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Jacob Bronowski‘s groundbreaking 13-part series The Ascent of Man explored the history of humanity through its scientific advancements. The series was commissioned for the BBC by David Attenborough, who would go on to play a similarly pivotal role in the public’s engagement with nature and science. Bronowski was especially interested in television’s particular power to impart not just knowledge but a sense of the humanity which was inseparable from science. In his preface to the book, he wrote: 

Television is an admirable medium for exposition in several ways: powerful and immediate to the eye, able to take the spectator bodily into the places and processes that are described and conversational enough to make him conscious that what he witnesses are not events but the actions of people. The last of these merits is to my  mind the most cogent, and it weighed most with me in agreeing to cast a personal biography of ideas in the form of television essays. The point is that knowledge in general and science in particular does not consist of abstract but of man-made ideas, all the way from its beginnings to its modern and idiosyncratic models.

Bronowski sought to highlight the remarkable capacity of human beings to make and remake their environment: to discover and to invent. He was also, however, acutely aware of the risks for humankind when scientific advance and mastery over nature became divorced from compassion – something fellow humanists, like Bertrand Russell and Joseph Rotblat, railed against in the realms of nuclear weaponry. Bronowski wrote: ‘Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures’.

Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it. And that series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution – not biological, but cultural evolution. I call that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks The Ascent of Man.

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