down ahead. And what is ahead of us? At last, the bringing together of all that we’ve learnt in physics and in biology, towards an understanding of where we have come, what man is.

Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, above all, of what we are as ethical creatures. You can’t possibly maintain that if you let other people run the world for you, while you yourself continue to live … out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That’s really crucial today. You see, it’s pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, “You must do a course in electronics or in computer programming.” Of course not. And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress, is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.

Bronowski spoke those words forty-seven years ago. Three more years.