Hubris and Humility

Anyone who spends time in the heavens that are used book stores will surely have seen Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973). Most stores worth their salt will have two or even three copies in the science section. These are usually covered in dust, untouched no doubt because the title is so awful. I’ve always had the impression that The Ascent was a triumphal, and positively manly, celebration of human evolutionary progress. I’ve further assumed that whatever paleoanthropology it contained was badly out of date. Lucy was found a year after The Ascent was published.

As it turns out, The Ascent is an account of progressive cultural evolution, driven by scientific knowledge; it does not say much about biological evolution. This sounds like an even better reason not to touch those dusty tomes. Humanity’s steady and inexorable march from “primitive” to “civilized” is the great myth of modernity. Superstition, so this story goes, is being steadily replaced by science. It’s a Panglossian narrative in which some scientists, especially the high-profile popularizers, cast themselves as heroes. By the end of the story, humility has been banished and hubris rules.

With all this in mind, it is refreshing to learn that Jacob Bronowski was not a naive optimist or fundamentalist when it came to science. For moral and methodological reasons, he was wary of the certitude that sometimes flows from science. In this sharp essay on Bronowski and his BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” Simon Critchley observes:

Bronowski began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.

This is the condition for what we can know, but it is also, crucially, a moral lesson. It is the lesson of 20th-century painting from Cubism onwards, but also that of quantum physics. All we can do is to push deeper and deeper into better approximations of an ever-evasive reality. The goal of complete understanding seems to recede as we approach it.

There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible. The emphasis on the moral responsibility of knowledge was essential for all of Dr. Bronowski’s work. The acquisition of knowledge entails a responsibility for the integrity of what we are as ethical creatures.

It appears I was wrong about Bronowski. It’s the sort of thing that happens when you judge a book by a dusty cover.

Ascent of Man Book

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6 thoughts on “Hubris and Humility

  1. Charles Adler

    I very much remember reading it when it was first published. It grave me great pleasure and had a strong pull on my interests. The memory (thank you) impelled to poetry.

    The Ascent of Man

    There came a book into my hand
    and all the world diminished
    to a speck, if that,
    and not a care to know
    the way is never finished.

    Then on, my house had many windows
    where had been stuccoed walls.
    That Bronowski book had put them there
    and now the wide world calls


  2. Onoosh

    Oh, absolutely, Chadler! You’ve captured the essence of what watching the t.v. Series, then reading the book, did for a much younger me: opened windows on the world and history, made me think, gave me avenues of exploration, helped me see ideas, books and dogmas in a new light.

    For me, Brunowski was the essence of what a cultured person (whether from our century or another, in whatever location) should strive to be: open, attentive, unprejudiced but cautious, conversational, clear-eyed, and inviting. He must have been a dinner guest–plied with wine–you never wanted to leave.

    So thank you for the poem.

    And Cris, I’m delighted (and not a little relieved!) that you discovered one of my intellectual “spirit guides,” if you will. I’ve always wondered if, after all, the off-putting title of the book wasn’t chosen by Brunowski with a perfect understanding of its irony.

  3. Harold

    I urge you to watch The Ascent of Man, it can be found quite cheaply on dvd or it’s also on youtube if you want some immediate gratification. The Ascent of Man is one of the best documentary series ever made, it’s right up there with Sagan’s Cosmos or Attenborough’s Life on Earth. And (despite the title) it’s not about some inevitable progession, instead Bronowski makes clear that there are huge periods in which nothing much happens for one reason or another.
    I just rewatched the first episode and the end brought tears to my eyes.

  4. Jonathan

    Chris, since you stayed away from the book because you anticipated the typical scientific triumphalism we see so often these days, can I recommend one particular episode for you to start with? Episode 11, “Knowledge or Certainty”. And if you don’t have the time to watch the whole thing, just watch the end:

    You can tell that I’m a bit of an evangelist for this one particular scene. It’s the most eloquent and moving call for humility and the need for self-questioning I’ve ever seen.

  5. Jonathan

    Just to respond, you are right in thinking that it’s very much a history of the “Western” “Scientific” way of looking at the world. I saw it as a teen-ager and it was great for me then. I don’t know that you would learn many new facts from watching the series, as I’m guessing you’re already very familiar with the Western canon.

    That said, he is a delightful, very humane presenter. So, while it’s not germane to the studies you share with us through this blog, it could be enjoyable to travel through western history with Bronowski as your (sincerely) humble narrator. For myself, I also happen to enjoy the 1970’s BBC serious documentary style used.

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