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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 17: Does Mankind Move Biologically Upon Itself? Galileo’s Question Re-Stated

In the past three years I have twice sought in these pages (Revue des Questions Scientfiques, January 1947 and April, 1948. In this volume, ‘The Formation of the Noosphere’, p. 155; and ‘The Human Rebound of Evolution and its Consequences’, p. 196, to depict and interpret from a purely scientific standpoint what I have called ‘the organic grasp of Mankind upon itself’ and the corresponding ‘rebound’, in terms of biological evolution, that seems to result from this.

I beg leave to return to the subject, this time not with the calmness of a theorist adding to his argument but with a greater vehemence, the better to stress the vital importance and urgency, both for our thought and our action, of the problem presented by the explosion of human Totalization which we see in full spate around us.

Describing the formation of a thinking envelope, a Noosphere, now being shaped round our planet, I wrote that this was a ‘defensible hypothesis’. But did I speak strongly enough? Was there not a certain perfidy in those soothing and cautious words, even a hint of cowardice? I Wrote of ‘plausible views’, as though all this were no more than a game of academic speculation inviting no intellectual commitment, to be taken up or dropped at our leisure, with all conclusions deferred. But does this attitude of unconcerned detachment really meet the situation of the individual man today, who finds himself confronted by the expansion and overflowing of human collectivization? Surely the truth, for those of us who seek to understand the portents we see multiplying around us, is that we must face the fact that in no sphere, whether economic -- political or social, artistic or mystical, can anything stable or enduring be built on Earth until we have found a positive answer to the following question:

What degree of reality and what ontological significance are we to attribute to this strange shift of the current, as a result of which modern man, scarcely entered into what he supposed to be the haven of his individual rights, finds himself suddenly drawn into a great unitary whirlpool where it seems that his most hard-won attributes, those of his incommunicable, personal being, are in danger of being destroyed? Is it Life that we see on the horizon, concealed behind the rise of the masses, or is it Death?

In recent months I have been increasingly conscious of a paramount and immediate necessity: the necessity for our generation of adopting certain firm values regarding the course of the world, of taking a major decision upon which the future of human history will depend.

It is this dramatic situation whose urgency I wish to stress in the form of three essentially related propositions of which each of us carries the substance in his heart, without choosing, or without daring, to acknowledge them and accept their inexorable pressure and their natural logic.

1. The First Point (beyond dispute): The Material Fact of the in-folding of Mankind upon itself

As a basis for what I have to say (indeed, as a basis for any attempt to understand what is happening in the world) a plain fact must be plainly stated which perhaps my previous writings have failed to detach sufficiently from its context -- although, rid of encumbrances, it is as evident as the rising sun. I mean the essentially modern fact of the ‘social-scientific agglomeration’ of Mankind upon itself.

Let us first be sure that we understand the meaning of the word ‘modern’. We can all see, at least in retrospect, that since Man first appeared on earth he has not only spread over the continents in an amorphous flood but has constituted himself a group of exceptional solidarity, not merely ubiquitous but ‘totalitarian’ in tendency. But during tens of thousands of years the weaving and extension of this thinking network over the surface of the globe proceeded so slowly and sporadically that until quite recently not even the most acute observers, although they recognized the biological singularity of our nature, seem to have suspected that, zoologically speaking, Humanity might be wholly unique in its destiny and structural potentialities. To the old naturalists the human ‘species’ had virtually achieved its vital equilibrium, and they found nothing (except of course a more highly developed mind and sensibility) to distinguish it from other animal families where the probable curve of its development was concerned.

Such was the comfortable vista which, less than a century ago, began abruptly to change beneath our gaze, something in the fashion of those organic tissues in the living body which, after long remaining harmless and dormant, their cells apparently indistinguishable from those of the surrounding tissue, suddenly burst into dangerous growth. Or we may liken the change to the fall of an avalanche in the mountains -- a sudden calamity, long and noiselessly prepared -- or, better still, to the sudden birth of a cyclone in tranquil, overheated air, or of a whirlpool in the smooth waters of a river. Is not this precisely the kind of spectacle to which we are now awakening (still without really believing in it); the spectacle of Mankind, suddenly shaken out of a deceptive inertia, being swept along ever more rapidly, by the current of its own proliferation and contraction, into the diminishing circles of a sort of maelstrom coiling irresistibly upon itself?

Let us try to get some idea of the speed (the rising curve, if you prefer) of this process of in-folding over the period of a single generation. Looking back to the turn of the century we see limited wars, clearly marked frontiers, large blank spaces on the map and distant, exotic lands, to visit which was still like entering another world. Today we have a planet girdled by radio in the fraction of a second and by the aeroplane in a few hours. We see races and cultures jostling one another, and a soaring world population amid which we are all beginning to fight for elbowroom. We see a world, stretched almost to breaking-point between two ideological poles, where it is impossible for the smallest peasant in the remotest countryside to live without being in some way affected by what is going on in New York or Moscow or China. . .

To steady ourselves in face of this progressive invasion of our private lives, and keep our footing in the rising tide, we tend to deny the reality of what is happening. Or we tell ourselves that this intermingling of all men over all the earth can portend no more than a passing phase of political readjustment such as has already occurred many times in history: not a definitive and lasting phenomenon, but a momentary complexity of circumstances, brought about by chance at the present time, and later to be resolved by some other chance.

But it must surely be clear that in this we are simply deceiving ourselves. Is it conceivable that the human world will relax its grip, loosen the coils which it has woven round all our separate lives? How can we dare to suppose it?

No matter where we look, there is no indication that the grip is tending to relax. I do not deny that there are revolts against it, on the part of individuals and even of nations; but these spasmodic movements of protest are painfully crushed by the tightening of the vice almost as soon as they appear.

Nor is this all. As the phenomenon of human in-folding takes shape, so does its implacable and henceforth unchangeable mechanism become apparent. In origin this is a material force, that of terrestrial compression acting on a rapidly growing population composed of elements whose field of action grows even more rapidly. The Earth is palpably contracting, and the hundreds of millions of people on its surface, reacting to the pressure of this contraction, are compelled not only to make technical arrangements among themselves, but to share and use the inexhaustible spiritual and intellectual links born of the revolutionary power of Reflection. How can we hope to resist, how dream of escaping, from the play of these two cosmic coils (spatial and mental) that close in upon us in a movement conjugated upon ourselves? The human molecules are tightly packed together, and the more this is the case the more impossible it becomes for them, owing to their nature and structure, not to merge both physically and in spirit. Rising social standards, the rise of the Machine, the growth of knowledge. . . We are naively disposed to marvel, or even grow indignant, as though these separate events and their conjunction were something accidental or surprising. But how can we fail to see that we are simply dealing with three aspects of a single perfectly regulated process on a planetary scale?

It is amazing how often, in casual reading or conversation, one encounters either a total inability to see and understand, or a deliberate refusal to accept, the plainest evidence of this material fact of the inevitable drawing-together of Mankind. Let us consign past thinking to the past. Yesterday, perhaps, it was still possible for us to wonder whether Mankind as an ethnic and cultural whole could be said to constitute a finally stabilized group: today, overtaken by the rush of events, there is no longer room for any uncertainty in the matter. For whatever deeper reasons, still calling for discovery and debate, the human mass, which at one time seemed immobile or immobilized, is again on the move. The wheels are in motion and the speed is visibly increasing, rendering perfectly abortive any attempt at resistance on our part, whether physical or mental, to the tide that is sweeping us along. For however long it may endure, the human world will henceforth only be able to continue to exist by organizing itself ever more tightly upon itself. We may delude ourselves with the notion that we are simply weathering a storm. The truth is that we are undergoing a radical change of climate.

We must accept it once and for all. Human Problem No. 1 is no longer that of deciding whether we can escape the socio-physical in-folding of the human race upon itself, since this is irrevocably imposed on us by the physico-chemical structure of the Earth. All that matters, the only meaningful question, is to know whither this process of totalization is leading us -- towards what summit, or what abyss?

2. The Second Point (which now emerges): The Biological Value of Human Socialization

What results from the foregoing is that, confronted by this technico-social embrace of the human mass, modern man, in so far as he has any clear idea of what is happening, tends to take fright as though at an impending disaster. Having scarcely emerged, after millennia of painful differentiation, from what the ethnologists call the state of primitive co- consciousness, are we now, through the very excess of our civilization, to sink back into a state of even greater obscurity?

It must be said that appearances (or excuses) are not lacking to warrant this pessimistic view. At close quarters and on the individual level we see the ugliness, vulgarity and servitude with which the growth of industrialism has undeniably sullied the poetry of primeval pastures. At a higher level we see the sombre threat, still increasing despite the surgical operation of the second World War which was supposed to abate it, of so-called political totalitarianism. And on what is, in a sense, a higher level still we have the disquieting example of such animal groups as termites, ants and bees, our ancestors in the Tree of Life, which, afflicted by an evil of which we seem to perceive the symptoms in ourselves, have lapsed into a state of social enslavement -- the very fate towards which an implacable destiny seems to be impelling us. Evidence such as this, if it is insufficiently studied, must certainly cause us dismay. Does it not suggest that this is a general law of life; that the living creature, compelled for its own survival to attach itself materially and spiritually to others of its kind, and to an increasing extent as it progresses autonomously and in individual freedom, is automatically prevented by Nature from rising above a given level of emancipation and consciousness? And may it not be that we are now thrusting against this barrier, the surface-limit of the ‘I’?

If that is so, then the whirlpool in which we are seized must end by dehumanizing us. It means that we are lapsing into a sort of senescence. This is one way of explaining the irresistible movement of concentration that has us in its grip: the quick answer, the simplest and most morbidly fascinating to sensibilities as shaken and bruised as our own at the present time.(Three reasons, among others, which explain the favor it enjoys in contemporary literature and in the conservative and existentialist press. It is so easy to write and get oneself read if one sets up as a prophet of disaster. ‘Frighten me. . . .’

But (let it be cried from the roof-tops!) there is another way. To that tired and outworn approach to the problem of the Socialization of the Earth we may oppose an entirely different, very much more constructive interpretation, solidly and scientifically based on a new vision of Life and the World, of the grand phenomenon of human Totalization.

Let me briefly recapitulate the theory, looking first at Life as Science is now beginning to rediscover and reassess it.

Because plants and animals are excessively fragile in their structure, and because until now their existence has only been detected, indeed is only conceivable, in severely limited zones of Time and Space, we have been accustomed to regard them as an anomaly and an exception, almost a small, separate world within the universe. But much has happened to change this view. New lights have been vouchsafed us -- the reality, capable of definition, of a Cosmogenesis; the discovery of a genesis of the atom, of the increasingly ‘molecular’ aspect of living organisms pursued to the infinitesimal, and of the persistence of this ‘molecular’ characteristic in the mechanisms of heredity and evolution rising to the highest organic types; the existence of a center of indeterminacy at the very heart of every element of Matter . . . The cumulative effect of these revelations has been to open our eyes to a very different and quite otherwise alluring possibility. This is that living beings, far from constituting a singular and inexplicable oddity in the world, are on the contrary the final outcome of an entirely generalized physico-chemical process in virtue of which cosmic matter, by its very existence and structure, is not only in a state of spatial expansion (as in these days is generally accepted) but that, even more significantly, it presents itself to our experience as actuated by a movement of qualitative in-folding (or arrangement, if you prefer) upon itself; and this ‘in-folding arrangement’ moves in the direction, not of any homogeneous repetition, but of a formidable growth of complexity, increasing with the passage of time and resulting in proteins, cells and living matter of every kind. A certain Laplacian cosmology having accustomed our minds to the idea that the phenomena of the dispersal of energy and the way of greatest probability’ are the only ones physically possible, we instinctively recoil from the thought of a partial ‘lapse’ of the Universe into Complexity. Yet, just as the reddening of the galactic spectra compels us to accept the centrifugal flight of the sidereal layers -- so, and still more certainly, must the distribution and history of the small, the big, and, finally, the very large corpuscles (what is each of us, in effect, but an immense molecule?) point to a continuous global drift of the ‘stuff of things’ towards ever more advanced and elaborate types of construction that are closed and centrated on themselves ?(In other words, it is not so much mathematics that is the burden of matter, as Bergson wrote, but complexity. The fact may be hard to explain, but it is there before our eyes.)

Viewed in this way Life, far from being an aberration on the part of Nature, becomes within the field of our experience nothing less than the most advanced form of one of the most fundamental currents of the Universe, in process of taking shape around us. Which is to conclude that, everywhere exerting its pressure, it tends with a ‘cosmic’ tenacity and intensity to make continuous progress wherever it has gained a foothold, always moving in the same direction and reaching out as far as possible.

Having postulated so much, let us return to the significance and value of human totalization.

What characterizes this process in our eyes, as we have said, is the network of social-technical bonds from which our personal freedom suffers at the first contact, and in which, at first sight, we see nothing but diminution and mechanization.

But why do we, or more precisely how can we, fail to detect in this same process, and to the exact extent that it constitutes an organized whole -- how fail to perceive, beneath what looks at first sight like a purely blind mechanical operation, the same process of ‘complexification’ which, if our new concept is valid, constitutes the essential proceeding of Life? What discloses and measures, both as a reagent and a parameter, the eu-complex or organic arrangements of matter, as opposed to the purely fortuitous or mechanical (pseudo-complex) groupings that take place between atoms and molecules, is the appearance and growth in the former of psychic properties. In physico-chemical terms a very high degree of complexity begets consciousness: few laws of Nature are so sure, so consistent (or so little exploited) as this. And whatever may be said about the ‘gregariousness of crowds’ and the ‘brutalization of the masses’(Effects, not of complexity, but of unorganized numbers.) the fact remains beyond dispute that, although human socialization may not yet have shown itself to be particularly productive of virtue,(We must wait and see.) it is this process that has unloosed the formidable scientific impulse that is causing us to revise our conception of the Universe from top to bottom.(Without, of course, denying the great fact of the growth of science, the ‘pessimists’ tend to see in it nothing but an accidental (and dangerous) byproduct of social mechanization -- something utterly without spiritual value: ‘epi-mind’, one might call it, released by an epi-phenomenon.)

Human Totalization develops mind; it goes hand-in-hand with ‘psychogenesis’: THEREFORE it is nature, by order and dimension biological.

We need no further evidence, in my view, to prove scientifically that the social in-folding which we are undergoing is nothing other than the direct and logical extension, over our heads, of the process of cosmic in-folding which gave birth to the first cell and the first thought on earth. Super-complexification and super-interiorization, within the zone that I have called the Noosphere, of the stuff of the Universe: not only of men, but of the Man who is to be born tomorrow! Everything falls into place around us, amid the so-called human chaos, if we view it in this light. The World goes on its way -- and that is all.

We rebel at yielding to the excess of vitalization that is bearing us along because we fear that in doing so we shall lose the precious fragment, ‘me’, which we have acquired. But how can we fail to see that, of itself and properly controlled, (Within a field of affective attraction sufficiently intense to influence the human mass as a whole and at the same time.) and provided it acts not simply on what is ‘mechanizable’ (instinct) but on what can be rendered ‘unanimizable’ or all-pervasive (reflective psychism) totalization by its nature does not merely differentiate but personalizes what it unites?

It seems, then, that we have two opposed evaluations of this process of the in-folding of Humanity upon itself; a process which is clearly apparent and which nothing can prevent.

a That the planetary collectivization which confronts us is a crude phenomenon of mechanization or senescence which will end by dehumanizing us;

b That on the contrary it is a mark and an effect of biological super-arrangement destined to ultra-personalize us.

I maintain that of these two judgements it is the second which is far more likely to fit the reality. That its validity has not yet been finally demonstrated or verified may be admitted. Nevertheless it is solid enough for us to feel, considering the moment of history in which we live, that the time has come when we may, indeed must, resolutely stake our future on it.

This brings me to the heart of what I am trying to say in these pages.

The Hour of Choice

In every sphere, physical no less than intellectual and moral, and whether it be a question of flowing water, a traveler on a journey, or a thinker or mystic engaged in the pursuit of truth, there inevitably comes a point in time and place when the necessity presents itself, to mechanical forces, or to our freedom of choice, of deciding once and for all which of two paths is the one to take. The enforced, irrevocable choice at a parting of the ways that will never occur again: which of us has not encountered that dilemma? But how many of us realize that it is precisely the situation in which social man finds himself, here and now, in face of the rising tide of socialization?

Borne on a current of Totalization that is taking shape and gathering speed around us, we cannot, as I have said, either stop or turn back. Indeed, how can we even contemplate escaping from a tide that is not only planetary but cosmic in its dimensions?

As I have also shown, two attitudes are possible in this situation, two forms of ‘existentialism’. We can reject and resist the tide, seeking by every means to slow it down and even to escape individually (at the risk of perishing in stoical isolation) from what looks like a rush to the abyss; or we can yield to it and actively contribute to what we accept as a liberating and life-giving movement.

It remains for me to demonstrate the urgency of the problem; that is to say, to fulfill my purpose by showing that we have truly reached the parting of the ways, the point where the waters divide; and also to show that in this momentous hour we cannot continue physically to exist (to act) without deciding here and now which of the two attitudes we shall adopt: that of defiance or that of faith in the unification of mankind.

The urgency is due first and foremost to the state of deep-seated irresolution created by our seeming lack of choice in face of the immense problems which Mankind must solve without delay if it is to survive. We debate endlessly about Peace, Democracy, the Rights of Man, the conditions of racial and individual eugenics, the value and morality of scientific research pushed to the uttermost limit, and the true nature of the Kingdom of God; but here again, how can we fail to see that each of these inescapable questions has two aspects, and therefore two answers, according to whether we regard the human species as culminating in the individual or as pursuing a collective course towards higher levels of complexity and consciousness? Let such organizations as the U.N. and UNESCO continue to multiply and flourish; I for one shall always rejoice in their existence. But we must realize that we shall be building on sand so long as bodies of this kind are not agreed on the basic values and purpose underlying their projects and decisions -- that is to say, on their attitude towards human totalization. What good does it do to discuss the ripples on the surface while the under-tow is still uncontrolled?

Without realizing it -- and this is at the root of our present political and ideological confusion -- we are still desperately clinging to the old concept, now become unlivable, of a world in a state of human immobility, as though this idea were not visibly crumbling. In doing so we run a twofold risk, not only of continuing in a state of inefficiency and chaos but, which is far worse, of missing what may be the only chance offered to the earth of achieving its maturity.

For herein lies the tragic nature of a dilemma presenting itself, as it does to Man, in purely ‘reflective’ terms. We cannot wait passively upon the statistical play of events to decide for us which road the world is to take tomorrow. We must positively and ardently take a hand in the game ourselves. If it is true, as I suggest, that salvation lies in the direction of an Earth organically in-folded upon itself, it is then surely evident that, though a reciprocal mechanism of action and reaction, the vision and prevision of this ultimate end, this outcome of History and of Life, may be made to play an essential part in the building of the future, if only by creating the atmosphere, the psychic field of attraction, without which it will be impossible for Humanity to continue to converge upon itself. Again, if it be true that Evolution is rebounding on itself through the fact of human totalization, it must, becoming conscious, fasten passionately upon itself: which is to say that Man, to progress further, will need to be sustained by a powerful collective faith. According to whether we believe in it or reject it, the totalizing process, from which there is no escape, will either infuse new life into us or destroy us -- that is the fact. It is precisely in order to discover and apply this saving and transforming Faith that we must, at this crucial instant, take a positive stand on the spiritualizing and humanizing value of social totalization, and thus reaffirm our sense of the Species on a new plane. We must do so now. Life will not wait for us, and our state is insecure. Who can say whether tomorrow will not be too late?

What is happening in the world today is as though, four hundred years later and at a higher turn of the spiral, we found ourselves back in the intellectual position of the contemporaries of Galileo. For the men of the 16th century it was the idea of a Universe in motion (in the over-simplified but still perfectly recognizable form of an ‘absolute’ rotation of the earth round the sun) which, as it dawned on their minds, affected them even more deeply than the ending of the geocentric concept. Under the influence of this initial shock, as we can now see, the whole sidereal Cosmos, as expressed in terms of the physics, philosophy and theology of those days, began to give way to a Cosmogenesis: a transformation that was no doubt less heavily loaded with practical consequences, or less directly a stimulant of action, than the one we are now undergoing, which is a passage from the concept of a static and dispersed humanity to one of humanity biologically impelled towards the mysterious destiny of a global anthropogenesis. It was a transformation of the same order of magnitude, and psychologically of the same kind: that is to say, an acquiescence, at once free and enforced, in the necessity of adopting a new point of view to the extent that this resulted from a general and irresistible maturing of the human consciousness. Following the moment when a few men began to see the world through the eyes of Copernicus all men came to see it in the same fashion. A first flash of illumination, intuitively accepted despite the risk of error; and as the intuition was increasingly confirmed by observation and experiment, it came to be embodied in the inherited core of human consciousness. In the 16th century -- as had already happened at long intervals in the course of history, and as is again happening today -- men found themselves suddenly ‘up against a blank wall’ in the sense that they felt instinctively that they could not continue to be men without adopting a positive position towards a given interpretation of the phenomenal framework enclosing them. Accordingly they made their choice. And, as we look back we see that Life, reaching a major fork in the road, and acting in men and through men, once again took the right way.

May it happen -- I have no doubt that it will, because I am profoundly convinced of the essential bond of complicity uniting Life, Truth and Freedom -- may it happen that our descendants four centuries hence, being faced by some new parting of the ways that we cannot yet foresee, will look back and say: ‘In the twentieth century they saw clearly. Let us seek to follow their example!’

Once again, as in the days of Galileo and the problem of the movements of the earth, we have to achieve unanimity, this time regarding the value, whether materially constructive or vitalizing, of the phenomenon of socialization. But if I am not mistaken the balance is already swinging in favor of the organic nature (and the resultant biological effects, which we cannot yet foresee) of human ‘planetization’. The more we allow ourselves to believe in this possible super-organization of the world, the more shall we find reason to believe in it, and the more numerous will become the believers. It seems that already a collective intuition in that sense, which nothing will be able to arrest, is on the move.( We must bear in mind that although the horizon in the direction of human totalization remains politically, economically and psychologically obscure, this is of little importance. The immediate question is not one of knowing precisely whither the current is taking us and how we shall shoot the rapids, but simply of deciding, having reached the fork, whether we are following the main course of the stream -- that is to say, are not detaching ourselves from the World in motion.)

So that it requires no great gift of prophecy to affirm that, within two or three generations, the notion of the psychic in-folding of the earth upon itself, in the bosom of some new ‘space of complexity’, will be as generally accepted and utilized by our successors as the idea of the earth’s mechanical movement round the sun, in the bosom of the firmament, is accepted by ourselves.

Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 4 May, 1949. Revue des Questions Scientfiques, 20 October, 1949.

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