The Ascent of man

On 01/25/2011, in History, by wouter

This a thirteen-part documentary television series produced by the BBC and Time-Life Films which was first transmitted in 1973. It was written and presented by Jacob Bronowski. Intended as a series of “personal view” documentaries in the manner of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation, Ascent received acclaim for Bronowski’s highly informed but eloquently simple analysis, his long unscripted monologues and its extensive location shoots.

Series outline

1. Lower than the Angels — Evolution of man from proto-ape to 400,000 years ag

2. Harvest of the Seasons — Early human migration, agriculture and the first settlements, war.

3. The Grain in the Stone — Tools, development of architecture and sculpture.

4. The Hidden Structure — Fire, metals and alchemy.

5. Music of the Spheres — The language of numbers.

6. The Starry Messenger — Galileo’s universe.

7. The Majestic Clockwork — Explores Newton and Einstein’s laws.

8. The Drive for Power — The Industrial Revolution.

9. The Ladder of Creation — Darwin and Wallace’s ideas on the origin of species.

10.World within World — The story of the periodic table.

11.Knowledge or Certainty — Physics and the clash of absolute knowledge, the oppressive state, and its misgivings realizing the result of its terrible outcome.

12.Generation upon Generation — Life, genetics, and the cloning of identical forms.

13. The Long Childhood — Bronowski’s treatise on the commitment of man.


The 13-part series was shot on 16mm film. Executive Producer was Adrian Malone, film directors were Dick Gilling, Mick Jackson and David Kennard. Quotations were read by actors Roy Dotrice and Joss Ackland. Series music was by Dudley Simpson with Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Additional music was by, amongst others, Pink Floyd. Apart from Bronwoski, the only other named person appearing is the sculptor, Henry Moore.

Malone, Kennard, and David Paterson later emigrated to Hollywood, where they produced Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos. Jackson followed them, and now directs feature films.

The title alludes to The Descent of Man, the second book on evolution by Charles Darwin. Over the series’ thirteen episodes, Bronowski travelled around the world in order to trace the development of human society through its understanding of science. It was commissioned specifically to complement Kenneth Clark‘s Civilisation (1969), in which Clark argued that art was a major driving force in cultural evolution. Bronowski wrote in his 1951 book The Commonsense of Science: “It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests”. Both series were commissioned by David Attenborough, then controller of BBC2, whose colleague Aubrey Singer had been astonished by Attenborough prioritising an arts series given his science background.[1]

The book of the series, The Ascent of Man: A Personal View by J. Bronowski, is an almost word-for-word transcript from the television episodes, diverging from Bronowski’s original narration only where the lack of images might make its meaning unclear. A few details of the film version were omitted from the book: notably, Part 11, “Knowledge or Certainty,” begins by showing the face of Stefan Borgrajewicz as an elderly man who had known suffering; at the end, after Bronowski shows us the ruins of Hiroshima and the ash-strewn pond of Auschwitz, we see a photograph of a younger man, with the name “BOR-GRAJEWICZ, Stefan” and the number 125558, which may be his official record in the archives of Auschwitz.

Just over a year after the series appeared, Bronowski, aged 66, died of a heart attack. 

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