Patting Mankind On The Back

David Deutsch reflects on Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973), which he calls “the finest television documentary series ever made”:

Bronowski saw the purpose of art as being the same as that of science: to give meaning and order to our experience by revealing hidden structure beneath the appearances. … Though he expressed it with characteristic understatement, his was a message of rebellion, a bold attempt to correct one of the great misconceptions of modern times and single-handedly to redirect the great river of intellectual history.

The misconception might—if its perniciousness were generally acknowledged—be called antihumanism: the pattern of ideas that disparages the human species, jeers at its claims to superiority over other species, or to any special entitlement, glories in its cosmic insignificance, and reinterprets its advent as nothing special and its subsequent progress as mostly illusory or fraudulent—and thus in all these senses, denies its ascent. Antihuman ideas would have seemed wicked or insane to the great majority of thinkers since the Enlightenment at least. But during Bronowski’s lifetime, many of them had become mainstream, to the extent of being taken for granted in academic and everyday discourse. So Bronowski’s rebellion is already there in his title: The Ascent of Man. He says that it refers to the “brilliant sequence of cultural peaks”—such as the invention of stone tools, agriculture, cities, and modern science—by which humans have learned how “not to accept the environment but to change it,” thereby improving our lives. And that this progress, despite continual setbacks, has been cumulative for as long as our species has existed.