Jacob Bronowski

Bronowski at Auschwitz

I’ve just finished reading Jacob Bronowski’s exhilarating Ascent of Man (1973). It had been on my mental bookshelf for a while, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. In his introduction, Richard Dawkins states that there is a memorable passage on nearly every page of the book, and he’s right. I haven’t underlined (virtually – I read it on my Kindle) a book so much in ages. Apart from a few quibbles I had with his repeated use of “the birth of Christ” as a time-marker (it seems out of place in a book celebrating the ascent of reason and science), I was taken on a kind of magic carpet ride of the human intellect. Bronowski was a master of communicating exceedingly difficult ideas to the uninitiated, a tradition whose most brilliant star was arguably Carl Sagan.

Here is a beautiful passage about the education of the young:

“Of course there were great civilisations. Who am I to belittle the civilisations of Egypt, of China, of India, even of Europe in the Middle Ages? And yet by one test they all fail: they all limit the freedom of the imagination of the young. They are static, and they are minority cultures. Static, because the son does what the father did, and the father what the grandfather did. And minority, because only a tiny fraction of all that talent that mankind produces is actually used; learns to read, learns to write, learns another language, and climbs the terribly slow ladder of promotion.”

This passage is followed by another a few pages later, which I think sums up Bronowski’s views rather well:

“Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity 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 is really crucial today. You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming. 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. The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.”