A reader reminded me of a good corrective to the awful little man who claims that science leads to killing people: a dose of Jacob Bronowski.

“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.”

My students in introductory biology will be watching this whole episode next week — I wish there were a way we could spare the time to have them watch the whole series … which, come to think of it, would make for an excellent framework to discuss the history of science.


  1. Damian says

    I can’t believe that I only watched “The Ascent of Man” for the first time this year! Even though it is now fairly old, it is still one of the best series about science that I have ever seen. They don’t make ’em like they used to, that’s for sure.

    By the way, does anyone know what has happened to Abbie’s (ERV) blog? I have sent you an email, PZ, as it has been removed according to Blogger. I hope that everything is alright. Can someone send her an email?

  2. kingj says

    I remember this from PBS many years ago. Now it is Antiques Road Show all day everyday.

  3. Derik N says

    Wow, I actually haven’t seen this series. I really need to goto the local library and try to locate it

  4. Matt says

    Bronowski and Stein are opposites. One is a Jew who loves science and blames dogma for the holocaust. The other is a Jew who hates science and blames atheism for the holocaust.

  5. Andrew says

    I remember being in tears the first time I saw this. The whole episode is well worth watching if there is any way you can find it – it starts with a great introduction to the electromagnetic spectrum, and ends with the clip shown. I still show this episode (and others) in various science classes I teach at high school – with a little introduction to explain this unexpected narrator, students gain a great deal from it.
    Good on you, PZ, for reminding me, and bringing this to others.

  6. Damian says

    Abbie’s just posted at ATBC. She doesn’t know why it has happened, though. Let’s hope that it can be restored. At least she is alright.

    Here’s the post. If anyone knows what can be done to restore it, what are you waiting for? Get over there and let her know! :)

  7. John Phillips, FCD says

    I haven’t long finished watching the series for the nth. time. It is one I never tire of revisiting periodically.

    And another wondering about Abbie and in withdrawal :(

  8. Tom M says

    Thanks for mentioning Bronowski’s series. It is an inspiration and I’ve watched it several times. The series made me go visit a few of the places he speaks from including the canal boats in England.
    Thanks again for linking to that snippet.

  9. enkidu says

    Just thinking of that scene brings tears to my eyes. Possibly the greatest essay on science ever produced. A company called Ambrose Video offers the series.

  10. ellazimm says

    From the last episode of The Ascent of Man:

    “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. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That is really crucial today. You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming. And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist. The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.

    And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into — into what? Into Zen buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery. They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it: an understanding of man himself. We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex. Knowledge is our destiny. Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.”

  11. decius says

    Great man, inspiring words. The very opposite of that ignorant twatt by the name of Stein.

  12. Peter Ashby says

    I am reminded of the question posed a week or so ago about why, after WWII, Europe went down and increasingly secular, disbelieving, highly tolerant route while the US became increasingly, stridently religious and endured fights over civil rights for many groups that were much easier on this side of the pond.

    So is Jacob Bronowski’s seminal and wonderful series symptom or part cause? Sure you guys produced Sagan, but the cosmos is fairly safe. Meanwhile we had Bronowski and Attenborough with Life on Earth takling head on the creationist/evolutionist debate head on and repeatedly on public television funded with public money and met with critical acclaim.

    Thinking about it I wonder quite seriously if the answer isn’t in the politics? Everywhere in Europe has flirted with Socialism to a greater or lesser extent. Our politics is much further to the Left/Liberal arc than mainstream US politics. Here in the UK the Labour Party was started in large part by Methodist and Catholic reformers (remember that Catholics were usually of low socio-economic status). So we had religion driving our politics Leftwards.

    What happened to the Left in the US? We faced communism with you as part of NATO, so it can’t just be a reaction to that. I wonder if the answer isn’t that religion is much more organised here (though becoming less so now) with trained and educated clergy. Whereas in the US you have people like Fred Phelps, ordained in his teens with barely basic literacy and owing allegiance and his church and his livelihood to no organisation. Here in the UK he would not be a minister and if he tried to secede he would lose his church and probably his tied house too.

    I think that where you have national organisations the people that run them come into contact with many other people, constantly. This means they have what they perceive to be a peer group, with norms of behaviour who might take you to task over your organisation’s attitudes and this feeds downwards. Where every church is or could be, an organisation of 1 then who is the peer group moderating attitudes and behaviour?

    Individualism is all very well, as is freedom of religion, but there should be obligations as well.

  13. Blaidd Drwg says

    Watching that video, and contrasting it with BS’s, I am reminded of a quote I heard many years ago:

    “Follow the person who says he is searching for the truth. Fear the one who claims to have found it.”

    I don’t recall who said it, (and I may be paraphrasing slightly – if so I’m sure someone will correct my poor memory), but it is never more appropriate than when talking about the dichotomy present in discussions between Science and Religion.

  14. Aquaria says

    I loved Ascent of Man when it aired on PBS, oh, so long ago. I found the companion book recently at a used bookstore, abandoned and forgotten. I grabbed it right up. My son asked what it was, and I told him about the wonderful show I’d seen so long ago. I think he has the book, still, and he really wants to see it now. Thanks, upthread, to whoever mentioned that it’s now available for purchase. I will definitely be buying it soon.

    What amazes me is that Bronowski came up with it after a few minutes of arranging the thoughts in his head just before the cameras rolled, and he ended up with one of the most, if not the most, profound of statements ever said on TV.

  15. Rick Pettit says

    I saw The Ascent of Man in 1980, and I remember wishing I could ‘talk’ like Bronowski. This one scene was something different. It brought me to tears. And made my hair stand on end. It’s standing on end as I write this. (And I haven’t had the courage to watch the clip.)

    Why do I own Black Adder, and not this series?

  16. says

    I’m one up on you — I own both the complete set of Ascent of Man DVDs, and all of the Blackadder DVDs. Either one could be an antidote to Stein…in the latter, especially any scene with Baldrick.

  17. Chris says

    Ascent of Man is available to Netflix subscribers as are many other excellent science series. They already have Expelled available to save into your queue once it’s released. So my fellow Netflix subscribers be sure to rate that movie and add your own reviews. I did.

    It already has a rating of 3.4 stars. I gave it a 1 because I couldn’t give 0 or a -5 star rating. It already has 24 reviews. Some give it 1 star. Some give it 4 or 5. Oh, and it’s rated PG For thematic material, some disturbing images and brief smoking.

  18. says

    PZ: Sorry to be a downer, but Ben Elton, the writer of Blackadder is an anti-science luddite.

    It’s not that he’s a creationist, it’s actually seems to be borne out of his leftist politics.

    (Don’t get me wrong. Left-wing politics does not make you anti-science, but there is a certain brand of radical leftism which denies that progress is a good thing.)

  19. says

    The whole series on DVD is available to your students in the U of M Morris’ library isn’t it, PZ?

    Maybe a reading (including watching/listening) list would be a good start on the way to crossdisciplinary classes. Anyone can draw those up and post them.

  20. amk says

    PZ: Sorry to be a downer, but Ben Elton, the writer of Blackadder is an anti-science luddite.

    A writer of the last three series. Richard Curtis co-wrote all series, Rowan Atkinson the first. The actors, strong personalities and talented comics, would strongly influence the series, part of the reason it was so good and part of the reason there wasn’t more of it.

  21. Quidam says

    If Rowan Atkinson can put up with Ben Elton, then he can’t be all that bad :)

    I don’t mind people choosing to turn their backs on science & technology, it’s when they want to force us all to do it all of the time (and not just on a camping weekend) that I take issue.

  22. negentropyeater says

    There is still a lot of work to be done at yahoo movies !

    it is still at B- and there are many depressing commentaries there, 857 individual reviews, and obviously you can tell the true believers with their A+.
    There have been 3265 ratings so far.

    Just a few (bad) examples :
    “This is not a religious film or even endorsing Creationism or Intelligent Design. It is more about FREEDOM. It is more about “Wake up and smell the air of socialism.”

    “I thought this was a great eye-opener. I liked that Ben Stein was not being biased toward any scientific belief, he was truly looking for facts.”

    “The greatest lie in scientific history is exposed today! This truly is Freedom Friday for teachers and students across America. Great movie!”

    “This movie is an awesome, non-boring, revealing documentary. Every true American should watch and be angry about the loss of freedom. This is a documentary about evolution.”

    “I was initially skeptical about this documentary. After seeing it, I realize why so many atheists are spreading lies about it online.”

  23. Matt Penfold says

    I find it strange that Ben Elton should be anti-science.

    A few years ago he wrote a book, fictional but based on events that had happened to him and his wife, about a couple who have trouble conceiving and undergo fertility treatment. At the time the book came out I saw him interviewed and he was full of praise for the science behind it all.

    And yes, Jacob Bronowski was brilliant. He also sired a brilliant daughter, Lisa Jardine who is a historian well worth reading.

  24. says

    I don’t know how anti-science Elton is.

    All I remember is that as a teenager, I used to listen to his stand-up routines and read his books and I remember quite a bit about the nasty evil scientists who want to destroy the world with their acts of God. I also remember him specifically doing a quite nasty routine on Desmond Morris.

    It’s hard to judge these things, because Elton is often on the borderline of comedy and political commentary. I don’t know how much he’s saying for effect and how much he genuinely means.

    I also haven’t kept up with his work for the last decade, so someone else might have a more informed opinion. (I’m happy if I’m absolutely wrong.)

  25. Linda says

    Thanks, PZ. I, too, had tears in my eyes. Perfect clip.

    I remember learning about Bronowski and his work only a few years ago. However, as a die-hard Python-phile, I know I’m “not Dr. Bloody Bronowski!”

    To Peter (#10): Very insightful and interesting post. Individualism is obviously a very strong American trait, to our detriment, I believe as well.

  26. Colugo says

    Peter Ashby:

    “after WWII, Europe went down and increasingly secular, disbelieving, highly tolerant route while the US became increasingly, stridently religious and endured fights over civil rights for many groups that were much easier on this side of the pond.”

    There’s some truth to that, but let’s not be too self-assured.

    After World War II:

    Muslims were encouraged to emigrate to Europe, promised opportunity, and they and their descendants languished in slums for decades because Europeans considered them unassimilable. In fact, Germany did not automatically grant even second and third generation immigrants citizens until 1999 (!) Europe still tends to have blood-based notions of nationality.

    Several major racial/religious riots have broken out in the UK, France and other Western European countries since 2000. (As a bonus, don’t forget the anti-Arab white riots in Cronulla, Australia in 2005.)

    Europe still have official churches that enjoy public funding. Church and mosque construction is under the control of local governments.

    See contemporary European soccer games for naked displays of jingoism and racial antagonism, typically directed at nonwhite players.

    Democratic Sweden continued to sterilize thousands of its own citizens on eugenic grounds until the 70s.

    Professional opportunity and mobility for women is higher in the United States than in Europe. (Really.) Europe is also behind the United States in sexual harassment and gender discrimination policy and enforcement.

    Full-blown fascist parties are viable and enjoy some success in parliamentary elections even in Western Europe.

    Several Western European countries are more restrictive on abortion, stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, animal research etc than the United States. Not to mention more favorable towards woo like homeopathy and anti-vax beliefs.

    The surveillance powers of state security forces are far greater, and suspect protections far less, in several Western European countries than even post-9/11 America.

  27. wisnij says

    “To you, Baldrick, the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people, wasn’t it?” Seems like that quote could be applied to some other folks as well. :)

  28. negentropyeater says

    A personal comment on Expelled :

    “People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought, which they avoid.” S.A.Kierkegaard

    That’s what happens with these people who come out of seeing Expelled, come home, and sit on their computer and write :

    “Every true American should watch and be angry about the loss of freedom.”

    You see, when going through the hundreds of commentaries of people on Yahoo movies, you can tell the true believers, the real died in the wool faith heads as Richard Dawkins calls them, from the rest. For them, it’s all about freedom. Freedom of believing the earth is 6000 yold, or that dinausaurs lived with humans, or that fairies have wings, or that … oh no strike that one, not in the bible, ok , you see the point, they want to have the freedom to have their litlle museum where these beliefs are confirmed, where you can see a wax reproduction of a little dino with a prehistoric boy and so on. THAT’S FREEDOM. And freedom, as everybody knows, in America, more so than anywhere else in the world, is sacred.

    The real problem for these people is that it is really hard to realise, and that is the sad part, that it is not, freedom of speech or declarated belief they should be demanding (which they de facto have), but freedom of thought or inner belief (which they have refused).

  29. defectiverobot says

    His erudition and elegance made my hair stand on end. No dogma, just a passionate appeal to reason.

    I will, however, disagree slightly with on point: I think we should aspire to absolute knowledge, but understand and be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have it and never will. Think of it as the distinction between the purpose of science and the end use of science. It is, alas, a distinction most fail to see.

  30. defectiverobot says

    Scratch that: let’s say it’s a distinction that many fail to see. My knee-jerk phrasing betrayed a rather narrow-minded cynicism on my part (understandable, hopefully, under the circumstances?).

  31. Ryan F Stello says

    Looks great!

    I had to add it to my DVDAF wish list, since the AMZ UK cost would have been a bit much at the moment…

  32. Harry Bergeron says

    from #15:
    “So we had religion driving our politics Leftwards.”

    It was not “religion”, it was degenerate religion, which shares a lot in common with Marxism–with its own myth and miracle, its own saints, sinners, commandments, pageant and ceremony.

    Once you can see Socialism as a religion, a lot of things will become clearer.

  33. HadasS says

    PZ, I don’t know if you’re aware, but it’s the Israeli Holocaust day this Thursday. Thank you for the clip.

  34. Siamang says

    I saw that piece of shit, Expelled. There is a terrible scene where Stein is sitting on some rock piles, at Dachau I think, with Richard Weikart. Stein asks him about the Darwin-Hitler connection, and when Weikart makes the connection, Stein melodramatically cradles his head in his hands in a mimic of what he must believe is the signal for deep emotional hurt. Stein, alas, is not a very good actor. And it is plain to see that the knowledge that Stein pretends is wounding to him, is the line of dialog they planned before traveling there and shooting the scene.. “Darwin caused Hitler.”

  35. Siamang says

    And it is plain to see that the knowledge that Stein pretends is wounding to him, is the line of dialog they planned before traveling there and shooting the scene.. “Darwin caused Hitler.”

    …edited to add:

    For clarity, my quotes around “Darwin caused Hitler” isn’t the actual line of dialog. I don’t recall the actual line of dialog… this is a paraphrase.

  36. says

    Wow. I haven’t seen Ascent of Man since it was first broadcast, but I still remember Bronowski grabbing that handful of muddy ashes. So powerful, and it still sends shivers. By the way, if you have the opportunity, by all means, go to Auschwitz. With all due respect to Brownowski, you can hear about it all day, but it’s still *nothing* like standing there yourself.

  37. James F says

    I wish everyone listening to the Darwin-to-Hitler bunk would watch this video clip.

    In other news, in his review, “A Blood Libel on Our Civilization,” John Derbyshire thoroughly trashes Expelled at the National Review.


  38. Nic Nicholson says

    Skimmed the posts and didn’t see this, so hopefully I’m not repeating…

    Ascent of Man IS available on Netflix…until we all try to get it, that is.

  39. Dee says

    Thanks for the Amazon link SplendidMonkey, I just took 5 seconds and ordered the series. I watched it decades ago, and I don’t remember much about it anymore. I hope my son likes it as much as he enjoys Connections.

  40. ihedenius says

    The link doesn’t seem to work. Anyone have a suitable replacement?

    Works for me. But try this:
    Refresh the this page [F5] and then doubleclick the clip to go to it’s youtube page.

    I noted that often embedded Youtubes gives temporaray false “no longer available” messages. But it still works from it’s ‘homepage’.

  41. ihedenius says

    I saw ‘Ascent of Man’ when it came out (mid 70’s). Almost to young to get it but it stayed with me.

    Last year I thought to myself “is this the worlds best tv series ?” but decided that title is to large for any _one_ series. Funnily months later I accidentally came across a page dedicated to it proclaiming “The worlds best tv series”.

    The series is available on Google video (all 13 eps I think in youtube quality). Episode order seems confused so get correct order from:

  42. MH says

    Actually, Ive found I can just refresh the page, then click on the Play button and it works fine after one of those false “No longer available” message.

  43. Pablo says

    That’s what happens with these people who come out of seeing Expelled, come home, and sit on their computer and write :

    “Every true American should watch and be angry about the loss of freedom.”

    I recommend that all those who see Expelled and claim to support it’s ideas of “freedom” go over and look up “Norman Finkelstein” on Wikipedia.

    Will Ben Stein defend _his_ freedom?

  44. David Marjanović, OM says

    Several major racial/religious riots have broken out in the UK, France and other Western European countries since 2000.

    Pale in comparison to the tiniest US “race riot”.

    In fact, Germany did not automatically grant even second and third generation immigrants citizens until 1999 (!)

    Germany, yes. France has AFAIK had ius solis ever since the Revolution.

    Europe still have official churches


    Full-blown fascist parties are viable and enjoy some success in parliamentary elections even in Western Europe.

    So they would be in the USA, if the USA didn’t have a two-party system (as a consequence of the lack of separation between president and government). Instead, they all sit in the Republican party, except for the outright Nazis (not fascistoid xenophobes, but outright Nazis) which have their own openly Nazi micro-party with swastika flags and all…

  45. David Marjanović, OM says

    BTW, it’s the same in Bavaria, where the conservative party decided that there shouldn’t be anything to its right. With nice regularity, every few years someone fairly high up in the CSU (Christian-Social Union) makes a mind-blowing comment that stinks of stupid oxide, causing a national scandal.

  46. CanadianChick says


    I’ve never seen that before – now I must get the series.

    I have goosebumps.

  47. shane says

    Did a quick search for TAOM. Expensive in the US – Amazon has it for $129. You can pick it up in Oz for AU$79 ( You’d have to add AU$20 or so for international orders and it is a region 4 DVD. I repeat REGION 4.

  48. says

    I saw it on one of the PBS telethons in the late 80s. It still brings goosebumps, just like COSMOS and the late Reverend King’s speeches.

    I was able to visit Dachau while in Germany in the mid-seventies. Even then, the place was eerie and emotionally dampening. The films that ran in the theater, and the photographs and literature that were posted around the camp, were horrific in their very nature. I had tears in my eyes, lumps in my throat, weight on my chest, and bumps on my skin the entire visit. It was a visit that changed my outlook on religion and its implications and applications toward society as a whole. I left Dachau that evening with the very inespacapble belief that there could not possibly be an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent god in a world where arrogant and inhumane atrocities repeated themselves throughout the course of its history. Not that I had any beliefs in any god(s) – but that this was another critical affirmation of my nonbelief.

    As an early teenager, I adopted “Imagine” as my theme song. It kept me going through some rough emotional disturbances caused directly, and indirectly, through religiously oriented child abuse.

  49. bipolar2 says

    ** in addition to AoM **

    Bronowski’s Science and Human Values deserves a reading by science students — it’s a slim volume devoted to scientific discovery and poetic creativity which ali8ke arise through metaphor.

    His legacy lives on in the person of his daughter Lisa Jardine at Cambridge University who writes histories of science.


  50. Tom Marking says

    Concerning Expelled, shouldn’t Dawkins and Meyers have done a little due diligence before agreeing to appear in the film? If they had done even a modicum of research concerning Ben Stein they should have realized that the guy’s a nutjob. Here is some publicly available information that anyone can get from Wikipedia concerning Stein and it has been public knowledge for quite some time:

    “In the May 14-21, 1998, edition of the Philadelphia City Paper Stein is quoted saying, “Oh, I don’t think there was a Deep Throat. That was a fake. I think there were several different sources and some they just made up”. After Mark Felt’s identity as Deep Throat was revealed, Stein stated that Richard Nixon would have prevented the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge if he had not been forced to resign. For his actions leading to that resignation, Stein said:

    If there is such a thing as kharma, if there is such a thing as justice in this life or the next, Mark Felt has bought himself the worst future of any man on this earth. And Bob Woodward is right behind him, with Ben Bradlee bringing up the rear. Out of their smug arrogance and contempt, they hatched the worst nightmare imaginable: genocide.”

    So he was saying goofy things about genocide ten years ago. How come Dawkins and Meyers didn’t know about it?

    “In 2007, Stein chastised the police and the GOP leadership for their response to the Larry Craig scandal. Stein said that Craig’s sexuality should be a non-issue: “A party that believes in individual rights should be rallying to his defense, not making him walk the plank”.

    So apparently he thinks that U.S. Senators propositioning guys in bathroom stalls is appropriate behavior. So the guy’s a complete nutjob.

  51. randytoad says

    Thanks for showing that clip. That final scene where Bronowski picks up the handful of mud, has haunted me since I first saw the series run on PBS for the first time (I believe it was nearly 30 years ago). It brought tears to my eyes then and it still does. For me anyway, it is the most emotionally powerful image I have ever come across.

  52. Hap says

    #64: Yep, apparently, Stein’s had the cognitive dissonance thing going full blast for some time.

    1) This is the same Nixon who employed Kissinger as his diplomatic envoy, right – the one who simultaneously screwed the Democrats and Vietnam in 1968 and who had his hand in so many matters not for the faint of heart during his enabling relationship with Nixon? If Nixon had been in power, it would seem that he would have been more likely to have enabled the Khmer Rouge, rather than convinced them to disarm – after all, Nixon, Kissinger and the Khmer Rouge (and, apparently, Mr. Stein) seem to have a common hatred of intellectuals and a love of power used forcefully and crudely.

    Stein’s contention seems ludicrous, and considering the amount of killing in which the Nixon Administration had a direct hand, I think that Mr. Stein should be hoping either for a nonexistence of karma or a forgiving universe.

    2) Well, the Republican Party intervening in private relationships would have been inconsistent had they not spent most of the last thirty years doing precisely that – their efforts to recriminalize homosexuality a good example (and one in which ex-Senator Craig had a direct hand). Had they rallied to his defense, the same people whose hatred the Republicans had courted these many years would have erupted in anger, while others might have wondered why it was OK for Craig to engage in the same behavior that the Republican Party has spent so long reviling (and preventing others from not engaging in). Considering the rampant hypocrisy, comparisons invoking Godwin’s Law might be appropriate, even more so considering Stein’s rhetorical position.

    Stein and ID deserve each other, though I dread to see the “intellectual” children they will spawn.