Top positive review
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A brain as big as the planet Jupiter and just as fascinating
on 16 April 2002
This is a fascinating book that grew out of a fascinating TV series. The Ascent of Man attempts to follow the ascendancy of Mankind from his first evolutionary footsteps in pre-history through each significant cultural progression right up into the modern day, which was 1973, the date of publication of this book. Bronowski had a brilliant intellect and a huge knowledge of science and the arts. He also had a gift of articulating his knowledge in such a way as to make it, not only assessable, but interesting. Nowhere were his gifts put to better use than in this book. Chapter by chapter, he takes us through the ascent of Man, starting from the Stone Age caves of Altamira and through into agriculture; the discovery of fire and the elements; Pythagoras and mathematics; Copernicus, Galileo and astrology; Newton and Einstein; the Industrial Revolution; Darwin, Wallace and Natural Selection; Gregor Mendel and the discovery of Genetics, and into the final chapter, The Long Childhood, where Bronowski argues that science is “the recognition of the uniqueness of man, and a pride in his gifts and works. It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.” It’s a giddy but satisfying journey.
There are parts that I did not understand; but most of it I did. This is not heavy reading. Bronowski had a real literary touch. Take this for example: “Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals; so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape - he is a shaper of the landscape.” These two beautiful sentences set the tone and the subject of the book perfectly, and it is a standard that never lapses. Consider this descriptive piece of writing: “The sleeping hedgehog waits for the spring to burst its metabolism into life. The humming bird beats the air and dips its needle-fine beak into hanging blossoms. Butterflies mimic leaves and even noxious creatures to deceive the predators. The mole plods through the ground as if he had been designed as a mechanical shuttle.” How many literary artists wish they could write as well?
What makes this book work so well is the human touch. We not only learn about the discovery that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, but we learn about the men, Copernicus and Galileo, as men, about the times they lived in, and the effect that their discovery had upon that world. As I know little about science, I cannot comment on the accuracy of his statements, although he seems to have attracted little in the way of criticism from those, who presumably, know their subject; but I can comment on his humanity, a subject, I like to think, I am able to comment on. “The monomaniac culture of conquest; the predator posing as a hero because he rides the whirlwind. But the whirlwind is empty. Horse or tank, Genghis Khan or Hitler or Stalin, it can only feed on the labours of other men.” For some reason, this phrase from Bronowski has haunted my mind since I first read this book in 1975. There have been writers who have commented on the hollowness of great men, but no one, as far as I am aware, has put it as succinctly as that. Bronowski’s death in the 70s, shortly after The Ascent of Man was completed, was a great loss. There has been no one to replace him. Read this lavishly illustrated book, revel in the literary gifts and the brilliant intellect of Bronowski, and expand your own knowledge.