Top critical review
11 people found this helpful
The evolution of the mind and spirit
on 4 April 2011
As a Jesuit and a paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin tried to reconcile the evolutionary theory of the ascent of man and his religious beliefs. As a pioneer he did not always get it right but his Jesuit superiors had more sympathy with what he was trying to achieve that the authorities in Rome.
He was particularly interested in a great lacuna in traditional Darwinism, focussed as it was narrowly on material facts, to study the grades of life-forms. Darwinism, though recognizing grades of life forms, had nothing further to say on the matter. But even the ancient philosophers speculated on the intelligence of animals, and the difference between sentient animals, other living things like trees, and inanimate nature like stones. Sentient animals had an anima or soul which ordered their lives.
Teilhard argued that for every evolutionary step in the material world there must be a similar step in the grades of anima. As a Christian and a priest he considered that this evolution must have direction which he called the omega point, which can be understood as the vision of God.
It was his misfortune that he lived just after the sweeping condemnation of modern thought by Pope Pius X in 1907 and any priest who deviated from traditional orthodoxy was likely to be sent to the missions in a remote part of the world. He was sent to China.
It can be argued that his teaching, or lack of it, on original sin is more in conformity with Catholic belief than the then teaching of the Vatican which depended heavily on the sin of Adam, precisely one of the biblical stories Leo XIII had said need not be interpreted literally, and that the Vatican was clinging to outmoded interpretations as in the case of Galileo.
None of this theological background appears in Teilhard's work, nor is it mentioned in the Introduction by Sir Julian Huxley who read the book as a scientist and probably was ignorant of the theological background. This book was written in scientific terms by a scientist who was also a priest; it is in no way a vindication of his personal difficulties with the Vatican. But Catholics can be relieved that it can be understood in orthodox religious terms, given a bit of goodwill towards someone who was attempting to break new ground.
What are we to make of the arguments in the book itself? They are certainly plausible. It makes one think again about the subject. But life and intelligence have proved difficult to deal with in Darwinian terms.It is easy to devise measures of intelligence, but difficult to prove scientifically how self-awareness comes about. Perhaps some things should be left to philosophy rather than science.
It is not an easy read but every educated person should make the attempt.