The Phenomenon of Man

The Phenomenon of Man (Le Phénomène Humain, 1955) is a book written by French philosopher, palaeontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In this work, Teilhard describes evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity, culminating in the unification of consciousness.

The book was finished in the 1930s, but was published posthumously in 1955. The Roman Catholic Church considered that Teilhard’s writings contradicted orthodoxy and initially prohibited their publication. Teilhard views evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity. From the cell to the thinking animal, a process of psychical concentration leads to greater  consciousness. The emergence of Homo sapiens marks the beginning of a new age, as the power acquired by consciousness to turn in upon itself raises humankind to a new sphere. Borrowing Julian Huxley’s expression, Teilhard describes humankind as evolution becoming conscious of itself.

In Teilhard’s conception of the evolution of the species, a collective identity begins to develop as trade and the transmission of ideas increases. Knowledge accumulates and is transmitted in increasing levels of depth and complexity. This leads to a further augmentation of consciousness and the emergence of a thinking layer that envelops the earth. Teilhard calls the new membrane the “noosphere” (from the Greek “nous,” meaning mind), a term first coined by Vladimir Vernadsky. The noosphere is the collective consciousness of humanity, the networks of thought and emotion in which all are immersed.

The development of science and technology causes an expansion of the human sphere of influence, allowing a person to be simultaneously present in every corner of the world. Teilhart argues that humanity has thus become cosmopolitan, stretching a single organized membrane over the Earth. Teilhard describes the process by which this happens as a “gigantic psychobiological operation, a sort of mega-synthesis, the “super-arrangement” to which all the thinking elements of the earth find themselves today individually and collectively subject.” The rapid expansion of the noosphere requires a new domain of psychical expansion, which “is staring us in the face if we would only raise our heads to look at it.”

In Teilhard’s view, evolution will culminate in the Omega Point, a sort of supreme consciousness. Layers of consciousness will converge in Omega, fusing and consuming them in itself. The concentration of a conscious universe will reassemble in itself all consciousnesses as well as all that we are conscious of. Teilhard emphasizes that each individual facet of consciousness will remain conscious of itself at the end of the process.

In 1961, Nobel Prize-winner Peter Medawar, a British immunologist, wrote a scornful review of the book for the journal Mind, calling it “a bag of tricks” and saying that the author had shown “an active willingness to be deceived”: “the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself”.

In the June 1995 issue of Wired, Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg said “Teilhard saw the Net coming more than half a century before it arrived”:

Teilhard imagined a stage of evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and fueled by human consciousness. It sounds a little off-the-wall, until you think about the Net, that vast electronic web encircling the Earth, running point to point through a nerve-like constellation of wires.

In July 2009, during a vespers service held in Aosta Cathedral in northern Italy, Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on the Epistle to the Romans in which “St. Paul writes that the world itself will one day become a form of living worship”, commented on Teilhard:

It’s the great vision that later Teilhard de Chardin also had: At the end we will have a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. Let’s pray to the Lord that he help us be priests in this sense, to help in the transformation of the world in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves

Post inspired by Alan Masons comments – Via The Phenomenon of Man

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2 Responses to The Phenomenon of Man

  1. Deskarati says:

    Since posting this article Deskarati has received this enlightening and amusing critique by PB Medawar. This was sent to us by our long time friend Alan Mason whom we thank for editing the original to a more manageable length.


    (The Phenomenon of Man. By PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN. With an introduction by Sir Julian Huxley. 1959. 25s. Collins, London, )

    (a) “Everything does not happen continuously at any one moment in the universe. Neither does everything happen everywhere in it. ”
    (b) “There are no summits without abysses.”
    (c ) “When the end of the world is mentioned, the idea that leaps into our minds is always one of catastrophe. ”
    (d) “Life was bom and propagates iteelf on the earth as a solitary pulsation. ”
    (e) “In the last analysis the best guarantee that a thing should happen
    is that it appears to us as vitally necessary. ”

    THIS little bouquet of aphorisms, each one thought sufficiently important by its author to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from “The Phenomenon of Man”. It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance ; it created something like a sensation upon- its publication a few years ago in France, and some reviewers hereabouts have called it the Book of the Year—one, the Book of the Century.

    Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out by a variety of tedious metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.
    The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure—a feeble argument, abominably erpressed —and this I shall expound in due course ; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is in some part the cause as well as merely the symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.

    The Phenomenon of Man stands square in the tradition of German Naturphilosophie, which does not seem to have contributed anything of permanent value to the storehouse of human thought. French does not lend itself to the ponderous idiom of nature-philosophy, and Teilhard has accordingly resorted to the use of that tipsy, euphoric prose-poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit.

    It is of the nature of reproduction that progeny should outnumber parents, and of Mendelian heredity that the inborn endowments of the parents should be variously recombined and reassorted among their offspring, so enlarging the population’s candidature for evolutionary change. Teilhard puts the matter thus: it is one of his more lucid passages, and Mr. Wall’s translation, here as almost everywhere else, captures the spirit and sense of the original.

    “Reproduction doubles the mother cell. Thus, by a mechanism which is the inverse of chemical disintegration, (1) it multiplies witthout crumbling. At the same time, however, it transforms what was only intended (2) to he prolonged.

    Closed in on itself, the living element reaches more or less quickly a state of immobility. It becomes slack and coagulated in its evolution. Then by the act of reproduction it regains the faculty for inner re-adjustment (3) and consequently takes on a new appearance and direction. The process is one of pluralization in form as well as in number.

    The elemental ripple of life that emerges from each individual unit does not spread outwards in a monotonous circle formed of individual units exactly like itself. It is diffracted and becomes iridescent, with an indefinite scale of variegated tonalities. The living unit is a centre of irresistible multiplication, and ipso facto an equally irresistible focus of diversification.”

    (1) In no sense other than an utterly trivial one is reproduction the inverse of chemical disintegration.

    (2) It is a misunderstanding of genetics to suppose that reproduction is only ” intended ” to make
    facsimiles, for parasexual processes of genetical exchange are to be
    found in the simplest living things.

    (3) There seems to be some confusion between the versatility of a population and the adaptability
    of an individual. But errors of fact or judgement of this kind are to be found throughout, and are not my immediate concern ; notice instead the use of adjectives of excess (misuse, rather, for genetic diversity is not indefinite nor multiplication irresistible).

    Teilhard is for ever shouting at us : things or affairs are, in alphabetical order, astounding, colossal, endless, enormous, fantastic, giddy, hyper-immense, implacable, indefinite, inexhaustible, inextricable, infinite, infinitesimal, innumerable, irresistible, measureless, mega-, monstrous,
    mysterious, prodigious, relentless, super-, ultra-, unbelievable, unbridled, or unparalleled. When something is described as merely huge we feel let down.
    After this softening-up process we are ready to take delivery of the neologisms: biota, noosphere, hominization, complexification.
    There is much else in the literary idiom of nature- philosophy : nothing-buttery, for example, always part of the minor symptomatology of the bogus.

    ” Love in all its subtleties is nothing more, and nothing less, than the more or less direct trace
    marked on the heart of the element by the psychical convergence of the universe upon itself.”
    ” Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself”, and evolution is ” nothing else than the continual growth of . . . ‘ psychic’ or ‘ radial’ energy “.
    Again, ” the Christogenesis of St. Paul and St. John is nothing else and nothing less than the extension . . . of that noo- genesis in which cosmogenesis . . . culminates.”

    These are trivialities, revealing though they are, and perhaps I make too much of them. What is much more serious is the fact that Teilhard habitually and systematically cheats with words.
    His work, he has assured us, is to be read, not as a metaphysical system, but ” purely and simply as a scientific treatise ” executed with ” remorseless ” or ” inescapable ” logic ; he uses in metaphor words like energy, tension, force, impetus, and dimension as if they retained the weight and thrust of their special scientific usages.

    Consciousness, for example, is a matter upon which Teilhard has been said to have illuminating views. For the most part consciousness is treated as a manifestation of energy, though this does
    not help us very much because the word ‘ energy’ is itself debauched ; but elsewhere we learn that consciousness is a dimension, something with mass, something corpuscular and particulate which can exist in various degrees of concentration, being sometimes infinitely diffuse.

    In his lay capacity Teilhard, a naturalist, practised a comparatively humble and unexacting kind of science, but he must have known better than to play such tricks as these.

    In spite of all the obstacles that Teilhard perhaps wisely puts in our way, it is possible to discern a train of thought. It is founded upon the belief that the fundamental process or motion in the entire universe is evolution, and evolution is “a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow … a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow”
    “Nothing is wholly new: .. above all consciousness is not new, it exists in rudimentary form… in every corpuscle”, even in molecules”. What form does this elementary consciousness take? Scientists have not been able to spot it, for they are shallow superficial fellows, unable to see into the inwardness of things.

    Evolution is ” the continual growth of …’psychic’ or ‘ radial’ energy, beneath and within the mechanical energy I called ‘ tangential’ “; evolution, then, is “an ascent towards consciousness”. It follows that evolution must have a “precise orientation and a privileged axis” at the topmost pole of which lies Man, born “a direct lineal descendant from a total effort of life”.

    Teilhard, with a penetrating insight that Sir Julian Huxley, (a celebrity biologist of the times who wrote a foreword to the book) singles out for special praise, discerns that consciousness in the everyday sense is somehow associated with the possession of nervous systems and brains. The direction of evolution must therefore be towards cerebralization, i.e. towards becoming brainier. ”

    “Evolution has a direction.” And it is an evolution towards increasing complexity of the nervous system and cerebralizatdon…and primates are “a phylum of pure and direct cerebralization” and among them ” evolution went straight to work on the brain, neglecting everything else”. Teilhard described noogenesis, the birth of higher consciousness among the primates, and of the noosphere in which that higher consciousness is deployed:

    What Teilhard seems to be trying to say is that evolution is often (he says always) accompanied by an increase of orderliness or internal coherence or degree of integration. In what sense is the fertilized egg that develops into an adult human being ‘higher’ than, say, a bacterial cell? In the sense that it contains richer and more complicated genetical instructions for the execution of those processes that together constitute development. Thus Teilhard’s radial, spiritual or psychic energy may be equated to ‘ information ‘ or ‘ information content’ in the sense that has been made reasonably precise by modern communications engineers. To equate it to consciousness, or to regard degree of consciousness as a measure of information content, is one of the silly little metaphysical conceits I mentioned in an earlier paragraph.

    Teilhard’s belief, enthusiastically shared by Sir Julian Huxley, that evolution flouts or foils the second law of thermodynamics is based on a confusion of thought; and the idea that evolution has a main track or privileged axis is unsupported by scientific evidence. Unhappily Teilhard has no grasp of the real weakness of modern evolutionary theory, namely its lack of a complete theory of variation. It is not enough to say that “mutation” is ultimately the source of all genetical diversity, for that is merely to give the phenomenon a name : mutation is so defined.

    What we want is a comprehensive theory of the forms in which new genetical information comes into being. It may turn out to be of the nature of nucleic acids and the chromosomal apparatus that they tend to proffer genetical variants —genetical solutions of the problem of remaining alive-which are more complex than the immediate occasion calls for ; but to construe this “complexification” as a manifestation of consciousness is a wilful abuse of words.

    Teilhard’s metaphysical argument begins where the scientific argument leaves off, and the gist of it is extremely simple. Inasmuch as evolution is the fundamental motion of the entire universe, an
    ascent along a privileged and necessary pathway towards consciousness, so it follows that our present consciousness must” culminate forwards in some sort of supreme consciousness “.

    The Supreme Consciousness, which apparently assimilates to itself all our personal consciousnesses, is embodied in, ” Omega ” or the Omega-point. Teilhard devotes some little thought to the apparently insuperable problem of how to reconcile the persistence of individual consciousnesses with their assimilation to Omega. He does not write “Omega = God”; but in the course of some obscure pious rant he does tell as that God, like Omega, is a “Centre of centres” and in one place he refers to ” God-Omega “.

    How have people come to be taken in by The Phenomenon ofMan? The spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary education has created a large population of people with well developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought. It is through their eyes that we must attempt to see the attractions of Teilhard, which I shall jot down in the order in which they come to mind.

    1. The Phenomenon of Man is anti-scientific in temper (scientists are shown up as shallow folk), and, as if that were not recommendation enough, it was written by a scientist, a fact which seems to give it particular authority. Laymen firmly believe that scientists are one species of person. They are not to know that the different branches of science require very different aptitudes and degrees of skill for their prosecution. Teilhard practised an intellectually unexacting kind of science in which he achieved a moderate proficiency. He has no grasp of what makes a logical argument or of what makes for proof. He does not even preserve the common decencies of scientific writing, though his book is professedly a scientific treatise.

    2. It is written in an all but totally unintelligible style, and this is construed as prima facie evidence of profundity. It is because Teilhard has such wonderful deep thoughts that he’s so difficult to follow—really it’s beyond my poor brain but doesn’t that just show how profound and important it must be?

    3. It declares that Man is in a sorry state, the victim of a ” fundamental anguish of being “. The Predicament of Man is all the rage (1961), now that people are sufficiently well fed to contemplate it. Teilhard not only diagnoses in everyone the fashionable disease but propounds a remedy for it—yet a remedy so obscure and so remote from the possibility of application that it is not likely to deprive any practitioner of a living.

    4. The Phenomenon of Man was introduced to the English-speaking world by Sir Julian Huxley, which seemed to give it a scientific benediction. Unlike myself, Sir Julian finds Teilhard has “a rigorous sense of values”, and “always endeavoured to think concretely”, and his speculation was “always disciplined by logic”. The only common ground between us is that Huxley, too, finds Teilhard somewhat difficult to follow.

    But then it does not seem to me that Huxley expounds Teilhard’s argument; his Introduction does little more than to call attention to parallels between Teilhard’s thinking and his own. Chief among these is the cosmic significance attached to a suitably generalized conception of evolution—a conception so diluted as to cover all events or phenomena that are not immobile in time.

    Yet Huxley finds it impossible to follow Teilhard ” all the way in his gallant attempt to reconcile the supernatural elements in Christianity with the facts and implications of evolution “. But, bless my soul, this reconciliation is just what Teilhard’s book is about!

    I have read and studied The Phenomenon of Man with real distress, even with despair. Instead of wringing our hands over the Human Predicament, we should attend to those parts of it which are wholly remediable, above all to the gullibility which makes it possible for people to be taken in by such a bag of tricks as this. If it were an innocent, passive gullibility it would be excusable; but all too clearly, alas, it is an active willingness to be deceived.

    University College, London (1961) P. B. MEDAWA R

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