The river was wide and the men had trouble wrestling the young calves across the current. Then the camera swept back to the quiet bank where an old man sat alone with his dog.

He couldn't make the big river. He'd crossed it plenty of times in the past with his tribe as they swam it prodding their beasts, but this time he was left behind to die while the others thrashed ahead to their temporary Canaan.

A vet once told me it's not painful to starve and in these matters a vet has seen more than the average surgeon, so maybe it wasn't too bad for the old man and the dog.

Watching the show ("The Ascent of Man" on Channel 26), I wondered if the man would eat the dog when the chips were down, or the dog would eat the man, because it's supposed to be the bottom line that you do what you have to, man or mutt.

But I am about ready to guarantee the old codger never ate that dog--he was the kind that betrayed only within acceptable limits, if you ask me, and a dog, no matter what some people say, does not very often confuse an old friend with Purina Chow.

Once I had to scoop up an old hound that was hit by a car, and he should have bitten me since he was in pain. He nuzzled into my shirt and I was in no great shape as you can imagine, but it's only when the work is done and the dirt is finally tamped down neatly that you have a minute to think back--the day he took after the bumblebee and all that--that the gift of tears comes.

After which, as the Odyssey points out, you can eat a good supper and sleep like a log.

But I did disagree with Jacob Bronowski, who put together this beautiful series before he died (and how many American series in public broadcasting have been worth a fried damn?), in the implication of this section on the Bakhtiari nomads of Iran.

"They have no memory," he said, for they are occupied day after day following and leading their cattle to new grazing. They have no settled home. Sometimes they sleep only one night in rude improvised huts.

Anybody who ever knew Bronowski or ever followed his terse and loving commentary for these television shows has no doubt of his sympathy with the tribesmen, but the implication was wrong. You gathered the Bakhtiari were living at the lowest of levels, without a firm or deep culture and with nothing much going on in their brains so that at the last their lives were hardly worth living.

At the time I thought of our fathers who before they settled down to paint themselves blue with woad were roaming about in an Ice Age. Such is the force of pictures and button-down collars that the sojourners and nomads look more like animals than people, yet a minute's thought will assure anybody that is not so.

Before you think, you would reckon the Bakhtiari were interesting mainly as an example of what we once were before enlightenment descended on us, and it is a natural step (given the vainglorious brain) to complimenting ourselves that we have come a long way, baby.

There is an assumption that the brighter a person is and the more he knows and the wider his experience has been, the better the life. I have never been able to track down the origin of this odd notion.

Nobody argues that an Einstein is worth a dozen Kennedys merely because the intellectual and cultural level of his life was superior to the president's. All the same, there is a shapeless consensus among practical people that while there's something to be said for Kennedy or Eisenhower or Ford or other non-Einstein men, still there's not much to be said for nomads wandering around Persia with a bunch of cows.

We wind up, without ever arguing the point consciously, feeling sorry for people less bright than we are and sorry for people brighter than we are. They are handicapped by their over-refinement. We are really lucky to have hit it just right, not dumb and not paralyzed by excess brains.

You are almost certain to feel sorry for the Bakhtiari, who have none of our advantages, forgetting for the moment we don't feel sorry for Kennedy, who had none of Einstein's.

If the brains of cave men were as good as ours, then although they may not have had The Washington Post (which of course does make life worth living here), they must have been a lot more like us than we sometimes think.

I once went to a sensitivity training session to write an article about it and was surprised that the group gave me permission to do this. They were mainly klutzes, you understand. But once they got going I couldn't believe my ears. In daily life, the life you could observe them in outwardly, they pumped gas and went to cocktail parties and watched television and didn't read much and how the devil, I wondered, were they going to talk about themselves. What was there to talk about?

I found out. They had the most incredible stories. They spoke in the most powerful ways. They displayed such a sophistication, honesty and subtlety that I was bowled over. One woman had a broken leg as a little girl and was in bed when her grandfather (who from time to time raped her) came in and broke it again with a hoe handle. How this was going to go over with a dozen strangers I had no idea, but I found out. The capacity of plain Bakhtiari-type people to handle incredible facts and incredible emotions is much greater than I had guessed. I could handle it, of course, but to see that they could was a revelation, especially since I have a bad habit of seeing funny aspects in horror. Three or four of the group were far my superior in analyzing motives and in picking up subtleties.

At the last I was so shaken I never wrote a word.

Another thing occurred to me. When I was a young man I worked on a cotton farm for 40 cents an hour when it didn't rain. I didn't look all that good with sweat pouring off me and I neither knew nor cared much what the secretary of state was doing or who was in and who was out. The work is hard, in the fields before seven, and the rhythm of chopping cotton is first numbing then halfway ecstatic. I read no papers and few magazines and I had no stimulating conversations and you could have said life was not worth living then, when the big deal was to swim around in the warm lake at the end of the day, pulling the leeches off later, and heating up some vienna sausages and corn meal mush on a coal-oil burner and (best of all) flopping half dead on a lumpy cot to sleep.

But at the time I was more than just a little happy, and what I know that an outside observer wouldn't, was that my brain was as active, my distinctions as careful and my emotions as lively then as they ever were in my life. So that looking at me from the outside then, you would have had no idea how wonderful my life was.

The Bakhtiari do as interesting things as I ever did on that farm and I for one have no doubt their lives are as good as mine. How good a life is does not seem to have much to do with how much you know about Champollion or, for that matter, Rameses II or Claiborne Pell or any of those folk.

I very rarely meet anybody who is not complacent with the brains he has or hasn't, and this is good since it keeps life bearable. It's less good when the next step is taken: that the klutz or the nomad or the dandified fool is not quite as human as he might be and his life is probably pretty worthless when you get right down to it. He need not, therefore, be taken very seriously (the progression continues) nor treated with any special kid gloves.

Anybody's examination of his own experience shows one thing: We are more like the Bakhtiari, more like the leprous old crone who gossips too much, and more like the brilliant editors who make life down here such a delight, than we are like even our best-loved old hound. When you see what is possible between a dog and a human, it is hard to assent, intellectually, to any vast gulf between one human and another. Milton got it right--"me for him, life for life," because when the clearest part of the brain is working clearest the message is forever the same: if it's human in the first place, then it's one life. Inside. Which is where life is lived. graphics/illustration: I wondered if the man would eat the dog when the chips were down.