Welcome to the twelfth episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall complete our review of The Ascent of Man.
Generation upon Generation
In Chapter Twelve, Dr. Bronowski continues the story of Chapter Nine by discussing more aspects of biology: heredity, genetics, and cell biology.
Bronowski relates the story of Gregor Mendel, who predicted and confirmed that some traits in pea plants are not an average mix of parents, but transmitted as unmixed units. He then discusses the discovery of DNA and reviews the basics of cell biology. Most of the information in this chapter is middle school level–I do not mean that pejoratively, but honestly. My high school biology class covered more advanced material. I suspect that most readers of this blog would also be familiar with the concepts of this chapter, as we hear things about it almost every day, especially since the genomics revolution. Perhaps the general public was less familiar in 1969, when this book was written. So let us move on to the final chapter.
The Long Childhood
In Chapter Thirteen, the final chapter, Dr. Bronowski contemplates the importance of child-like qualities in humans and their civilizations.
Bronowski claims that justice is a cultural universal, and a biological aspect of Man. Maybe I am missing something in the text, but I cannot find where he explicitly explains this. I am not even sure of the claim being made, unless it is just the trivial one that every thought we have or action we perform is an aspect of biology in some sense, given that we are biological organisms.
At one point, Bronowski makes the claim that brains are not computers: “If the brain were a computer, then it would be carrying out a pre-wired set of actions in an inflexible sequence” and the brain is plastic; it learns: therefore it is not a computer. Bronowski must have in mind some specific type of computer that was around in the 1960s. But a computer is anything which processes information, so of course our brains are computers. And our brains are programmed from birth and earlier; there is a “pre-wired set of actions” in our genes and epigenes. It is fine for Bronowski to emphasize the unique plasticity of our minds–it is quite amazing, after all–but he is being too dismissive of our inherited core programming.
He goes on to describe the special talents of humans, which correspond to special learning areas in the brain: hand manipulation, speech, and predicting / planning. He also mentions, in reference to the chapter title, that humans are neotenous: we are still embryos when we are born, and we retain child-like traits in adulthood. In preparation for adulthood, we practice delayed gratification and delayed decision-making, which is unlike other animals. In failed cultures, children are restricted in imagination. They are forced to be the same as adults, so each generation is the same and the growth of knowledge stagnates. These cultures discourage the asking of questions.
This leads Bronowski into values and ethics, and he says something I wish to highlight:
“Knowledge is … a responsibility for the integrity of what we are … as ethical creatures. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs.”
What is the meaning of a scientific society? Bronowski spends the last few pages contemplating that. His final thought is an uplifting one about human nature: Our imagination can lead to fear, but we counter that with commitment to our endeavors.
At several points over the course of this review, I have expressed frustration with a few of Bronowski’s misconceptions. However, that does not significantly reduce the achievement of this book. There is much valuable material he covers in the book which I have not reviewed in detail. Though a short work, it is monumental for the depth and breadth it covers, and for the coherency of theme on the growth of knowledge woven from history, art, and science. Rather than dispensing false profundities as is so commonplace these days, The Ascent of Man provides us inspiration from truth.
Recent episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:
The Ascent of Man, Chapter Eleven
The Ascent of Man, Chapter Ten
The Ascent of Man, Chapter Nine