The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of Man
DVD cover
Genre Documentary
Developed by Sir David Attenborough
Presented by Jacob Bronowski
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 13
Audio format Mono
First shown in BBC2
Original release 1973

The Ascent of Man is a 13-part documentary television series produced by the BBC and Time-Life Films first transmitted in 1973, written and presented by Jacob Bronowski. Intended as a series of "personal view" documentaries in the manner of Kenneth Clark's 1969 series Civilisation, the series received acclaim for Bronowski's highly informed but eloquently simple analysis, his long unscripted monologues and its extensive location shoots.


  • Overview 1
  • Episodes 2
  • Legacy 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


The title alludes to The Descent of Man, the second book on evolution by Charles Darwin. Over the series' 13 episodes, Bronowski travelled around the world in order to trace the development of human society through its understanding of science. It was commissioned specifically to complement Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969), in which Clark argued that art reflected and was informed by the major driving forces in cultural evolution. Bronowski wrote in his 1951 book The Commonsense of Science: "It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests". Both series were commissioned by David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two, whose colleague Aubrey Singer had been astonished by Attenborough prioritising an arts series given his science background.[1]

The 13-part series was shot on 16mm film. Executive Producer was Adrian Malone, film directors were Dick Gilling, Mick Jackson, David Kennard and David Paterson. Quotations were read by actors Roy Dotrice and Joss Ackland. Series music was by Dudley Simpson with Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Additional music includes, amongst others, music by Pink Floyd. Apart from Bronowski, the only other named person appearing is the sculptor Henry Moore.

Malone and Kennard later emigrated to Hollywood, where they produced Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Jackson followed them, and now directs feature films.

The book of the series, The Ascent of Man: A Personal View, is an almost word-for-word transcript from the television episodes, diverging from Bronowski's original narration only where the lack of images might make its meaning unclear. A few details of the film version were omitted from the book, notably Episode 11, "Knowledge or Certainty."


  1. Lower than the Angels — Evolution of humans from proto-ape to the modern form 400,000 years ago.
  2. The Harvest of the Seasons — Early human migration, agriculture and the first settlements, and war.
  3. The Grain in the Stone — Tools, and the development of architecture and sculpture.
  4. The Hidden Structure — Fire, metals and alchemy.
  5. Music of the Spheres — The language of numbers and mathematics.
  6. The Starry Messenger — Galileo's universe—and the implications of his trial on the shift to "northern" science.
  7. The Majestic Clockwork — Explores Newton and Einstein's laws.
  8. The Drive for Power — The Industrial Revolution and the effect on everyday life.
  9. The Ladder of Creation — Darwin and Wallace's ideas on the origin of species.
  10. World within World — The story of the periodic table—and of the atom.
  11. Knowledge or Certainty — Physics and the clash of the pursuit of absolute vs. imperfect knowledge, and the misgivings of the scientists realizing the terrible outcome of the conflict. Auschwitz. Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  12. Generation upon Generation — The joys of life, sex, and genetics—and the dark side of cloning.
  13. The Long Childhood — Bronowski's treatise on the commitment of humanity.


The Ascent of Man was placed 65th on a list of the 100 Greatest World Television Programmes voted for by industry professionals and drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000.[2] Charlie Brooker praises Bronowski and The Ascent of Man on his BBC Four programme, Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe.[3]

The complete series was released on DVD in 2007.


  1. ^ Attenborough interview in The Ascent of Man DVD set
  2. ^
  3. ^

External links

  • Encyclopedia of Television
  • British Film Institute Screen Online
  • The Ascent of Man at the Internet Movie Database
  • Ascent of ManBook review of
  • by Jacob Bronowski - review (15 April 2011)The Ascent of Man