December 16th, 2018

Bronowski: "Civilisation can never grow up on the move."

"It is not possible in the nomad life to make things that will not be needed for several weeks. They could not be carried. And in fact the Bakhtiari to not know how to make them. ... The Bakhtiari life is too narrow to have time or skill for specialisation. There is no room for innovation, because there is not time, on the move, between evening and morning, coming and going all their lives, to develop a new device or a new thought - not even a new tune. The only habits that survive are the old habits."
J. Bronowski - 'The Ascent of Man', Chapter 2

This is from Jacob Bronowski's famous work on the history of science and civilization. I was re-reading this chapter, and re-watching the corresponding episode on YouTube, this morning. (The series was produced in the early 1970s and I remember watching it as a kid - I must have been about 9 or 10 - when it originally aired on PBS. I still own the old copy of the hardback edition that I inherited from my parents.)

Bronowski's theme here is that the development of agriculture (which came about after the last ice age, with the emergence of certain mutations in wild wheat, accompanied by technological innovations by man) broke the cycle of nomadic life and allowed man to settle in villages, build a surplus of food and other resources, and develop civilization. The domestication of draught animals - the ox and the ass - assisted the process; but the domestication of the horse proved a two-edged sword because it also brought the development of organized warfare. Mounted nomads had the ability to terrorize settled peoples and steal their wealth: "[Warfare] is a highly planned and co-operative form of theft."

The Afghans playing Buz Kashi (after 31:00 in the video) live a very different life from the horseless Bakhtiari (beginning at 4:20).

Bronowski - who was born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1908, and lived in England from 1920 on - also draws parallels throughout this chapter with the Hebrew Bible, noting that "We have an anthropological record of the struggle of conscience of a people who make this decision [to adopt the settled life]: the record is the Bible, the Old Testament. I believe that civilisation rests on that decision." He later concludes that

"The Bible is their story: the history of a people who had to stop being nomad and pastoral and had to become an agricultural tribe."

(I'm particularly interested in this angle because it relates to another book I'm currently reading.)

This is one of the books on my reading list, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly.