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I’ll start this review by asking: How prescient can one person be? Completing this book in 1940, de Chardin could not have predicted the Internet, but if you read about his concept of the “noosphere,” you realize that if he were alive today (b. 1881; d. 1955) he would look at the Internet and say “That’s it! I knew it would be something like that!” If you read science books and have not yet read Teilhard, you know what you need to do. Right or wrong, De Chardin is one of the few scholars who hav
And rather than attempt to summarize all his thinking, I’ll just try to catalog some of the things that in my opinion he predicted or prefigured in this work:
The very modern idea of the “Anthropocene” – the idea that the most modern geological era is due to human influence. Most recently promoted by Erle Ellis and others around 2012. De Chardin had the scientific creds: he was trained as a geologist and paleontologist and worked in China on the then-newly-discovered “Peking Man.”
De Chardin saw “The End of Nature” coming — Bill McKibben, 1989. We humans are in control now; we are the main geologic agent, and if an animal species or a forest survives, it’s because we allow it to do so. “We Are Nature,” frightening as that may be.
De Chardin basically lays out the Gaia hypothesis: James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Andrew Watson, 1989. Organisms don’t just evolve in response to their environment but help shape it. Writ large, the earth is evolving into a self-regulating organism. The analogy of black and white daisies regulating heat — aka “Daisyworld” — is an example.
When I was in grad school there was much discussion of General Systems Theory, especially Von Bertalanffy’s 1968 work of that name. All about hierarchy and how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In particular de Chardin notes the million-fold increasing levels of hierarchical complexity from atoms to molecules; from molecules to cells; from cells to organs; from organs to organisms; from organisms to brains and from individual human brains to the emerging collective noosphere.
Some of his thoughts about the rise of the West parallel many of those in Jared Diamond’s 1997 work Guns, Germs, and Steel (which also parallels a lot of Ellsworth Huntington’s 1945 work, Mainsprings of Civilization, minus the racism and heavy dose of environmental determinism of Huntington).
De Chardin also proposes the idea that nothing can evolve that is not incipient in its precedents. An inescapable conclusion is that rocks have feelings and molecules have thoughts. Naturally a lot of scientists have no use for his work. More on that below. He also prefigures many modern ideas such as that there can be no such thing as complete scientific objectivity.
Teilhard’s main thesis, to the extent that it can be summarized in a couple of sentences, is that the divine-directed goal of evolution is the creation of a sphere of interconnected human thought that he calls the noosphere. “Sphere” is used in the same sense as atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere. The noosphere is a collective interconnected human psyche and it’s a humane human psyche dependent upon interconnectedness and caring for each other. Human behaviors such as suicide, drugs and isolation are its antithesis.
So here is a Catholic priest, a Jesuit, writing all this stuff. Yet I do not recall a single mention of the word God or Christ in the body of the work. Instead he writes of the Omega Point. He does talk about how the work relates to “Christian doctrine” in a postscript. Naturally this did not meet with the approval of the Church. De Chardin was banned from publishing his work while he was alive and at times was banned from teaching and from writing at all. He had an arrangement with friends to publish his work after his death (1955) so this work was published in France in 1955 and translated into English in 1959.
Yet, ultimately the work is deeply religious. He argues at one point – I’m paraphrasing – don’t worry about things like climate change, nuclear war, or a stray asteroid wiping out civilization — CAN’T HAPPEN — The Purpose of cosmogenesis is noogenesis and the Purpose of noogenesis is Christogenesis. And, in fact, he writes, you will have a lot less anxiety if you accept this idea that there is a Purpose to all this. The reader can see that in writing such things (not to mention rocks and molecules having incipient thoughts and feelings) mainstream scientists dismissed him as readily as the Church did.
I like the fact that de Chardin did not attempt to carefully walk a tightrope between science and religion. He said what he had to say and therefore went “splat” on the sidewalk on both sides of the rope with no apologies. Agree, disagree; this is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read. Certainly the noosphere is a concept that deserves thought. Will we end up like those grade-B sci-fi movies shown at 3:00 am — brains in jars connected by wires? No, because with wi-fi we won’t need wires! Every month it seems we read of a new development connecting thoughts to computer devices – for those controlling robotic arms, for example. Can it be all that long before we can choose to “share” our brain waves with others?
really liked it
Although he was a priest, in France he is best known for his work in paleontology, when he was a curator in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He has rendered the subject of evolution easily accessible to all, and his point of view complements that of Darwin in many ways.
His Chapter called ‘The within of Things’ states the presence of a soul, even for the non-livings, which sounds like a common sense to me. The chapters ‘The rise of Consciousness’ and ‘The confluence of Thought
This book intends to describe the past and future evolution
of life. Many of the scientific concepts expressed in the
first half of the book have been superseded by more recent
For me, the main interesting concept in the book is the
assertion that human consciousness is an aspect of
evolution. Also that evolution has a goal, i.e. the increasing
complexity of human consciousness (called noosphere) which
will culminate in the final super-humanized form (p. 259)
which the author calls the Om