Course Syllabus

  • “Modern man is facing the nonconceivable.  Archaic man, however, kept a firm grip on the conceivable by framing within his cosmos an order of time and an eschatology that made sense to him and reserved a fate for his soul. Yet it was a prodigiously vast theory, with no concessions to merely human sentiments.  It, too, dilated the mind beyond the bearable, although without destroying man’s role in the cosmos.  It was a ruthless metaphysics.”  …
  • … “Once having grasped a thread going back in time, then the test of later doctrines with their own historical developments lies in their congruence with tradition preserved intact even if half understood.  For there are seeds which propagate themselves along with the jet stream of time.”
  • “And universality is in itself a test when coupled with a firm design.”….
  • …”As we follow the clues – stars, numbers, colors, plants, forms, verse, music, structures – a huge framework of connections is revealed at many levels.  One is inside an echoing manifold where everything responds and everything has a place and a time assigned to it.  This is a true edifice, something like a mathematical matrix, a World-Image that fits the many levels, and all of it kept in order by strict measure.  It is measure that provides the countercheck, for there is much that can be identified and redisposed from rules like the old Chinese saying about the pitch pipes and the calendar.  When we speak of measures, it is always some form of Time ….”
  • Hamlet’s Mill: An essay on myth and the frame of Time” by Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha von Dechend;   Gambit  Boston  1969
  • From “The Creative Explosion” by John E. Pfeiffer (1982)
Jacob Bronowski

This first episode deals with human evolution from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens. Bronowski visits the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, where ancient soap suds, err, remains of the earliest humans were found. He also visits Spain and some cave paintings. This episode includes some state of the art computer graphics, 1973-style.

Discussion Topics

  • What is it about man’s relationship to the environment that makes him unique?  Can you think of a mythic tradition that is similar to the relationship Bronowski establishes? One that contrasts markedly with it?
  • Why did Bronowski choose Omo in Ethiopia as a likely candidate for the Garden of Eden?
  • What are the two most striking features of the skull discovered by anatomist Raymond Dart belonging to a creature he named Australopithecus africanus?  Explain their implications in our evolutionary chain.
  • Please discuss the current status of human paleoanthropology and how has this impacted in the interpretation of human phylogeny?
  • Man has many physical abilities – such as the ability to run – in common with other animals, but what is the one thing that makes him different in the use of these abilities?
  • In studying the evolution of the skull, Bronowski notes that the snout becomes shorter and the eyes become larger and widely spaced. What does this signify? (see: http://www.becominghuman.org/
  • On what basis does Bronowski conclude that Australopithecus lived in a socially organized community?
  • What is the relationship of Homo sapiens sapiens to the Neanderthals (Homo neandertalis)? (See also: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/neanderthals/ and specially http://sapphire.indstate.edu/~ramanank/.
  • When man evolved from forager to hunter, he also had to spread over the globe. Why?
  • The transhumance mode of life is a cultural rather than a biological adaptation. Is there a difference?, and if so,  explain either the difference and if not, state the isomorphisms.

Further discussion topics

  • As a result of the ice ages, man was forced to adopt a transhumance mode of life. Explain this term and why it marked an important step in the “ascent of man”.
  • Nothing in the twentieth century can match the Upper Paleolithic for its combination of art and setting, content and context.  Nowhere in our lives are there comparable concentrations of modern art with a purpose, art in action, as contrasted with passive art hung in out-of-the-mainstream places, designed solely for exhibition.  The works in the caves speak together, individual styles but with an underlying unity, singing in unison like a chorus of individual voices expressing collective feelings, collective goals.  That is their special power.  Please analyze this paragraph vis-à-vis Bronowski’s presentation.
  • In Bronowski’s view, the cave paintings found in Altamira and other regions of France and Spain were “a peep-hole to the future”. Explain what he means.   Discuss whether or not you agree with his explanation.
  • Discuss why you think Bronowski chose the title Lower than the Angels for this chapter of The Ascent of Man?
  • Bronowski employs the term cultural evolution.  Explain the importance of this term vis-à-vis biological evolution.  Are they facets of one concept or are they different and separable concepts?  Consider here a subject that was not in the intellectual agenda of the 1960’s: sociobiology.  How do you think Bronowski would have reacted to this concept?  Explain its relation to biological evolution and cultural evolution.
  • Language is essential for cultural evolution.  In this context describe what are memes and how they relate to the emergence of language.

This instalment covers the change from a nomadic to an agricultural lifestyle. The good Doctor visits the ancient city of Jericho, and we see footage of the Bakhtiari tribe in Iran and an ancient horseback game in Afghanistan. The cultivation of wheat, which led to the domestication of animals, is observed in detail.

Discussion Topics

  • According to Bronowski, the roots of civilization can be traced to one crucial decision taken by man after the last ice age. What was that decision and why was it so important to man’s cultural evolution?
  • Before 10,000 B.C. nomad tribes would follow the natural migration of wild herds. How did this change with the domestication of sheep and goats and what was the significance of this change?
  • Describe the role and the daily life of for women of the Bakhtiari tribe.
  • Why is it difficult for a nomad tribe such as the Bakhtiari to make progress in cultural evolution?  What is the relationship between nomadism and monotheism?
  • What does Bronowski consider as the largest single step in the ascent of man and what made it possible?
  • What was the turning point to the spread of agriculture in the Old World?
  • The sickle used to reap the cultivated wheat about 9,000 years ago is different in one very important aspect from the one used 10,000 years ago for gathering wild wheat. What is this difference and why is it so important?
  • How did the rule of law change on the transition from wandering tribesmen to city dwellers?  In this context comment on the fact that in the two versions of the Ten Commandments available in Genesis no punishments are stated for their transgression.  Why is this not so and what is the implicit punishment?  What is the importance of the Commandments in the transition from pastoralism to a settled society?
  • Why was the domestication of the horse a threat to settled communities?
  • Why did Genghis Khan’s Mongol dynasty finally fail?

Further discussion topics

  • Explain the origin of bread wheat and what single property makes it significantly different from its genetic ancestors.   How is does this relate to the current debate about transgenic foods?
  • When Archimedes said: “Give me a lever and I will lift the Earth”, what did he mean? What importance does the lever have for the rise of agriculture?
  • Explain Bronowski’s ideas on the origins of war. Bronowski argues that war is not a human instinct. Discuss briefly whether you agree or disagree with this statement.