Day 752: The Ascent of Man

Cover for The Ascent of ManThe book The Ascent of Man is a companion piece to the 1970’s era TV series. The introduction to the book states that the series was an answer to Kenneth Clarke’s famous Civilisation, which left out the accomplishments of science. Author Jacob Bronowski was a well-known mathematician, biologist, and science historian.

Bronowski begins this book with our ape relatives and a discussion of evolution, but he really gets into his subject after man has moved from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle. His contention is that nomads do not have the time or energy to innovate.

The book takes us through a series of the most important discoveries for the improvement of human life and understanding. These include the combination of copper and tin to make bronze, mathematical discoveries, the Copernican system, the Scientific Revolution, and so on up to the double helix.

As the book is so obviously the script of a program, there are some frustrating times when it refers to an image that certainly appeared on TV but not in the book. On the other hand, the illustrations in the book are many and beautiful.

Of course, since the book was written in the 70’s, it is a little dated. One example is that Bronowski frequently comments on how slowly animals evolve, but I believe this idea has been reconsidered.

Because the discussion of the concepts is very brief, there were times when I felt Bronowski was implying a lot more than he described. That is, his greater understanding of the topic interferes a bit in his simple explanations. So, even though I watch a lot of science programs and usually have no trouble understanding them, I felt sometimes as if the explanations of the more difficult subjects have too much left out. Still, for someone who wants to learn basic information about important scientific discoveries up to the middle of the 20th century or is interested in the history of science, this is a good place to start.

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