The Ascent of Man
What man is: towards an understanding of where we have come
The book Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski is an eagle’s eye history of human invention, creativity & science. It’s a book about what makes us unique & about a “civilization in which knowledge & its integrity are crucial.”
I highly recommend it. Some highlights and quotes from the book below:
On cultural evolution:
“Man is the only one who is not locked into his environment..And that series of inventions by which man from age to age has remade his environment is a different kind of evolution – not biological, but cultural evolution."
On what is human in human nature:
"Man is distinguished from other animals by his imaginative gifts..Every animal leaves traces of what it was; man alone leaves traces of what he created."
On the importance of cooperation in hunting:
"A slow creature like man can stalk, pursue & corner a large savannah animal that is adapted for flight only be cooperation. Hunting requires conscious planning & organization by means of language, as well as special weapons."
On the nomad life being immemorial:
"The Bakhtiari life is too narrow to have time or skill for specialization. There is no room for innovation, because there is not time on the move..to develop a new device..The only ambition of the son is to be like the father."
On the civilization defining role of agriculture:
"The largest single step in the ascent of man is the change from nomad to village agriculture..Settled agriculture creates a technology from which all physics, all science takes off."
Agriculture --> "organization of the city"
On cities resting on central authorities:
"Roads, bridges, messages in a great empire are always advanced inventions, because if they are cut then authority is cut off and breaks down - in modern times they are typically the first target in a revolution."
On the joy of practicing your craft:
"There is one gift above all others that makes man unique among the animals: his immense pleasure in exercising and pushing forward his own skill."
"The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill."
On the hand being "the cutting-edge of the mind":
"The hand is more important than the eye..it drives the subsequent evolution of the brain..We see this every time a child learns to lace its shoes, to thread a needle, to fly a kite or to play a penny whistle."
On fire disclosing a new class of materials - the metals:
"Fire is the alchemist's element by which man is able to cut deeply into the structure of matter..The nature of chemical processes was only understood when fire itself came to be understood as a process."
On the Renaissance:
"The Renaissance did not have the technical equipment to stop the picture frame instant by instant. But the Renaissance had the intellectual equipment: the inner eye of the painter & the logic of the mathematician."
"Astronomy is not the apex of science or of invention. But it is a test of the cast of temperament & mind that underlies a culture. The seafarers of the Mediterranean since Greek times had a peculiar inquisitiveness that combined adventure with logic.."
"Why were the paths of the planets so complicated? Because, he decided, we look at them from the place we happen to be standing, the earth. Like the pioneers of perspective, Copernicus asked, Why not look at them from another place?"
On Venice in 1600:
"When Shakespeare writes about the drama of power in his own age, he twice brings the scene to the Republic of Venice: once in the Merchant of Venice & then in Othello. That is cause in 1600 the Mediterranean was still center of the world & Venice was the hub"
"Galileo thought that all he had to do was to show that Copernicus was right and everybody would listen. That was his first mistake: the mistake of being naive which scientists make all the time."
"Now that his notebooks have been read, it is clear that Newton had not been well taught and that he proved most of the mathematics he knew for himself. Then he went on to original discovery. He invented fluxions, what we now call the calculus."
"He had a genius for finding philosophical ideas that gave a new view of practical experience. He did not look at nature like a God but like a pathfinder, a man inside the chaos of her phenomena who believed there is a common pattern if we looked with fresh eyes."
On the genius of Newton & Einstein:
"The genius of men like Newton and Einstein lies in that: they ask transparent, innocent questions which turn out to have catastrophic answers."
On schools & the industrial revolution:
"The men who made the [Industrial] revolution were practical men. They often had little education, and in fact school education as it then was could only dull an inventive mind."
"The physical world 10 million years ago was the same as it is today, & its laws were the same. But the living world is not the same; 10 million yrs. ago there were no human beings to discuss it. Unlike physics, every generalisation about biology is a slice in time."
"What physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge. There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect."
On man's unique feature:
"No animal is faced with this dilemma: an animal is either social or solitary. Man alone aspires to be both in one, a social solitary. And to me that is a unique biological feature.
On human thought:
"In a sense, all science, all human thought, is a form of play. Abstract thought is the neoteny of the intellect, by which man is able to continue to carry out activities which have no immediate goal in order to prepare himself for long term strategies & plans"
On the Ascent of Man:
"We are here on a wonderful threshold of knowledge. The ascent of man is always teetering in the balance..And what is ahead of us? Bringing together of all we have learned in physics & in biology, towards an understanding of where we have come: what man is"
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