1992-08-10: The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of Man (1975)

by J. Bronowski (1908-1974)

This book and the PBS series on which it is based express Bronowski’s belief that the history of ideas illustrates a kind of progress which he calls the ascent of man. He uses this term to contrast the biological descent of man, through biological evolution, with what he sees as an ennobling cultural evolution, emphasizing the worth of the individual and expressed in the triumph of man’s understanding of the physical world through science. His background as a physicist and research interest in biology have clearly contributed strongly to this view. I’m sure many people with similar backgrounds would share it, as I once did. I found the series, aired in the early 1970s, very interesting and inspiring.

Bronowski is concerned with the intellectual history of the human species, and particularly (but not exclusively) with Western cultures. The intellectual realm has long been a popular topic with historians and philosophers, but unfortunately is not a coherent topic that can be studied without confusion.

The so-called intellectual realm actually encompasses two distinct, and conflicting realms. The earlier is what I, following Pirsig, call the Social Realm. This realm began with prehuman primates interacting in such a way that the exchange of mental activity, so-called memes, was a dominant factor in their biological success. Memes, and the evolution of biological features that facilitate them, drove the evolution of humans. By far the most numerous memes throughout the past two million years have been concerned with the consolidation of the Social Realm, and with protecting it from the disruptive effects of the unconstrained Biological Realm.

The second part of the intellectual realm is what I call the Reflective Realm (and Pirsig unfortunately calls the Intellectual). The distinction is based on reflective memes, those which are about (reflect) other memes. Some of the important reflective memes are concerned with the worth of individuals versus the stability of organizations. A typical example is the case of Galileo, covered in chapter 6. Galileo made tremendously important discoveries, well ahead of his contemporaries, and Bronowski obviously places great importance on them. Some of these were not in the interest of the Roman church under pressure from the Reformation. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, threatened with torture and made to abjure his teachings. This was done in order to impress other people with similar potential of the importance of not disrupting the organized church, to demonstrate the power of the organization over individuals, and to demonstrate the weakness of individuals against the organization.

What Bronowski considers the intellectual realm in this case includes Galileo’s discoveries; I place them in the Social Realm because that is where they were made, and that is the realm which (many years later) made use of them. What I call the Reflective Realm is illustrated in Galileo’s attitude and decision about publishing the discoveries in defiance of explicit warnings he received in private discussions with the Pope. He took it on himself as an individual to perform an act which had been forbidden by the organization. He obviously felt he could get away with it by slightly disguising the format, but the fact that he did so was part of what demonstrated his defiance.

Another aspect of the conflict between the Social and Reflective realms is shown by the failure of the Roman church to actually suppress the results. Publication was continued by Protestants, and the ideas became widely known. This fact alone weakened the organization with respect to suppression of discoveries. The fact that discoveries could be published in alternative societies meant that failed suppressions simply pointed up the futility of suppression, and the weakness of the organization. One other effect was the movement of intellectual activity away from the Mediterranean to northern Europe.

It would be an interesting exercise, which I might undertake, to catalog the memes in this book, their interconnections and whether they fall in the Social or Reflective realms. Such an effort must wait for suitable techniques for cataloging and displaying the data, as in semantic networks and flexible displays of links.

Most of science is concerned with the production of memes which will benefit the Social realm, and science uses the resources made available by the Social realm for that purpose. However, many scientists have been infected with the meme that assumes individuals are more important than societies or organizations, and so science is sometimes confused with this set of beliefs. On the other hand, the uses to which societies put science’s memes lead to the widespread belief that science is antagonistic to human values. Bronowski addressed this in chapter 11, Knowledge or Certainty:

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp at Auschwitz. This is 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. It 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.

This statement contains reflective and non-reflective memes. It expresses Bronowski’s view that humans, in society, are capable of “inhuman” acts. The unfortunate truth is that humans are still primarily social creatures, and they perform social acts far more frequently than they perform reflective ones. To call them “inhuman” is to miss the point that they are very human indeed.

 

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