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by Ken Ingham

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Book Review

The Phenomenon of Man
by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Harper and Row, 1959

barysphere › lithosphere › biosphere › noösphere

I read this book for the first time twenty years ago, with great difficulty. Whole paragraphs, sometimes whole sections, evaded my comprehension even after multiple readings. But I struggled to the end because of my sense that the subject matter was important. When I finished I was a different person. My spirit had been moved. Reading the book twice more in the past month as part of an assignment for a class in conservation philospohy was equally difficult, even though I am older and wiser. It affected me again. It reinforced my conviction that life, all life, including mine, has a purpose. Yes, Virginia, there is a god, and you are a part of it.

This book is about evolution. I believe in evolution even though I don’t fully understand it. Like many of my fellow believers, I haven’t studied the subject hard enough to justify my faith. I can’t ignore the fact that the sequences of nucleic acids in many of my genes are almost identical to those of the corresponding genes in the simplest organism. But when I think real hard about how I got here, I usually come up with more questions than answers. Viewed at high resolution there are almost as many gaps in my understanding of this Creation Story as there are in the one from Genesis.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin ( PTdC) doesn’t worry about the gaps. He begins with a discussion of how the Stuff of the Universe, i.e., the dust of fundamental particles, has continuously and spontaneously organized itself into evermore complex entities, from atoms to molecules to megamolecules to living cells to multicellular organisms to mammals to man, - as if the struggle to overcome the forces of entropy were driven by some kind of inner property of matter itself. He speaks (on p.48) of “the immense variety of compound bodies whose molecular weights go on increasing up to a certain value above which ........we pass on to life” as if the simplest living thing is no more than a large molecule. At one point he even makes reference to the “human molecule”. PTdC believes that “a certain mass of elementary consciousness was originally imprisoned in the matter of the earth” and that this interiority, this spontaneity, this psychic property of the Within of things, co-evolves along with the exterior, the Without of things, into evermore advanced forms. Cells, which are the simplest of living forms, represent a higher rung of complexity than any nonliving thing, and are thus further advanced in consciousness. The trend continues in higher animals and reaches its most advanced stages in man, the chosen species. But, and here is the punch line, it doesn’t stop there. It continues its march towards a still higher form of collective human consciousness referred to as the Noösphere.

The idea that a living cell might be endowed with consciousness, perhaps even an ego, is not absurd. Viewed under a microscope, even the most primitive bacterium behaves as if it had its own Self interests in mind, gobbling up nutrients, moving about in a cohesive fashion, all of its constituent molecules cooperating to maintain its integrity, duplicating its genes, dividing, multiplying, propagating itself indefinitely as if the universe was created exclusively for it and its progeny. With this in mind, it can be revealing to sit quietly and contemplate one’s own composition. Billions of cells of all variety, living together in harmony, each seeming to have suppressed its ego, its Self, its potential to transform into a malignant consumer of all available resources. And as you ponder this marvel, notice that even though your body constitutes a whole universe of diverse cells, there is only One of you reflecting on that fact. If you accept the idea that your individual cells might have consciousness, then you might conclude that your own consciousness is but a superposition of those of your constituent cells. This property of a collective consciousness to reflect on itself, to percieve itself as a single entity, is fundamental to understanding PTdC’s concept of the Noösphere. The Noösphere is to the biosphere what the consciousness of a higher animal is to that of its constituent cells and what the consciousness of a single cell, if such exists, is to that of its constituent molecules and so on down the line until the infinitesimal merges with the infinite.

Webster’s New World second edition defines Noösphere as “the biosphere as modified by the human mind”. The word does not appear in the 2nd edition of Webster’s New International Unabridged of 1944. However, it is found in the title of an essay published in 1945 by the Ukranian scientist Vernadsky (1) who attributes its first use to a collaboration between PTdC and his friend Le Roy, who referred to it as the stage through which the biosphere is now passing geologically. Julian Huxley, in his introduction to the book under discussion, asserts that PTdC coined the term Noösphere in 1925 “to denote the sphere of mind, as opposed to, or rather superposed on, the biosphere or sphere of life.”

PTdC (b. 1881) was a Jesuit Professor of Geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris where his lectures attracted much attention, not only from students but from higher church authorities who, concerned by his ideas about evolution, forbade him to resume teaching upon return from a palaeontological mission in China. Ironically this led him back to China where, as scientific advisor to a Geological Survey, he conducted research and further developed his dangerous ideas. He participated in a number of important expeditions, including that which unearthed the skull of Peking man. Although the manuscript was completed in 1938, his unwillingness to break his vows of obedience to the church resulted in his Le Phénomene Humain going unpublished until 1955, shortly after his death. This and other works, according to Huxley, were soon forcing serious theologians to take evolution into account and scientists to be more aware of the spiritual implications of their work. Although PTdC seems to endow primitive life forms and even matter itself with consciousness, it is the appearance of thought that marks the beginning of a new psychozoic era in evolution, the addition of “another membrane in the majestic assembly of telluric layers”. This thinking layer, whose germination he locates at the end of the Tertiary period, has now spread “over and above the world of plants and animals ..... where outside and above the biosphere there is the Noösphere”. In keeping with his unwavering anthropocentric view he argues that man alone among animals can “know that he knows” and that “with hominisation, in spite of the insignificance of the anatomical leap, we have the beginning of a new age. The earth ‘gets a new skin’. Better still, it gets a soul.” PTdC states that in terms of evolution, “the birth of thought . . . is the only thing comparable to the advent of life itself.” Viewed from Mars by an observer capable of receiving psychic as well as physical radiations, the first characteristic of our planet would be “not the blue of the seas or the green of the forests, but the phosphorescence of thought.” (pp182-183). This evoked for me an image of heat lightning on a dark summer night, emanating from the cumulus nimbus lobes of Gaia’s brain.

One can only speculate how PTdC would have responded to Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which contends that the earth can be viewed as an integrated self-regulating organism (2). It would also be of interest to explore the extent to which Lovelock and his followers might have been influenced by PTdC. I have noticed a tendency for the two authors or concepts to be mentioned in juxtaposition in several sources including a recent text book on Ecology (3). Al Gore in his book Earth in the Balance refers to PTdC when discussing the religious ethic of stewardship and then introduces Lovelock in the following paragraph (4) . Lawrence Joseph in Gaia: The Growth of an Idea (5) points out that Thomas Berry, a popular philosopher of deep ecology, is also president of the American Teilhard Association! Max Oelschlager in Caring for Creation (6) devotes several pages to PTdC and refers to his attempt to reconcile evolutionary science with the Judeo-Christian creation story as “courageous”. He implies that Berry’s notion of a growing fusion between religion and science was strongly influenced by PTdC. Thus, the seminal work of PTdC continues to have an impact on modern thinking, at least among those concerned with environmental ethics (7,8). However, the extent to which his scientific arguments are accepted among modern day geologists and earth scientists is less clear. A search of the internet for “de Chardin” or “noosphere” was unproductive; I would categorize most of the hits as undocumented new-age gibberish.

Although this book doesn’t deal directly with issues of conservation, it is still useful for those interested in the spiritual foundations of conservation philosophy and environmental ethics. The idea that humans are at the cutting edge of evolution can serve as a powerful source of motivation to get involved, participate, influence the outcome. There is more to global intelligence than the CIA! Much has happened since this book was published to reinforce the concept of an emergent Noösphere. We now have satellite communications, the World Wide Web, supersonic transportation. These are the hard wires of a global neural network, a collective consciousness that is rapidly evolving the capacity to reflect upon itself. Note how quickly the entire human population can become aware of a sensational event in one corner of the globe, be it an earthquake in Japan, a mudslide in Argentina, or the outbreak of war in the Balkans. See how the stock market responds instantaneously to the utterings of public officials. How many conservationists have experienced in real time a certain kind of collective angst following the felling of old growth Redwoods in the Headwaters forest of California, the damming of the Danube in eastern Europe, the assassination of Chico Mendez in Brazil, the cloning of a mammal in Scotland? Imagine the impact of ten thousand e-mail messages appearing on congressional computers in the course of a single evening in response to a Sierra Club Alert about impending legislation. Would that not be a manifestation of the Noösphere, the spirit of Gaia, the collective human conscience reflecting on itself?

At the end of the book, and in another (9) PTdC attempts to tie all of these ideas together in the context of Christianity. He speaks of progress towards a final point of human convergence termed the Omega point. I found this almost impossible to grasp and take humble comfort in the fact that Huxley admits to similar difficulty. I will therefore end by simply recalling that old Sunday School admonition that we all should strive to keep our collective conscience clean!

This review was written in 1999, an assignment for a class in conservation philosophy at the Audubon Naturalist Society under Kent Minichiello.

Bibliography

1. Vernadsky, W.I. The Biosphere and the Noosphere. American Scientist 33:112(1945)

2. Lovelock, J. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.; 1988:

3. Odom, E. . Ecology, and our endangered life-support systems. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc; 1993:

4. Gore, A. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the human spirit.. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.; 1992:

5. Joseph, L. Gaia: The Growth of and Idea. New York: St. Martin's Press; 1990:

6. Oelschlaeger, M. Caring for Creation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 1997:

7. O'Brien, J. Teilhard's View of Nature and Some Implications for Environmental Ethics. Environmental Ethics
10:329346(1988)

8. Serafin, R. Noosphere, Gaia and the Science of the Biosphere. Environ. Ethics 10:121137(1988)

9. de Chardin, P. The Future of Man. New York: Harper & Row; 1959: