Chapter 14: The Position of Man in Nature and the Significance of Human Socialization

The Future of Mankind
by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Chapter 14: The Position of Man in Nature and the Significance of Human Socialization


No one can any longer doubt that the Universe, conceived in experimental or phenomenal terms, is a vast temporo-spatial system, corpuscular in nature, from which we cannot sensorially escape (even in thought) in any direction. Viewed in this light everything in the world appears and exists as a function of the whole. This is the broadest, deepest and most unassailable meaning of the idea of Evolution.

But it raises a question. How are we to envisage the operation of such a system, which by its nature is both organic and atomic? Is its movement one of disorderly or controlled impulses? Is the world amorphous in structure, or does it on the contrary show signs of containing within itself a favored axis of evolution?

Following the principle that the greater coherence is an infallible sign of the greater truth, I propose to demonstrate that such an axis does in fact exist, and that it may be defined in terms of the following three (or even four) successive theorems or approximations, each of which clarifies and substantiates the one preceding it on a single line of experience and thought:

a Life is not an accident in the Material Universe, but the essence of the phenomenon.

b Reflection (that is to say, Man) is not an incident in the biological world, but a higher form of Life.

c In the human world the social phenomenon is not a superficial arrangement, but denotes an essential advance of Reflection.

To which may be added, from the Christian point of view:

d The Christian phylum is not an accessory or divergent shoot in the human social organism, but constitutes the axis itself of socialization.

Let us look in turn at the separate links in this chain of theorems, each of which, as we shall see, represents a test whereby we may better know and measure, m the scale of spiritual values, the worth and position of others.

Theorem I. Life is not an Epi-phenomenon in the Material Universe, but the Central Phenomenon of Evolution

Observed within the general framework of Matter as it is now revealed to science, Life may seem to be of tragically little importance in the Universe. In spatial terms we know for certain of its existence only on an infinitesimally small body in the solar system. In terms of Time its whole planetary duration is no more than a flash in the huge course of sidereal development. And structurally its extreme fragility seems to relegate it to the humblest and lowest place among all the substances engendered during the physico-chemical evolution of cosmic matter. We can hardly wonder, in the circumstances, that agnostics such as Sir James Jeans and Marcel Boll, and even convinced believers like Guardini, have uttered expressions of amazement (tinged with heroic pessimism or triumphant detachment) at the apparent insignificance of the phenomenon of Life in terms of the cosmos -- a little mould on a grain of dust.

Small wonder, I repeat: but it is no less astonishing that minds so outstanding should not have perceived the possibility and the advantages of adopting a precisely opposite viewpoint. Life seems to occupy so small a place in Space-Time, that it cannot reasonably be regarded as anything other than incidental and accidental. That is the difficulty. But why should we not reverse the position and say: ‘The fact that Life is so rarely encountered in the sidereal immensity is precisely because, representing a higher form of cosmic evolution, it can only come into existence in privileged circumstances of time and place.’ We shall see the full force of this argument (based on the premise that Life, for ever struggling to assert itself, is liable to appear at any point in the Universe when the conditions are favorable) only when we come to the end of this paper: when, that is to say, we have perceived the full coherence and fruitfulness of the mental and moral attitudes to which it gives access. But it is important to insist at the outset on the fundamental point that (despite all contrary appearances and prejudices) the best way of scientifically explaining the World is to make up our minds to regard animate beings, not as a fortuitous by-product but as the characteristic and specific higher aim of the universal phenomenon of Evolution.

Let us strip Life of all its anatomical and physiological super- structure, bringing it down to the essentials of its physico- chemical nature. Reduced to its basic mechanism it shows itself to be a straightforward process of increasing complication whereby Matter contrives to arrange itself in corpuscles of ever greater volume, ever more highly organized. But do we not find that at the same time its seeming weaknesses, its fragility and appearance of extreme localization in time-space, tend to vanish? For underlying these supposedly ‘exceptional’ cellular arrangements we have first the far vaster world of molecules, and underlying this again the immense and decidedly cosmic world of atoms; two worlds displaying, the first by its inter-atomic arrangements and the second by its nuclear groupings. (each in its own way and though different procedures) precisely the same tendency to ‘fall’ into increasingly organized states of complexity.(We may seek to distinguish the phases or pulsations of the cosmic rise into complexity (that is to say, into the Improbable) as follows:

a The pre-atomic phase: formation of nuclei and electrons;

b The atomic phase: grouping of nuclei in atoms (fixed and limited number of free ‘compartments’);

c The molecular phase: grouping of atoms in finite or indefinite chains;

d The cellular phase: grouping of molecules in centrated clusters.

In all these cases, up to but excluding Man, the arrangement seems to have been brought about mainly by the working of chance and of probing; but phases a to c the majority of the groups (except in the case of very large molecules) represent knots of stability, whereas in phase d the arrangements that survive represent privileged centers of activity.) Thus considered, the era of the Organic (living) which may have appeared so exceptional in Nature becomes no more than a further instance, at a particularly high level, of the operation of the same law that governs the whole of the Inorganic. So finally we find the Universe from top to bottom brought within a single, immense coiling movement(It may be as well here to distinguish between the two types of ‘coiling’ or in-folding’ in the evolutionary process.

a The Coiling of Mass, which sub-divides Matter without organizing it (e.g. the stellar masses);

b The Coiling of Complexity, which organizes elementary masses in ever more elaborate structures.

All Mass-Ceilings certainly do not result in Coilings of Complexity; but on the other hand all Coilings of Complexity seem to originate or be conditional upon a Mass-Coiling -- for example, Life, which could only be achieved on the physical foundation of a planet.) successively generating nuclei, atoms, molecules, cells and metazoa -- the special properties of Life being due solely to the extreme (virtually infinite) degree of complexity attained at its level.

Thus the World falls into order, it organizes itself, around Life, which is no longer to be regarded as an anomaly but accepted as pointing the direction of its advance (evidence in itself that the axis was well chosen !). Moreover up to a point its progress becomes measurable: for, as observation shows, it is the nature of Matter, when raised corpuscularly to a very high degree of complexity, to become centrated and interiorized -- that is to say, to endow itself with Consciousness. This means that the degree of consciousness attained by living creatures (from the moment, naturally, when it becomes discernible) may be used as a parameter to estimate the direction and speed of Evolution (that is to say, of the Cosmic Coiling) in terms of absolute values.

Let us adopt this method and see where it leads us.

Theorem II. Human Reflection is not an Epi-phenomenon of the Organic World, but the Central Phenomenon of Vitalization

If, as we have agreed, Life is the spearhead of Evolution, does Life in its turn afford us a pointer to the direction of its advance?

This again is an idea that the latest scientific research does not seem to favor at first glance. Just as Life itself seems to fade into insignificance within the sidereal immensities known to astronomy, so does the happy simplicity which seemed to indicate a steady rise of consciousness from the lower animals to Man lose distinctness in the extraordinary diversity and profusion of living forms now known to biology. Formerly ‘instinct’ could be treated as a sort of homogeneous quantity varying (something like temperature) on a scale running from zero to the point of Reflection representing human thought. Now we have to accustom ourselves to seeing things differently. It is not along a single line that Consciousness has emerged and is increasing on earth, but along an immense fan of nervures, each nervure representing a particular kind of sensory perception and knowledge. There are as many wave-lengths of consciousness as there are living forms.( i.e., in seeking to grasp the interior world and associative faculties of an animal it is not enough to try to diminish or de-centrate our own picture of the world: we have to modify our angle of vision and our way of seeing. Failing this we fall into the anthropomorphic illusions which cause us to be amazed at the phenomena of mimetism, or by mechanical arrangements which we ourselves could only carry out with the full aid of science, whereas the insect or the bat seems to have acquired the skill directly.) How can we venture to assert that in this spectrum or spreading sheaf of psychisms, any single line can exist? Hence the reluctance of many biologists to fix upon a scale of values for use within the animal kingdom. Is Man really more than a protozoan? It has been possible for the question to be seriously asked and left unanswered. But if there were really no answer we should be obliged to conclude that, although the course of Evolution was ‘directed’ up to the emergence of Life, beyond that point all that goes on is a scattering m every direction. We are left with no trail to follow unless we decide, for sufficient reasons, to attribute a unique and privileged value to reflective consciousness.

It has become the rather unconsidered fashion, since Bergson, to decry intelligence as compared with other forms or aspects of cognition. To the extent that this is simply a reaction against a static and abstract rationalism, it is wholly salutary; but it becomes pernicious if it goes so far as to cause us to overlook what is truly exceptional and essential in the phenomenon of Thought -- the power of Consciousness to centrate so perfectly upon itself as to be able to situate itself (itself and the Universe at the same time) in the explicit framework of a present, a past and a future -- that is to say, in a Space-Time continuum. The more we reflect upon the revolutionary consequences ensuing from this transformation of the laws hitherto governing the world -- the growth of powers of foresight and invention, prompting and guiding a ‘planned’ rebound of Evolution ! -- the more must we be persuaded that to regard Intelligence as an anomaly and even a disease of Consciousness is as absurd and sterile as to regard Life as a disease of the earth’s surface; and the more do we find ourselves drawn towards another interpretation of the facts, which may be expressed as follows: It is perfectly possible that in the general spectrum of Life the line ending in Man was originally no more than one psychic radiation among countless others. But it happened, for some reason of hazard, position or structure, that this sole ray among the millions contrived to pass the critical barrier separating the Unreflective from the Reflective -- that is to say, to enter the sphere of intelligence, foresight and freedom of action. Because it did so (and although in a sense, I must repeat, this ray was only one attempt among many) the whole essential stream of terrestrial biological evolution is now flowing through the breach which has been made. The cosmic tide may at one time have seemed to be immobilized, lost in the vast reservoir of living forms; but through the ages the level of consciousness was steadily rising behind the barrier, until finally, by means of the human brain (the most ‘centro-complex’ organism yet achieved to our knowledge in the universe) there has occurred, at a first ending of time, the breaking of the dykes, followed by what is now in progress, the flooding of Thought over the entire surface of the biosphere.

Thus regarded, everything in the history of the world takes shape, and what is better, everything goes on.

Theorem III. Socialization is not an Epi-phenomenon in the Sphere of Reflective Life but the Essential Phenomenon of Hominization

I believe that few readers will quarrel with my reasoning in favor of Theorems I and II. Where that part of the argument is concerned, the way through the jungle of facts has been cleared by a century of research and discussion. We may assert today that there is almost complete unanimity among scientists regarding the central position of Life in the Universe, and of Man in Life. It is beyond this point -- beyond Man in his anatomical and spiritual individuality -- that the path vanishes in the undergrowth and the dispute begins. We have now entered the battle: let us see what the position is.

What hinders and even prevents us from advancing beyond this point is our evident inability to conceive of anything more organically complex or psychically centrated than the human type emerging in Nature as it now is. Hence the instinctive tendency, so widespread even among men of science, to regard the tide of Life on earth as having for practical purposes ceased to flow. According to this view, Life, having reached the reflective stage, must not only disperse in diverging ethno-cultural units, but must finally culminate (and one might say, evaporate) in separate individualities, each within the enclosed sphere of its sensibilities and knowledge representing an independent, absolute summit of the Universe.

That is one way of looking at it. But before we acquiesce in a hypothesis which to me seems nothing but the implied admission of a dead-end, we need to be quite sure that the forces of vitalization really do possess no outlet upon earth, above the level of the human individual. We are told that the way ahead is completely closed. But have those who believe this given any thought to the forces of socialization?

From habit, and from ignorance, we are inclined to consider the human social phenomenon as no less commonplace and uninteresting than the human phenomenon of reflection. What, we ask in effect, can be more sadly natural than that the human particles, since, unluckily for them, they exist in crowds and masses, should feel the need to organize themselves so as to make existence tolerable? What is this but a process of necessary adjustment, with no mystery about it? That is the view taken by many people as they gaze with melancholy disquiet at the turbulent swell of humanity; and by it the whole edifice of human relationships and social structures is reduced to the level of a regulated epi-phenomenon, having no value or substance of its own, and therefore no future in its own right.

But here, and for the third time, why should we not adopt a position diametrically opposed to the one which is most familiar and, at first sight, most simple? Why not assume instead that, if it is by reason of the cosmic structure, and not by chance, that man has become ‘legion’, by the same token it is not through chance, but through the prolonged effect of ‘cosmic coiling’, that the human layer is weaving and folding-in upon itself in the way we see it to be doing? On this basis the fundamental evolutionary process of the Universe does not stop at the elemental level of the human brain and human reflection. On the contrary, at this stage the ‘complexity-consciousness’ mechanism gains an added impulse, acquiring a new dimension through new procedures. It is no longer simply a matter of cells organized by the hazards of natural selection, but of completed zoological units inventively building themselves into organisms on a planetary scale. Adopting this organic view of the social phenomenon, we find that not only does the structure of our terrestrial society become meaningful both in a general sense (the gradual rise of tension or psychic temperature under technico-social pressure) and in detail (the ‘anatomy’ and ‘physiology’ of the Noosphere) but the whole process takes on a convergent aspect: the human phenomenon, seen in its entirety, appears to flow towards a critical point of maturation, (and perhaps even of psychic withdrawal) (Necessitated, it would seem, by the requirement of irreversibility developed on the way by the coiling of the Cosmos upon itself.) corresponding to the Concentration of collective Reflection at a single center embracing all the individual units of reflection upon Earth.

Further than this we cannot see and our argument must cease -- except, as I have now to show, in the case of the Christian, who, drawing upon an added source of knowledge, may advance yet another step.

Theorem IV. The Church is neither an Epi- nor a Para-phenomenon in the growth of the Human Social Organism, but constitutes the very Axis (or Nucleus) about which it Forms

To those accustomed to see in the phenomenon of religion nothing more than a purely conventional association of minds the sphere of the ‘imaginary’, this fourth and final theorem will seem astonishing and may even come under suspicion as ‘illuminism’. Yet it arises directly out of the juxtaposition of two concepts of the World: the one which practical considerations have just led us to adopt, and the one which every Christian is bound to accept if he is to remain orthodox. As we know, the belief that the human individual cannot perfect himself or fully exist except through the organic unification of all men in God is essential and fundamental to Christian doctrine.(From the Christian point of view (which in this coincides with the biological viewpoint logically carried to its extreme) the ‘gathering together’ of the Spirit gradually accomplished in the course of the ‘coiling’ of the Universe, occurs in two tempos and by two stages -- a by slow ‘evaporation’ (individual deaths); and simultaneously b by incorporation in the collective human organism (‘the mystic body’) whose maturation will only be complete at the end of Time, through the Parousia.) To this mystical super-organism, joined in Grace and charity, we have now added a mysterious equivalent organism born of biology: the ‘Noospheric’ human unity gradually achieved by the totalizing and centrating effect of Reflection. How can these two super -- entities, the one ‘supernatural’, the other natural, fail to come together and harmonize in Christian thought; the critical point of maturation envisaged by science being simply the physical condition and experimental aspect of the critical point of the Parousia postulated and awaited in the name of Revelation? Clearly for the conjunction to be effected it is necessary (as is already happening) for it to gain possession of many devout minds. But we must be clear that this change in our vision goes far beyond any purely intellectual and abstract merging of two complementary pictures, one rational, the other religious, of ‘the end of the world’.

For one thing, by this conjunction Christian cosmology, harmonized and effectively articulated at its peak with Human cosmology, shows itself to be fundamentally and in real values homogeneous with the latter. Thus dogma is no mere flowering of the imagination but something authentically born of history; and it is in literal not metaphorical terms that the Christian believer can illumine and further the genesis of the Universe around him in the form of a Christogenesis.

Moreover, by very virtue of the interlocking of the two ‘geneses’ the ascending force of Christianity is directly geared to the propulsive mechanism of human super-evolution. To the Christian, for whom the whole process of hominization is merely a paving of the way for the ultimate Parousia, it is above all Christ who invests Himself with the whole reality of the Universe, but at the same time it is the Universe which is illumined with all the warmth and immortality of Christ. So that finally (the point cannot be too strongly stressed) a new impulse becomes possible and is now beginning to take shape in human consciousness. Born of the psychic combination of two kinds of faith -- in the transcendent action of a personal God and the innate perfectibility of a World in progress -- it is an impulse, (or better a spirit of love) that is truly evolutionary. We can indeed say of it that it is the only kind of spiritual energy capable of causing the formidable human machine, in which, from what we can see, all the future and all the hopes of Evolution must henceforth be concentrated, to function at full power, without danger from egotism or from mechanization, and to the full extent of its potentialities.


What I set out to show, and hope to have shown, is that, viewed from a certain angle, the internal stir of the Cosmos no longer appears disorderly: it takes a given direction following a major axis of movement at the completion of which the human phenomenon becomes detached as the most advanced form of the largest and most characteristic of cosmic processes, that of in-folding. This axis, as we have seen, may be conveniently determined by means of three succeeding theorems, so closely related that our acceptance or rejection of any one of them must materially affect our attitude to the others.

The coherence of the argument (not a closed one, like a system of logic, but open, like a method or key to progressive research) is such that I believe only solid, positive reasons can lead to its rejection; and for my part I can see none that is adequate. But it is nevertheless true that, above all if they are taken separately, none of the propositions I have formulated is rigidly deductive or, therefore, conclusive: each is more in the nature of an intuition, that is to say, a kind of choice. So it is possible to part company from the sequence at each stage: but only if in doing so we accept the alternative choice. But this, to the logical mind, threatens to have dangerous repercussions in the field of action.

As an instance let us take the particularly crucial and meaningful Third Theorem -- or option.

Do we accept the idea, strongly supported by fact, that the individual man cannot achieve his wholeness (that is to say, reflect and personalize himself completely upon himself) except in solidarity with all other men, present, past and future? If we do, the awareness aroused in us of being each a responsible element in a rebounding course of Evolution must, at the same time as it gives rise to a desire and reason for action, inspire us with a fundamental sense of obligation and a precise system of moral tendencies. In matters of love or money or liberty, of politics, economics or society, we not only find our main line of conduct and criteria of choice structurally laid down for us (‘ever higher in convergence’) but furthermore, our instinct for research and creation (‘to consummate the Universe in ourselves’) discovers endless justification and sustenance. In short, everything makes sense, everything glows with life; and the flow of human sap rises to the very heart of the Christian faith.

But if, on the other hand, we refuse to regard human socialization as anything more than a chance arrangement, a modus vivendi lacking all power of internal growth, then (excepting, at the most, a few elementary rules safeguarding the living-space of the individual) we find the whole structure of politico-economico-social relations reduced to an arbitrary system of conventional and temporary expedients. Everything in the human world becomes artificial in the worst sense of the word; everything is divested of importance, urgency and interest; Christianity itself becomes no more than a sort of alien proliferation, without analogy or roots in the Phenomenon of Man.

Faced by so wide a divergence of attitudes, can we fail to see that the attempt made in these pages to determine a cosmic axis of evolution, far from being a mere intellectual diversion, is by way of expressing the condition of survival for the human race? And more especially how can we do other than feel that it is about the social phenomenon, according to the degree of central and organic value which we attribute to it, that Mankind is in process of re-assessing and re-grouping itself?

Paris 20 December 1947. L’AntAropologie, September 1948.