British Documentary Series

Born in Poland in 1908, Jacob Bronowski belongs as much to the scattering of central Europe in the wake of pogroms, revolutions and nazism as he did to the easy learning and liberal and humane socialism of the post-war consensus in Britain. A mathematician turned biologist, with several literary critical works to his name, he was a clear choice to provide David Attenborough's BBC2 with the follow-up to the international success of Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation.

By Bronowski's testimony, work began on the program in 1969, though the 13-part series only arrived on screen in 1974. Intended as a digest of the history of science for general viewers, and to match the claims of the Clarke series, it actually ranged further afield than the eurocentric Civilisation, although Bronowski retained a rather odd dismissal of pre-Colombian science and technology in the New World. The series faced, however, perhaps a greater challenge than its predecessor, in that the conceptual apparatus of science is less obviously telegenic than the achievements of culture. Nonetheless, the device of the "personal view" which underpinned BBC2's series of televisual essays gave the ostensibly dry materials a human warmth that allied them successfully with the presenter-led documentaries already familiar on British screens.

The Ascent of Man covers, not in strict chronological order but according to the strongly evolutionary model suggested in the title, the emergence of humanity, the agricultural revolution, architecture and engineering, metallurgy and chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, Newtonian and relativistic mechanics, the industrial revolution, Darwinism, atomic physics, quantum physics, DNA and, in the final program, what we would now call neurobiology and cognitive science and artificial intelligence. As well as a generous use of locations, the series boasted what were then extremely advanced computer graphics, largely refilmed from computer monitors, and an appropriate delight in the most recent as well as the most ancient tools, skills, crafts and technologies.

Bronowski's scripts, reprinted almost verbatim as the chapters of the eponymous book accompanying the series, display his gift for inspired and visual analogies. Few have managed to communicate the essence of the special theory of relativity with such eloquence as Bronowski aboard a tram in Berne, or of Pythagorean geometry by means of the mosaics in the Alhambra. A decision made early in the filming process, to use sites which the presenter was unfamiliar with, perhaps explains some of the air of spontaneity and freshness which other presenter-led blockbuster documentaries buried beneath the modulated accents of expertise. Though sometimes gratuitous, the use of locations assured more than the visual interest of the series: it at least began the process of drawing great links between the apparently disparate cultures contributing to the development of the modern world view, from hominid skulls in the Olduvai gorge, by way of Japanese swordsmiths and Inca buildings to the splitting of the atom and the unraveling of DNA.



That profound belief in progress which informs the series, its humanism and its faith in the future, seem now to date it. But Bronowski's facility in moving between social, technological and scientific history makes his case compelling even now. His account of the industrialisation of the West, for example, centres on the contributions of artisans and inventors, emphasising the emergence of a new mutuality in society as it emerges from the rural past. On the other hand, the attempt to give scientific advance a human face has a double drawback. Firstly, it privileges the role of individuals, despite Bronowski's attempts to tie his account to the greater impact of social trends. And secondly, as a result, the series title is again accurate in its gendering: not even Marie Curie breaks into the pantheon.

But it is also the case that The Ascent of Man, in some of its most moving and most intellectually satisfying moments, confronts the possibility that there is something profoundly amiss with the technocratic society. For many viewers, the most vivid memory of the series is of Bronowski at Auschwitz, where several members of his family had died. For Bronowski, this is not the apogee of the destructive bent of a dehumanising secularism, but its opposite, the triumph of dogma over the modesty and even awe with which true science confronts the oceanic spaces of the unknown.

In some ways, The Ascent of Man stands diametrically opposed to the patrician elegance of Clarke's Civilisation. The elegy to Josiah Wedgewood, for example, is based not on his aristocratic commissions but on the simple creamware which transformed the kitchens of the emergent working classes. For all his praise of genius, from Galileo to von Neuman, Bronowski remains committed to what he calls a democracy of the intellect, the responsibility which knowledge brings, and which cannot be assigned unmonitored into the hands of the rich and powerful. Such a commitment, and such a faith in the future, may today ring hollow, especially given Bronowski's time-bound blindness to the contributions of women and land-based cultures. Yet it still offers, in the accents of joy and decency, an inspiration which a less optimistic and more authoritarian society needs perhaps more than ever.

-Sean Cubitt


Jacob Bronowski


May 5-July 28, 1973


Bronowski, Jacob. The Ascent of Man. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1974.