The Ascent of Man Part 13



MACDONALD FUTURA PUBLISHERS                        1973



Chapter 13: The Long Childhood

  • I begin this last essay in Iceland because it is the seat of the oldest democracy in Northern Europe. In the natural amphitheatre of Thingvellir, the Allthing of Iceland met each year to make laws and to receive them, beginning about AD 900. The site was chosen because the farmer who owned it had killed, not another farmer but a slave, and had been outlawed.
  • Justice is a universal of all cultures. It is a tightrope that man walks, between his desire to fulfil his wishes, and his acknowledgement of social responsibility. This is a unique biological feature. That is the kind of problem that engages me in my work on human specificity, and that I want to discuss.
  • It is something of a shock to think that justice is part of the biological equipment of man.
  • Man is unique not because he does science, nor because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind.
  • Had she grown up, the brain of the Taung baby, 2 million years old, would have weighed a little over a pound. My brain, the average brain today, weighs 3 pounds.
  • We are not a computer that follows routines laid down at birth. We are a learning machine, and we do our important learning in specific areas of the brain. During its evolution the brain has not just grown larger but it has grown in quite special areas: where it controls the hand; where speech is controlled; where foresight and planning are controlled.
  • The organization of experience is very far-sighted in man. Large frontal lobes enable you to think of actions in the future, and to wait for a reward.
  • Before the brain is an instrument for action, it has to be an instrument of preparation. The frontal lobes have to be undamaged and it depends on the long preparation of human childhood.

Every so often some visionary invents a new Utopia: Plato, Sir Thomas More, H.G. Wells. And always the idea is that the heroic image shall last, as Hitler said, for a thousand years. But the heroic images always look like crude, dead, ancestral faces of the statues on Easter Island – why, they even look like Mussolini! That is not the essence of human personality, even in terms of biology. Biologically, a human being is changeable, sensitive, mutable, fitted to many environments, and not static. The real vision of the human being is the child wonder, the Virgin and Child, the Holy Family.

  • For most of history, children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult. Who am I to belittle the civilizations of Egypt, of China, of India, even of Europe in the Middle Ages? And yet by one test they all fail: they limit the freedom of the imagination of the young.
  • They are static cultures because the father does what the grandfather did. They are minority cultures because only a fraction of all that talent that mankind produces is actually used.
  • Erasmus made two lifelong friends. From More he got the sense of pleasure in the companionship of civilized minds.
  • From, Frobenius he got a sense of the power of the printed book. Their edition of the works of Hippocrates is, I think, one of the most beautiful books ever printed, in which the happy passion of the printer sits on the page as powerful as the knowledge.
  • What did those three men and their books mean – the works of Hippocrates, More’s Utopia, The Praise of Folly by Erasmus? To me, this is the democracy of the intellect; and that is why Erasmus and Frobenius and Sir Thomas More stand in my mind as gigantic landmarks of their time.
  • The democracy of the intellect comes from the printed book, and the problems that it set from the year 1500 have lasted right down to the student riots of today.
  • There is an age-old conflict between intellectual leadership and civil authority. How old, how bitter, came home to me when I came up from Jericho on the road that Jesus took, and saw the first glimpse of Jerusalem on the skyline as he saw it going to his certain death.
  • Death, because Jesus was then the intellectual and moral leader of his people, but he was facing an establishment in which religion was simply an arm of government.
  • And that is a crisis of choice that leaders have faced over and over again: Socrates in Athens; Jonathan Swift in Ireland, torn between pity and ambition; Mahatma Gandhi in India; and Albert Einstein, when he refused the presidency of Israel.

I bring in the name of Einstein deliberately because he was a scientist, and the intellectual leadership of the 20th century rests with scientists. And that poses a grave problem, because science is also a source of power that walks close to government and that the state wants to harness. But if science allows itself to go that way, the beliefs of the 20th century will fall to pieces in cynicism. We shall be left without belief, because no belief can be built up in this century that are not based on science as the recognition of the uniqueness of man, and a pride in his gifts and works. It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that man and his beliefs and science will perish together.

  • I must bring that concretely into the present. The man who personifies these issues for me is John von Neumann. He was born in 1903, the son of a Jewish family in Hungary.
  • He was a child prodigy of mathematics. He did the great work on both the subjects for which he is famous before he was twenty-five.
  • ‘No, no,’ he said to me. ‘Chess is not a game. Chess is a well-defined form of computation. You may not be able to work out the answers, but in theory there must be a solution, a right procedure in any position. Now real games,’ he said, ‘are not like that at all. Real life is not like that. Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory.’
  • In the latter part of his life, John von Neumann carried this subject into what I call his second great creative idea. He realized that computers would be technically important.
  • But he also began to realize that one must understand clearly how real-life situations are different from computer situations, exactly because they do not have the precise solutions that chess or engineering calculations do.
  • He distinguishes between short-term tactics and grand, long-term strategies. Tactics can be calculated exactly, but strategies cannot. Johnny showed that nevertheless there are ways to form best strategies.
  • Just before he died in 1957 he looks at the brain as having a language in which the activities of the different parts of the brain have somehow to be interlocked and made to match so that we devise a plan, a procedure, as a grand overall way of life – what in the humanities we would call a system of values.

Johnny von Neumann was in love with the aristocracy of intellect. And that is a belief which can only destroy the civilization that we know. If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed. And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.

  • Will it be possible to find happy foundations for the forms of behaviour that we prize in a full man and a fulfilled society?
  • Our actions as adults, as decision makers, as human beings, are mediated by values, which I interpret as general strategies in which we balance opposing impulses.
  • It is not true that we run our lives by any computer scheme of problem solving. The problems of life are insoluble in this sense.
  • Instead we shape our conduct by finding principles to guide it. We devise ethical strategies or systems of values to ensure that what is attractive in the short term is weighed in the balance of the ultimate, long-term satisfactions.

And we are really here on a wonderful threshold of knowledge. The ascent of man is always teetering in the balance. There is always a sense of uncertainty, whether when a man lifts his foot for the next step it is really going to come down pointing ahead. And what is ahead of us? At last the bringing together of all that we have learned, in physics and biology, towards an understanding of where we have come: what man is.

  • Life is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. It is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for your while you yourself continue to live out a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs.
  • Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the common place of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.
  • Knowledge is our destiny. Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.

It sounds very pessimistic to talk about western civilization with a sense of retreat. I have been so optimistic about the ascent of man; am I going to give up at this moment? Of course not. The ascent of man will go on. But do not assume that it will go on carried by western civilization as we know it. We are being weighed in the balance at this moment. If we give up, the next step will be taken – but not by us. We have not been given any guarantee that Assyria and Egypt and Rome were not given. We are waiting to be somebody’s past too, and not necessarily that of our future. 

We are a scientific civilization: that means, a civilization in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial. Science is only a Latin word for knowledge. If we do not take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere, in Africa, in China. Should I feel that to be sad? No, not in itself. Humanity has a right to change its colour. And yet, wedded as I am to the civilization that nurtured me, I should feel it to be infinitely sad. I, whom England made, whom it taught its language and its tolerance and excitement in intellectual pursuits, I should feel it a grave sense of loss (as you would) if a hundred years from now Shakespeare and Newton are historical fossils in the ascent of man, in the way that Homer and Euclid are.

I began this series in the valley of the Omo in East Africa, and I have come back there because something that happened then has remained in my mind ever since. On the morning of the day that we were to take the first sentences of the first program, a light plane took off from our airstrip with the cameraman and the sound recordist on board, and it crashed within seconds of taking off. By some miracle the pilot and the two men crawled out unhurt.

But naturally the ominous event made a deep impression on me. Here I was preparing to unfold the pageant of the past, and the present quietly put its hand through the printed page of history and said, ‘It is here. It is now.’ History is not events, but people. And it is not just people remembering, it is people acting and living their past in the present. History is the pilot’s instant act of decision, which crystallizes all the knowledge, all the science, all that has been learned since man began.

We sat about in the camp for two days waiting for another plane. And I said to the cameraman, kindly, though perhaps not tactfully, that he might prefer to have someone else take the shots that had to be filmed from the air. He said, ‘I’ve thought of that. I’m going to be afraid when I go up tomorrow, but I’m going to do the filming. It’s what I have to do.’

We are all afraid – for our confidence, for our future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.

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