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
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".