The Long Childhood

The Ascent Of Man, Episode 13

July 28, 1973

In this final episode, Bronowski—poet, playwright, mathematician, philosopher—draws together many threads of the series. He takes stock of man’s complex, sometimes precarious, ascent, and argues that man’s growth to self-knowledge is the longest childhood of all.



I begin this last program in Iceland, because this is the seat of the oldest democracy in northern Europe. In this natural amphitheater, where there were never any buildings, met each year the Althing of Iceland—the whole community of the Norsemen of Iceland—to make laws and to receive them. At a time when China was a great empire, when Europe was the spoil of princelings and robber barons, that’s a remarkable beginning to democracy. But there’s something more remarkable about this misty inclement site. It was chosen because the farmer who had owned it had killed, not another farmer, but a slave, and had been outlawed. Justice is a universal of all cultures. It’s a tightrope that man walks between his desire to fulfill his wishes and his acknowledgment of social responsibility. No animal is faced with this dilemma. An animal is either social or solitary. Man is alone in being a social solitary. And to me that is a unique biological feature. That’s the kind of problem that engages me and that I want to discuss in my home in California.


It’s something of a shock to think that justice is part of the biological equipment of man. And yet, it’s exactly that thought which took me out of physics into biology, and that’s taught me since then that a man’s life, a man’s home, is a proper place in which to study his biological uniqueness.


It’s natural that, by tradition, biology is thought of in a different way; that the likeness between man between the animals is what dominates it. Back before the year 200 AD, the great classic of antiquity in medicine, Galen, studied, for example, the forearm in man. How did he study it? By dissecting the forearm in a Barbary ape. That’s how you have to begin.


And to this day the wonderful work on animal behavior by Konrad Lorenz naturally makes us seek for likeness between the duck and the tiger and man. Or B. F. Skinner’s psychological work on pigeons and rats. They tell us something about man. But they can’t tell us everything. There must be something unique about man, because otherwise, evidently, the ducks would be lecturing about Konrad Lorenz and the rats would be writing papers about B. F. Skinner.


Let’s not beat about the bush. The horse and the rider have many anatomical features in common. But it’s the human creature that rides the horse, and not the other way about. And the rider is a very good example, because man was not created to ride the horse. There’s no wiring inside our brain that makes us horse riders. Riding a horse is a comparatively recent invention—less than 5,000 years old. And yet, it’s had an immense influence, for instance, on our social structure. It’s the plasticity of human behavior that makes that possible. It’s what characterizes us—in our social institutions, of course. But naturally, above all, in books: in the product, the interest, of the human mind.


Newton, the great man, dominating the Royal Society at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Blake writing the Songs of Innocence late in the eighteenth century. They are two aspects of the one mind. How can I put this most simply? I wrote a book called The Identity of Man. I never saw the cover until the book reached me. And yet, the artist had understood exactly what was in my mind by putting on the cover the brain and the Mona Lisa, put one on top of the other. Man is unique not because he does science, and he’s unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind. And the Mona Lisa’s a very good example, because after all, what did Leonardo do for most of his life? He drew anatomical pictures: the baby in the womb. And the brain and the baby is exactly where it begins.


I have an object which I treasure. A cast of the skull of a child that is two million years old. Of course it’s not strictly a human child. And yet, if she—I always think of her as a girl—if she had lived long enough, she might have been my ancestor. What distinguishes her little brain from mine? In one sense, only the size. That brain, if she’d grown up, would have weighed perhaps a little over a pound. And my brain, the average brain today, weighs three pounds. I’m not going to talk about the neural structure, about one-way conduction in nervous tissue, because that’s what we share with the animals. I’m going to talk about the brain as it is specific to the human creature.


The first question we ask is: well, is the human brain a better computer, a more complex computer? Of course. Artists in particular tend to think of the brain as a computer. Here is Portrait of Dr. Bronowski by Terry Durham. Of course the spectrum and the computer is what he thinks into the mind of the scientist, because that’s how an artist thinks of a scientist’s brain: a computer. But of course that can’t be right. If the brain were a computer, then it would be carrying out a pre-wired set of actions in an inflexible sequence.


Think of a very beautiful piece of animal behavior—my friend [???] work on the mating of the ring dove. If the male coos in the right way, if he bows in the right way, then the female explodes in excitement where here hormones squirt, and she goes through a sequence as part of which she builds a perfect nest. Nobody ever gave her any set of bricks to learn to build a nest. But you couldn’t get a human being to build anything unless the child had put together a set of bricks. That’s the beginning of the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal, of the Dome at Soltaniyeh and the Watts Towers, of Machu Picchu and the Pentagon.


If we are any kind of a machine, then we are a learning machine. And we do that in specific areas of the brain. You see, the brain hasn’t just blown up to two or three times its size, it has grown in quite special areas: where it controls the hand, where speech is controlled, where foresight and planning are controlled, here.


One by one. The hand: The evolution of man certainly begins with the development of the hand, and the selection for a brain which is particularly adept at manipulating the hand. So that, for the artist, the hand remains a major symbol. The hand of Buddha giving man the gift of humanity, the gift of fearlessness. But also for the scientist the hand is a special gesture. We can oppose the thumb to the fingers. Well, the apes can do part of that. But we can oppose the thumb to the forefinger. That’s a very special human gesture. And it’s done because there is an area in the brain which is… well, I can only describe it to you in the following way. We spend more gray matter in the brain manipulating the thumb than in the total control of the chest and the abdomen.


I remember, as a young father, tiptoeing to the cradle of my first daughter when she was, oh, four or five days old, and thinking, “These marvelous fingers! Every joint so perfect. The fingernails: I couldn’t have designed that in a million years.” But of course it’s exactly a million years that it took me, a million years that it took mankind, for the hand to drive the brain, for the brain to feed back and drive the hand, to reach its present stage of evolution. And that takes place in a quite specific place in the brain. The whole of the hand is essentially monitored by a part of the brain that’s up here. Up here.


Take an even more specifically human area which doesn’t exist in animals at all: speech. That goes from here to here. On this model it goes from that sort of pinkish area down here to this green area here. Is that pre-wired? Yes. Because if we don’t have this, we can’t speak at all. Does it have to be learned? Of course it does. I speak English, which I only learned at the age of thirteen. But I could not speak English if I had not before that learned language. You see, if you leave a child that speaks no language until the age of thirteen, then it’s almost impossible for it to learn at all. I speak English, which I learned at the age of thirteen, because I learned Polish at the age of two. I’ve forgotten every word of Polish—but I learned language.


On this model (that’s cut in half) I can’t really show that, because the speech areas are very peculiar. You see, the human brain is not symmetrical in its half. And speech is on the left, here and here. Whether you’re right-handed or left-handed, speech is almost certainly on the left. There are exceptions—well, the way there are people who have their heart on the right. But the exceptions are rare. By and large, speech is here—and what’s here? Well, we don’t exactly know. We don’t exactly know what the right-hand side of the brain does in those areas which are devoted to speech on the left. But it looks as if they take the input that comes by way of the eye of a two-dimensional world and turn it, organize it, into a three-dimensional picture. If that’s right, then it’s clear that speech is also a way of organizing the world into its parts and putting them together again.


The main organization of the brain is here, in the frontal lobes and the prefrontal lobes. I am—every man is—a highbrow, an egghead, because that’s how his brain goes. We know that this skull is not just a child that died recently and that we’ve mistaken, because she has a sloping forehead. Exactly what do these frontal lobes do?


Well, they certainly do one very specific and important thing. They enable you to think of actions in the future and wait for a reward then. Those are beautiful experiments which were first done by Hunter roundabout 1910, and then refined by Jacobson in the 1930s. The kind of thing that Hunter did was this: he would take some reward, and he would show it to an animal and hide it. Now, if you take a rat and do that, and you let it go at once, the rat of course goes to this hand immediately. But if you keep the rat waiting for some minutes, then it’s no longer able to identify where it ought to go for its reward. Now, of course, children are quite different. Hunter did the same experiment with children, and you can keep children of three or four for half an hour, for an hour. Hunter had a little girl whom he was trying to keep amused by keeping her waiting, and he talked to her, and finally she said to him, “You know, I think you’re just trying to make me forget!”


The ability to plan actions for which the reward is a long way off is the central thing that the human brain has, to which there’s no match in animal brains—well, until they become quite well up in the scale like our cousins, the monkeys and the apes. That means that we are concerned in our early education actually with the postponement of decision. We have to put off the decision-making process in order to accumulate enough knowledge as a preparation for the future. That seems an extraordinary thing to say, but that’s what childhood is about, that’s what puberty is about, that’s what youth is about.


I want to put this quite dramatically—and I mean that literally. What is the major drama in the English language? It’s Hamlet. What is Hamlet about? It’s a play about a young man, a boy, who is faced with the first great decision of his life, and it’s a decision beyond his reach: to kill the murderer of his father. It’s pointless—the ghost nudging him and saying, “Be revenge on me.” The fact is that Hamlet, as a youth, is simply not mature—intellectually, emotionally. He’s not ripe for the act that he’s asked to perform. And the whole play is an endless postponement of that decision while wrestling with himself. The high point is in the middle of act three: Hamlet sees the king at prayer. The stage directions are so uncertain that he may even hear the king at prayer confessing his crime. And what does Hamlet say? “Now might I do it?” Pat! But he doesn’t do it. He is simply not ready for an act of that magnitude in boyhood. So at the end of the play, Hamlet is murdered. But the tragedy is not that Hamlet dies, it’s that he dies exactly when he is ready to become a great king.


In man, before the brain is an instrument for action, it has to be an instrument of preparation. For that, quite specific areas are involved—for example, the frontal lobes have to be undamaged. But far more deeply than that, it depends on the long preparation of human childhood. In scientific terms we are neotenous: we come from the womb still as embryos. And perhaps that’s why our scientific civilization adores above all else the symbol of the child. Ever since the Renaissance, the Christ child—painted by Rafael, talked about by Pascal, Mozart, and Gauss, the children in Rousseau and Dickens—it never struck me that other civilizations are different until I sailed south from here, out of California, 4,000 miles away to Easter Island.


Every so often, some visionary invents a new utopia—Plato, Sir Thomas Moore, H. G. Wells—and always the idea is that the heroic image shall last, as Hitler said, for a thousand years. But the heroic images always look like this—crude, dead, ancestral faces. Why, the even look like Mussolini. That’s not the essence of the human personality, even in terms of biology. Biologically, a human being is changeable, sensitive, mutable, fitted to many environments and not static. The real vision of the human being is the child wonder, the virgin in child, the holy family.


When I was a boy in my teens, I used to go on Saturday afternoons from the east end of London to the British Museum in order to look at the single statue from the Easter Islands which somehow they didn’t get inside the museum. So I’m fond of these ancient ancestral faces. But in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face.


I was a little carried away at Easter Island—and yet, with a reason. Think of the investment that evolution has made in the child’s brain. My brain weighs three pounds, my body weighs fifty times as much as that. But when I was born, my body was a mere appendage to the head; weighed only five or six times as much as my brain. For most of history, civilizations have simply ignored that enormous potential. In fact, the longest childhood has been that of civilization to understand that. For most of history children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.


We traveled with the Bakhtiari of Persia on their spring migration. They are as near as any surviving vanishing people can be to the nomad ways of ten thousand years ago. You see it everywhere in such ancient modes of life: the image of the adult shines in the children’s eyes. The girls are little mothers in the making. The boys are little herdsmen. They even carry themselves like their parents.


Of course, history didn’t stand still between the nomad and the Renaissance. The ascent of man has never come to a stop. But the ascent of the young, the ascent of the talented, the ascent of the imaginative, that became very halting many times in between. Of course there were great civilizations. Who am I to belittle the civilization of Egypt, of China, of India, even of Europe in the Middle Ages. And yet, by one test they all fail. They limit the freedom of the imagination of the young. They are static, and they are minority cultures. Static because the son does what the father did, and the father what the grandfather did. And minority because only a tiny fraction of all that talent that mankind produces is actually used: learns to read, learns to write, learns another language, and climbs that terribly slow ladder of promotion—in the Middle Ages through the Church. And at the end of the ladder there’s always the image, the icon of the godhead, that says: now you have reached the last commandment, “Thou shalt not question.”


The mass is old enough for Erasmus to have heard. The church is San Pietro in Gropina, and is older. When Erasmus was left an orphan in 1480, he had to prepare for a career in the church. The service was as beautiful then as now. But the monk’s life was, for Erasmus, an iron door closed against knowledge.


Only when Erasmus read the classics for himself, in defiance of orders, was the world open for him. “A heathen wrote this to a heathen,” he said, “yet it has justice, sanctity, truth. I can hardly refrain from saying, ‘Saint Socrates, pray for me’.”


Erasmus made two lifelong friends: Sir Thomas Moore in England and Johann Frobenius in Switzerland. From Sir Thomas Moore he got what I got when I first came to England: the sense of pleasure in the companionship of civilized minds. From Frobenius he got a sense of the power of the printed book. Frobenius and his family were the great printers of the 1500s. This is the Galen. This is Frobenius’ Hippocrates. One of the most beautiful books ever printed, in which the happy passion of the printer sits on the page as powerful as the knowledge. This is the democracy of the intellect. And that’s why Erasmus and Frobenius and Sir Thomas Moore stand in my mind as gigantic landmarks of their time.


The democracy of the intellect comes from the printed book. And the problems that it set from the year 1500 have lasted right down to the student riots today. What did Sir Thomas Moore die of? He died because his king thought of him as a wielder of power. And what Moore wanted to be, what Erasmus wanted to be, what every strong intellect wants to be is a guardian of integrity.


There is an age-old conflict between intellectual leadership and civil authority. How old, how bitter, came home to me when I came up from Jericho on the road that Jesus took and saw the first glimpse of Jerusalem on the skyline as he saw it going to his certain death. Because Jesus was then the intellectual and moral leader of his people. But he was facing an establishment for which religion was simply an arm of government. And that’s a crisis of choice that leaders have faced over and over again. Socrates in Athens. Johnathan Swift in Ireland, torn between pity and ambition. Gandhi in India. And Einstein when he refused the presidency of Israel.


I bring in the name of Einstein deliberately because he was a scientist, and the intellectual leadership of the twentieth century rests with scientists. And that’s a grave problem, because science is also a source of power that walks close to government, that the state wants to harness. But if science allows itself to go that way, the beliefs of the twentieth century will fall to pieces in cynicism. Because no beliefs can be built up in this century that are not based on science’s recognition of uniqueness of man and a pride in his gifts and his works. It is not the business of science to inherit the Earth, but to inherit the moral imagination. Because man and beliefs and science—without that, we’ll perish together.


I must bring that concretely into the present. The man who personifies these issues for me is John von Neumann. He was born in 1903 the son of a Jewish family in Hungary. If he’d been born a hundred years earlier, we would never have heard of him. He would have been doing what his father and grandfather did: making rabbinical comments on dogma. Instead, he was a child prodigy of mathematics; “Johnny” to the end of his life. In his teens he already wrote mathematical papers. He did the great work on both the subjects for which he’s famous before he was twenty-five. Both subjects are concerned (I suppose I should say) with play. You see, of course, in a sense, all science, all human thought, is a form of play; the neoteny of the intellect. Man able to continue to carry out activities which have no immediate goal in order to prepare himself for long-time strategies and plans.


I worked with Johnny von Neumann during the war in England, and he first talked to me about the theory of games in a taxi in London—one of the favorite places in which he liked to talk about mathematics. And I naturally said to him, since I’m an enthusiastic chess player, “You mean the theory of games like chess?” “No, no,” he said, “Chess isn’t a game. Chess is a well-defined form of computation. You may not be able to work out the answers, but in theory there must be a solution, a right procedure, in any position. Now, real games,” he said, “are not like that at all. Real life is not like that. Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics, of asking yourself: what is the other man going to do?” And that’s what games are about. And that’s what his book is about.


It seems very strange to find a book in which there is a chapter called “Poker and Bluffing”—and moreover, to find it covered with equations. Very pompous. Mathematics is not a pompous activity—least of all in the hands of extraordinarily fast and penetrating minds like Johnny von Neumann’s. What’s running through the page is a clear intellectual line like a tune. And all the heavy weight of equations is simply the orchestration down in the base.


In the latter part of his life he carried this subject into what I’ve called his second great creative idea. he began to realize that computers would be technically important, but he also began to realize that one must understand clearly how real life situations are different from computer situations exactly because they do not have the precise solutions, but strategies in chess or in engineering calculations do. And in his last years he wrote a beautiful book—The Silliman lectures that he should have given, but was too ill to give in 1956—called The Computer and the Brain. In them, he looks at the brain as having a language in which the activities of the different parts of the brain have somehow to be interlocked and made to match, so that we devise a plan, a procedure, as a grand overall way of life—what in the humanities we would call a system of values.


There was something endearing and personal about Johnny von Neumann. When he died in 1957 it was a great tragedy to us all. And that was not because he was a modest man. When I worked with him during the war, we once faced a problem together, and he said to me at once, “Oh, no, no. You’re not seeing it. Your kind of visualizing mind isn’t seeing this. Think of it abstractly: what is happening on this photograph of an explosion is that the first differential coefficient vanishes identically, and that’s why you’re seeing the trace of the second differential coefficient.” That’s not the way that I think. Hover, I let him go to London, I went off to my laboratory in the country, I worked late into the night. Roundabout midnight, I had the answer. Well, John von Neumann slept very late. So I was kind. I didn’t wake him until well after ten in the morning. When I called his hotel in London he answered the phone in bed, and I said, “Johnny, you’re quite right.” And he said to me, “You wake me up early in the morning to tell me that I’m right? Please wait until I’m wrong.”


If that sounds very vain, it was not. It was a real statement of how he lived his life. And yet it has something in it which reminds us that he wasted the last years of his life. He never finished the great work—that has been very difficult to carry on since his death. And he didn’t really, because he became more and more engaged in work for private firms, for industry, for government, for enterprises which brought him to the center of power, but which did not advance either his knowledge or his intimacy with people who, to this day, have not yet got the message of what he was trying to do about the human problems of life and the mind.


Johnny von Neumann was in love with the aristocracy of intellect. And that’s a belief which can only destroy the civilization that we know. If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed. And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits here and not up there.


That seems a hard lesson. After all, this is a world run by specialists. Isn’t that what me mean by “scientific society”? No, it isn’t. A scientific society is one in which specialists can indeed do the things like making the electric light work, but it’s you, it’s I who have to know how nature works, how electricity is one of her expressions in the light and in my brain. And we are really here on a wonderful threshold of knowledge. The ascent of man is always teaching in the balance: there’s always a sense of uncertainty as to whether, when man lifts his foot for the next step, it’s really going to come down ahead.


And what is ahead of us? At last: the bringing-together of all that we’ve learned in physics and in biology towards an understanding of where we have come, what man is. Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are—above all, of what we are as ethical creatures. You can’t possibly maintain that, if you let other people run the world run for you while you, yourself, continue to life out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs.


That’s really crucial today. You see, it’s pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or you must do a course in electronics or computer programming—of course not. And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist. The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that’s what we’re engaged in. And I’m infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded, in the West, by a sense of a terrible loss of nerve. A retreat from knowledge into—into what? Zen Buddhism, into profound questions about “are we not just really animals at bottom,” into extrasensory perception—which simply do not lie along the line of what? We are now able to know, if we devote ourselves to it, an understanding of man himself. Self-knowledge at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science.


It sounds very pessimistic to talk about Western civilization with a sense of retreat. I’ve been so optimistic about the ascent of man. Am I going to give up at this moment? Of course not. The ascent of man will go on. But don’t assume that it will go on carried by Western civilization as we know it. We are being weighed in the balance at this moment. If we give up, the next step will be taken—but not by us. We have not been given any guarantee that Assyria and Egypt and Rome were not given. We are a scientific civilization. That means: a civilization in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial. Science is only a Latin word for “knowledge.”


If we don’t take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere—in Africa, in China. Should I feel that to be sad? No. Humanity has a right to change its color. And yet, wedded as I am to the civilization that nurtured me, I should feel it to be infinitely sad. I—whom England made, whom it taught its language, and its tolerance, and excitement in intellectual pursuits—I should feel it as a grave sense of loss as you would if, a hundred years from now, Shakespeare and Newton are historical fossils in the ascent of man the way that Homer and Euclid are.


I began this series of programs in the valley of the Omo in east Africa. And I’ve come back here because something that happened then has remained in my mind ever since. On the morning of the day that we were to tape the first sentences of the first program, a light plane took off from this airstrip with the cameraman and the sound recordist on board, and it crashed within seconds of taking off. By some miracle, the pilot and the two men crawled out unhurt. But, naturally, the ominous event made a deep impression on me. Here was I, preparing to unfold the pageant of the past, and the present quietly put its hand through the printed page of history and said, “It’s here. It’s now.” History is not events, but people. And it’s not people remembering. It’s people acting and living their past in the present.


We sat about in the camp for two days waiting for another plane, and I said to the cameraman—kindly, though perhaps not tactfully—that, perhaps, he might prefer to have someone else take the shots that had to be filmed from the air. He said, “I’ve thought of that. I’m going to be afraid when I go up tomorrow. But I’m going to do the filming. It’s what I have to do.”


We’re all afraid—for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That’s the nature of the human imagination. Yet, every man, every civilization has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man to his skill—the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one—has made the ascent of man.

The Long Childhood

Jacob Bronowski

Document Options
Find out more