Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Knowledge or certainty?

It was reading Prime Witness that finally prompted me to make an effort with the Ascent of Man. It’s the third of BBC 2’s decades-old, prestigious, full-colour documentaries, following on from Civilisation (a history of western art) and America. And it endeavours to be something quite unlikely: a history of science without all the boring bits.

This is not an easy proposition. Civilisation and America had both involved pointing the camera at pretty objects and landmarks. The Ascent of Man DVD has a single special feature, in which then-Controller of BBC 2 David Attenborough explains that these were easy ways for the Beeb to flog colour telly. You just had to get some respectable presenter to put the glossy shots in order.

Yet science is less about pretty objects and more about ideas and theory. It is not, as Attenborough admitted, ideally suited to moving pictures as distributed by cathode ray. To solve this knotty conundrum, they commissioned the polymath Jacob Bronowski.

His answer was to cover not just what we think of “science” – laboratory experiments in biology, chemistry and physics – but the broader development of thought, art and articulation. As he says late on in the series, “science” is just another word for “knowledge”. This, then, is the history of how we’ve sussed stuff out.

His examples span art and science, poetry and performance and music. There’s stuff about the way churches were built – physically and politically. And he’s good at adding in funny stories and anecdotes about great scientists he has himself known. At one point he says that “all science is analogy” (– which I wished I’d heard when I wrote The Pirate Loop).

To begin, he asks a deceptively simple question: what makes mankind different from other animals. Bronowski’s contention, in the pre-credit tease of episode one, is that while we have discovered the remains of other species, only humanity leaves behind it the remains of things it has made. We do not merely best fit the circumstances of the world around us, we adapt and shape the landscape, use tools to bend it to our will.

The current reckoning is that about 250,000 years ago, the development of skull and brain in Homo erectus enabled the kind of abstract thought needed to shape and use stone tools. The scion of erectus who most embraced the fashionable new Stone Age were a new species, Homo sapiens – that’s us.

As Bronowski argues, for the great majority of our existence as a species, we’ve been wandering about willy-nilly, foraging after undomesticated animals. Bronowski himself visited the Bakhtiari in Iran, to show how the hand-to-mouth existence following and living off the herd means that there’s little space for innovation or thought outside the box.

Some 10,000 years ago or so, people began to put down roots. Bronowski visits the ruin of Jericho to show how the development of common wheat, fresh-running water and such modern technology as walls completely changed human perspective of what could be done with any day. Rather than disputing the Old Testament, as we might expect from a champion of science, he uses the accounts given in the handed-down stories to add credence to his archaeological proof. The harvest, he argues, meant busy times working in the fields and fighting off those who would steal the resulting bounty, but it also left man free to think and talk and try stuff.

It takes two whole episodes to reach this point, establishing the conditions for history and science as we come to know them. A mere 4,000 or so years after man settles down (i.e. 6,000-ish years ago), he invents two things that will again change life quite utterly – bronze and writing.

It’s the breadth of Bronowski’s knowledge and insight that makes this such a compelling series. He links up all kinds of different ideas in ways that are often surprising. For example, we watch a katana being forged in the traditional method, the metal slow-fired and folded, then fired and folded again. Bronowski shows how this method makes a sword that’s both durable and sharp; as if (his analogy) mixing the desired properties of rubber and of glass. This, he explains, was the both cognitive and alchemical leap that – prior to iron and a bit of carbon making steel – mixed tin and copper as bronze and so got mankind out of the stone age.

It’s no coincidence that this is also the dawn of recorded history – and I’ve heard before the idea that Bishop Ussher’s calculation gives not the date the world was made, but a good approximation of when humans first began to record it. 23 October, 4004 BCE is a rough guess of when pre-history gave way to people keeping records and diaries. The written word enables man to pass on his learning to subsequent generations, so they need not waste time puzzling it out for themselves. In so doing it creates the potential for scientists to climb on to each other’s shoulders.

Once man is mixing alloys and writing, the series comes into its own. Each of the subsequent episodes explores a particular scientific construction – Newton’s mathematics, for example, or heredity and evolution. As part of Attenborough’s brief to provide colourful, arresting images, Bronowski travels the whole world, weaving together all kinds of cultures and stories into his over-all thesis. The images are indelible: a baby being born; a small child taking its first steps; nomadic peoples living the same existence that was humanity’s lot 10,000 years ago.

The music and poetry of the periods in discussion are mixed with wild-eyed modern stuff by Pink Floyd and Dudley Simpson. (I tried to describe Deadly Dudley to the Dr – as an Australian Sir Didymus off of Labyrinth.) Droo fans will also enjoy Brian Hodgson’s trippy sound effects. Surely that’s not the noise that molecules make but some kind of Cyberman gun. The state-of-the-art computer graphics would have been better realised by Kevin Davies and sheets of acetate.

As the series goes on, it becomes evident that Bronowski has an ethical agenda, a morality of science. One episode deals with how the church secretly acknowledged but publicly suppressed Galileo’s observed proofs of Copernicus. The theme returns again and again: Mendel’s studies of heredity being burned by his monastic order, the Nazis burning whole demographic groups.

It’s the best argument I’ve heard to counter the old line that Nazism and the holocaust is what happens when you give free reign to scientists and atheists.
"[It] 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.”

Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, p. 374.

In the broadcast (rather than book) version, he speaks of “despotic belief”, and does so as he steps into the ponds at Auschwitz where members of his own family were butchered. It’s utterly compelling television, more so as the summation of that episode’s whole thesis, that we can never know anything entirely.

That episode, “11. Knowledge or certainty”, is particularly brilliant in explaining the limits of our perception and so of our knowledge. It begins with a blind women feeling the face of an elderly fellow, and telling us what she thinks of him. We then see an artist’s various scribbly impressions of the same man, broad brushstrokes exploring his features.

Bronowski uses this model to explain the limits of our eye sight – “visible” light is only a tiny section of the range of wavelengths. So we run through images of the same man through radio waves, infra red, visible light, ultra violet and x-ray, each filter offering new information and perspective. The last shows us what our eye-sight did not – that’s he’s missing most of his teeth. Yet we still don’t know who or what this elderly man really is.

Bronowski explores gaps in knowledge, and how scientists fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s so they’d be able to keep on asking questions. He speaks of the necessary integrity of science, of people striving for truth that dares confront ideology. The principle of uncertainty established by those fleeing German scientists does not mean that we know nothing, but that we know to build in allowances. The analogy Bronowksi uses is from engineering; a threshold of tolerance.

Scientific thought and discovery thrives where there is tolerance of new ideas and a respect for that integrity. It is not science but dogma when awkward questions are persona non grata. It made me think of Agent Zigzag, and the bureaucracy of the Nazi secret service, where no one could admit to the failings in the system so nothing could be done to fix them.

The episode finishes not, as in the book, with Bronowski putting his hands into the water where the ash of thousands of dead people lie. Rather we return to the old man we’d seen at the beginning. We have seen him through all the wavelengths of light and by touch and extrapolation. But we start to know him, to gain insight into who he might be, when the picture fades to one taken much earlier. When a younger version of him stares forlornly, wan and undernourished, in the striped uniform of the same concentration camp.

It is the sudden spark of cognition, of understanding, that makes it so moving. That episode - not just that scene - is one of the most intelligent and powerful things I've ever seen on telly.

The final episode, filmed mostly in Bronowski’s Californian home, ties up the many disparate threads into a thesis about our future. He talks of teaching in schools and the dangers of ignoring scientific discovery – of downplaying evolution, of not facing uncomfortable truths. Bronowski himself speaks of the end of Western civilisation 50 years from when he’s speaking – or, of the curriculum babies born now will be studying at A-level. The Ascent of Man might continue elsewhere, he says, but the Western – or, more accurately, the English-speaking – claim on it will be a footnote in another culture’s history. By not facing history and not exploring the present, we write ourselves out of the future.

I wonder what he’d make of now. And would a series like this be possible today? Matthew Collings’ recent update of Civilisation only ran for four episodes, which the Dr says is indicative of modern telly’s impatience. I think it may also be that a lot of what he’s addressing and showing onscreen is more readily available to us; a sizeable number of those watching Civilisation back in 1969 would not have seen much of the stuff on it before.

I think there’s a market for a new history of science, one that does not ignore the controversies where evidence meets belief. One that perhaps takes its cue from Bill Bryson’s tolerant and plain English Brief History of Everything (which I see’s been re-released in a lavish and illustrated version, proving again that these difficult theories and ideas can be visualised).

One that asks the simple questions behind all science of tolerance and integrity… Why is it like that? Oh really? It’s an interesting idea, but can you prove it?


Anonymous said...

"...not just what we think of 'science' – laboratory experiments in biology, chemistry and physics...".

I can't help but pose this question - and do forgive the pomposity of it - but who is the "we" in that statement? That's not what *I* think of as science...

Other than that, I like this post muchly. And, by Christ, you've seen "The Ascent of Man" and I haven't, so I'm in no position to be dissing anyone's intellectual rigour. I was probably watching "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" around the same time.

D x
(Manifestly not Doctor Bloody Bronowski)

Anonymous said...


Cheers for that Simon, never really heard of Ascent of Man, before, but it sounds right up my alley. Will seek it out over Christmas.


First time commenter, long time reader... etc.

0tralala said...

Deej: We as in me. Scientist means a white lab coat, a beard, and slim chance of making it to the end of the film. It says so in the OED.

Simon: Welcome aboard!

Anonymous said...

You all get the best TV. If we were lucky we'd get this on public broadcasting but maybe not even then.