Why Bronowski Matters

Fifty years after the broadcast of his landmark documentary series, ‘The Ascent of Man,’ Jacob Bronowski’s plea for tolerance and reason remain as relevant as ever

Humanist and polymath. Jacob Bronowski near the end of his life. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It was 50 years ago that Jacob Bronowski’s blockbuster miniseries “The Ascent of Man” set a new standard for documentary filmmaking. The BBC had commissioned the 13-hour history of science in part to show off its new color broadcasting technology, and the series featured brilliant cinematography and special effects that were cutting-edge for the time. But the element that made “Ascent” a masterpiece was Bronowski himself.

A superb extemporaneous speaker, with an equal passion for science and the humanities, the 65-year-old polymath ad-libbed large segments of the series, peppering it with the philosophical insights he had accumulated since his student days at Cambridge. And he did so with an infectious enthusiasm that drew viewers in and inspired them with the drama of ideas—especially with his own humanist philosophy of reason, freedom and peace. A half-century after the premiere of “Ascent,” it’s astonishing to discover that while some of the scientific findings it described have been overtaken by newer research, the deeper lessons its host tried to teach remain as timely as ever.

Born in 1907 in what is today Poland but was then part of the Russian empire, Bronowski’s life was touched by almost all of the major developments of the 20th century. In 1911, his family emigrated to Germany, probably to escape the czar’s anti-Jewish pogroms, only to be trapped as “enemy aliens” during World War I. In 1920, they moved again, this time to London’s East End. Jacob, who spoke no English when the family arrived, showed an early aptitude for mathematics and won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge. But while there, he fell in love with the new wave of modern literature, reading T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, and befriending such future luminaries as playwright Samuel Beckett, novelist T.H. White and the poet William Empson, with whom he co-founded a poetry magazine. He divided his time equally between verse and math, spending summers in Spain with novelist and poet Robert Graves, and completing a Ph.D. in geometry, before becoming a full-time professor at the new University of Hull. When World War II broke out, he joined a research unit devoted to assessing the effectiveness of bombing raids, and, eventually, to planning the Allied bombardment of Japan. In his spare time, he wrote a biography of William Blake.

In October 1945, the British government sent him to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to report on the effectiveness of the atomic bombs that had been dropped that August. The horrors he witnessed there changed his life forever—he never forgot entering the ruins of one Japanese bakery to find the owner’s skeleton in the oven; the man had crawled in when the bomb fell, in a futile effort to escape the flames. For the rest of his life, Bronowski would struggle, in the poetry and plays he wrote, as well as in his philosophical essays and lectures, with the responsibility that scientists and democratic citizens bear in an age of atomic weapons—and with the dangers to civilization posed by irrationality, dogma and oppression.

His first effort to articulate these ideas came a year after the Japan trip, when he delivered a radio address about atomic bombs. BBC executives were so impressed that they invited him back to speak about science, history, literature, and eventually to produce radio dramas, such as “The Face of Violence,” a philosophical play about the origins of war and the nature of forgiveness, which won him the equivalent of an Emmy in 1950. Within a few years, his radio and television appearances had made him a celebrity in Britain—so much so that in 1970, he was even referenced in a “Monty Python” sketch. (“Dr. Bloody Bronowski,” cries John Cleese, in the character of an old woman; “he knows everything!”)

His intellectual interests were indeed so varied that one reporter called Bronowski “not one man, but a multitude.” Yet he saw the sciences and humanities as parts of a single effort to chart a modern, humanistic philosophy based in reason and discovery, instead of the superstition, poverty and violence that had so badly marred the 20th century. He thought of these last three as consequences of the “ascetic virtues” inherited from the medieval era—alongside nationalism, traditionalism, conformity and self-sacrifice. Such ideas produced only “societies constantly on the brink of famine, in which the greatest virtue of man was to achieve the heroics of an insect in a colony, and sacrifice himself for the hive.”

Believing that mankind was “past those famine days, and should be past those famine virtues,” Bronowski offered instead a philosophy he called “human specificity” or “scientific existentialism,” which he first articulated in 1956, in a series of lectures at MIT entitled “Science and Human Values.” Casting aside the alleged dichotomy between “is” and “ought,” he argued that science provides the foundation for a universal, human ethics: “We ought to act in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so.” That commitment to discover the nature of reality led inexorably to values such as honesty, individualism, freedom of speech and respect for self and others. “The society of scientists must be a democracy,” too, because “it can keep alive and grow only by a constant tension between dissent and respect; between independence from the views of others, and tolerance for them.”

Bronowski’s arguments paralleled those other liberal thinkers were making around that time. Philosophers, lawyers and economists such as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Lon Fuller and Friedrich Hayek were also making a case for individual freedom and the “open society” that they hoped would usher in a future of prosperity and peace. But few could match Bronowski’s eloquence and breadth of knowledge. In 1969, after the BBC’s 13-hour art history documentary “Civilization” proved a smash hit, the network’s leadership decided to follow it up with a miniseries on the history of science—and Bronowski was the obvious choice to host it.

In “Civilization,” art historian Kenneth Clark offered what he called “a personal view” of the last 1,500 years of Western artistic achievement. But the series ranged much further afield, with Clark opining not just on the arts, but philosophy, religion and social and historical trends. In “Ascent,” Bronowski would do likewise, focusing on much more than technological advancement, and fashioning “The Ascent of Man” into the summation of his argument for liberal values and human rights. Nowhere was he more successful than in the 11th installment, “Knowledge or Certainty.” Although nominally focused on the discoveries of 20th century atomic physics, the episode drew on all of his gifts, poetic as well as scientific, and became a dramatic précis of “human specificity,” complete with a twist ending.

The hour begins, not with a bland description of how atomic energy works, but with the image of a wrinkled face: that of Stefan Bor-Grajewicz, an elderly man whose face is being “read” by the fingers of a blind woman. Describing her impressions, she speculates (correctly) that Bor-Grajewicz is Eastern European—and, she continues, “it is not a happy face.” His wrinkles, she says, are so deep that she initially mistook them for scars.

Bronowski uses this as the opening for his argument that all things appear different depending on the way in which they are examined. He shows us Bor-Grajewicz’s face in infrared, in ultraviolet, under a microscope and even what it would look like on radar—as well as how the face is interpreted by a portrait artist. None of these images, he concludes, is the “final” or “correct” way to view the face—and this illustrates his underlying theme: the inevitable incompleteness of knowledge. “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the material world,” he observes. “One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to prove that that object is unattainable.”

Science learned this, he continues, by discovering the principle that the German physicist Werner Heisenberg called “uncertainty.” It is impossible, Heisenberg declared in 1927, to specify the location and direction of a subatomic particle; we can only determine these things within a certain range of probability. As Bronowski sees it, this reveals a fundamental truth about reality: We can always learn more, but we can never have the Complete Truth, or conclude entirely and forever the shape of things as they are, whether in physics, morality or politics. But he thought “uncertainty principle” was “a bad name,” because “in science, or outside of it, we are not uncertain. Our knowledge is merely confined within a certain tolerance.”

This tolerance was a feature of both nature and our understanding of it: The search for a static, once-and-for-all picture of the world is a preoccupation of authoritarian societies, built on the “famine virtues” of the past, where imagination and tolerance play no role. In fact, it’s a kind of hubris—the idea that philosophers “ha[ve] a road to knowledge more perfect than observation”—and a dangerously undemocratic one, for if we have already determined the Absolute Truth, there’s no need for freedom or diversity. Science, and the democracy inextricable from it, depends on acknowledging the inherent differences between people, and refusing to impose on them the One Best Way to live. That this principle would be so clearly established by Heisenberg, who would later work on the Nazis’ atomic bomb project, was a historical irony—or, rather, “a major tragedy,” for just when German scientists were discovering the principle of tolerance, their government’s leaders were establishing the rule of dogma and bigotry. The Third Reich—motivated by “a principle of monstrous certainty,” aimed to impose its aptly named Final Solution.

The episode’s climax comes in a scene filmed at Auschwitz. Bronowski had never been there before, and he found the experience so overwhelming that he told his camera crew they would have to complete the sequence in a single take, because he couldn’t manage a redo. Standing at the edge of a pond where the Nazis had flushed the ashes from their murderous crematoria, he began speaking about his philosophy of tolerance and modernity. “It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers,” he told the camera, as he slowly walked forward, ankle-deep into the water. But, he continues:

That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself … this was where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. That was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

It is at this moment that the camera returns to the face of Stefan Bor-Grajewicz, and reveals that the “lines of agony” on his face that the blind woman mistook for scars were well earned, for he was himself a survivor of the Nazi camps.

Bronowski’s toleration theory paralleled the views of 20th-century thinkers who also premised their case for liberalism on the limits of knowledge. “The spirit of liberty,” federal judge Learned Hand declared in 1944, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right”—words Friedrich Hayek quoted 15 years later when making his argument that freedom “require[s] a certain degree of diffidence to let others seek their happiness in their own fashion,” as opposed to either the “obscurantism” of the right or the left’s “desire to impose upon the world a preconceived rational pattern.”

Yet Bronowski, chose to pitch his philosophy not in terms of “diffidence,” but a spirit of adventure. In the final episode of “Ascent”—most of which was filmed extemporaneously in his California living room—he rhapsodized about his belief that humanity stood “on a wonderful threshold of knowledge. … What is ahead of us? At last, the bringing together of all that we’ve learned.” The future of humanity depended, however, on engagement with the world, not on resignation or on the passive hope that other people will take responsibility. Worse still was the apparent trend of anti-intellectualism among the youth of the early 1970s—a hostility to technology and innovation, and a reactionary enthusiasm for violence, race pride and class warfare that eerily echoed the atmosphere of the pre-Nazi Europe he had known in his youth. In the closing scene “The Ascent of Man,” he urged people to remain steadfast. “We are all afraid, for our confidence, for the future, for the world. … Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man to his skill—the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one—have made the ascent of man.”

“Ascent” was a fantastic success when it aired in Britain in the summer of 1973, but by the time it appeared in the United States the following year, its creator was already gone. Felled by a heart attack in August 1974, Bronowski was swiftly forgotten, his masterpiece overshadowed by bigger hits such as Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” (whose director, Adrian Malone, had also directed “Ascent”). Yet his work—and particularly his dedication to freedom and the spirit of intellectual adventure—remains, an engaging, energetic and important case for the principles of liberalism.

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