alea iacta esto

J Bronowski’s The Ascent Of Man – Episode 2

This second episode “Harvest of the Seasons” describes the transition of mankind from nomad to agriculturalist. This was our first step towards civilization – settling down, taming the land and the animals, inventing implements and so on. We are then taken to a remote asiatic land where the people haven’t changed since prehistory, we see nomads wandering the barren land with little thought for the morrow, no modern comforts, no history to pass from young to old. Here the old are left on the rocks to die with a dog for company. As far as I could tell from the images, no one was happy here. Poor prehistoric man.

The Bible is taken as the anthropological record of choice. We are told Jacob’s story and the two wives (sisters) he married after 7 years hard labour for each as their father agreed to Jacob having the younger sister only if he first married the older. Jacob went on to father 12 sons who founded the 12 tribes of Israel. Yes, all too coincidental but exactly how myths are made. Now, the story moves to Jericho, allegedly, the oldest city in the world where the land flowed with springs and grew palm trees. Here, famously, Joshua led the Israelites in walking around the city walls for 7 days (followed by 7 priests) and on the 7th round-trip on the 7th day after a great shout the fortified walls came crashing down and Jericho was conquered. Right.

Somewhere along the way the subject moves to war. Bronowski asserts that war is not a natural human instinct, I can only guess, because he wished to differentiate us from animals. Apart from the fact that we are animals, war is a distinctly human instinct. I have never heard of war between two eagle tribes or between elephant tribes or of pacts between groups of lions or whales to enslave other like species. Please tell me if I’m just ignorant of the real animal world. Even today we practice war as an activity and through sports, TV reality shows, films and dare I say Schumpeterian capitalism. The episode resurrects Genghis Khan, Stalin and Hitler as ogres this being the early 70’s and WW2 memories were still vivid. Interestingly, no mention was made of Europe’s favourite heroes like Napoleon or Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great or those who fought in the Crusades. Presumably all those people did not prosecute ruthless bloody wars that were not only needless but gloriously vain. A photo of Stalin is even shown in case we’d forgotten what the despot looked like. Cheap. “Oh, these asiatics,” I can hear the typical 70’s viewer murmur, “not like us, not like us”.

With luck, this series will redeem itself as it progresses.

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