The Human Universe


I’ve recently had discussions of Brian Cox’s The Human Universe with various friends including Guy Saunders (  They influenced but are not responsible for the opinions expressed below! 

Brian Cox’s new science series on BBC 2, The Human Universe, focuses literally on the human brain. The first programme attempts to answer the question: who are we? As the camera closes on a model of the brain, Cox offers one possible answer: that we are “something that arises from electrical activity inside this impossibly complex blob of matter”.

The Human Universe, like Cox’s previous science programmes for television, induces the viewer to share the professor’s sense of wonder. In this case, we wonder at the capacity of the human brain, which, we are told, contains perhaps as many neurons as there are galaxies in the universe. 200,000 years ago the brain had reached much the size it is today, and a child transported from that early human world to be educated in school today would be able to learn alongside contemporary children.

Cox’s shorthand description of the ascent of man is “from ape-man to spaceman”, and he represents the triumph of human mental functioning by the return of three astronauts from the international space station to the Kazakhstan desert. Cox opines, with his attractive combination of knowledge and wonder: “In just 200,000 years, we humans have transformed ourselves beyond all recognition. We’ve built great civilisations … accumulated knowledge and technology … until finally ape-man became spaceman.”

Cox uses the ancient Jordanian city of Petra to illustrate an ill-defined moment in human evolution when man decided to build a civilisation. He emphasises the importance of language and writing for the transmission and storage of accumulated knowledge. But our first glimpse of the rock cut buildings of Petra highlights what is missing in this paean to neuroscience. We are looking at evidence of a culture. Super-capacious human brains working together produce a culture, but they are then produced by it. Without comment, Cox gives an account of the difference between the high road in Petra used by men of power and the hidden tracks used by common people. Looking in wonder at a skull that formerly contained 80 billion neurons tells us nothing of interest about the way in which civilisation has developed specific cultural forms. The development of culture is more than the accumulation of knowledge and technology.

The technological advances that have brought us from ape-man to spaceman have been produced not only by big brains but also by social and cultural life. Such life certainly develops as a result of communal brain activity, but its genesis and power cannot be explained by however many billion neurons. The human universe is the universe of culture.

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