Monday, July 26, 2010

Re-Discovering "The Ascent of Man"

It was one of those acts of kismet that can only happen on the Internet. I'm not sure how it all started, I believe it was watching some documentaries through Google Video, yes it still exists, when I cam across a documentary I haven't seen in, shall we say, decades. The Ascent of Man came out in the golden age of documentaries, when thinkers were able to take complex concepts and explain, not in simplistic terms, but rather to bring us to think and begin to see how it all comes together.

As I watched some of the episodes, of which there are 13, I was reminded of being absolutely riveted by the words of Dr. Jacob Bronowski. If you watch the opening, it becomes obvious, this is a rather dated opening:

After all, what screams 'the 70's' like the opening, with the music and the lettering. Also the show demonstrates signs that it was truly shot on 16mm film. However, that is not what makes this so fascinating, it was how Dr. Bronowski was able to present the ascent of humanity, it began with his opening words:
Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape—he is a shaper of the landscape.

He witnesses both the greatness of humanity, the fact we as a species does shape the landscape, and yet in the shaper, comes the beauty and, sadly, at times, its ugliness. He can take ideas such as periodic table and turns to the fact it affects cubism:

He talks in the first episode, about evolution, not in the way we know or think about it, but the cultural evolution, that which takes our questioning, our emotions, our reason and makes us grow. It truly is a marvelous thought when you think about it.

Was this truly a time when intellectual project of the mind was not stuck into a dogmatic and political agenda. Today, for Dr. Bronowski just to breathe the word 'evolution', would cause people to demand to either burn Dr. Bronowski and the film to the fire, or make him the cause celebre of their agenda.

What Dr. Bronowski does, it not give a chronological study, but the great themes, that may take decades or centuries to come to conclusion, but that does not matter. He calls the episodes essays as journeys through intellectual history, of the high points of human history, or as he quotes Yates, monuments of unaging intellect.

Some might say that has been the problem of humanity, we become impressed with our monuments, but again, is that not human striving? Isn't this what brings about the change, the desire, not to make monuments but to understand. We are a questioning bunch and that also makes us dangerous. The greatest danger and the greatest act of intelligence is the one word 'why'? With it revolutions happen and atoms are understood and split.

Should a person get all tied into knots because Dr. Bronowski supports the views of Charles Darwin? After all, Darwin is the enemy of Christianity, as some would believe.

However, I wonder if there is a such a great divide? I know that many take the view, for or against, and make it political, I already used the word 'dogma'. I think of the words of David:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings [c]
and crowned him with glory and honor.

6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:

The spark of creativity comes from the creation of humanity. In the end, that is what matters. In the creation it matters not how it all happens, rather that we bear the spark of divinity and inquisitiveness.

It is interesting to listen to Dr. Bronowski describe a baby as a mosaic of animal and angel. He takes the moment a baby stands up and makes the first steps as a dramatic moment.

Now the series is not one that looks at the achievement of humanity as only good and great, he considers some of the dark moments of humanity:
It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium 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.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken."

He reminds all of us, we may make mistakes.

I plan to watch the series and enjoy all of them.

No comments: