Fossils and God… The life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was an extraordinary man. He was a man of the cloth, biologist, priest and paleontologist; a rare combination. Describing him, Michael Nicklanovich states: “Few men have looked at the graveyard of the past and the whirlpool of life and come away with their faith unshaken. Fewer still are collared evolutionary scholars.”

Teilhard is often exemplified by believers as their intellectual mentor and soldier, and they take his philosophy as a model of the enlightened compromise in the never-ending conflict between the theory of evolution of species and religion.

He was born on a farm in the French province of Auvergne, and quickly developed a keen interest in natural history. Lacking the finances to attend university after passing his baccalaureate, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence. After his ordination, he pursued additional education and was awarded a doctoral degree in theology. In 1922, he received a doctorate in paleontology from the Sorbonne in Paris. He combined his clerical duties with that of a medical aid man, serving with the French army at the front in World War I. His interest in paleontology and natural history grew through the years, and by the 1920s his reputation as an astute and capable scientist was established.

Teilhard was a member of the team of scientists who excavated the site in China where the remains of the ancient Peking man had been found. He was instrumental in reconstructing the anatomy and way of life with this direct descendent of modern man. He studied the site where the prehistoric Java man had been discovered earlier, as well as sites in Africa where discoveries of early man had been found by Dart, Broom, and Leakey.

In 1925, conservatives in the Catholic Church tried to discourage evolutionists like Teilhard and demanded that evolutionary doctrines be denounced. That failed, but in 1937 Rome forbade Teilhard from publishing anything of a scientific or philosophical nature. Teilhard replied: “Truth is simply the coherence of the universe in relation to every point in it. Why should we be suspicious of some sort of anthropocentric illusion contrasted with objective reality?”

Teilhard firmly believed the basic principles of Darwin’s theory, but differed in that he saw evolution as a straightforward “grand orthogenesis” of everything, rather than a haphazard series of random developments. He believed the development of new species was according to a master plan laid out by the Supreme Being, and the plan had been carried out since life first appeared on Earth. He believed man was the culmination of this plan, and was different from other species because he had been given an immortal soul.

Of course, many scientists denounced Teilhard as an incompetent mystic as his ideas could not be tested by the Scientific Method. Many, however, saw merit in his ideas. The famous Russian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: “Man is a zoological species. But, this species has evolved properties so unique and unprecedented that in man, biological evolution has transcended itself.”

Teilhard firmly believed humans were still evolving in a spiritual rather than a physical sense. He believed that universal love by mankind would eventually prevail, and humans would arrive at what he called the Omega Point. When Omega was reached, all mankind would be at peace and be spiritually as close to God as was possible.

In spite of his deep scientific and religious beliefs, he managed to maintain a sense of humor and an affinity with the practical joke. He is most likely to have been the one behind what is known as the Piltdown Fraud. A skull was found in Piltdown, England, that appeared to be halfway between a human and an ape and was touted as the “missing link.” It was later determined that part of the skull of an orangutan had been affixed to a modern human jaw bone. Today, many believe Teilhard instigated this hoax as a joke on a friend in the British Museum.

In the early 1950s, Teilhard came to New York to direct a “Think Tank” organization. There, while having tea with friends on Easter Sunday in 1955, he died gently of a heart attack. He was 74 years old.

He was buried in the cemetery of a Jesuit novitiate near Hyde Park, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River. I have visited his grave site and spent some time there contemplating the life and philosophy of this remarkable man.

Books written by Teilhard de Chardin are available in the library for anyone wanting to go deeper into his philosophical, religious, and scientific thoughts.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Nov. 9-15, 2005, issue

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