Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Ascent of Man: Jacob Bronowski

Image Courtesy: Clive Barker

Did you know that humankind started off as a vegetarian? Did you know that the first evidence of humans was provided by a fossil of the Australopithecus? And biological evolution took two million years, but cultural evolution took just about 20,000 years? If you are a scientist or a student of science you probably would know these facts. But for me, these were astonishing facts learnt from Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man.” I saw this dusty book on SoulMuser’s bookshelf. She said nobody had ever read it and since I have always been fascinated by evolution and archaeology and such, I thought I would give it a try.

The Ascent of Man begins with fossil finds that showed how humans as a race began. From there it traces how learning took place, going to different stages in our history. He talks of how something as simple as the domestication of the horse was a significant step in the expansion of kingdoms since wars were fought on horseback. Architecture, science, the arts, mathematics all came together in assuring that humans continued developing their race. And most importantly he points out what he thinks separated the advancements of the Old World, which was mostly the Middle East, parts of Europe and Asia from the backwardness of the New World, mostly the Americas.

Most of the time the book is not a dry, boring read, considering its subject. Bronowski liberally sprinkles anecdotes and tidbits from history that makes very interesting and sometimes humorous reading. I learnt that when Pythagoras succeeded in proving his theorem, he offered 100 oxen to the Muses for inspiring him. Benjamin Franklin was a rather lively and quirky character who “made the first pair of bifocal spectacles for himself, by sawing his lenses in half, because he could not follow French at Court unless he could watch the speaker’s expression.”

There were a few chapters, which went too much into science, especially chemistry and physics, for my liking. Some of the concepts were a bit too over the top for me to understand but many were fascinating. Since this is the intellectual evolution of man and not just the physical or the spiritual, I guess scientific progress had to be mapped.

The Ascent of Man was made into a 13 part BBC series, which became a rage along with the book. Here is part one from YouTube. I think I will watch all the 13 parts available, part one seems fascinating enough.

Verdict: Very fascinating read

Rating: 5/5


  1. I can't believe you read this!! Truly, an astounding feat!

  2. Lol I could not believe it myself! I love these kind of books actually provided they are not written in technical language...I cannot for the life of me read, say Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time filled with equations.