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Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Ascent of Man Book Review

National Geographic and Discovery Channel often adapt popular science books into documentaries. But this case is different, the documentary came first before the book. Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man remains a classic and still holds up to this day.

ascent of man jerome bronowski
Image: Nature
The 13 part BBC documentary explores the origin and development of mankind. The title is a subtle reference to Charles Darwin's book titled the Descent of Man, a book about evolution. The documentary was shot in the early 1970s and saw the first broadcast in 1973. A year later, the eponymous Ascent of Man book was also published.

Years ahead of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Ascent of Man raised the bar about how a documentary is supposed to be presented and how information is conveyed. With stunning visuals and Mr. Bronowski's eloquent tone in presenting information, the documentary is still worth watching even to this day. It is unfortunate that the 12 part documentary is not on Netflix yet for the general public to see.

The first 3 episodes quaintly named ' Lower Than the Angels' 'The Harvest of the Seasons' and The Grain of Stone chronicled the progress of man from Stone Age to the Bronze Age. The reenactment of ancient man is similar to Stanley Kubrick's opening scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The fourth up to sixth episodes presents how the collective knowledge of mankind exploded during the Age of Antiquity up to the Renaissance. These first crucial steps are essential to the intellectual progress of mankind. The episodes are titled: The Hidden Structure, Music of the Spheres, and The Starry Messenger.

The seventh up to ninth episode retold the progress of mankind during the period of Enlightenment and the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the power of science went into the full swing because of this progress. The increasing movement of secularization gave rise to modern ideas in philosophy and science. The episodes are titled: The Majestic Clockwork, The Drive for Power, and The Ladder of Creation.

The 4 episodes from episode 10 to 13 explored the continuing progress of the modern world up to the early 1970s. Man harnessing the power of the atom and discovering the building blocks of life shaped the modern world. J. Bronowski narrated how this progress can either make or break mankind. The episodes are titled: World Within World, Knowledge or Certainty, Generation Upon Generation, and The Long Childhood.

ascent of man book
Image: ABE Books
All of the episodes are presented in the way that a layman or even a high school student could grasp. It dissuades the use of arcane terminologies that is unfamiliar to a general viewer. The book version of The Ascent of Man is also a worthy read. Especially the first edition copies that are usually hard to find these days. The hardcover editions have a coffee table book quality paper on it and have colored illustrations.

The first edition copies of Ascent of Man are available at IFY Bookstore. Only 2 copies are remaining. The store also has other titles in history, science, and academics. IFY Books. You can watch a short recap of the 13 part documentary on the video below.


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