Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Review: "The Phenomenon of Man" by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The Phenomenon of Man (1955)
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

320 pages

Orthogenesis: variation of organisms in successive generations that in some especially former evolutionary theories takes place in some predestined direction resulting in progressive evolutionary trends independent of external factors.
                                                                                             Merriam-Webster Dictionary
The concept of orthogenesis was apparently first defined by the zoologist Theodor Eimer in the late 1800's, as "the general law according to which evolutionary development takes place in a noticeable direction, above all in specialized groups."  Though largely discredited today as a hypothesis, it has historically found backing from scientists and philosophers with humanist or religious backgrounds, and thus has not been tied necessarily to a spiritual force.

A particular version of the orthogenetic hypothesis is the idea that evolution not only generates ever more advanced forms of life, but that it in fact moves toward a particular goal, a principle referred to as teleology.  Precisely this belief lies at the heart of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s treatise The Phenomenon of Man.

A Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist, Teilhard makes the case that the remarkable ability of human beings to reflect on our lives represents not a fortuitous outcome of random evolutionary processes, but rather an inevitable one. He goes on to argue that, at some future point, those same evolutionary processes must needs result in mankind achieving an ultimate stage of universal consciousness.

The Phenomenon of Man consists of four sections, referred to as books, contained in a single volume over which Teilhard builds his case. He opens in Book One: Before Life Came by laying out a systematic structure of the physical world, what he refers to as the stuff of the universe. (In the following, terms in italics indicate Teilhard’s terms and phrases, often specifically defined or invented by him.)

Taking an expansive view of the scope of evolution, Teilhard considers it to include even inorganic matter, and as having begun with the smallest, most elementary, physical particles of the early universe. In a theme that will appear throughout the book, he emphasizes the importance of viewing matter not in terms of its seemingly fixed appearance at any one moment in time, but rather as part of a comprehensive and dynamic system, with duration in terms of both space and time, a “perspective [in which] the world appears like a mass in process of transformation.” (47)

Teilhard argues that, under the slow but unrelenting forward pressure of orthogenesis these particles eventually formed larger bits of matter, which in turn continued to accumulate until, in our region of space, the Solar System formed, and with it Earth. On Earth, evolution gropingly , to use Teilhard's term — but always with a purpose — pursued different paths until, at some still mysterious moment, inorganic matter formed what would become the building blocks of life; thereafter followed the evolutionary process as it’s more commonly understood, culminating finally in mammals, and mankind.

Teilhard claims, however, that the long chain of changes in visible, physical attributes represent only a part of the story of evolution. In a dramatic parallel to physical evolution, he makes the case for the presence of a within of things — of consciousness in even inorganic matter. Arguing that “the apparent restriction of the phenomenon of consciousness to the higher forms of life has long served science as an excuse for eliminating it from its models of the universe,” (55) he notes that this view of consciousness suddenly appearing at some arbitrary point on the path from inorganic matter to higher life forms makes no sense. Instead, he makes the case that a kind of consciousness — rudimentary though it may be — exists for even the smallest bits of matter, and has served as the basis through which evolution worked to eventually provide mankind with the ability for thought and reflection.

He acknowledges that, just as science remains challenged to discern how the transition from inorganic matter to life occurred, it could be that it will be impossible to discover the ur-consciousness of physical matter. Nonetheless, the existence of this within of things, and Teilhard’s view that it has and will continue to develop through the processes of evolution, form a central part of his larger thesis. Throughout the book he draws on the existing scientific understanding of the evolution of physical characteristics to buttress his arguments for a similar evolutionary development of consciousness and thought.

In Book Two: Life, Teilhard describes the advent and expansion of life on Earth, addressing both the cryptic moment of transformation from inorganic to organic matter, as well as the process evolution took in spreading life across the Earth, and so building up the biosphere. He provides his view of the The Tree of Life, tracing the development over hundreds of millions of years of what he refers to as layers of evolution, broad stages of development out of each of which came one branch that represented a step closer to mammals and ultimately mankind. He uses this structure to reinforce the importance of the long duration of evolution, and to note the many branches that have represented dead ends, failures in evolution’s groping to achieve what he considers its pre-destined path: mankind.
Teilhard elaborates on his orthogenetic view in this second book, declaring
Science in its development — and even, as I shall show, mankind in its march — is marking time at this moment, because men’s minds are reluctant to recognize that evolution has a precise orientation and privileged axis. … I believe I can see a direction and a line of progress for life, a line and a direction which are in fact so well marked that I am convinced their reality will be universally admitted by the science of tomorrow. (142) 
He argues that biologists have been mistaken to focus on differentiating and categorizing life based simply on physical appearance, particularly in relation to mankind. For him, the key differentiator on the path leading to man — and so the principal destiny of evolution — has been the development of consciousness, and eventually thought.

He makes the case for how the evolutionary march towards thought occurred, arguing that as the physical attributes of animals have changed through evolution, these same changes have also impacted the development of their ability for thought. He uses primates as an example, arguing that — not being particularly specialized physically as say a lion is for hunting or an herbivore for avoiding predators — primates had to rely on their cognitive abilities. Through these processes, over millennia, evolution brought life ever closer to the brink of thought, the brain becoming the principle avenue for the evolutionary process to pursue its path forward.

Having described the appearance and spread of early life on Earth, Teilhard focuses in book three more specifically on the development of thought, and what he considers mankind’s “central phenomenon, reflection." (165)

He argues that in focusing on mankind’s anatomical similarity to primates, scientists can easily lose sight of the leap forward mankind took in gaining the ability to reflect: “no longer merely to know, but to know oneself; no longer merely to know, but to know that one knows.” (165) He describes this transformation as having represented a change of state, noting that there would have been no half-way point: one individual gained this ability to reflect where its forefathers could not, even if that initial, primitive ability was “little visible externally at its … origin.” (171) For Teilhard this event, this change of state, made mankind superior over the many animals and organisms that came before it on the tree of life, and represented an ability that arose out of the inherent direction or axis of evolution toward ever more superior states of being.

Having acknowledged that one must accept the transition to thought — to reflection — as lying shrouded in the ancient origins of mankind, Teilhard notes that the natural advantage this ability provided enabled it to spread throughout the world, creating what he refers to as the nooshpere, a “thinking layer” which spanned the earth. He creates this term as a compliment to the existing set of -spheres in the scientific lexicon:
[the] barysphere, central and metallic, surrounded by the rocky lithosphere that in turn is surrounded by the fluid layers of the hydrosphere and the atmosphere … [and] the living membrane composed of the fauna and flora of the globe, the biosphere. (182)

He sketches an outline of the branches of pre-hominids involved in the creation of the nooshpere. While most of these became dead ends on the orthogenetic pursuit of progressively more advanced life forms, one led eventually to Homo Sapiens, which itself branched out into a variety of groups worldwide. These initially independent groups of Homo Sapiens took the next step in the evolution of the nooshpere according to Teilhard, that of organizing into increasingly complex social groups, and eventually political and cultural societies. He conceives this development as having been as much driven by evolutionary processes as physical changes that occur — another step forward in the biological advancement of mankind. Foreordained by orthogenesis, it in fact became the next natural step in mankind’s upward development toward a higher level of consciousness.

Teilhard points out five particular “foci of [social] attraction and organization, [that served as the] prelude and presage of some new and superior state for the noosphere”: the Mayan, Polynesian, Chinese, Indian and Egyptian-Sumerian civilizations. (209) Of these, he argues, it was the Egyptian and Sumerian that eventually coalesced into Western Civilization, “to produce that happy blend, thanks to which reason could be harnessed to facts and religion to action … [with] the mysterious Judaeo-Christian ferment which gave Europe its spiritual form.” (211) For Teilhard, social societies were the next stage in mankind’s biological progress up the Tree of Life, and Western civilization has represented the flowering of that socialization:
The proof of this lies in the fact that from one end of the world to the other, all the peoples, to remain human or to become more so, are inexorably led to formulate the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very same terms in which the West has formulated them. (212)
One can wonder if eastern cultures would accept uncritically such a definitive statement.

Teilhard concludes the section on the birth and spread of thought — that is, the creation of the noosphere — by describing a key transformation in that development, which began just two or three centuries ago: mankind’s comprehension of the depths of time out of which we have developed, as well as of the dynamic nature of the physical world. Building on his arguments in the earlier chapters of the book, he defines evolution as comprising not just the physical evolution of organic beings, but also the complete physical evolution of the universe, as well as the mental evolution of man, exemplified most recently, in a historic sense, by the development of societies.
What makes and classifies a ‘modern’ man (and a whole host of our contemporaries is not yet ‘modern’ in this sense) is having become capable of seeing in terms not of space and time alone, but also of duration, or — it comes to the same thing — of biological space-time; and above all having become incapable of seeing anything otherwise — anything — not even himself. (219) 
Several pages later he notes that: “Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself, to borrow Julian Huxley’s striking expression." (221)

Teilhard argues that mankind’s comprehension of evolution has led to a “modern disquiet,” a potentially debilitating mental paralysis brought on by the realization of the immense magnitude of space-time, in terms of both the past, as well as the weight of how we pursue a coherent future world. Teilhard, for his part, does not succumb to this disquiet, instead seeing the current moment as simply an intermediate point on the path to mankind reaching a pre-destined, ultimate stage of evolution, what he refers to as the Omega point. Building off the carefully constructed arguments developed over the first three books of his work, he describes his vision of this future in Book Four: Survival.

Teilhard notes that, even as humans have spread out over the earth to form the noosphere, the inherent constraint of living on a sphere has forced ever closer contact between branches of humanity that had initially existed separately. Thus, after having early on developed largely in isolation, the societies formed by these various branches inevitably came into contact and intermingled as they grew in size. In his view, these interactions will — must — eventually lead to mankind achieving a further step in evolution, with an ultimate consequence of arriving at an end point at which all consciousness converges into a point of <i>hyper-personalization</i>, with “each particular consciousness remaining conscious of itself [while] becoming still more itself and thus more clearly distinct from the others the closer it gets to them in Omega.” (262)

Teilhard goes on to outline his view of the attributes of this pinnacle of evolution. In particular, he describes it as a point at which mankind “escapes from entropy,” since “if by its very nature [consciousness at the Omega Point] did not escape from the time and space which it gathers together, it would not be Omega.” (271)

As he focuses more specifically on this Omega point, the breadth and depth of Teilhard’s belief in orthogenesis becomes apparent. He ascribes a powerful intent on the part of the universe to achieve a foreseen end point through the evolutionary process, a purposefulness so strong that he argues one can dismiss even the possibility of a global catastrophe that could kill off mankind:
… since the birth of thought man has been the leading shoot of the tree of life. That being so, the hopes for the future of the noosphere … are concentrated exclusively upon him as such. How then could he come to an end before his time, or stop, or deteriorate, unless the universe committed abortion upon itself, which we have already decided to be absurd?

In its present state, the world would be unintelligible and the presence in it of reflection would be incomprehensible, unless we supposed there to be a secret complicity between the infinite and the infinitesimal to warm, nourish and sustain to the very end … the consciousness that has emerged between the two. It is upon this complicity that we must depend. Man is irreplaceable. Therefore, however improbable it might seem, he must reach the goal, not necessarily, doubtless, but infallibly. (276)

Teilhard apparently left unconsidered, or dismissed, the possibility that mankind actually represents a dead end branch. He argues that the universe won’t allow a catastrophic event to wipe out mankind because the orthogenesis seeks to achieve ever greater completion of the evolutionary process, and so it would not be compatible with such a concept to have it possible that mankind world be wiped out. But, of course that assumes that it is the branch of mankind that is pre-destined to reach the Omega Point...

But, taking for granted that mankind represents the destined path, what might Teilhard’s “secret complicity between the infinite and the infinitesimal” represent? What constitutes this force that continues to actively pull mankind by means of the evolutionary process to achieve an ultimate state of hyperconsciousness (the Omega point)? Teilhard provides his answer to that question, but not before making a declaration that already gives away his subsequent hypothesis:
As I am living at the heart of the Christian world, I might be suspected of wanting to introduce an apologia by artifice. But, here again, so far as it is possible for a man to separate in himself the various planes of knowledge, it is not he convinced believer but the naturalist who is asking for a hearing. (292)

Perhaps not unexpectedly then, especially given this explicit disclaimer, in the final chapter Teilhard — the Jesuit priest — makes his case for a Christian-centric view of the Omega point, saying of mankind’s evolutionary assent toward consciousness:
In the impetus which guides and sustains its advance, this rising shoot implies essentially the consciousness of being in actual relationship with a spiritual and transcendent pole of universal convergence.

The palpable influence on our world of an other and supreme Someone … Is not the Christian phenomenon, which rises upwards at the heart of the social phenomenon, precisely that?” (298)
Despite his claim of having the impartiality of a scientist, and his acknowledgement of the difficulty in imagining what the coming Omega point might be, Teilhard’s personal beliefs clearly informed his conclusions. Unsurprising though that may be, the fact that this tie-in to his faith comes after nearly 300 pages of detailed scientific discussion and development of his theories can make his conclusion feel a bit too pat.

A quibble over a somewhat personal conclusion does not at all take away, however, from the grand and thought-provoking scope of Teilhard’s work. His clear and lucid writing style renders his arguments clear and comprehensible to anyone with a basic understanding of biology and related life and earth sciences. Readers not intimately familiar with the terminology of biology and anthropology will struggle at times with some of the details, a situation compounded by Teilhard’s tendency to invent words for concepts that arise out of his particular conceptions about those fields. But such challenges don’t detract from the reading, and at any rate, in the age of smartphone access to the internet definitions for unknown terms lie at one’s fingertips.

As discussed in the Introduction by evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Huxley, Teilhard wrote this work in the 1930’s, though it did not appear in print until after his death in 1955, as he was refused permission to publish by his religious order.   One can see in this work of Teilhard's the challenging struggle of a man trying to make sense of the two worlds he occupied, that of a deeply devoted Christian, and that of a well-trained scientist.

Not surprisingly, much new has been learned in the areas of anthropology, biology and cosmology over the past seventy years. Perhaps most importantly the concept of orthogenesis — that evolution takes place in a particular direction of increasing complexity — has fallen out of favor, as implied in the modern dictionary definition of the term that opens this review. Nonetheless The Phenomenon of Man sparkles with insights into the nature of mankind’s consciousness and the impact that the realization — just a few short centuries ago — of the spatial and temporal depths of the universe has had on our understanding of ourselves, our past and our potential futures.

Other reviews / information:  

Historian and author Yuval Noah Harari's concept of imagined orders has striking similarities --- if certainly from Harari's non-orthogenetic viewpoint --- to Teilhard de Chardin's definition of the noosphere.  I discuss this in detail in my review of Harari's book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which can be found here.

On Being, the radio program of discussions on living a spiritual life (in the broadest understanding of the word) hosted by Krista Tippett had a program dedicated to Teilhard de Chardin, linked to here.

During the time I was reading The Phenomenon of Man, I happened to listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with physicist Leonard Mlodinow in a podcast of the show On Being. (The audio of the final radio program, the transcript of the show, and the the unedited audio from their discussion can all be found here.)

As part of a wide-ranging and wonderful discussion, Tippett, a Star Trek fan (in particular of the Next Generation edition, she likes to point out), asked Mlodinow about an episode of the show that he apparently participated in as a writer. It was an episode that had touched on the meaning and moment of consciousness:
MS. TIPPETT: … it’s Commander Data, who was an Android, who was always so trying to understand what it was to be human and in a way, in his Android way, striving to be human. Where he asked Dr. Crusher what is the definition of life.

He wrote it’s just this beautiful moment, he says, I’m curious — he asks her for a definition of life. She gives him a definition of life. And he says, what about me? I do not grow. I do not reproduce. Yet I’m considered to be alive. And then he says, I’m curious as to what transpired between the moment when I was nothing more than an assemblage of parts in Dr. Soong’s laboratory and the next moment, when I became alive. What is it that endowed me with life?

DR. MLODINOW: Wow, that’s one of those eternal questions, too. I don’t remember if I worked on that or not. It just may be like the attorney story. Maybe I wrote that.


DR. MLODINOW: But the question is certainly one that I’ve thought about, and it’s a very deep question, because I think having a character like Data really underlines, underscores that, because you can argue with a biological organism what is life? Or what’s the difference between a human and a bacteria? Or a human and a grasshopper? But when you say a pile of silicon and does it become — what point does it become a sentient conscious being is a very — is a question, of course, we have no answer to. But I think that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of Data being alive because he’s not biological. And neuroscientists today are only beginning to understand consciousness. I have a friend, Christof Koch, who works on that, and we’ve had many debates. But he believes that all information processing systems are conscious to some extent. Even a thermostat. [Laughs].

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

DR. MLODINOW: Any system that takes information and integrates it, he would say is conscious, and it’s all a spectrum, from zero or epsilon, a very tiny amount, to, you know, a great amount that we have, or perhaps even a greater amount that you might find somewhere else in the universe. And, they’re trying to form mathematical scientific theories of it. But it’s really very hard. I don’t think we even have a good working definition of what consciousness is.


DR. MLODINOW: So it’s the very, very early stages. I think — I believe that science will address that question eventually. But, we’re not ready to do it yet.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf