Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974)

Just a few days over a century ago Jacob Bronowski was born in Poland. Among the people whose sojourn on this material plane overlapped mine and whom I admire, Bruno (as his friends and family called him) is up there with a select few. I consider him to be one of my spiritual teachers in the sense that his work has nourished my spirit over the years since I first read his words and then later watched his BBC production of The Ascent of Man. I still have the tattered book with me which I had acquired about 25 years ago and every now and then re-read to enrich the soul and receive solace after a long immersion in the dismal science.

Reading The Ascent of Man is a journey through science, philosophy, history, art, literature and poetry. If I had to choose a set of books that should be required reading for every high school student, TAoM would be in that bunch. And now that we can easily present multimedia content, I would also include his 13-part TV series, along with Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Planet Earth. It is impossible for a person to be unmoved reading and watching that collection. One cannot but become a better human being as a result. In the schools that I will build, all this will be part of the core curriculum.

Here’s a bit from The Ascent of Man which is especially moving:

THERE ARE TWO PARTS to the human dilemma. One is a belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become a monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation a civilisation into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. In the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz, that is where people were turned into numbers. Into its pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. 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. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

A scientific society is one in which specialists can indeed do the things like making the electric light work. But it is you, it is I, who have to know how nature works, and how (for example) electricity is one of her expressions in the light and in my brain.

The ascent of man is always teetering in the balance. There is always a sense of uncertainty, whether when man lifts his foot for the next step it is really going to come pointing ahead. And what is ahead for us? At last the bringing together of all that we have learned, in physics and in biology, towards an understanding of where we have come: what man is.

And now here’s the man himself, thanks to YouTube:

From The Identity of Man:

WE CANNOT HOPE to match the total complexity of nature any more precisely than a language matches the complexity of social life. The answer to the polite enquiry “How are you?” is not a medical bulletin. And the answer to the scientific enquiry “How are atoms of carbon made?” is not a full analysis of the mind of the Almighty. There is a tolerant give and take in the reply that we make to questions about our health; and there is the same give and take, an essential intolerance, in the sentences that we can frame to picture the improbable generation of the carbon atom. A single experiment can be described in a bulletin; but the grand processes of nature cannot be sketched without the ambiguity which dogs all language. Science would come to a standstill if every ambiguity were resolved, for there would be nothing left to discover. It is this which makes it more vivid and more enlightening to call science a language for the machinery of nature and not an engineering drawing.

From Science and Human Values:

THE DISCOVERIES OF SCIENCE, the works of art are explorations – more, are explosions, of a certain hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art. But it is not therefore the monopoly of the man who wrote the poem or who made the discovery. On the contrary, I believe this view of the creative act to be right because it alone gives a meaning to the act of appreciation. The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work.’

‘Science is not a mechanism but a human progress, and not a set of findings but the search for them. Those who think that science is ethically neutral confuse the findings of science, which are, with the activity of science, which is not. To the layman, who is dominated by the fallacy of the comic strips, that science would all be best done by machines, the distinction is puzzling. But human search and research is a learning by steps of which none is final, and the mistakes of one generation are rungs in the ladder, no less than their correction by the next. This is why the values of science turn out to be recognizably the human values: because scientists must be men, must be fallible, and yet as men must be willing and as a society must be organized to correct their errors. William Blake said that ‘to be an Error & to be Cast out is a part of God’s design’. It is certainly part of the design of science.’

‘The society of scientists is simple because it has a directing purpose: to explore the truth. Nevertheless, it has to solve the problem of every society, which is to find a compromise between man and men. It must encourage the single scientist to be independent, and the body of scientists to be tolerant. From these basic conditions, which form the prime values, there follows step by step a range of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, justice, honour, human dignity and self-respect.’

From The Face of Violence:

AT THE HEART of our violence, in act or in feeling, lies the wish to show ourselves men with a will. Since society is an instrument for controlling our chaotic wills, the gesture of violence we make is anti-social; we invent a symbol for the forces of society, obscure and impersonal, which shall be our scapegoat. But the symbol is only a mask for the fear of each of us that society thwarts what is best and personal in him. We fear that society disregards us. In the wilderness of cities, we look for respect.’

‘The slave has become extinct because he had no skill to give, and we can get his mere muscular energy from nature. The two hundred years of discovery from which the convolutions of our societies have grown have steadily increased the importance of the individual and with it his standing. But we have failed to find the forms which acknowledge this standing. This is why our world always seems to be on the edge of crisis. We have to try to fit the forms of society to what men do. I live by the skill of the bus driver and the sewer man, the chemist and the stenographer, the butcher and the mill hand; and over all these, I live by the lively minds of my readers. Here is a world in the making and moving, for which each man is a fulcrum. The difficulty is not that society must find him a worthy place; he has one. Society must find out how to recognize his place to his face.’

Add Bruno to the list of must-reads.

Links: Thanks to Pharyngula for the reminder. If you go there, don’t forget to check out the comments.

The excerpts are stolen from the site “The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski.”

You can also find all the bits of video of The Ascent of Man at guba.com.

2 thoughts on “Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974)

  1. Vikramh Wednesday January 23, 2008 / 12:36 am

    A positively enlightening mind.
    Principle of Uncertainty => Principle of Tolerance.
    A memorable quote from ‘Knowledge or certainty’:
    “It’s a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance–and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair.”


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