BBC2 had scored a massive success with Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969)
and it was clear to the channel's controller, David Attenborough, that some sort
of sequel was required. The result was The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973), a personal
account of the history of science and technology presented by Jacob Bronowski,
some four years in the making.
Unlike Civilisation, The Ascent of Man took a themed approach to its subject
matter rather than a strictly chronological one. The 13-part series was
therefore free to examine the impact and importance of such themes as chemistry,
mathematics, astronomy, Newtonian mechanics, the industrial revolution,
Darwinism and atomic physics with a far broader vision.
Bronowski, who proved himself Clark's equal in terms of his ability to
explain complex ideas in simple terms, had a more personal presentational style
that reinforced his emphasis on the democratising potential of technology and
the responsibility which knowledge brings. This idea was crystallised by the
series' most famous sequence - Bronowski at Auschwitz, where several members of
his family had died, sifting the ashes of the dead through his hands in an
unscripted discourse on the need to combine technology with accountability. It
was the programme's defining moment and a landmark in television history.
"It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers.
That is false - tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration
camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into
numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that
was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done
by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no
test in reality - this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire
to the knowledge of gods."
Where The Ascent of Man stumbles is in its underlying assumption that the
mechanics of progress will provide the tools to avert future triumphs of
political dogma over humanism. The intervening 30 years have sadly proven
Bronowski wrong on this point, although this does not undermine the central
thrust of the series, which twins technological development with grassroots
societal change. Where else will you find Josiah Wedgewood being praised, not
for his aristocratic commissions, but for his mass-produced crockery which
transformed the kitchens of the industrial revolution's emergent