Happy 100th Birthday, Jacob Bronowski


Today is the 100th birthday of one of my greatest intellectual heroes, Jacob Bronowski, the mathematician, poet, philosopher, historian, and author of The Ascent of Man. I paid tribute to him a few years ago on the Thumb. I also wrote about him for Liberty magazine.

Here is a famous scene from The Ascent: the most moving in this whole marvelous show.


I’d forgotten how powerful JB’s “Ascent of Man” series was, seen all those years ago. Oh boy, Netflix queue, here I come! (And I found the companion book for the series on my bookshelf, gathering dust all these years; and I’ve the house to myself this weekend, Whooppee!)

Bronowski was a quite remarkable, quirky man whose intellectual range and grasp allowed him to see our often fragmented culture as a whole. His emphasis on the disciplined use of the imagination yoked the arts and the sciences together, and made them a single, intensely human, endeavour. It is true that not every observation in ‘The Ascent of Man’ is correct, and sometimes his prejudices leaked out, but this was inevitable given the fact that many of his comments seem not to have been fully scripted, or indeed scripted at all. No doubt his text could have been edited and vetted (nowadays it certainly would be), but who would want to lose that marvellous sense of watching a man thinking his way through a problem, or searching for exactly the right phrase to illuminate a tricky thought? In @The Ascent of Man@ Bronowski never patronises the viewer; indeed, he expects the viewer to put in some hard work too. He even calls his programmes ‘essays’ – can you imagine any modern producer allowing such a thing?

Bruno Bronowski may not have been a great scientist, but he was an impressive historian of science and an even greater advocate for science and open-mindedness. His rather Enlightenment-inspired ideas are possibly even less fashionable now than they were in the early 1970s, but with liberal societies all over the world facing the challenges of fundamentalism and fanaticism, we desperately need people like Bronowski to point out the humanity of open societies, and the inhumanity of closed ones.

Well said! And you’re right that Ascent was unscripted in large parts. Whenever Bronowski was talking to the camera (which includes almost the entire last episode) he was speaking extemporaneously.

I’m about half way through watching Ascent of Man on DVD for the third time! It’s part of my DVD collection (along with Cosmos and Attenborough’s Life… series) that I return to again and again.

If anyone ever needed proof of TV’s ‘dumbing down’, show them what was was considered a prime time Sunday evening programme in the 1970’s.

This isn’t something to be thrown in the face of fundamentalists. Its something that they need to hear. If they actually listen, and don’t get it in their heads that all that is being presented is some form of relativism that they can reject out of hand, it should make them happy. Science does not produce a God’s eye view. It’s insane for anyone to think that it threatens their view of divine revelation. If they could just be sat down to willing watch that chapter the clip is from, Knowledge and Certainty, and have it explained to them very slowly, not only would they stop trying to demonize science and scientists, but they’d realize how vital it is that their children learn what real science is.

Yes, the clip you point to was the most moving passage in the series and, perhaps, the most moving ever on television. (The clip ended too soon. As I recall the series, a scientist whom Bronowski knew, came on the set. Only then did one realize that this scientist was a survivor of the concentration camps whose “liberation photo” had been seen earlier in the show.)

You should also have pointed to this clip:


which connects theoretical physics with fundamental chemistry, biology, Darwin and evolution. This is a connection that the ID fanatics never really address.

Simon Eliot said, in part:

“It is true that not every observation in ‘The Ascent of Man’ is correct, and sometimes his prejudices leaked out, but this was inevitable given the fact that many of his comments seem not to have been fully scripted, or indeed scripted at all…

(Never let it be said that understatement can’t be a powerful way to get people to guffaw out loud)

“Prejudices” is correct. The only good choice of words I see in this forum thus far, to be frank.

“Bruno Bronowski may not have been a great scientist, but he was an impressive historian of science and an even greater advocate for science and open-mindedness”

He was neither of the above, for the most part. He rehashed the hashslingers, who’d previously all come to conclusions like these anti-Christian ones long before Bruno stopped messing his diapers.

It is always a treat to see liars and/or the amazingly misinformed (though most likely in the case of Bronowski, just a liar, as he’s smart enough to know better) being lauded on X-anniversary.

His Galileo triumphalism is not warranted, unfortunately.

According to real historians, like Martin Rudwick, Jacob Bronowski offers the “textbook” example of how smart people mangle history. The TV series “The Ascent of Man” which portrays Galileo before dark hooded sith lords of the Church and a simplistic donnybrook of Good vs. Evil is a “travesty” of reportage. The only thing gleaned to be true in his mockery is that this can only result from a DELIBERATE choice to “ignore the historical research available.” Said historical documentation can be found readily in Giorgia de Santilliana, whose book The Crime of Galileo is widely considered the final word on the issue. Seems the major part of the Church was actually on Galileo’s side, and the “clearest opposition came from secular authorities armed with secular ideas.” The Pope was also–at one time–a member of the “Galileisti” (his followers) until secular authorities piped up with their own set of concerns.

And, of course, as with the Washington Irving stories that got transmogrified into ‘just so’ stories that in turn turned into “fact” about Christians allegedly once thinking the Earth was flat or that such false cosmology is found in the Jewish Scriptures (also untrue), it IS interesting to see just how long mythology can hang around as “science” and history.

And I’ll bet good money in Vegas that Bronowski was one of these groggy elders like Asimov who thought the “Four Corners” of the Earth as mentioned in Scripture was really meaning that the Earth was flat as a cardboard box–not the ACTUAL interpretation of most real scholars who know of what they speak–the four cardinal directions.

Of course, I realize that lauding liars and con artists helps to this goal of historical revisionism and distortion.

As a sardonic acquaintance of mine recently quipped: “Funny how a nation of knuckle dragging bible worshippers is also the most technologically and economically advanced nation in the world. The mother of all non sequiturs is that progress in science and engineering is hampered by religious belief. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting and the proof in this case is that a nation founded on the principle of inalienable God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the best thing going. Judeo-Christian belief, whether true or not with regard to divine inspiration, is unquestionably a successful formula for the attainment of high living standards in a free society. I don’t know who said it but Never argue with success and if “ain’t broke” don’t fix it are apt here.”

If Christian belief were actually some kind of “barrier” to science or progress, it is hard to fathom WHY so many founders of modern science were true believers. Paracelsus, Boyle, and Newton wrote extensively on theology as well as science. Others, like Kepler and Helmont–filled their notebooks with prayers and praise and theological underpinnings. Of course there are dozens of others. The list of believing men and women who were (and are still) on the front lines of science will fill 50 blackboards in small type. Which speaking of underpinning soon brings us another point to make. Some historians in the overkill Moonbat Mode try and dismiss these theological insights as but irritating distractions from pure works. Yet we find that belief in the God of the Bible WAS the UNDERPINNING of many of these men’s insights into a larger realm. Many of these early explorers of the Heavens used just that word and studied Creation on the assumption that God would have made an orderly Universe, not a Protean one where anything happens, and thus studied to better know the Creator of such wonders. In many if not most cases this was Prime Motivator One in the quest for greater material knowledge. It is the Christian conception of God and order and nothing else that served as the foundation for other insights–and yet today we see that some of us here think you can by analogy build certain skyscrapers with the basement first and then rip that ideological basement from under the rest and hope it stands. Not so. In the few episodes often mentioned over and over to utter exhaustion, like Copernicus and Galileo, the truth is that on the whole the Church had little to say about the findings per se but the implications of such to the moral order. That might have been in the wrong, but the Church actually (in these cases) defaulted to the SECULAR authorities at the time who were used to a worldview of the Aristotelians, and thus decided to fight along side THAT side of the coin.

Galileo never repudiated his faith. Never. Not once. The positivist modernist approach to historical revisionism like that of JB claims that his religious defense was mere expediency, but the behavior cannot be explained this way if see his determination to fit both realms side by side.

The other difficult reality is that Christianity has been in the forefront of advocating a philosophical stance that bolstered scientific progress. As for the relationship between science and religion, as one Brit scholar has said: “Western science was the product of devoutly religious men and women honestly seeking the mind of God as expressed in His glorious creation: nature. In doing so, they utilized and perfected powerful philosophical and mathematical tools, the same tools that inform theology. Some of the most powerful and correct insights into the nature of the Cosmos came directly from their theological experience. And in spite of some curiosities of how they arrived at the conclusion, there are numerous examples of how science came out of the idea that the universe was made by a God of order who gave man dominion over it. The great Roman Catholic scientist and philosopher, Pierre Duhem, considered that science was a truly inclusive endeavor as everyone, regardless of their philosophical, religious or cultural background, could join together in examining the objective world of nature. He was absolutely right: the greatest achievements of the early Islamic scientists amply demonstrate this. (note: Hey! PC warriors: paying attention here?) Within the Abbasid scientific enterprise, Muslims worked alongside Christians, Jews, Sabians and very early Deists, avant le parole, such as Rhazes, to create a truly awesome and magnificent scientific achievement, which has informed and fructified science and philosophy.”

It might also be instructive to peek at the writings of historian John Hedley Brook’s taxonomic rehash on the numerous ways in which Christianity influence the development of science. Long story made short: Christian teachings have served as presuppositions for the whole scientific enterprise in the first place. Despite the mythology of Galileo and the Church which suckers in people like Bronowski and some others with coloring book notions about history (which is always to be read in context—on the whole the Church was actually not so much upset with his scientific ideas but rather what it perceived as repudiation of Aristotelian philosophy, which in turn THEY got from secular philosophers beforehand), the Church since the time of Aquinas has usually relegated the realm of science to scientists and philosophically mentioned that a Universe that ran according to rational laws was biblically one that actually made the most sense, from a deity that organized according to certain precepts. See historians Martin Rudwick and Rodney Stark on this and other common mythologies (like Copernicus) about how wildly modern revisionists with a chip on the shoulder have left out VAST swaths of context concerning those few incidents where religion and science got into a donnybrook. Thus for example, as Rudwick reminds us, modern types of religion bashers proudly boast that the Church fight with Copernicus was over mankind’s “high place” in the Cosmos—when nothing could be further from the truth. Thus types as diverse as Newsweek, the boneheads of PBS, laudy-laud boy Jacob Bronowski, and Daniel Boorstien all take the swipe at the Church for “fighting” the “demotion of mankind’s lofty place” in the scheme of things. Says Rudwick (a true historian, mind you), would that these liars and naysayers read the philosophical issues the Church faced at the time and understand ALSO that in Christian theology that Earth was NEVER a particularly noble place to be its “fallen state”. The OPPOSITE was thought by the Church, as the outer rings of space were the Heavenly Realm and at the center of things much closer to home was Hell itself—the exact opposite of what is commonly assumed about the alleged Copernican battle with the Church. The Church actually had little to say about most of this, and the quotes and asides assembled to foster evidence of an “attack on science” combed out by unscrupulous men like Boorstien and Andrew Dickson White are probably apocryphal at best. So much for what the public schools and even college level “profs” on religion drill into skulls. Not reliable, Chico. Bronowski should have known better than to hand wave all this–but then, things wouldn’t be so complicated and we’d have a history more difficult to lie about to the kiddies when things got sorted out. But then that’s the pitch of modern public education. Keeping things neat and simple and Politically Correct for secularism. Which is another issue altogether. Bronowski joins the other characters mentioned here who now get to suck on the seismoid Panda wrist bone and call it a thumb.

Long story made short: Christian teachings have served as presuppositions for the whole scientific enterprise in the first place.

Bullshit. Talk about “liars and the amazingly misinformed”

That was very moving. Thanks for the link- a reminder that I need to add Bronowski to my library.

Bronowski was not necessarily anti-Christian in his arguments. He fully acknowledged the Christian background of quite a few of the scientific thinkers he describes (though many of them could hardly be regarded as orthodox – Newton, for instance). Indeed, he spent a considerable amount of time in Programme 3 of the _Ascent of Man_ lauding the master masons who built the cathedrals of medieval Europe. His objection was to Christianity (or any belief) when it became a rigid system of values invested in political authority, as was illustrated by the case of Galileo. By the way, Wakefield Tolbert should be more careful about his references: it is surely not ‘Giorgia de Santilliana’ he means but ‘Giorgo de Santillana’. Also, who is ‘Boorstien’? Is it one of the Boorsteins, or is it Daniel J. Boorstin that is meant?

‘Christian teachings have served as presuppositions for the whole scientific enterprise in the first place’ cannot be correct. Science had many of it origins in cultures that were pre-Christian or non-Christian such as the Babylonian, Egyptian and, above all, Greek civilisations. By the way, which ‘Christian teachings’ are we talking about here? Those of the early Church? Various versions of Roman Catholicism as it remade itself from time to time? Eastern Orthodox, perhaps? Hang on, what about the various shades of Calvinism? Or perhaps Unitarianism?

‘Galileo never repudiated his faith. Never. Not once’. Of course not: the man was shown the instruments of torture just for suggesting that certain theories that the Church had unnecessarily adopted might not have been correct. Does anyone know how dangerous it was to deny Christianity in Counter-Reformation Italy? Indeed, even in Protestant England in the eighteenth century, people like Hume and Gibbon disguised their disbelief through irony.

Actually it’s just occurred to me: perhaps Wakefield Tolbert’s whole posting is a brilliant ironical performance, a bit like Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’. That would explain why it was so terribly funny.

Whoops, for Giorgo read ‘Giorgio’ - at least I didn’t force a sex change on him.

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on January 18, 2008 7:24 PM.

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