JB: I wrote a book called the Identity of Man. I never saw the cover of the English edition until the book reached me in print. And yet the artist had understood exactly what was in my mind, by putting on the cover a drawing of the brain and the Mona Lisa, one on top of the other

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski by Stephen Moss

IN THE DAYS when television was in black and white and regarded as not quite proper, Jacob Bronowski was one of the first scientists to agree to appear on it. He did it out of a sense of duty, and out of a sense of showmanship. In the nineteen-fifties, he was a regular contributor to the BBC's Brains Trust, appearing with Julian Huxley and A J Ayers. The programme went out live on Sundays and the panellists would deal with six philosophical questions and attempt to be controversial. It made them all household names. Bronowski was not a professional broadcaster. He was head of research for the Coal Board, working in industry using operational research techniques. Television was a weekend activity. He had a vocation, however, for the philosophy of science and culture. Indeed, at this point in his career he a might have gained a Professorship - the Chair of History of Science at UCL was vacant - but his histrionic qualities, evident in the TV appearances he gave, were not appreciated by the academic establishment. According to Ayers, some people objected that he was too well-known and too conceited to fill the chair at UCL. Clearly, it was dangerous to one's career to be a pioneer in the public understanding of science in the fifties. Bronowski was one of the earliest to suffer the anti-intellectual attitude many people complain is characteristic of Britain. His interests were too diverse and too public. Jacob Bronowski is "not one man but a multitude" said one commentator.

His style and manner were possibly better suited to the open, unprejudiced American establishment than to the British, and it is interesting that it was America that gave him the opportunity to state his ideas as lectures and in visiting professorships throughout the fifties. Indeed, in 1964 he moved there for good, although still maintaining a home in Britain, becoming Associate Director to the Salk Institute in San Diego, California.

Many years later, he fronted the series Ascent of Man, first shown in 1974, the year of his death. Having been absent from British TV for some time, and out of range of the critics, this series made him into a popular philosopher - that is to say, someone well known to the general public, but not especially highly regarded by the professionals. Today it is fair to say that Bronowski is almost forgotten. He is a figure from the fifties, when discussion of the gap perceived between the two cultures of the arts and sciences were brought out into the open, at least in dinner-parties in academic households, and is today most strongly remembered through the lecture given by C.P. Snow which gave the problem a lasting name. It seems reasonable to be reminded now, more than twenty years after his death, of what views he held. What did he say about science and culture that we should remember now?

He was born in Poland, on 18 Jan 1908, but the family fled to Germany when Russia occupied Poland in the first world war, moving to England in 1920, where Bronowski, swiftly learning English, was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge. He read mathematics. It was whilst at Cambridge that he edited a literary magazine called Experiment. Poetry was, for him, as early a love as mathematics:

I grew up to be indifferent to the distinction between literature and science, which in my teens were simply two languages for experience that I learned together.
After Cambridge, and before becoming a maths lecturer at Hull University, he went to Majorca with Eirlys Roberts, who later set up Which magazines, to be near the home of Robert Graves and Laura Riding in the winter of 1933. Ultimately it was not an entirely successful move. Graves found him smug and disliked his company, writing a satirical poem in this period which seems to have been aimed at Bronowski. But both Bronowski and Roberts had come to reject the elitism they found in Majorca and within a year both had returned to England. During the war, Bronowski worked for Zuckerman, who seems to have been unconvinced of Bronowski's abilities, and in the latter part, he was deputized to the British Chiefs of Staff Mission to Hiroshima, visiting Japan in 1945, after which he wrote a well-regarded report The Effects of Atomic Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war he did not return to academia, but worked in the early application of what has since become called operations research at which, although he seems to have preferred to refuse administration jobs, he was more successful than in pure research, although he did some work on statistically analysing the teeth of Australopithicus. He eventually became director of the National Coal Board research establishment from 1950, where he invented what became known as 'Bronowski's Bricks' - an early type of smokeless fuel. He identified himself as a mathematician with literary inclinations, living in a succession of geometrical homes - the Square house near Cheltenham, and in the hexagon in Hampstead in London, whilst publishing studies on the poet Blake right into the mid-sixties. His skills as an interpreter of science also emerged in the nineteen fifties. He was Carnegie visiting professor of History at MIT in 1953, and produced a series of books and articles arguing the position of science as a central part of culture, that both science and cultural life were impoverished if they were isolated from each other.
"For me science is an expression of the human mind, which seeks for unity under the chaos of nature as the writer seeks for it in the variety of human nature."
This was his recurring theme. In the very early sixties, following consultations in Paris, Bronowski was among a small group instrumental in setting up the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and was appointed a visiting fellow and later, as associate director, moved semi-permanently to California in 1964. He interrupted this work to write and present The Ascent of Man for the BBC which was broadcast in 1974, the year of his death, in the USA, from heart failure.

There are three essential strands to Bronowski's thinking: the relations between the arts and the sciences; the apparent impassiveness of science which has the appearance of dehumanizing people; the need for some all-encompassing philosophy that could unify all branches of knowledge in a single strand.

In the Commonsense of Science he wrote;

'It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests. We have fallen into the habit of opposing the artistic to the scientific temper; we even identify them with a creative and a critical approach.'
He is alarmed at this divide:
As a convenience, and only as a convenience, the scientific function is different from the artistic. In the same way, the function of thought differs from, and complements, the function of feeling. But the human race is not divided into thinkers and feelers, and would not long survive the division.
He was aware, and was willing to justify to anyone, that the sciences constituted a culture which was parallel with those of the arts and humanities. It had a value system which was small, but not unique to itself:
... the values of science turn out to be recognizably the human values: because scientists must be men, must be fallible, and yet as men must be willing and as a society must be organized to correct their errors. William Blake said that "to be an Error & to be Cast out is a part of God's design". It is certainly part of the design of science.
In his lectures from the mid-sixties called The Identity of Man he writes of the apparent cold-heartedness of much of the sciences, of the disconcerting notions that it has apparently created in the minds of modern people, who can easily misinterpret the pursuit of scientific knowledge:
"the crisis of confidence which springs from each man's wish to be a person, in the face of the nagging fear that he is a mechanism. I see now that the problem of man's status between the world and himself has haunted me since the difficult days of boyhood. All that I have written, though it has seemed to me so different from year to year, turns to the same centre: the uniqueness of man that grows out of his struggle (and his gift) to understand both nature and himself ."
He was certain that just such a unified view, of all that had been learned in physics and biology, could be put towards an understanding of what man is, and that such a view was within sight. We can see now that Bronowski, insubstantial though he may have seemed to the scientific establishment, was a useful figure in intellectual life on both sides of the Atlantic, having a little in common with another polymath, Aldous Huxley. Like Huxley, Bronowski's literary legacy is in the production of essays on themes that are still central, reaching as far back as the first time that the language of science parted company with ordinary language of the humanities sometime in the nineteenth century.

Ultimately, it is The Ascent of Man which defines his approach best, and, although dated in the details, is still a fine view of all history and the place of the sciences and the arts as equal contributors to culture. Recognised as significant in the development of television, it is somewhat neglected now, although it has been a direct inspiration for Sir Michael Tippet's vast 1984 oratorio The Mask of Time.

"My ambition", he wrote, "has been to create a philosophy for the twentieth century which shall be all of one piece." It was an eighteenth-century ambition, as in many ways, Bronowski was an eighteeth-century man filled with an optimism and a delight in the human race that was rare in the twentieth century. If he failed in achieving his aim it is perhaps because it was a little premature. Today, a unified view that fits all conditions of human beings still remains hard to find, but in the new fields of evolutional psychology and artificial intelligence we may be witnessing the creation of just such a philosophy, a coming together of views from a number of fields, in an effort to try to understand the complex creature Homo Sapiens.

Source: This article first appeared in Science and Public Affairs - a Journal of the Royal Society and appears by kind permission of that institution and the British Association

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Moss. All rights reserved.