Saturday, July 04, 2009

J. Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man"

Based on the BBC television series of the same name, The Ascent of Man charts the development of human civilization through the lens of scientific progress. Though clearly intended to be only an introduction to its subjects, the book is tremendously wide in scope, taking in paleontology, architecture, alchemy, industrialization, quantum physics and genetics; noticeably, it has little to say about psychology. It is organised in powerful thematic chapters that are also more or less chronological. So it begins by looking at human fossils in Chapter 1 Lower than the Angels, and ends by discussing John von Neumann and game theory in Chapter 13 The Long Childhood. Since the book was published in 1973, I expect its discussion of contemporary science (and perhaps historical events and figures) needs updating. But, as the chapter titles suggest, the book is not so much concerned with presenting up-to-date facts as with creating "a philosophy for the twentieth century which shall be all of one piece" (from the Foreword). 

It is a philosophy that puts man at the center of things. He is, in this book, the seeker of knowledge, and seek using the tools of observation, reasoning, and conversation. I guess the philosophy can be called scientific rationalism. And one of the many achievements of this lucid and learned book is to restore the viability of this view. It does so by not ignoring the fall-out from technological progress, whether it be the harsh factories of the Industrial Revolution or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski. It does so also by reminding us of the responsible actions taken by some industrialists and innovators in their respective situations, and so proves its point that science was not to blame, but man's uses of it were. Related to this, Bronowski deplores what he calls "the aristocracy of the intellect," scientists who move away from the needs of people, and into the arms of government, industry and corporations. Bronowski calls for, instead, "a democracy of the intellect." By that he means a society that not only allows the specialist to do specialist things, but also educates the non-specialists like us on how nature works. 

Jacob Bronowski was a British mathematician, biologist, poet and playwright. In reflection of the different facets of his mind, his prose is clear, organizing, poetic, with a strong feel for the dramatic illustration or detail. I read all 438 pages of the book in the course of two leisurely days. The accompanying pictures are often revelatory as well. At his death in 1974, a year after the publication of the book, he was a Fellow of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California.

Some passages I particularly enjoyed: 

Yet Jericho has several features which make it historically unique and give it a symbolic status of its own. Unlike the forgotten villages elsewhere, it is monumental, older than the Bible, payer upon layer of history, a city. The ancient sweet-water city of Jericho was an oasis on the edge of the desert whose spring has been running from prehistoric times right into the modern city today. Here wheat and water came together and, in that sense, here man began civilization. Here, too, the bedouin came with their dark muffled faces out of the desert, looking jealously at the new way of life. That is why Joshua brought the tribes of Israel here on their way to the Promised Land--because wheat and water, they make civilization; they make the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. Wheat and water turned that barren hillside into the oldest city of the world.

*

From an early time man made tools by working the stone. Sometimes the stone had a natural grain, sometimes the tool-maker created the lines of cleave by learning how to strike the stone. It may be that the idea comes, in the first place, from splitting woof, because wood is a material with a visible structure which opens easily along the grain, but which is hard to shear across the grain. And from that simple beginning man pries open the nature of things and uncovers the laws that the structure dictates and reveals.

*

The invention is a new form of the arch based not on the circle, but on the oval. This does not seem a great change, but yet its effect on the articulation of buildings is spectacular. Of course, a pointed arch is higher, and therefore opens more space and light. But, much more radically, the thrust of the Gothic arch makes it possible to hold the space in a new way, as at Rheims. The load is taken off the walls, which can therefore be pierced with glass, and the total effect is to hang the building like a cage from the arched roof. The inside of the building is open, because the skeleton is outside.

*

We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is more important than the eye. . . . Henry Moore calls this sculpture The Knife Edge. The hand is the cutting edge of the mind. Civilization is not a collection of finished artefacts; it is the elaboration of processes. In the end, the march of man is the refinement of the hand in action. 

*

So when the alchemists tried to transmute base metals into gold, the transformation that they sought in the fire was from the corruptible to the incorruptible; they were trying to extract the quality of permanence from the everyday. And this was the same as the search for eternal youth: every medicine to fight old age contained gold, metallic gold, as an essential ingredient, and the alchemists urged their patrons to drink from gold cups to prolong life.

*

Pythagoras was a philosopher, and something of a religious figure to his followers as well. The fact is there was in him something of that Asiatic influence which flows all through Greek culture and which we commonly overlook. We tend to think of Greece as part of the west; but Samos, the edge of classical Greece, stands one mile from the coast of Asia Minor. From there much of the thought that inspired Greece first flowed; and, unexpectedly, it flowed back to Asia in the centuries after, before ever it reached Western Europe.

*

The Alhmabra is the last and the most exquisite monument of Arab civilization in Europe. The last Moorish king reigned here until 1492 . . . . It is a honeycomb of courts and chambers, and the Sala de las Camas is the most secret place in the palace. Here the girls from the harem came after the bath and recline, naked. Blind musicians played in the gallery, the eunuchs padded about. And the Sultan watched from above, and sent an apple down to signal to the girl of his choice that she would spend the night with him.

*

A ship indeed is a kind of model of a star. How does a star ride through space, and how do we know what time it keeps? The ship is a starting point for thinking about relative time.

*

The experiment was done by a young man called H. J. Hay at Harwell. He imagined the earth squashed flat into a plate, so that the North Pole is at the centre and the equator runs round the rim. he put a radio-active clock on the rim and another at the centre of the plate and let it turn. The clocks measure time statistically by counting the number of radio-active atoms that decay. And sure enough, the clock at the rim of Hay's plate keeps time more slowly than the clock at the centre. That goes on in every spinning plate, on every turntable. At this moment, in every revolving gramophone disc, the centre is ageing faster than the rim with every tun.

*

When energy is degraded, said [Ludwig] Boltzmann, it is the atoms that assume a more disorderly state. And entropy is a measure of disorder: that is the profound conception that came from Boltzmann's new interpretation. 

*

Heisenberg called this the Principle of Uncertainty. In one sense, it is a robust principle of the everyday. We know that we cannot ask the world to be exact. If an object (a familiar face, for example) had to be exactly the same before we recognise it, we would never recognise it from one day to the next. We recognise the object to be the same because it is much the same; it is never exactly like it was, it is tolerably like. In the act of recognition, a judgment is built in--an area of tolerance or uncertainty. So Heisenberg's principle says that no events, not even atomic events, can be described with certainty, that is, with zero tolerance. What makes the principle profound is that Heisenberg specifies the tolerance that can be reached. The measuring rod is Max Planck's quantum. In the world of the atom, the area of uncertainty is always mapped out by the quantum. 

*

It is obvious that sex has a very special character for human beings. It has a special biological character. Let us take one simple, down-to-earth criterion for that: we are the only species in which the female has orgasms. That is remarkable, but it is so. It is a mark of the fact that in general there is much less difference between men and women . . . than there is in other species. . . . In the language of biology, sexual dimorphism is small in the human species.

So much for biology. But there is a point on the borderline between biology and culture which really marks the symmetry in sexual behavior, I think, very strikingly. It is an obvious one. We are the only species that copulates face to face, and this is universal in all cultures. 

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