Category: Reviews

Hunters and gatherers, nomadic herdsman, the wheel, Machu Picchu, alchemy, atomic theory, Galileo, relativity, Darwin, the atom bomb, Mendel…!

In The Ascent of Man, J. Bronowski walks us through the most important moments of human progress, by chronologically documenting what he considers our most interesting breakthroughs and achievements. The text is elegant. Illustrations are plentiful. Much of the information is review from high school history class, but having it all laid out makes it easier for the reader to examine the overall effect. While it is a decidedly white male history (no woman is mentioned in either a professional or power context) this work was penned in 1973, so we will forgive the author and examine the truths he does illuminate.

Through Bronowski’s writing, we see clearly how knowledge builds on knowledge. While our modern society is infinitely complex, human progress occurred gradually, as often by accident as by genius. One small discovery led to large-scale innovation. The humble arch enabled the construction of the medieval cathedral. Meanwhile, seemingly disparate fields feed into each other. Innovations in art lead to innovations in science. Pythagoras’s triangles are deeply tied to the Moorish exploration of symmetries at the Alhambra. In Florence, artists painted using perspective before scientists understood how light works. Seeing the building blocks of human history fit together, the reader feels both humbled and awed.

However, Bronowski does not simply want to map the development of modern civilization. He also wants to explore human nature. Man is a builder, a shaper of the landscape, a “tool making animal” with the flexibility of mind to recognize inventions and turn them into community property. This concept is common knowledge. What is newer is the way Bronowski’s stresses our physical engagement with the world. “The hand is the cutting edge of the mind,” he writes. We must interact with the world in concrete ways in order to continue evolving. Additionally, human desire to create is separate from the achievement of a particular purpose. The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. Finally, creation is largely possible because society allows children to grow up to be different from their parents. Before the brain is an instrument for action, it has to be an instrument of preparation.

More interesting perhaps than his tale of ascent, is Bronowski’s warnings about stagnation and decline. Visiting the gas chambers of Auschwitz, he remarks, “when people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with not test in reality, this is how they behave.” Certainty is death to diversity, and therefore to innovation and to progress as well. When people itch for absolute knowledge and power they create distance between “the push-button order” and the human act. Again, the author stresses the importance of direct engagement. Bronowski even goes so far as to say that intellectual leadership and civil authority ought to be separate affairs.

Science should be the recognition of man’s unique talents and pride in his creations, divided from power or monetary gain. “It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination, because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.” Though science itself is amoral, its application can be either good or bad, and since this application causes great shifts in culture, it must be developed along moral lines. The best way to insure this happens? Make sure that science is never sequestered away. “We must be a democracy of the intellect,” Bronowski writes. “Knowledge [must sit] in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in isolated seats of power.”

Talking to my dad about Bronowski, we discussed the role science is given in our modern society. Too often, we concluded, science is now in the hands of elite moneymakers. Science is developed to fit the needs of corporations. By subjecting workers to sweatshop conditions or considering them as replaceable by machines, the dignity of man is infringed upon. There is a disconnect between creator and creation that can kill innovation. Moreover, the strict adherence to the bottom line goes against Bronowski’s vision of science as a pure principle. We fear that rather than man shaping machines, machines (the machine of capitalism, the internet, iphones) are beginning to shape man. Since machines are algorithm driven and therefore static, development of human culture might stall. At Divergent, we seek to put tools back in the hands of man, allowing for continued creative development.

“This is a book about us,” begins Stephen Emmott’s 10 Billion. “It’s a book about you, your children, your parents, your friends.(…)It’s about the unprecedented planetary emergency we’ve created. It’s about the future of us.” This future, as Emmott describes it, will largely involve mass environmental destruction, rapid climate change, biodiversity loss, shortages of food and water, starvation, migration, rioting, and death. To call Emmott’s work a bleak book would be an understatement. Instead, it might be better described as the literary equivalent of being smacked in the face by the apocalypse.

10 Billion is a slim volume, made slimmer by the fact that many pages contain but a single sentence; the largest block of text spans about four paragraphs. Emmott uses bullet points for clarity, and often repeats a point more than once. Plenty of visuals in the form of alarming upward-trending graphs and photographs of ecological disasters further break up the read. Though an academic—Emmott is head of Computational Science at Microsoft—this scientist’s anger is palpable. At one point he berates humanity for its stupidity and concludes his book by asserting, “I think we’re fucked.”

The crux of Emmott’s warning is as frightening as it is familiar: population growth combined with a consumer culture that overtaxes the earth’s resources will wreck our planet. While the industrial revolution and agricultural innovation worked to create a society that could produce more, its systems were poised for unsustainability. We are now ensnared, possibly permanently, in destructive feedback loops, particularly those related to our increased food demands, our addiction to fossil fuels, and the destabilizing of our environmental systems. The future is uncertain and there are no pleasant answers. Only one thing is certain: “Every which way you look at it, a planet of ten billion looks like a nightmare.”

Effective fixes to Emmott’s doomsday premonitions are seemingly nonexistent. Technological programs related to green energy, nuclear power, desalination, geoengineering, and a second green revolution are introduced only to be summarily dismissed a few sentences later. Apparently these innovations all either rely on science that doesn’t exist yet, or are liable to cause other, bigger problems, or else necessitate long-term, wide-spread development unfeasible in current society. The only possible solution is to consume less. Yet according to all available trends, we are unwilling to make such a sacrifice.

Now, before we all dig bunkers and stock up on canned food, it bears considering that while 10 Billion certainly addresses some very real problems, there are possibilities Emmott has not considered. In his analysis, he uses only the most dire projections and only includes data that reveals negative trends. He ignores countries with declining birthrates. He declares an imminent phosphate shortage to be fact rather than speculation. Moreover, he does not even consider the solution most dear to Divergent: smarter, more environmentally friendly manufacturing.

In 10 Billion, Emmott laments the immense and hidden costs of vehicle production. “Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota, and others keep telling us that you can buy a car from around $13,000,” he scoffs, revealing that such figures ignore “externalities,” including the cost of obtaining raw materials and shipping them to be processed and assembled. When these processes are considered, the cost of a car is “an absolute fortune.” Yet with the technology produced by Divergent many of these processes could be cut out.

Creating products that do not necessitate excessive back and forth shipping and require less material and energy to make allow consumers to leave a smaller carbon footprint without changing behavior. Not that we shouldn’t also endeavor to consume less.

This is a good book to read if you were feeling a bit too optimistic about the environment or just need another reason to support dematerialization.