Tuesday, 8 June 2010

My Humanist Hero: Jacob Bronowski

I have just submitted the following article for the BHA Humanist Heritage project which is being launched for Humanist Week which runs from 21st-28th June.

The Humanist, polymath and all round Renaissance man, Jacob Bronowski was born in Poland in 1908 to Jewish parents who moved to Germany during the first World War and then on to England in 1920. Bronowski won a scholarship to study Mathematics at Cambridge but was also involved with editing a literary periodical called “Experiment”. This was an early sign that he would be one of the extraordinary few thinkers to straddle the divide between the “two cultures” famously discussed by C.P. Snow in his 1959 lecture and paving the way to the “third culture”, a tradition continued by our current crop of Humanist grandees including Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling and by the British Humanist Association which is ending Humanist Week (21st – 28th June) with a conference on Humanism and the Arts, following last year’s conference on Humanism and Science. Bronowski’s interests ranged widely, from biology to poetry and from chess to Humanism, his commitment to which is evidenced in the following excerpt written in October 1968, the month of my birth:

The notion that a man shall judge for himself what he is told, sifting the evidence and weighing the conclusions, is of course implicit in the outlook of science. But it begins before that as a positive and active constituent of humanism. For evidently the notion implies not only that man is free to judge, but that he is able to judge. This is an assertion of confidence which goes back to a contemporary of Socrates, and claims (as Plato quotes him) that “man is the measure of all things”. In humanism, man is all things: he is both the expression and the master of the creation.[1]

Jacob Bronowski is best remembered for “The Ascent of Man”, a thirteen part TV series produced by the BBC in 1973, in which he explored the history of science and technology. It is said that it was this seminal TV series which inspired the late great American astronomer Carl Sagan to make his own documentary series, "Cosmos", which also inspired a generation of Humanists. Notwithstanding David Hume, Bronowski championed the idea that the ethical “ought” could be derived from the scientific exploration of what “is”[2]. A particularly poignant and moving part of the series was filmed at the Auschwitz concentration camp (search YouTube) and begins with the following:

"It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's 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 some 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.”[3]

Bronowski taught mathematics at the University College Hull from 1934 to 1942. This might not be the best known fact about his life, but it is a salient one for me as Hull is my hometown. Surely Bronowski deserves recognition in any account of our local Humanist heritage. The economist Eric Roll who worked with Bronowski in Hull said of him:

"He was ... a warm and vibrant human being. Every encounter with him was a powerful tonic which left one feeling intellectually and emotionally stimulated and enhanced. He did not, however, suffer fools gladly and could be bitingly sardonic about human folly or about the glaring discrepancies so often to be found between public acclaim and true worth. But to his friends he was kind and affectionate, a companion whose gaiety and wit counterbalanced his serious approach to life."[4]

Given the stature and influence of Jacob Bronowski on the public understanding of science, it is perhaps surprising that his association with the city of Hull has not been honoured. Bronowski died in New York in 1974, a year after the completion of “The Ascent of Man”. Given this great Humanist’s legacy, I think that Jacob Bronowski deserves a commemorative plaque at the very least.

[1] Science as a Humanistic Discipline, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, XXIV, no8, October 1968 (http://www.jstor.org/pss/1578078)
[2] Positivists and analysts alike believe that the words is and ought belong to different worlds, so that sentences which are constructed with is usually have verifiable meaning, but sentences constructed with ought never have.....The question of how man ought to behave is a social question, which always involves several people; and if he accepts no evidence and no judgment except his own, he has no tools with which to frame an answer.
"The Sense of Human Dignity”, part 3 (p. 56)
(Wikiquote: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jacob_Bronowski)
[3] The Ascent of Man, BBC, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mIfatdNqBA
[4] http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Bronowski.html