Archive for the ‘Ascent of Man’ Category

The following is based on part three of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about architecture and the rise of cities:

One of the biggest steps in the ascent of man was the rise of the stone mason. Instead of living in caves or houses made of earth, man built his house out of wood and stone and brick. It might seem like a small change but in fact it was huge:

  1. It marks a new understanding of nature: that it is something you can take apart, understand and then put back together in new ways.
  2. It allowed the rise of cities: not just physically by providing the necessary buildings but also by giving a new understanding of human society as something made of parts working together.

A city is made up of people who work together in certain ways. In particular:

  • division of labour: a man doing one sort of work his whole life and becoming very good at it, perhaps even coming up with new inventions. Not just the masons but other craftsmen too like potters, coppersmiths and weavers.
  • chain of command: which allows a city or a people to act as one and achieve things for the greater good, like the control of water by irrigation. Information comes into a commander or ruler at the centre and comands flow out. For it to work you need roads, bridges and messages.

When the Incas fell to the Spanish in 1532 they were at just this stage. Their civilization was cut short before it came up with the wheel, the arch or even writing. They kept records on knotted strings called quipu, but it recorded only numbers not words.

The Greeks, despite their great love of geometry, never came up with the arch. That was a Roman invention. By spreading the load it allowed columns to hold up more weight or be spread farther apart. The Roman arch and later the Arab one were based on the circle.

A thousand years later in the 1100s came the Gothic arch, the oval or pointed arch of the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. By spreading the load even farther than the Roman arch, buildings could rise to 40 metres. And since the arches, not the walls, were holding up the building, it made possible huge stained glass windows.

The Gothic arch was the last big breakthrough in architecture till the 1800s with the rise of buildings made with steel frames.

Man built Gothic cathedrals not because he suddenly needed huge, beautiful churches, but because he could. Man loves to make things, so much so that he often makes them better than he has to. That in turn allows things to be used beyond their intended purpose, leading to new ways of doing things – technology.

Taking things apart and putting them back together laid the groundwork for more than just architecture and cities but also for a new understanding of nature – which in time became science.

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“The Harvest of Seasons”,  part two of Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” (1973), covers the rise of civilization from agriculture.

For 2 million years man wandered the face of the earth. With fire and stone tools he had some control over the physical world. With the agricultural revolution he learns to control the biological world: how to plant grain, like wheat and maize, and to keep animals, like goats and sheep. With that came a social revolution: villages, towns and cities sprang up.

Civilization can never grow up on the move. A good example is the Bakhtiari in Iran. Every year they must cross six mountain ranges with their sheep and goats to get to the summer grasslands and then come all the way back to get to the autumn ones. The worst part is not the mountains but the Bazuft, a wild and deadly river they must cross. Those who are too old to cross starve to death at the river’s edge.

Because the Bakhtiari are always on the move they have little: they must be able to pack and carry everything they own every day. So everything they have is simple and lightweight. Their life is so hard there is little time for invention, even for a new song. Every son becomes like his father, every daughter like her mother. every day is like the day before.

With planting man could grow more food than he needs. He could live in one place and build a house and have a home. His wanderings were over. He could own way more things. He had time for new songs, for creating new things. Even the simplest village has all sorts of little inventions that we do not even think about: needles, pots, nails, screws, string, knots, hooks, buttons, shoes, etc.

One of the oldest cities in the world is Jericho of the Bible. By -6ooo it had 3,000 people. Joshua would not arrive for another 4,600 years. It was made possible by two things: wheat and water.

The wheat that we know, the wheat we make bread out of, did not grow anywhere in the world in -80oo. It came about by a true fairy tale of genetics: first Emmer wheat came from crossing two wild grasses. That crossed again with yet another wild grass and then mutated to give us bread wheat. Like maize, it needs man to plant and care for it.

Some dates:

  • -8000: Emmer wheat, sheep, goats
  • -7000:
  • -6000: towns: Jericho has 3,000 people
  • -5000: pots
  • -4000:
  • -3000: wheel, horse
  • -2000: men riding horses
  • -1000: the time of King David

The horse was faster and stronger than any animal man knew how to control. The best horsemen were herdsmen, like the Scythians and the Mongols. They did not respect civilization. From time to time they would come out of the grasslands in the middle of Eurasia, destroying all before them. They were an empty whirlwind: they had nothing of their own to give. The future of man did not lay with them.

– Abagond, 2009.

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