The Ascent of Man (1973) by Jacob Bronowski / BBC

The Drive for Power

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Video Description


A personal history of mankind's scientific and technological endeavour from prehistory to the modern age.

BBC2 had scored a massive success with Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969) and it was clear to the channel's controller, David Attenborough, that some sort of sequel was required. The result was The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973), a personal account of the history of science and technology presented by Jacob Bronowski, some four years in the making.

Unlike Civilisation, The Ascent of Man took a themed approach to its subject matter rather than a strictly chronological one. The 13-part series was therefore free to examine the impact and importance of such themes as chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, Newtonian mechanics, the industrial revolution, Darwinism and atomic physics with a far broader vision.

Bronowski, who proved himself Clark's equal in terms of his ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms, had a more personal presentational style that reinforced his emphasis on the democratising potential of technology and the responsibility which knowledge brings. This idea was crystallised by the series' most famous sequence - Bronowski at Auschwitz, where several members of his family had died, sifting the ashes of the dead through his hands in an unscripted discourse on the need to combine technology with accountability. It was the programme's defining moment and a landmark in television history.

"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 and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this 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 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."

Where The Ascent of Man stumbles is in its underlying assumption that the mechanics of progress will provide the tools to avert future triumphs of political dogma over humanism. The intervening 30 years have sadly proven Bronowski wrong on this point, although this does not undermine the central thrust of the series, which twins technological development with grassroots societal change. Where else will you find Josiah Wedgewood being praised, not for his aristocratic commissions, but for his mass-produced crockery which transformed the kitchens of the industrial revolution's emergent working-class?

Anthony Clark



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



1. "Lower than the Angels" (evolution of man from proto-ape to 400,000 years ago)

2. "The Harvest of the Seasons" (early human migration, agriculture and the first settlements, war)

3. "The Grain in the Stone" (tools, development of architecture and sculpture)

4. "The Hidden Structure" (fire, metals and alchemy)

5. "Music of the Spheres" (the language of numbers)

6. "The Starry Messenger" (Galileo's universe)

7. "The Majestic Clockwork" (explores Kepler and Newton's laws)

8. "The Drive for Power" (the Industrial Revolution)

9. "The Ladder of Creation" (Darwin and Wallace's ideas on the origin of species)

10. "World within World" (the story of the periodic table)

11. "Knowledge or Certainty" (There is no absolute knowledge)

12. "Generation upon Generation" (cloning of identical forms)

13. "The Long Childhood" (The commitment of man)

Documentary Description

The 13-part series was shot on 16mm film. Executive Producer was Adrian Malone, film directors Dick Gilling, Mick Jackson, David Kennard, David Paterson. Malone and Kennard later emigrated to Hollywood, where they produced Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Jackson followed them, and now directs feature films.

The title alludes to The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin. Over the series' thirteen episodes, Bronowski travelled around the world in order to trace the development of human society through its understanding of science. It was written specifically to complement Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969), in which Clark argued that art was a major driving force in cultural evolution. Bronowski wrote in his 1951 book "The Commonsense of Science": "It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests". Both series had been commissioned by David Attenborough, then controller of BBC2, although he had moved on by the time The Ascent of Man aired. Quotations were read by actors Roy Dotrice and Joss Ackland.

The book of the series, The Ascent of Man: A Personal View by J. Bronowski, is an almost word-for-word transcript from the original television episodes, diverging from Bronowski's original narration only where the lack of images might make its meaning unclear. A few details of the film version were omitted from the book: notably, Part 11, "Knowledge or Certainty," begins by showing the face of Stefan Borgrajewicz as an elderly man who had known suffering; at the end, after Bronowski shows us the ruins of Hiroshima and the ash-strewn pond of Auschwitz, we see a photograph of a younger man, with the name "BOR-GRAJEWICZ, Stefan" and the number 125558, which may be his official record in the archives of Auschwitz.

Just over a year after the series appeared, Bronowski died of a heart attack aged 66.

Series outline

1. Lower than the Angels — Evolution of man from proto-ape to 400,000 years ago.
2. The Harvest of the Seasons — Early human migration, agriculture and the first settlements, war.
3. The Grain in the Stone — Tools, development of architecture and sculpture.
4. The Hidden Structure — Fire, metals and alchemy.
5. Music of the Spheres — The language of numbers.
6. The Starry Messenger — Galileo's universe
7. The Majestic Clockwork — Explores Kepler and Newton's laws.
8. The Drive for Power — The Industrial Revolution.
9. The Ladder of Creation — Darwin and Wallace's ideas on the origin of species.
10. World within World — The story of the periodic table.
11. Knowledge or Certainty — There is no absolute knowledge.
12. Generation upon Generation — Cloning of identical forms.
13. The Long Childhood — The commitment of man.


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