First transmitted in 1974, Michael Parkinson's guest is Dr Jacob Bronowski, the presenter and writer of the 1973 documentary series, The Ascent of Man.
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BBC Four Collections -
specially chosen programmes from the BBC Archive.
For this Collection,
Sir Michael Parkinson
has selected BBC interviews
with influential figures
of the 20th century.
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and other BBC Four Collections
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Evening. I'm often asked which is my favourite interview,
and it's a question I feel unable to answer because,
in truth, I haven't got a favourite interview.
There have been occasions, however, that were particularly special
and memorable for me for different reasons.
One such occurred just over two years ago,
when I interviewed a very remarkable man, Dr Jacob Bronowski.
At the time, his epic series The Ascent Of Man was being shown.
He fascinated me because he was one of the few genuine intellectuals
who had the sublime gift of communicating
across the broadest possible level.
Well, because of the three-day week
and the restriction on broadcasting hours at the time,
we were only able to show a shortened version on BBC Two.
Sadly, some 18 months ago, Dr Bronowski died,
and tonight we're going to show you,
for the first time, the interview in its entirety.
There are many reasons for doing so.
One is that what he had to say has as much relevance now as then.
Another, that I believe it to be a testament of a rare human being.
And also, because, although I haven't got a favourite interview,
I shall forever remember this meeting.
Do you find, Dr Bronowski,
that people are frightened of talking to you,
in the sense that they're a bit overawed by your reputation
and your presence?
I have one very great advantage.
I don't regard it personally as an advantage, but in being approachable.
You see, I'm much smaller than people think,
so that people stop in the street and they look at me and they say,
quite involuntarily, "Oh, you're much smaller than I thought you were."
That's a great icebreaker.
I see. So that gives them somehow the advantage, they think.
When, in fact, did you first become aware of this
extraordinary mental capacity that you have?
It's one of those wife-beating questions!
I have to confess to an extraordinary mental capacity
of which, truly, I'm not very much aware.
I had the great good fortune of being born of
rather clever and rather modest parents.
So what mental gifts I have, I inherited from my parents.
But I also inherited from them
something which was given me by their culture,
not by what I was born with, namely a simple feeling in the family that...
..all human beings were pretty smart, you know.
We were obviously much cleverer than monkeys and cats.
Some people were very much cleverer than monkeys and cats
and some people somewhat cleverer.
Um...I was never aware at home
that what I could do was extraordinary.
And to this day, I never approach a piece of work,
whether it's writing, thinking,
whether it's science or this evening...
..in any other spirit than, "That sounds interesting, let's do it."
If I don't do it very well, I'd say afterwards,
- "You just didn't work hard enough." - Yes.
An eminent authority - your wife, no less, I think...
..once described you as having a mind that could see round corners.
Was she right? And if so, what does that mean?
I think she's right in saying that I have a strongly visual mind.
That is to say that I think of every problem as having a shape.
I visualise every problem.
And I suppose you could say around corners
in the sense that all human abilities are thinking ahead
to things which are not already present to the vision.
We think in images.
The word "imagination" means that.
Yes, I am a good imaginative thinker in the very simple sense of
- working with images. - Mmm.
I should give you a practical example of that.
Um, I was in Japan in 1945, and the very first thing that struck me
when I arrived in Japan was that the people were all very small.
You know, the Japanese in 1945,
having been starved through years of war,
were so small that when the men came to take our luggage off the plane,
I thought they were schoolboys.
Well, that made a great impression on me,
but it's not an impression of little men running around,
and big men - by Japanese standards, I was quite a big man...
Ha, big men!
Nobody stopped you in the street over there?
No! No, no.
But I at once had the vision of there being
a sort of mountain of Japanese size and a mountain of European size,
and that European people were grouped round this average peak
and Japanese around this,
and that these two mountains didn't overlap much.
If you think of a problem in that way, it's easier to solve.
That's extraordinary, though,
I don't think most people's minds would figure that out at all.
I mean, even now you've explained it,
I find it very difficult to understand it!
- To be frank. - Try.
Well, later on, I won't sort of sit here,
I've got other things to think about.
Let's talk about your early life, because in fact you spent some years,
didn't you, in your childhood in Germany during the First World War?
When you look back at that,
do you regard it as being a traumatic experience?
Well, of course it was a traumatic experience,
but it didn't strike me so at the time.
You see, I was in Germany as a child.
The war broke out in 1914, when I was six.
It came to an end in 1918, when I was ten.
I was a very patriotic little German,
but, in fact, I was a Russian by nationality.
So I was an enemy alien.
My parents were enemy aliens.
We were not very well treated by the Germans.
But I think it just made me at home in the world.
I've always lived in countries that I haven't been born in.
You know, I was born in Lodz,
and the last time I was in Lodz was in 1913, that's 60 years ago.
So it gave you a capacity, in effect,
to make your home wherever you were...
- Yes. - ..without feeling out of place.
Can you recall your first...? You then came to England, of course.
Can you recall your first impressions of England?
I remember them very well.
I came up in the train from Harwich to London.
And as we came into London,
the train ran through all those backs of endless rows of houses.
And they all had chimneys with chimneypots and cowls on.
That was a thing I'd never seen.
And chimneypots and chimney cowls and smoke belching out of them
dominated my visual image of London
and of England for many years after that.
Really? The other thing is the language,
because you obviously didn't speak English when you arrived here,
and now, of course, you speak English without a trace of accent whatsoever.
Did you, in fact, at the time,
did you have difficulty learning the language?
I had difficulty in learning to speak English,
as you so charmingly say, without a trace of accent -
I don't think that's quite true.
But, at any rate, in speaking it as well as I do,
because I'm not a very good mimic, but I had no difficulty in learning
English as a literary language,
and you see, it's a very beautiful language.
When I had been in England for about a month,
a boy at school took me to the Whitechapel Library.
And there, a very elderly librarian said to me,
"Well, if you're going to learn English,
"you should start by reading a simple book."
- And he lent me Midshipman Easy. - Yeah.
And I remember that I was struck in Midshipman Easy
by the use of the phrase, "hoist with his own petard".
Which I later discovered had not been invented by Marryat at all,
but by Shakespeare. But of course, I didn't know any better at the time.
I thought that was lovely.
And English has always struck me as a language
which is full of these marvellous historic metaphors.
Very concise, very precise.
It's a language that I fell in love with at the age of, I suppose...
I came here when I was 12,
so I suppose I was 14 when I first began to memorise English poems.
And I was made to memorise, by my form master,
the whole of Gray's Elegy.
And I stood in front of the class
and I read Gray's Elegy from beginning to end, you know.
"Can storied urn or animated bust back to its mansion
"call the fleeting breath?"
And all those wonderful lines.
And he listened to me.
The class all opened their desk and ate their lunch!
And then at the end, he said, very cruelly,
"One day I shall hope to hear you say it in English."
- Crushing, I would have thought. - Well, you see...
..learning to understand that people are not really as unkind
as they express themselves is probably what I learnt in Germany
and what I learnt as a small boy in England.
- It did me a world of good. - Yes.
At that time, when you were there in your early teens,
did you know then that you wanted to be a scientist?
No, not particularly.
You see, one of the great merits of learning English at that time is that
I learnt English, mathematics, chemistry all at the same time.
Well, what does that mean?
It means that, when you are struggling with the word for water,
which is a very difficult word to pronounce -
you just listen to an American and you'll see how difficult it is!
And at the same time,
you're learning that it's written as H2O in the class upstairs...
You suddenly realise that all science, all mathematics,
each of them is a language for expressing
the relations in nature in a different way.
And that was a marvellous experience.
I never thought of myself,
particularly, as a scientist or a literary figure,
I edited the school magazine in a very short time.
But I loved them all because of this sense
that one was unpicking the world,
finding the strands that run through it,
because language was the key to that.
And each way of looking at the world had a language of its own.
You just really, actually, answered something that slightly bothers me
and I think a lot of people, who can't see,
I think you explained it there,
the link between the scientist who writes poetry,
they see it as essentially a conflict -
one of artistic values, the other of mathematical values.
And yet you say that, in fact, they're all of a piece,
so one shouldn't be surprised that you have, like yourself,
a scientist who writes poetry.
Well, most people could do practically anything
if they put their minds to it.
I can't think of many poets who've achieved eminence in your field.
Well, Humphry Davy, you know, was uncertain
whether he was going to be a scientist or a poet.
It was really only because Coleridge persuaded him that he, Coleridge,
was a much better poet that Humphry Davy
decided to settle for being a scientist!
Well, that shows a scientific mind at work!
I must warn you that I'm simplifying that story a little,
but I have the crux of it right.
Do you, in fact, still write poetry?
Yes, I still write one poem a year, at Christmas time.
I lock myself away and I think of one statement to make
about what happened to me and to my mind during the year
which I send to people at Christmas time.
Really? Can you remember the last one you did?
The last one I did is about Watergate
and I think that is too... prickly and explosive a subject!
But I will tell you, if I can remember it,
a very characteristic poem
that I wrote, it must have been about 1965 or '66,
when I had just settled in California.
I had discovered that California was a country that everybody went to
as if it were an El Dorado.
They went full of ambition,
and they all thought that the promised land was there.
And naturally, they all wanted the promised land without working for it,
you know, that's what stops most people from doing anything.
They think that they're going to win it in the pools.
And you can win everything in the pools except the desire to win.
Well, California struck me that way very much.
I was very upset about people wanting to have success so easily,
and I wrote a poem...
..which goes like this.
This is the coast the lemmings reached
They did not drown but simply beached
Here after agonies and less
They found the go-go star success
The goddess in the wilderness
who shook her breast and blessed the West
She beckoned from the burning glass
Medusa with a face of brass
And with her sunset fingertip
Wrote as if in magnesium strip
A rain check on the hall of fame
Make a cross and put your name.
Well, you know...
What you do, in effect, is you deliver this sort of private message
to your friends every year, you don't publish or anything like that.
The thing that interests me,
do you ever long for the bohemian life of the artist?
One imagines that your life is so ordered and planned.
I live in a community of artists now who are so bohemian
that you can't find them under their sweaters.
You know, 20 years ago, when Einstein used to pad around
in those funny old sweaters and slippers and no socks,
everybody thought how marvellous, how outrageous,
you had to be a great man to dress like that.
Well, now they've found that you wear the clothes
and let posterity take care of the rest!
- A rain check on the hall of fame. - Yes.
But to answer your question seriously,
I have had many bohemian friends.
For instance, for a short time towards the end of his life,
I knew Dylan Thomas quite well.
- Really? - I liked him very much as a person.
And he was always very charming.
Er...people are not in awe of me in the street,
but friends who come from poetry or the arts and so on
have just that touch of awe which makes them behave
somewhat better with me than they do with others.
And Dylan Thomas, I think, behaved exceptionally well with me.
But I thought that I just couldn't stand his life.
I just thought that the notion that you would wake up
very late in the morning and say to yourself,
"Have the kids gone to school? Who's driving my wife to the supermarket?
"Who has the car?" and so on,
were too deeply ingrained in my outlook
for my ever being able to dismiss those.
Now, I was very sorry about this because I also realised
that you can't write poetry like Dylan Thomas's
without a wonderful air of irresponsibility,
where you say, "To hell with the second car
"and the supermarket, this is life, this is how I think."
And all this rather tidy poetry that I write,
and have just told you, comes from a different temperament.
I just don't have the temperament to be a bohemian.
Do I regret it?
Well, of course I regret never having written
- poems as beautiful as Dylan Thomas. - Yes.
But then, what about the, I suppose, irresponsibility,
if one can put it, of the poet like Thomas?
Because although, as you say, he lived in this style
and created this magnificent poetry,
he also killed himself, didn't he, by doing it?
Well, that was his lookout.
Doesn't he have a responsibility to those around him who love him too?
I think they accepted him for what he was.
He was a very splendid person. Of course, I was very sorry
when he killed himself for what seemed to me ridiculous reasons.
But you know, people are of a piece.
You can't think that you can go round in a kleptomaniac way,
like a shoplifter in the Almighty's supermarket,
picking out something that you like here...
"I'll have a little brain there," and so on.
If you'll forgive my saying so, I'm reminded of McCarthy
and the Committee for Un-American Activities
when I was in America back in 1953,
who kept on having great scientists in front of them
and would say to them,
"We understand about you being a great scientist,
"but why are you such a radical in politics?
"Couldn't you be a nice conservative like me and Mr Nixon?"
And one couldn't explain to them that being a scientist,
and being a poet, being an original person, meant a very questioning,
a very rebellious, a very...uncomfortable way of life.
And that's what makes progress in the human race.
You know, if there hadn't been some monkeys who had been
very awkward children, there would be no human race.
It was the children who disobeyed their monkey parents
who are our ancestors.
By forming a more adventurous strain than living by those habitual ways
that their respectable monkey parents lived.
You know, somewhere between 5 million years ago and 20 million years ago,
those nice, Sunday morning church-going chimpanzees
went down the road and some little kid broke away.
- I'm simplifying the story, but... - Of course.
But, in essence, it's true.
And they, by physique and by temperament, did different things.
Actually, they faced a great crisis at that time.
Er...the land was drying up,
the African forest near the equator was thinning out.
And they were faced with a way of life
which had to be changed if they were to survive.
And they changed by coming down...
We used to think by actually coming down to the ground.
They didn't do quite that, but they had to learn to hop,
as it were, from one surviving grove of trees to the other.
And that's how they came to stand upright,
that's how they came to begin to...er...use their hands
rather than their mouth, and so on.
They didn't acquire these habits.
But the ones among them who were clever like that
were the ones who survived, and they are our ancestors.
Yes. Can I ask you now about the fame that you acquired
on television and radio? Television fame particularly.
As I say, in the sort of '50s and so,
you were one of the first big television personalities.
Did it ever have the effect on your fellow scientists that,
because of your fame and your public appeal,
that they didn't take you seriously as a scientist?
Oh, I'm sure it did.
You know, this is not the kind of thing that people say to your face.
I mean, when they ask you to dinner, they don't sort of say,
"Oh, good evening, Dr Bronowski..."
"Of course, we wouldn't confess to having watched your programme,
"but we saw your explanation about human evolution
"the other day and, you know, it's not sound, it's not sound!"
They don't actually say that, but naturally,
that's what you have to suffer.
If I had to do it again, I'd do it just the same way.
- You enjoyed it? - No, not because I enjoyed it.
I enjoy everything.
I don't have to hide from you the fact that I would be
enjoying this conversation even if you were a pretty girl.
I'm not sure that I would, but...
I have been fortunate in just having immense enjoyment of life
and, happily, I enjoy what are called intellectual pursuits,
marginally more than mere physical pursuits.
I should like you to be a pretty, INTELLIGENT girl.
To come back to what we were saying,
would I do it again because I enjoyed it?
No, I would do it again
because I came to it from a deep sense
that science was reaching a stage
where those scientists who had a special talent
for speaking simply and explicitly
also had a great duty laid on them to do so.
And I am as proud of colleagues of mine
who did that and have died - JD Bernal,
the great JBS Haldane -
as I am of anything that I have done.
- Mm. - I would have done...
..no doubt, more academic scientific work if I had given more time to it
and less time to gossiping with you.
but whether I would have done anything
half as important in the...
..spread of a...
..liberal attitude towards the scientists,
towards the sciences
and, above all, towards intellectual ideas,
no, I don't think I would have done.
I don't think I could have done better with my talents
than what I have done.
Sorry, go on.
I was going to ask you that, on that programme particularly,
you became known as the man who had an answer for absolutely everything -
an instant sort of fact, or not necessarily a fact -
an idea about something. Were you ever floored?
Was there anything that defeated you on that programme?
Well, there were some questions asked on the programme on which,
fortunately, I was not present, to which I didn't know the answer.
I mean, there's a classical question
about how a fly lands upside-down on a ceiling,
to which I didn't know the answer then,
and, thank God, I don't know it now...
..because I do not think that you need to
have your mind stuffed with a lot of irrelevant facts.
But on the programme, I don't think that I was ever asked anything
to which I didn't know, in a rough way,
why it went that particular way, why, you know...
How nature does that particular trick.
Cos, you know, I mean,
the only pleasure of being a scientist
is that nature produces all these wonderful complications
from such marvellous, simple devices
about which the most marvellous thing is
that the human brain is actually capable of understanding.
Can I go back now a little bit in your life
to the point where you were in England and...to the point,
in fact, where you went to America, actually?
It's not going back, is it? What reasons, in fact,
made you go to the States in the first place?
I suddenly discovered... that I was...55.
You know, you sort of wake up to that one fine day
because, until then, you feel youthful and splendid
and life seems to be going on for ever
and you put things off.
Er, I had been working at what I regarded as
a very important project for the Coal Board, which, er,
was now at a stage where engineers should take it over.
And I realised that I probably had ten good active years left,
during which I would be able to think,
not as fast as I used to think, but still with sufficient attention,
because what goes as you grow older is simply your attention span.
How long can you keep at it?
So I just made up my mind
that as soon as somebody made me a decent offer, I would accept it.
By decent offer, I meant that I didn't want to lecture,
I wanted to be away from anybody who asked me
to go on television shows...
LAUGHTER I didn't...
I just wanted to do the research that I was now devoted to.
And since that had to do with what makes human beings special,
it was a subject which I knew was going to be important in the future
and that I could do something to found because, you know,
I am in process of helping to found what is really
a new academic discipline.
Yes. How readily did America take to you?
How did it initially react to you?
Well, of course, they asked me because I had a...
..a good reputation in America because I had written a book
called Science And Human Values, which...
..students were made to read in their first year at college,
ever since it was published in 1953 -
that was 20 years ago, it's just the 20th anniversary in...
And that book had made a great impression
on the American public, much more so than here.
It was given as a set of invited lectures
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
And in it, I had simply said, for the first time,
that you can't be a scientist without also a deep sense
of not only the accuracy of what you do,
but the honesty, the values, the human involvement.
And that's why it was called Science And Human Values.
I invented the phrase "human values"
for that, er, programme... for that, er...
series of lectures and I've often regretted it since then
because one ought to invent phrases that people will identify with you,
not phrases that they'll just steal! LAUGHTER
What are the essential differences
that you've observed, Dr Bronowski, between Britons and Americans?
Are they that very much different, do you think?
There are many differences.
Er, one of them is that America is not homogeneous.
Britain is a country with
well-accepted traditions of behaviour.
When a foreigner like me comes to this country,
he is encouraged to speak the language like a native
at the earliest possible moment.
He is even encouraged to change his name
as soon as possible, which I didn't do,
because, like musicians, scientists on the whole
do better if they have outlandish names.
Er... Well, now, in America, none of this is true.
I mean, as you will know from the example of Dr Kissinger,
it's a positive advantage to speak English
with a foreign accent in America, and I don't mean an American accent.
Um...it's always astonishing to me.
The first time I went to
a very secret American atomic energy establishment,
I heard so many Russian accents
that I said to the head of the establishment at the end,
"Do you know, I wonder, if I go to Omsk,
"if everybody will speak Russian with an American accent!"
The other great difference that strikes you...
..really stems from that.
I say "stems from that" because what I've just said is that
America is not very homogeneous,
therefore everybody brings their own traditions to it.
They behave like the Quaker stuff
from which they came, or, most of my colleagues,
like the Polish stuff from which they came.
You know, people stop me in the street in America
who actually know me, they speak to me in Polish -
a language which I don't speak any more.
..and that makes all questions of moral values
and so on very difficult in America,
because people don't share common tradition.
Now, that leads to the second point, which is,
it's a tremendously do-it-yourself society.
I'll tell you a little story.
I arrived in America in 1953 to give the very lectures
to which I referred,
called Science And Human Values at MIT.
And it was a very difficult time -
the McCarthy Committee was just sitting,
the McCarran Act had just been passed,
er...it was very difficult to get a visa.
..I, as a university teacher...
..had to go to the American Embassy,
and take a test to show that I was free from venereal disease!
My wife, as the wife of a university teacher,
did not have to take such a test.
I always thought that that said something
very remarkable about the Americans,
but I've been thinking for 20 years what it said, and I still don't know!
I arrived on a very cold morning
at about five in the morning, on the quayside in New York
on a French boat called the Liberte.
And my luggage was unloaded
and I had brought with me copies of my book on Blake,
which had newly been published.
And a very small man... you know, great coat
and a cap and covered with badges and so on,
began to go through my luggage, and held in his hand
the piece of paper on which I'd declared what was in there.
Well, I come from that sort of simple,
honest European stock where I'd actually written down what I had
and it said, "12 copies of book on William Blake".
He said to me, "You know, by rights, bud,
"I ought to read every one of those!"
I said, "Be my guest"...
..and sat down on one of my suitcases.
And he blanched at this.
And he opened one and he looked here and there.
There's a bit towards the end about Karl Marx,
which I suddenly remembered and I thought to myself,
"God, I shouldn't have asked him that!"
But there it was, it was too late.
Then he looked at it, he looked at me, and he said,
"You write this, bud?"
So I said, rather proudly, "Yes."
He said, "This ain't never going to be no bestseller!"
That's just true, and I bet you that man thought
he said the most natural thing in the world.
I mean, literary criticism is obviously a natural gift
of customs officials.
Well, that tells you all!
I mean, sometimes girls say it in funnier ways,
sometimes men say it in funnier ways.
But by and large, there is this curious feeling
that everybody is the judge of everything.
That makes life very different from this country.
Can we now talk about the extraordinary documentary series
that you did on the BBC called The Ascent Of Man.
Anybody, of course, who...
You filmed over a heck of a long period
and anybody who's ever been filming knows
there are moments both tragic and humorous
when you're making a documentary.
What, in fact, was the funniest moment you had, do you think,
over all the time that you were filming?
I suppose the funniest moment, from the producer's point of view,
was the night he locked me in my bedroom on Easter Island
and I, who had drunk far too much, I couldn't get out!
But I will pass over the disasters...
The moment that always stuck in my mind...
I'll ask you about that later.
The moment that has most stuck in my mind
is a moment when I arrived in Jerusalem.
Now, I had been to the Middle East before,
but at that time, Jerusalem was a divided city.
And we were going to do some filming in Jerusalem,
and I went up to a taxi driver on a very rainy afternoon
and I said, "Will you drive me to Calvary?"
And he said, "I can't take you all the way.
"Calvary is a one-way street."
"You have to walk part of the way."
And in retrospect, that seemed to me so exotic.
I mean, he didn't think he was funny any more than the customs man.
But it seemed to me just to summarise
what happens to you all the time on the series,
that your mind is bound up with what you're doing,
you're about to walk the road of Christ.
Er, we were about to do a sequence which you will have seen in number 13
of Christ coming down the Mount of Olives
and looking over before they enter into Jerusalem.
And I wanted to see it all on the spot, but to him,
Calvary was a one-way street.
Yes. That's progress, is it, I suppose? Invented a one-way street.
What about... One assumes, actually, looking at the series
and reading your book as well,
that one of the most horrific moments for you, personally, must have been
going back to Auschwitz.
Did you have to steel yourself before you did that?
Well, I wasn't very keen to go.
I wasn't very keen to go because...
many of my relatives from Poland had died in Auschwitz.
the point of the series was that it wasn't an entertainment,
it was about life the way it... It is, the way it has been.
And we just made up our minds to make it
as true as, er...as we try to do everything in the series.
I said, "I'll go for one day,
"and during the morning we'll walk round,
"and in the afternoon we'll do the one piece
"by the pond that we know we want to do."
I had never seen Auschwitz.
You know, I had practically seen none of those places
for reasons that I'll be happy to tell you about afterwards.
But Auschwitz I hadn't been to at all.
And we arrived at this station
which had been...looked over by the producer in advance,
so he knew what we should see.
I went through these terrible wooden and iron gates
that say "Arbeit macht frei" at the top, "work makes free".
So these unhappy people who went there
to their deaths, to the gas ovens...
I was particularly keen
to see bunker 12 and 11, where people were, er...
..beaten and shot for breach of regulations,
because I sort of felt that you must see it all.
But it turned out that the things that were far more moving
were ones that I couldn't have imagined at all.
The Germans are terribly methodical.
So there would be whole areas which contained
nothing but old spectacles that had all been very carefully collected.
They weren't the slightest use,
but the Germans weren't going to throw them away.
There were areas which were entirely full of human hair.
There was a terrible area
which was entirely full of wooden legs
and crutches and artificial limbs.
And the most pathetic area of all,
an area which was just full of little tin chamber pots
that children who had come to the camp had brought with them
and that the Germans had collected.
Well, by this time I was in a pretty low frame of mind...
..and the most awful thing was that there were...
pictures in the corridors of prisoners...
..which were just the ordinary picture, you know, front face,
number on the bottom.
But many of them were pictures of quite young people, children.
And to see these pictures of people taken as if they were criminals,
with the tears streaming down their face, was just unbearable.
Well, then we drove over to the pond,
and we had arranged that we were...
I was just going to say a piece to close that programme at the pond,
which would arise out of what I'd seen in the morning.
So I sort of walked up and down for five minutes,
making up my mind what I was going to say,
and then...we did it.
One take and we go home.
We had made up our minds that it was a piece
which you couldn't possibly do twice. You just had to say
- what came into your mind. - Yes.
And the thing that came into my mind,
absolutely out of the blue, was the phrase
from Oliver Cromwell that I quote,
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ,
"think it possible you may be mistaken."
Do you find that, personally, more harrowing
than your visit...and more moving on you as a scientist and a human being,
than visiting, as you did, Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Yes. You see, of course...
..Nagasaki, in which I arrived late one night...
we all knew we could do something about that.
I mean, there were...
Every one of us was going to follow his conscience
in doing something to try and prevent a repetition of Nagasaki.
My friend William Penney chose his way,
I chose my way, but each of us was clear
that there was something human beings could do
to prevent that kind of war, that kind of use of weapons.
Our responsibility was brought home to us,
and as a matter of fact, my responsibility was largely exercised
in giving the lectures on Science And Human Values
and having people read them,
and in fact thereby approaching
the whole problem of scientific responsibility.
But Auschwitz was...
It was just hopeless.
You know, if a civilised country...
..could allow that sort of bestiality to become part of its...
..relation to other human beings, I just felt that...
..I just felt that the future had fallen in.
How were you ever going to make people understand that, er...
..human beings are individual?
You have to touch them,
you have to know that every one of those children,
every one of those chaps with the wooden leg and so on
were people, and however much they might be, er, your enemies...
..you couldn't take on yourself that responsibility.
I find it difficult to find the right words...for that.
You must see programme 11 and see them, but...
I want to explain one thing to you.
See, the most awful thing about Auschwitz was
that you realised that the people who had been killed in the gas ovens,
they were just dead. They were the fortunate ones.
But the people who shoved another lot of people into the gas oven next day,
they were like characters out of Dante's Inferno,
living an endless hell,
because they had lost all sense of human feeling
and were going to repeat tomorrow the unutterable bestiality
- that they had practised today. - Yes.
I... Yes, I see the horror
and obviously the effect it had on you.
I can't see myself that it's any more horrible than the man
who allows the A-bomb to be dropped
on a defenceless civilian population and kill 60,000 people.
I mean, I think that, er... one is as great a crime as another,
and it leads me on to this thing, too,
about therefore the responsibility of the scientist.
What happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki
was the work of men like yourself.
And it comes into this area, doesn't it, of moral responsibility?
Are scientists really interested in human beings,
or is it just ideas that they're bothered about?
Er... Do you mind if I take that in two parts?
You said something at the outset
which I think is very wise and very true,
and one should just know.
I know that it's more sensational in a newspaper
to say that so-and-so has committed a mass murder,
slit the throats of ten people, four of them children,
rather than just say slit the throat of one person.
But in fact, in my opinion,
there is no difference between unutterable crimes.
And the man who killed a single child in Auschwitz
and the man who killed 80,000 people at Hiroshima...
..I think those crimes are absolutely on a par.
We must learn that crime is something to do with
your relation with a human being.
When you sit and press that button,
there should be a person at the end of it,
and the person should look like your sweetheart.
And you should say to yourself, "It's her.
"It's somebody for whom I have all those feelings."
So I make no distinction between the gravity
of these crimes. They're enormous.
Now you ask the question, what about the scientists?
After all, what about the chaps who actually invented the gas
that they were using at Auschwitz and so on?
One is faced at many moments in one's life
between loyalties which are not compatible.
One is faced with the question of loyalty
to one's country as against loyalty to one's religion.
Think of all the Roman Catholics who were tortured to death
in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I,
who were constantly faced by that.
Spies are faced by questions of loyalty to some faith or the like.
And during the war, many scientists were faced
with a very simple and brutal question, which is,
"Do I feel about the civilisation in which I work
"strongly enough to do anything to resist the Nazi threat
"to make a bomb first?"
And we all felt "yes" about that,
all of us, and I have no doubt that all of us would do that again.
We felt quite certain that to allow
what was then going on in Central Europe...
..what we had seen films of in Poland and Russia...
to become normal over the world
was something which we must resist
by all the technical means which we possessed,
that we would be traitors to the intelligence we had been provided for
to turn round and say to Mr Winston Churchill,
"I know you want the bomb, but you're a warmonger.
"I am a peaceful man, I would rather go to jail."
I think an individual can say that, but I don't think
that you can blame an individual who says, "No, I can't say that".
The questions arise about what happens
at the moment when other people make up their minds to drop the bomb,
because I don't have to tell you that no scientist was asked
about dropping the bomb, and those who knew
it was going to be dropped - Szilard, Wigner,
the people who signed the Wigner Memorandum -
they were very much against it.
They said that dropping the bomb at that stage in the war was a mistake.
But, you see, they wouldn't have felt that
if it had been a crucial question
about dropping it on Berlin at an earlier stage in the war
if we had been threatened by it. They're terrible dilemmas.
I mean, that's what morality's about.
That's what being a human being's about.
You are faced with questions of value
to which there are no numerical answers.
Never think that you can write down an equation
at the end of which you say in a satisfactory tone of voice,
"That's fine, I have now proved loyalty to my country is
"more important than loyalty to the scientific tradition".
No, no, that's always got to be a personal choice.
Well, let me put something else to you, then, that's on the same theme,
which is a quote from the French Nobel Prize winner,
Professor Jacques Monod.
And he said, "Supposing someone discovered
"a foolproof method of finding out whether
"different races had genetic differences in intelligence.
"Now, if it was applied and the differences were found,"
he said, "the results would inevitably be grossly misused."
Then he asked the question,
"Should the scientist bury his secret or publish in an obscure journal,
"hoping that this would delay the news leaking out?"
Now that's a dilemma, isn't it, in a situation?
I mean, what would you do in a situation like that?
It's a very good question. Er...
Jacques Monod is a colleague of mine
at the Salk Institute, I should explain to you.
So I'm not saying, no, it's a good question because,
er...we spend time together.
It IS a good question.
I know what I would do.
I would publish.
And I must now explain to you why I think this.
You see, I think we've all got to understand
that all this talk about
"black people have a lower IQ than white people"
or "Jews have a higher IQ than non-Jews..."
..is all a load of rubbish...
..because the average IQ of a sample of the population
is absolutely of no interest.
In your work, in my work, in everybody's work
who is listening to us at this moment, they never deal with...
the average IQ of a million people. They deal with persons.
Now, think of my picture of the tall European men
and the little Japanese men.
Nobody argues about the fact
that the Japanese are genetically smaller than the whites,
because fortunately, it's there, it's fixed,
and nobody thinks that it's terribly important.
And we must understand the same about the IQ.
There are these two... mountains of IQ,
say the blacks here and the whites there.
We don't know how far apart the means are,
but they probably are some distance apart.
After all, there's not the slightest doubt
that black people have other physical advantages over white people,
of which they ought, equally, to be proud.
But the point is that there are millions of black people
who are cleverer than other millions of white people.
These mountains that I am picturing,
that contain one population and another,
may have their peaks in slightly different places,
but they overlap in the main,
so that the world is just as full
of clever black people and clever yellow people
and clever red people as it is of clever white people.
And when Mr Jensen, in his academic way,
or Mr Shockley in his more downright way,
says, "We ought to educate them differently,"
or we ought to do this, that and the other, I think that's just wrong.
I think we ought to recognise that everybody has a different gift.
You asked me a very nice question at the beginning -
when was I aware of my mental gifts?
I didn't think they were anything special,
because, I mean, you know, when I was a boy at school,
I wanted to run the mile in four and a half minutes.
Well, you know, I stood no more chance
of running the mile in four and a half minutes
than in running it in three and a half minutes.
I wasn't built that way. But I didn't go around saying,
"You mustn't publish this result - everybody will think I'm a poor chap,
"I can't run the mile in four and a half minutes."
And I haven't gone round saying that everybody
who runs the mile in less than four minutes now
ought to be put up against a wall and shot.
People are different, and thank God they are!
What has made the human race the wonderful thing it is?
The fact that variety is its spice, its being.
We are more varied in our accomplishments,
we are more able to distribute tasks between us
because you can do one thing better than I,
and I can do another thing.
And instead of our cutting our heads open
with battle-axes in order to demonstrate this -
a contest which I should inevitably lose - I'm most anxious
to say to you in a peaceful way,
like I would be anxious to say to President Sadat,
"Look, chum, let's just get on with the business of living
"and contributing our different gifts".
And IQ is just like any other,
like musical ability or chess or any other.
Mm. What is the main problem, Doctor,
as you look then, today, look around you?
What's the main problem in the world, facing the world, today?
I think that the main problem is of our making.
..50-odd years since I came to this country...
..we have widened the intellectual interests and aspirations of people,
oh, a thousandfold.
We have invented...
..television programmes like this. We have invented the paperback.
MICHAEL LAUGHS Well?
I know that some of the pictures, obviously,
are not very revealing about the content.
But, you know, if you can't sell Plato
without a naked girl on the cover,
good luck, so far as I'm concerned.
Plato and I would be of one mind.
My only objection is that I shall have to be dead a long time
before I rival Plato,
because I'm still in copyright and he's out of copyright.
We have invented an ability...
for people in all countries, but in Western countries in particular...
..to share not just wealth
but the intellectual wealth.
You know, 50 years ago, what organisation in the world
would have put up that money
to put out my programmes on The Ascent Of Man?
What organisation would have put all that money
into printing that beautiful book?
And I would never have spent my time breaking my heart
to make sure the book was, you know, as gorgeous as it could be,
because I'm as anxious to get these things into people's hands
as they are to have them.
Well, that's gone very fast in the last 50 years,
and we haven't nearly caught up with it.
Er, we still have far too few people
to bring these gifts to others.
We still don't know how to satisfy
the leisure aspirations of most people.
Above all, we don't know how to provide enough jobs
which are fundamentally interesting in themselves.
Mm. And are there too many of us, as well, would you say?
Is that another problem?
You see, I don't believe in problems
which are always other people's problems.
I have four children. They are all daughters,
so they add to the natural reproduction rate rather a lot.
And I just would think it impertinent to say to any person in the world,
black, white, yellow...
.."It's OK for me to have four kids, but you mustn't."
So I don't think there are too many of us.
I think that these things have to adjust themselves,
as people find what they prefer to children, and it is doing so.
So I don't think there are too many of us.
No, I think that what we haven't solved is
the problem to which I come back,
of giving people very satisfying jobs...
..the things that the hippies tried to do but failed
and the things at which, you know,
the few privileged of us, like you and me, are so good.
I just think that I've had the most wonderful life in the world,
because, like every scientist,
I share with prostitutes the only really satisfying job.
I'm actually paid to do what I like doing.
I doubt if many prostitutes would agree with that! I mean...
There are some subjects on which I cede specialisation to you, I admit.
- Get out of that, as they say. - I'm sorry,
- that was... - No, no, no.
I like a bit of knock-about now and again.
Can we, finally, for the last few minutes we've got,
just look towards the world of the future?
Because in reading through all about you,
you've speculated very interestingly in certain areas.
For instance, you...
And I'd like to sort of explain how this would happen.
There was one article I read by you where you said it's conceivable
that in the future we will be able to select the sex of a child.
A couple will be able to select...
How exactly would that happen, Doctor?
Well, it's clear that the sex...
of a fertilised ovum...
is determined very early,
because the sperm that has entered the ovum
carries either a Y chromosome
or an X chromosome
to couple with the X chromosome in the egg.
And if it carries a Y chromosome,
then the fertilised egg will make a male.
Now, two things may be possible.
It may be possible to determine which it is quite early,
by chemical or other tests.
And then, if you wish to abort quite early on,
probably within the second month,
a child of the wrong sex...
You can see the moral problem,
that, if I were to be presented with a prophecy that my fifth baby
was to be a daughter, what would I do?
But it may also be possible to do something quite different.
It may be possible to take sperm...
..and to sort it in such a way that,
although you can't be certain
that you've now got one bag carrying X chromosomes
and one bag carrying Y chromosomes,
that the percentage of Xs is much higher in one
and the percentage of Ys is much higher in the other,
so that if you used that for artificial insemination,
then you would get a much higher chance of one or the other sex.
Now, this, of course, is into the future,
and of course it begs the final question to you, really,
about, what is your idea of Utopia?
You look ahead, what's the ideal for you?
I have no idea that is different
from the one that I put forward before,
when I made that joke about...
those of us who did jobs that we liked.
Er...I am convinced that human beings
take pleasure in work, not in idleness.
I am convinced that when people are accused of idleness,
it just means that they are being accused
of hating the humdrum job that doesn't tax them
that they've been put into.
So I am convinced that the ideal world for every human being
is one in which he or she does a job that they...
..are good at, like doing, that gives them satisfaction.
- That's my Utopia. - Mm. I started...
I started off, actually, by asking the question,
are people frightened of talking to you?
Could I be cheeky and ask you a question now?
Should we take notice of anything that you say?
Do you see what I mean? This sort of thing that people think...
It's true, there you are, the man with an opinion on everything,
a sort of oracle. How...
It's a difficult question, I know, but how accurate...
In fact, what's your function as that kind of person, as the oracle?
Should we really believe you,
or should we just sort of be sceptical or...
should we just think about what you've said?
That's a very good question.
That's the second one I've asked in an hour.
DR BRONOWSKI LAUGHS
No, it's a particularly good question
because it pays me out for that nasty remark I made.
But it's really a question I'm happy to have,
and it's for this reason.
You see, I'm not an oracle,
and although people liked me on The Brains Trust,
I often ask myself why.
And I'm naturally impressed at the attention
with which people have listened to me today.
I'm terribly impressed with the attention with which
you have listened to me.
You're not losing your place among the questions now and again,
which, you know, is a great piece of homage to me.
It's because I have been fortunate enough, by birth and education,
and particularly by being thrust into many strange environments,
to have had to shape a view of life
which is very tightly knit.
If you ask me a question about birth control
or a question about intelligence of black people,
or a question about...
..there are not three clever men answering.
There is one man who is speaking from
a deep sense of inner conviction of what life is about.
That's what I think life is about.
My life has been happy...
..because, although I have suffered many conflicts of loyalty,
of which I spoke to you earlier,
I've never had any uncertainty about...
..the meaning of the word "good",
the meaning of the word "true",
the meaning of the word "beautiful"
and the meaning of the words like "original", "new",
what ought we to be doing.
I've always had a tremendous pride in being a human being
and being born into the 20th century.
I'm terribly sad that, you know,
30 years from now I shall be dead, because...
..not because anybody will miss me, but because I will miss them...
..because so many more marvellous things will be known.
Now, should you listen to me?
Yes, you should.
Not because you have to believe any single thing that I say,
but because you have to...
..be pleased that there are people who have led
happy and complete lives, who feel that they can speak
out of a full heart and a full mind all in the same breath.
I take it as a privilege rather than a pleasure, Dr Bronowski.
Thank you very much indeed.
First transmitted in 1974, Michael Parkinson's guest is Dr Jacob Bronowski, the presenter and writer of the 1973 documentary series, The Ascent of Man. Dr Bronowski shares his first impressions on arriving in England in the 1920s, his memories of filming at Auschwitz, his thoughts on science and his broader philosophy of life, in a truly compelling interview.