“Lower than the Angels”

Welcome to the first episode of Electric Chapter Lab.

One century after Charles Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, an account of human biological evolution, Jacob Bronowski wrote The Ascent of Man, an account of human cultural development. Dr. Bronowski was a Cambridge-educated mathematician and author of popular books about science and art.

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Lower than the Angels

Chapter One opens with Bronowski remarking that humans are an unusual type of animal: rather than mere features of a landscape, they are shapers of it. Though they are not as narrowly adapted as many other animals, this generality gives them the flexibility to move into many habitats on Earth. Bronowski’s phrase ascent of Man refers to the “series of inventions” which Man has used to “remake His environment”–that is, cultural evolution.

“Science is not a museum of finished constructions.” This nicely-phrased sentence encapsulates an important epistemological fact: namely, that knowledge is fallible, and our theories are continually honed throughout the years; there is no such thing as a finished theory.

Bronowski goes on to the specifics of how our species emerged from deep time, probably in equatorial Africa. Looking at the fossilized fauna in that area two megayears ago, it is remarkable how little change is exhibited in the bones, whereas the line which led to humans changed remarkably. Significant change in human ancestors probably began with climate change–more specifically, a permanent drought.

He makes the point that human actions occur in the context of considering the future, whereas other animals just react to their immediate environment. As a blanket statement this seems somewhat exaggerated, but it is reasonable as a generality. To be pedantic, every animal action is a reaction to the past while considering the future; what makes humans special is that we can project so much further into the future than our animal cousins.

Bronowski then goes into an overview of our ancestral species, beginning with the prosimian Adapis family from 50 megayears ago. I would have started in the Mesozoic, because our forced nocturnality by dinosaurs was important for later mammalian brain development. In any case, his main focus is the Australopithecines, who walked upright and made stone tools two megayears ago. The first true human genus probably appeared around one million years ago. The first human, a species called Homo erectus, was discovered in China. (We have discovered older specimens elsewhere since the writing of this book.)

Every animal leaves traces of what it was; Man alone leaves traces of what He created.”

(I suppose we’re not including fossilized termite mounds or bee hives.)

Language probably developed as an aid to cooperation in hunting big game during the Ice Ages. By fifty kiloyears ago, sophisticated hunting weapons appeared, such as spears, batons, harpoons, and flint. The Ice Ages of the Pleistocene Epoch forced humans to depend more on animals than on plants. People followed herds instead of hunting single animals, and they invented new tools like bows and arrows to pick off herd members. He cites the construction of weapons as well as the painting of cave art as examples of humans’ anticipation of the future, that special quality possessed in such a greater degree than other animals.

Dr. Bronowski closes the chapter by saying “There are many gifts that are unique in Man; but at the center of them all, the root from which all knowledge grows, lies the ability to draw conclusions from what we see to what we do not see ….” This sentence is not trite fluff; he has touched on a profound generality crucial to the construction of knowledge through science, and I hope he elaborates the idea later in the book.

Next episode: The Ascent of Man, Chapter Two

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