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The Ascent of Man

Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts that make him unique among the animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape - he is a shaper of the landscape. In body and in mind he is the explorer of nature, the ubiquitous animal, who did not find but has made his home in every continent.

It is reported when the Spaniards arrived overland at the Pacific Ocean in 1769 the California Indians used to say that at full moon the fish came and danced on the beaches. And it is true that there is a local variety of fish, the grunion, that comes up out of the water and lays its eggs above the normal high-tide mark. The females bury themselves tail first in the sand and the males gyrate round them and fertilize the eggs as they are being laid. The full moon is important, because it gives the time needed for the eggs to incubate undisturbed in the sand, nine or ten days, between one very high tide and the next that will wash the hatched fish out to sea.

Every landscape in the world is full of these exact and beautiful adaptations, by which an animal fits into its environment like one cog-wheel into another. The sleeping hedgehog waits for the spring to burst its metabolism into life. The humming-bird beats the air and dips its needle-fine beak into hanging blossoms. Butterflies mimic leaves and even noxious creatures to deceive their predators.

Millions of years of evolution have shaped the grunion to fit and sit exactly with the tides. But nature - that is, biological evolution - has not fitted man to any specific environment. On the contrary, by comparison with the grunion he has a rather crude survival kit; and yet - this is the paradox of the human condition - one that fits him to all environments. Among the multitude of creatures which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it And that series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution - not biological, but cultural evolution. I call that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks "The Ascent of Man".

For at least million years man, in some recognizable form, lived as a forager and hunter. But we have no monuments of that immense period of prehistory. Only at the end of that time do we find a handful of cave paintings a record of what dominated the mind of man the hunter. There we see what made his world and preoccupied him. The cave paintings, which are about twenty thousand years old, fix for ever the universal base of his culture then - the hunter's knowledge of the animals that he lived by and stalked.

One begins by thinking it odd that an art as vivid as the cave paintings should be, comparatively, so rare. Why arc there not more monuments to man's visual imagination, as there are to his invention? And yet when we reflect, what is remarkable is not that there are so few monuments, but that there are any at all. Man is a puny, slow, awkward, unarmed animal - he had to invent a pebble, a flint, a knife, a spear. But why to these scientific inventions, which were essential to his survival, did he from an early time add those arts that now astonish us: decorations with animal shapes?

I believe that the power that we see expressed there for the first time is the power of anticipation: the forward-looking imagination. In these paintings the hunter was made familiar with dangers which he knew he had to face but to which he had not yet come. In them he saw the bison as he would have to face him, he saw the running deer, he saw the turning boar. And he felt along with them, there in the isolation of the inner cave, as he would be in the hunt. The moment of fear was made present to him; his spear-arm flexed with an experience which he would have and which he needed not to be afraid of. The painter had frozen the moment of fear, and the hunter entered it through the painting as if through an air-lock.

For us, the cave paintings re-create the hunter's way of life as a glimpse of history; we look through them into the past. But for the hunter, I suggest they were a peep-hole into the future; he looked ahead. In either direction, the paintings act as a kind of telescope tube of the imagination: they direct the mind from what is seen to what can be inferred.

Art and science are both uniquely human actions, outside the range of anything an animal can do. And here we see that they derive from the same human faculty: the ability to visualize the future, to foresee what may happen and plan to anticipate it, and to represent it to ourselves in images that we project and move about inside our head, or on the wall of a cave or on a television screen.

The men who made the weapons and the men who made the paintings were doing the same thing - anticipating a future as only man can do, inferring what is to come from what is here. There are many gifts that are unique to man; but at the centre of them all, the root from which all knowledge grows, lies the ability to draw conclusions from what we see to what we do not see, to move our minds through space and time, and to recognize ourselves in the past on the steps to the present in the continuing "Ascent of Man".

   
  Questions
   
  1.   The Indians said the fish "danced" on the beaches at full moon. Explain clearly, by using your own words, what was actually happening and why it only happened when the moon was full.
       
  2.   All creatures except man are "locked into the environment". Explain what this phrase tells you about creatures other than man, and illustrate its meaning from what the passage has to say about the humming bird and the butterfly, using your own words as far as possible.
       
  3.   "... he had to invent a pebble, a flint ..."
    (a) It could be said that "invent" is used incorrectly here. Why ?
    (b) What does the author mean by this statement ?
       
  4.   Dr. Bronowski uses images to make his ideas more vivid. In each of the following explain, by using your own words, how the image or picture illustrates an idea :
    (a) "an animal fits into its environment like one cog-wheel into another"
    (b) "I call that sequence of cultural peaks 'The Ascent of Man'"
    (c) "the paintings act as a kind of telescope tube of the imagination"
       
  5. (a) Explain fully the meaning of the following words as they are used in the passage :
      gifts; crude; paradox; preoccupied; inferring
    (b) Write five sentences using each of these words or phrases to illustrate this meaning. Your sentences should not deal with the subject-matter of the passage.
       
  6.   Using material from the whole passage, describe the ways in which men are different from all other creatures and show how the cave paintings help to demonstrate this difference. Do not describe the qualities of other creatures : confine your answer to Man. Write about 150 words. Use your own words as far as possible.
       
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  Answers
       
  1.   The grunion female is actually laying her eggs in the sand, and is circled by the male fish which then fertilizes the eggs, moving round the females. These actions give the appearance of 'dancing', since the fish stand upright. At the full moon the tide was very high, and the foregoing happened above the high-water mark. It would be nine or ten days before the next high tide, and this gave the eggs the chance to incubate before the next high tide.
       
  2.   Very lengthy evolution has enabled many creatures to adapt to their surroundings, and thus survive. In turn, this means that they depend on their surroundings, and cannot live elsewhere. So they are 'locked into the environment'. In contrast, man can adapt his surroundings to suit himself. The humming-bird needs hanging blossoms because it has developed the ability to hover while searching for nectar with its long probiscus. Butterflies avoid predators only where they can alight on trees and imitate the leaves.
       
  3. (a) Pebbles and flints exist. They are not inventions.
       
    (b) The author means 'invent the use of' but omits the last three words. Pebbles were probably used in slings and flints knapped to tip hunting spears.
       
  4. (a) By natural selection, animals become adapted to living in their surroundings, taking a position in the local organization of nature. The co-wheel analogy compares this exact role with that of a toothed wheel in a machine. The cag is small, perhaps, but the function of the machine depends on it.
       
    (b) Dr. Bronowski describes man's series of successes in adapting any environment to suit his needs as cultural evolution -- his 'Ascent'.
       
    (c) The telescope tube excludes irrelevancies from the object in view and magnifies that object. Similarly Dr. Bronowski believes that the hunting scenes depicted in the cave-paintings concentrated the hunter's imagination on scenes which he had witnessed and thus prepared his from experiencing them again, e.g. moments of fear.
       
  5. (a) gifts - abilities

crude - simple, uncomplicated

paradox - an apparent contradiction

preoccupied - engaged his attention

inferring - drawing a conclusion about

       
    (b) She will not make progress until she learns to develop her gifts.

The first wheel was probably a crude artefact chipped out of a flat stone.

One paradox of life is that age confers experience which would have been invaluable when we were young.

He was too preoccupied with work even to hear the door bell.

Inferring that she is immoral because she is beautiful is going too far.

       
  6. Whereas the rest of the animal world depends for survival on its ability to adapt to local conditions, man is uniquely capable of adapting those conditions to suit himself. Man has not developed the physical apparatus to withstand large predators, so he learned to arm himself with clubs, spears and knives, shaping what lay around him into weapons. However, he had the ability to learn from experience, and to use that knowledge, denied to animals, to prepare for the future. the author believes that the cave painting, representing dangerous points in the hunt, were intended to concentrate and prepare his mind for dangers which lay ahead. In other words, primitive man already had a mind which could operate independently of his surroundings, and which enabled him to use the past as a preparation for the future. ( 136 words )
           
 
 
 
 
 

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Comprehension 1

 

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