The Future of Mankind by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., was professor of geology at the Catholic Institute in Paris, director of the National Geologic Survey of China, and director of the National Research Center of France. He died in New York City in 1955. Published by Harper & Row, New York and Evanston, 1959. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 15 The Directions and Conditions of the Future
The future, I mean the human future, certainly contains an element of the unpredictable in itself. Because of the enormous number of physical variables on which it depends, and even more the growing predominance of the psychic (individual choice) over the purely statistical, it seems to be decidedly the case that human evolution goes beyond the bounds of exact calculation. So it would be an error, deserving of vigorous denunciation, to talk as though biology in its forecasts can behave like astronomy. But it is surely no less excessive and dangerous to behave as though our ‘freedom’ were confronted by a future that is completely indeterminate. No matter what the Existentialists may claim, to suppose that the Duration ahead of us resembles a virgin, ‘isotropic’ substance into which we may cut as we please, as expediency dictates and in any direction, is positively and scientifically incorrect. Life, and most particularly the extreme point of Life represented by Mankind, is not simply a state. It is on the contrary (I shall come back to this) a vast, directed movement, bound up with the very structure of the Cosmo-genesis. It has a ‘thread’ which cannot be suppressed, and which must continue to show itself, in no way impaired, but respected, utilized and expressed, until (and at this point more than ever) it reaches the highest, most conscious forms of its development.
At a time when delegates from all over the world are coming together in a variety of bodies for the purpose of attempting to sketch a first outline of future society, it seems to me essential to set forth the main constructive axes without which it is mere self-delusion to suppose that we can conceive or undertake any re-ordering or development of the Earth: general tendencies of advance and growth, that is to say, which in certain conditions -- despite our freedom of choice, or better still, because of it -- Mankind cannot in any circumstances ignore, and must heed more and more as time goes on.
That is the purpose of this brief note.
1. The General Tendencies
Whatever form it may eventually take, the world of Man (this is my thesis) already shows certain tendencies in its development, certain lines of embryogenesis, of which we may safely predict that they are definitive and will only become accentuated with time. Without resorting to any systematized theory (I shall propose one later) and simply confining ourselves to the objective study of observable facts, these axes of growth can be reduced to three.
a First -- the continuous rise of Social Unification (rise of masses and races). Clearly no one can yet predict the exact nature of the world-group towards which events are leading us. But one thing is certain, and it appears to me that its recognition in theory, and acceptance in practice, must be the sine qua non of any valid discussion and effective action affecting the political, economic and moral ordering of the present world: this is that nothing, absolutely nothing -- we may as well make up our minds to it -- can arrest the progress of social Man towards ever greater interdependence and cohesion. The reason is this. The human mass on the restricted surface of the earth, after a period of expansion covering all historic time, is now entering (following an abrupt but not accidental acceleration of his rate of reproduction) a phase of compression which we may seek to control but which there are no grounds for supposing will ever be reversed. What is the automatic reaction of human society to this process of compression? Experience supplies the answer (which theory can easily explain) -- it organizes itself. To adapt themselves to, and in some sort to escape from, the planetary grip which forces them ever closer together, individuals find themselves compelled (eventually they acquire a taste for it) to arrange their communal lives more adroitly; first in order to preserve, and later to increase their freedom of action. And since the compulsion is applied on a uniform and total scale to the whole mass of humanity the ultimate social organization which it evokes must of necessity be unitary. I have said elsewhere and I repeat it here(Cf. chapter VII -- Human Planetization,) it would be easier, at the stage of evolution we have reached, to prevent the earth from revolving than to prevent Mankind from becoming totalized.
b Second, and correlatively -- the growth of technology and mechanization. Here again the facts are clear and the reasons obvious. In a Mankind becoming unified under pressure, its organs tending m consequence to achieve planetary dimensions, it is inevitable that the mechanical equipment of society will become all-pervading and enormous. But the change of scale is not enough in itself to explain the sudden and irreversible rise of the industrial phenomenon which we see taking place around us. What has really let loose the Machine in the world, and for good, is that it both facilitates and indefinitely multiplies our activities. Not only does it relieve us mechanically of a crushing weight of physical and mental labor; but by the miraculous enhancing of our senses, through its powers of enlargement, penetration and exact measurement, it constantly increases the scope and clarity of our perceptions. It fulfills the dream of all living creatures by satisfying our instinctive craving for the maximum of consciousness with a minimum of effort! Having embarked upon so profitable a path, how can Mankind fail to pursue it?
c Thirdly -- the heightening of vision. One may say of the deeper vision that I have in mind that it is conveyed to our senses by the increased power of our instruments. But in a larger and more significant sense, I mean the growth of our reflective concept of the Universe, it arises irresistibly out of the mastery we have acquired of the physical springs of the world. Because of this technical control an increasing current of free energy is flowing through the human mass: energy already promoted but hitherto absorbed by the work of the hands, and also latent energy, released and in effect created by the better ordering of matter. But it becomes decidedly apparent(Provided we except the regressive cases of indolence [search for well-being as opposed to more-being] which momentarily crop up here and there through the excess of ease and comfort.) that this added energy, when it is made available to the human social organism, can only be usefully and effectively employed in one way: it must be transformed into research and creative work. The more free Man’s mind is, the more does he reflect; and the more he reflects the further do his thoughts penetrate and the more intensively do they become arranged in closely related systems. That is why the great wave of modern technical progress is automatically accompanied by an ever spreading ripple of theoretical thought and speculation. Everybody knows, without troubling to weigh the reason or importance of a fact seemingly so commonplace, that nothing is more impossible than to inhibit the growth of an idea. Applying this in its widest sense, the surest affirmation we can make about the human future is that nothing will ever restrain Man from seeking to think and essay everything to the very end.
Unification, technification, growing rationalization of the human Earth: we need to shut our eyes to the spectacle of the world we live in, it seems to me, if we are to suppose that we can ever escape from these three basic trends. But let me add at once that we must be insensitive to what, for want of a better word, I will call the ‘excellence’ of the Universe if we are alarmed or rebellious at a prospect that it would be radically wrong to regard as a humiliating threat to our liberty. For how can we fail to discern in the simultaneous rise of Society, the Machine and Thought, this threefold tide that is bearing us upwards, the essential and primordial process of Life itself -- I mean, the organic in-folding of Cosmic matter upon itself, whereby ever-increasing unity, accompanied by ever-heightened awareness, is achieved by ever more complicated structural arrangements? We must not suppose, even at this early and half-passive stage of our hominization, that the partly enforced flowering of thought imposed on us by planetary pressure represents a force of enslavement of which we are the victims: we must recognize it as a force of liberation.(Which does not mean, alas, that the liberating process will not be accompanied by suffering, set-backs and even apparent disasters: the whole problem of Evil is re-stated (more comprehensibly, it seems to me, than in the case of a static world) in this vision of a Universe in evolution.)
What matters is that in the interacting development of these two basic trends upon which Mankind is continuing to build itself, technical organization and the growth of reflective consciousness, the second should acquire an ever greater predominance and degree of autonomy, conformably with the fundamental law of ‘vital in-folding’.
And it is here, the General Tendencies being established, that the question of the Conditions of the Future arises.
2. The Conditions
If it is true that, bound by the collective interaction of its liberties, the human social group cannot escape from certain irreversible laws of evolution, does this mean that, observed along its axis of ‘greatest complexity’ (i.e. increasing liberty) the World is coiling upon itself with as much sureness as it is in other respects radiating outwards and explosively expanding? In other words, because certain unalterable factors compel us to advance, with no possibility of return, in the direction of increasing hominization, must we conclude that biological evolution on Earth will easily achieve its purpose -- that Thought will necessarily succeed in so shaping itself that in the end it will comprehend everything?
By no means; and for a series of reasons (or conditions to be fulfilled) which I must now set forth, from the most superficial to the most profound. First conditions of survival, then conditions of health, and finally, above all, conditions of synthesis.
a Conditions of Survival. I am not thinking particularly of the possibility of a cosmic catastrophe which might render the earth prematurely uninhabitable. The presumed duration of the whole human development (a few million years) is so trifling compared with the extent of astronomic time, even at the lowest estimate, that the chance of a variation of the solar equilibrium while the anthropogenesis is in process may be ignored. Nor do I propose to dwell upon the truly negligible possibility of some rash or criminal experiment blowing up the world (there is, after all, an instinct of planetary preservation) or even of some infectious disease causing the total elimination of an animal group as farsighted, progressive and ubiquitous as Mankind in the adult state. But on the other hand I think we must pay serious attention to warnings such as that recently uttered by Mr. Fairfield Osborn, in his book Our Plundered Planet.
In our hurry to advance are we not squandering our reserves to such an extent that our progress may be brought to a halt for lack of supplies? Where physical energy and even inorganic substances are concerned, science can foresee and indeed already possesses inexhaustible substitutes for coal, petroleum and certain metals. But foodstuffs are another matter. How long (if it ever happens at all) will it take chemical science to find ways of feeding us by the direct conversion of carbon, nitrogen and other simple elements? The population graph is rising almost vertically, while arable land in every continent is being ruined for lack of proper husbandry. We must take care: we still have feet of clay.
b Conditions of Health. I am thinking less of hygiene and physical culture, to which sufficient thought is devoted already, than of the vital problems posed by genetics, which are willfully ignored. After rising slowly until the seventeenth century, when it reached about 400 millions, the earth’s population began to shoot up in an alarming fashion. It was 800 millions by the end of the eighteenth century, 1,600 millions by 1900 and over 2000 millions by 1940. At the present rate of increase, regardless of war and famine, we must expect a further 500 millions in the next 25 years. This demographic explosion, so closely connected with the development of a relatively unified and industrialized Earth, clearly gives rise to entirely new necessities and problems, both quantitative and qualitative. From the paleolithic age onwards, and still more after the neolithic age, Man has always lived in a state of expansion: to him progress and increase have been one and the same thing. But now we see the saturation point ahead of us, and approaching at a dizzy speed. How are we to prevent this compression of Mankind on the closed surface of the planet (a thing that is good in itself, as we have seen, since it promotes social unification) from passing that critical point beyond which any increase in numbers will mean famine and suffocation? Above all, how are we to ensure that the maximum population, when it is reached, shall be composed only of elements harmonious in themselves and blended as harmoniously as possible together? Individual eugenics(The word is used here in its general and etymological sense of ‘perfection in the continuance and fulfillment of the species’.) (breeding and education designed to produce only the best individual types) and racial eugenics (the grouping or intermixing of different ethnic types being not left to chance but effected as a controlled process in the proportions most beneficial to humanity as a whole), both, as I well know, present apparently insuperable difficulties, administrative and psychological. But this does not alter the fact that the problem of building a healthy Mankind already stares us in the face and is growing more acute every day. With the help of science, and sustained by a renewed sense of our species, shall we be able to round this dangerous corner?
c Conditions of Synthesis. What does the term mean? Cosmically speaking, as I have said, Man is collectively immersed in a ‘vortex’ of organization which, operating above the level of the individual, gathers and lifts individuals as a whole towards the heightening of their power of reflection by means of a surplus of technical complexity. But, given the nature of the reflexive phenomenon, what rule must this evolutionary process observe if it is to fulfill its purpose? Essentially the following: that within the compressive arrangement which gathers them into a single complex center of vision, the individual elements must group and tighten not merely without becoming distorted in the process, but with an enhancement of their ‘centric’ qualities, i.e. their personality: (It must truly be said that this is not merely a condition of success but a positive requirement of growth. Although compelled to totalize himself (collectively) Man, at all costs, must not cease to personalize himself. This is the whole problem and drama of the anthropogenesis.) a delicate operation and one which, biologically, it would seem to be impossible to carry out except in an atmosphere (or temperature) of unanimity or mutual attraction. Recent totalitarian experiments seem to furnish material for a positive judgement on this last point: the individual, outwardly bound to his fellows by coercion and solely in terms of function, deteriorates and retrogresses: he becomes mechanized. To repeat what I have already said, under these purely enforced conditions the center of consciousness cannot achieve its natural growth rising out of the technical center of social organization. Only union through love and in love (using the word ‘love’ in its widest and most real sense of ‘mutual internal affinity’), because it brings individuals together, not superficially and tangentially but center to center, can physically possess the property of not merely differentiating but also personalizing the elements which comprise it. Even under the irresistible compulsion of the pressures causing it to unite, Mankind will only find and shape itself if men can learn to love one another in the very act of drawing closer.
But how is this warming of hearts to be realized? In my paper on the formation of the Noosphere (Chapter X -- written in 1947.) I suggested that the very excess of external compression to which we are subjected by the relative contraction of our planet may one day cause us to breach that mysterious wall of growing repulsion which, more often than not, sets the human molecules in opposition to one another, and enter the powerful, still unknown field of our basic affinities. In other words, attraction will one day be born of enforced nearness. I am very much less disposed to believe today that the tightening of the human mass will of itself suffice to warm the human heart. But I continue to believe, if anything more strongly, in the hidden existence and eventual release of forces of attraction between men which are as powerful in their own way as nuclear energy appears to be, at the other end of the spectrum of complexity. And surely it is this kind of attraction, the necessary condition of our unity, which must be linked at its root with the radiations of some ultimate Center (at once transcendent and immanent) of psychic congregation: the same Center as that whose existence, opening for human endeavor a door to the Irreversible, seems indispensable (the supreme condition of the future!), for the preservation of the will to advance, in defiance of death, upon an evolutionary path become reflective, conscious of the future. . .(Chapter XIII -- The Human Rebound of Evolution.)
If this is true, is it not apparent that the success of Anthro-pogenesis, ultimately dependent upon achieving contact with the supracosmic, must, despite the rigors of its external conditioning, essentially contain an irreducible element of indeterminacy and uncertainty?
All things taken into account, where does the balance lie between these diverse influences, ‘for and against’? Faced by the biological dilemma confronting our zoological group (unite or perish) which are we to accept, which way rather than another, as the direction in which the indeterminacy essential to the human adventure is most likely to be resolved?
As I have said elsewhere, the more we study the past, noting the steady rise of Life over millions of years, and observing the ever-growing multitude of reflective elements engaged in the construction of the Noosphere; the more must we be convinced that by a sort of ‘infallibility of large numbers’ Mankind, the present crest of the evolutionary wave, cannot fail in the course of its guided probings to find the right road and an outlet for its higher ascent. Far from being stultified by overcrowding, the cells of individual freedom, in a concerted action growing more powerful as they increase in numbers, will rectify and redress themselves when they begin to move in the direction towards which they are inwardly polarized. It is reasoned calculation, not speculation, which makes me ready to lay odds on the ultimate triumph of hominization over all the vicissitudes threatening its progress.
For a Christian, provided his Christology accepts the fact that the collective consummation of earthly Mankind is not a meaningless and still a less hostile event, but a pre- condition(Necessary, but not sufficient in itself.) of the final, ‘parousiac’ establishment of the Kingdom of God -- for such a Christian the eventual biological success of Man on Earth is not merely a probability but a certainty: since Christ (and in Him virtually the World) is already risen. But this certainty, born as it is of a ‘supernatural’ act of faith, is of its nature supra-phenomenal: which means, in one sense, that it leaves all the anxieties attendant upon the human condition, on their own level, still alive in the heart of the believer.
Paris, 30 June 1948. Psyché, October 1948.