The secret of the Ascent of Man

Ayd Instone Creativity speaker

We take it for granted that our creativity, as a species, is a permanent feature.

What if it is not?

What if, as a people we stop asking questions and punish those who question?

What if we stop teaching our children to learn and start programming them to regurgitate results we want to see?

What if we silence mavericks, deny prophets and ignore visionaries?

What if we stop looking up at the stars in the night sky and wonder?

What if we tear down the old gods and set up dangerous controlling aspects of ourselves in their stead?

What if we set our sights on comfort today without thought for our children’s children tomorrow?

What if we lose the compulsion for adventure, exploration and risk taking?

What if we begin thinking about what we can get for ourselves as greedy individuals and not what we can give to help our community?

If we do these things, we will still survive as a species. But the creatures that will remain will not be one our ancestors from the past million years will recognise as human. It will not be one that would deserve to be part of the extraordinary story of Homo Sapiens.

All that would be left would be an animal. An animal that may well survive in clement weather until crisis of resources or environment will sweep it into the fossil record for some far-flung future Sapiens to discover.

I’ve been watching the acclaimed BBC documentary, J. Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. The accolade of it being ‘the greatest documentary ever made’ is well placed. After just the first two minutes, Bronowski’s passion, energy, vocabulary and burning intelligence comes across as magnetic. Add in the fantastic photography from all over the world and get PInk Floyd to provide the soundtrack. It’s the definition of success.

Every ‘knowledge expert’ today should look to Bronowski for inspiration on how to do it.

This is how described the concept of the series:

“Man’s imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it. And that by a 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 this brilliant series of cultural peaks the Ascent of man”

Evolution shapes animals to their environment. Mankind’s evolution stopped and instead we shaped the environment to suit us.

A person today is physically exactly the same now as the people living over a million years ago. And yet evolution (and often science in general) is so misunderstood that I’ve heard people believe that ‘we have evolved a lot since the Romans’. I met an anthropology student who actually believed that black people have black bones. Many things improve and grow with time and so too does ignorance it seems.

The first programme dealt with a great question: What separates us from the other animals? The answer is the depth of our imagination, to be able to mentally simulate future and past events and the application of our creativity.

It’s our creativity that enabled us to leave the Savannah of East Africa and to migrate north and east into Europe and China and then beyond. It was our creativity that allowed us to co-operate to build a community to hunt animals that were faster than us. It was our creativity that allowed us to adapt to the cold of the ice ages, to invent fire, clothes and tools. It was our creativity that allowed us to predict animal migration and then domesticate and farm them and cultivate plants. It’s our creativity that enabled cities and civilisations to be built that passed on our discoveries to the next generation and the next down through the millennia. It’s our creativity that creates communities and the concept of love and care.

We can’t rest on our laurels, on the glories of our ancestors. We have to make sure our species still thinks with an open mind and strives for innovation at every turn.

It’s no good having an opposable thumb if you can’t think of anything to do with it.

J. Bronowski sadly died just over a year after the documentary was broadcast, in 1974, after a life of exploration of art and science (which he considered as aspects of the same thing). He published literature, made discoveries in mathematics and archeology, he invented a type of smokeless fuel for the National Coal Board and of course his documentaries which are effectively an autobiography of humanity.

His contribution to the continuing Ascent of Man is secure. What about ours?

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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4 comments on “The secret of the Ascent of Man

  1. Wonderful and timely piece, thank you Ayd!
    This is the theme we are covering at next months #binspired networking event with Ann Hawkins (Cambridge). You continue to inspiringly provide this throughout the year!


    • Good stuff. The book is an almost exact transcript of the documentary. The guy was a superb speaker. You get the feeling he hadn’t scripted a thing. He just flew to the location, got excited and spoke from the heart. That’s what comes across.


  2. Thanks for this. I have the book and still cherish it. I knew the Ascent of Man was something special, I was 13-14 when it was first broadcast. At the time my uncle Doug tried to teach me maths (I’m still a dullard there) and I often put the two together my uncle also being enthused by the series. Despite my math illiteracy maths still fascinates me, like many other things…


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