Perpetual progress – is it possible?

Perpetual progress – is it possible?

I ATTENDED the 82nd Conway Memorial Lecture, given on June 26, 2014, by Lisa Jardine, CBE, one of Jacob Bronowski’s four daughters, under the title “Things I Never Knew about my Father” – just as I had attended the 45th lecture of the same series, given sixty years ago by Bronowski himself, under the title “The Fulfilment of Man”. That was in 1954 – and I remember the event more clearly than whatever it was I did yesterday!

Although it took place almost two decades before the acclaimed Bronowski television series The Ascent of Man and the offshoot book of the same title, the lecture attracted a large audience, for Bronowski was already well-known as a populariser of science, mainly through his regular appearances on the BBC TV programme The Brains Trust.

Jacob Bronowski

Jacob Bronowski

He was also known as a radio playwright. At least one of his plays, The Face of Violence, was adapted for the stage, and I remember seeing it (probably in a coterie theatre) and being very impressed by it. Its background was a totalitarian regime, the protagonist being a man imprisoned for opposing a government doctrine. As this was officially reversed before his release, he was then hailed as a hero – though not to his satisfaction. The theme is reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – and Bronowski was an ardent Orwell admirer, sharing his passionate commitment to free thought and honest communication.

Academically, Bronowski was a mathematician with a Cambridge doctorate, specialising in algebraic geometry, topology, statistics and the mathematical aspects of biology, but he was at the same time both a biologist and physicist, and also wrote poetry and plays, so was in fact a latter-day Renaissance man – seeing science and art as “twin expressions of the human imagination” – and he influenced C P Snow’s Two Cultures.

In 1941 he married the sculptor Rita Colin, and in 1964 the family emigrated to the USA.

Belief in Perpetual Progress

His 1954 lecture was skilfully presented, with a richly idiomatic command of the English language – which I admire even more now, since I have learnt that he did not begin to use it until the age of 13 and it was actually his fourth language after Polish, Yiddish and German.

While he forthrightly opposed religious dogmatism, Bronowski had an outmoded commitment to belief in perpetual progress – as his use of the word “fulfilment” in the 1954 lecture and in its title indicate. Though ingrained in the 19th-century humanistic philosophy, the idea was seriously questioned by 1954 – and was something that I already rejected at that time. After the lecture, therefore, I waylaid the lecturer as he was leaving the hall and broached a brief argument on that point; but failed to convince him.

As for the title of his later (1973) TV series and book, not only would the word “ascent” in that context be impossible to use today, but so, because of feminist extremism, would the word “man”. With the hindsight of the human genome, I now realise that such a phrase as Bronowski’s “our cousins the apes” would today have to be “our cousins the other apes” since it is now known that Homo sapiens, far from being at the top edge of apedom, is just one of its branches – and more closely related, for instance, to the chimpanzee than the chimp is to any of the gorillas.

Obviously, that was unknown in 1954, but 1 think geneticists had already repudiated the notion of human superiority, which Bronowski seemed to hold – and, especially the speciesist notion that the whole of evolution represents progress towards Homo sapiens, the real meaning of “progress” surely being nothing more than “change that I approve of”. These Bronowski defects are symptomatic of his enthusiastic over-optimism, which was a robust aspect of his vibrant charismatic persona.

Experience of the past 60 years only confirms my rejection of the idea of perpetual progress.

Bronowski’s MI5 Dossier

The main purport of Lisa Jardine’s biographical talk was the distrust that her father, being a foreigner, faced in Britain. Though he became a British subject in 1933, this distrust persisted, not only during the war when he pioneered important operational research but during the Cold War too – his leftish liberalism often being misconstrued as Stalinist communism.

For years, he was the subject of an MI5 dossier, to which the family gained access under the 30-year rule. Copies of some of the documents from it were shown on the screen – but unfortunately were so faint as to be largely illegible . (This could have been due to, or at least exacerbated by, the fact that the front-of- house lights were never switched off.)

One official 1950 letter shown on the screen was an apologetic explanation that the only reason Bronowski had been cleared after the war for a top research post with the National Coal Board was that no other candidate could be found with the requisite expertise!

Lisa Jardine has obviously inherited not only her father’s linguistic presentational skill but also his enthusiastic disposition — though modernised.

Perhaps she could be invited to give us a Sunday morning lecture on her own academic subject: the history of science.

Editor’s note: The Ascent of Man was republished in 2011 with a foreword by Richard Dawkins.
• Barbara Smoker’s piece is first appeared in the July, 2014, edition of the Ethical Record, journal of the Conway Hall Ethical Society, and is reproduced with their kind permission.

3 responses to “Perpetual progress – is it possible?”

  1. gerald webber says:

    whilst I agree with the general thrust of the argument that homo sapiens (female and male) are not superior genetically to chimps and are indeed closer to chimps than chimps are to gorillas genetically is it not clear that homo sapiens are more skilled in terms of their cognitive and creative abilities? and therefore could be described as ‘superior’ in this sense – of course other species are more suitably adapted to their environments like the shark for instance and so may be described as ‘superior’ in this sense – the problem is with the word ‘superior’ maybe-something in us balks against the word even though it is obvious that homo sapiens are ‘better at’ a lot of things than chimps and gorillas – despite the religious overtones of the word ‘ascension’ perhaps overtime wo/man or at least wo/man’s knowledge has improved to such a degree that an ‘ascent’ is not too far from the truth ( despite the metonym and despite the fact that that knowledge has been sometimes applied in abhorent ways) – certainly the latter development of the neo-cortex has meant that at least our reflexive reptilean/ primitive mid and emotional brain centre responses are curbed to some degree by the more rational forebrain and upper cerebral hemispheres (though i recognise the oversimplification of this general description)- rational enlightened thinking should win out overtime once religious, tribal and morally defunct irrationalism has completely exposed itself for what it is – it will take time to burn itself out- the ‘spirit’ which i define as an inner drive towards ‘being,compassion and interconnection’ should i believe result in an intricate interconnection of neurons which will enable the individual homo sapien to seek evidence in all things and to behave in kindly ways – here the spiritual and the scientific will shake hands – the drive towards kindness or altruism is becoming more evident and is supported by the gene research and is necessary for our own survival – we ‘understand’ this, chimps do not

  2. Broga says:

    Fascinating article, Barbara. Thanks. I don’t think humans have progressed unless razing the forests, concreting over countries, driving species into extinction, slaughtering those whose countries we want to steal, polluting the seas ,filling the air with toxins and infecting our brains with superstition is progression.

    I think we confuse technical and scientific ability, which we often use to terrible effect, with progress. What we markedly lack is wisdom which might save ourselves and the planet which is rapidly heading for disaster.

  3. gerald webber says:

    wisdom should be equated with kindness ( the one essential moral prerequisite for ‘goodness’) which requires the ability to transcend the limitations of one’s own cultural and religious conditioning which often results in conflict and misunderstanding because the God or the gods are themselves in various states of psychological neurosis . Babies and young children are free of the contradictions inherent in all religious texts. In biological terms the ‘unselfish’ aspect of the gene is expressed in altruistic behaviour -‘ quid pro quo’ – essential for human survival. This knowledge should foster the move towards increased kindness as the more rational/reasonable areas of the brain gain prominence over the emotional knee jerk responses and evolve new ‘higher’ areas over time. This would be true human progress in the course of our future evolution.As the major religions burn themselves out through mutual hatred and a sense of artificial difference this realisation will hit for once and for all and we will be able to move on as a truly wise loving collective human species.Much of our technological progress will then be utilised in more productive and compassionate ways