Chapter 22: The End of the Species
Not much more than a hundred years ago Man learned to his astonishment that there was an origin of animal species, a genesis in which he himself was involved. Not only did all kinds of animals share the earth with him, but he found that he was in some sort a part of this zoological diversity which hitherto he had regarded as being merely his neighbors. Life was in movement, and Mankind was the latest of its successive waves!
This astonishing pronouncement on the part of science seemed at first to do no more than stimulate the curiosity (or indignation) of theorists; but it was soon apparent that the shock was not purely mental, and that nineteenth century man had been shaken by it to his depths. Three hundred years earlier, in the time of Galileo, the end of geocentrism had intrigued or disturbed thinking minds without having any appreciable effect on the mass of people. The sidereal dispute had, after all, produced no change in the earth itself, or in its inhabitants or their relations with one another. But the concept of biological evolution inevitably led to a profound reshaping of planetary values.
To some outraged spirits, no doubt, Man appeared diminished and dethroned by this evolutionary theory which made him no more than the latest arrival in the animal kingdom. But to the minds of the majority our human condition seemed finally to be exalted by the fact that we were rooted in the fauna and soil of the planet -- evolving Man in the forefront of the animals.
In short, until then Man, although he knew that the human race might continue to exist for a long time, had not suspected that it had a future. Now however, because he was a species, and species change, he could begin to look for and seek to conquer something quite new that lay ahead of him.
That is why ‘Darwinism’, as it was then called, however naive its beginnings, came at exactly the right moment to create the cosmological atmosphere of which the great technico -- social advance of the last century stood in need if it was to believe passionately in what it was doing. Rudimentary though it was, Darwinism afforded a scientific justification of faith in progress.
But today, by a development natural to itself, the movement has come to look like a receding tide. For all his discoveries and inventions, twentieth century man is a sad creature. How shall we account for his present dejected state except basically by the fact that, following that exalted vision of species in growth, he is now confronted by an accumulation of scientific evidence pointing to the reverse -- the species doomed to extinction?
The extinction of the species . . .
Biologists do not agree about the mechanism of the continual disappearance of phyla in the course of geological time, a process almost as mysterious as that of their formation; but the reality of the phenomenon is indisputable. Either the different species, losing their powers of ‘speciation’, survive as living fossils, which after all is a form of death; or else, and there are infinitely more of these, they simply vanish, one sort being replaced by another. Whatever the reason may be, inadaptability to a new environment, competition, a mysterious senescence, or possibly a single basic cause underlying all these reasons, the end is always the same. The days (or the millennia) of every living form are by statistical reckoning ineluctably numbered; so much so that, using the scale of time furnished by the study of certain isotopes, it is beginning to be possible to calculate in millions of years the average life of a species.
Man now sees that the seeds of his ultimate dissolution are at the heart of his being. The End of the Species is in the marrow of our bones!
Is it not this presentiment of a blank wall ahead, underlying all other tensions and specific fears, which paradoxically (at the very moment when every barrier seems to be giving way before our power of understanding and mastering the world) is darkening and hardening the minds our generation?
As psychiatry teaches us, we shall gain nothing by shutting our eyes to this shadow of collective death that has appeared on our horizon. On the contrary, we must open them wider.
But how are we to exorcise the shadow?
It may be said that timidly, even furtively (it is remarkable how coy we are in referring to the matter) two methods are used by writers and teachers to reassure themselves and others in face of the ever more obsessive certainty of the eventual ending of the human species: the first is to invoke the infinity of Time and the second is to seek shelter in the depths of Space.
The Time argument is as follows. By the latest estimates of paleontology the probable life of a phylum of average dimensions is to be reckoned in tens of millions of years. But if this is true of ‘ordinary’ species, what duration may we not look for in the case of Man, that favored race which, by its intelligence, has succeeded in removing all danger of serious competition and even in attacking the causes of senescence at the root.
Then the Space argument. Even if we suppose that, by prolonging its existence on a scale of planetary longevity, the human species will eventually find itself with a chemically exhausted Earth beneath its feet, is not Man even now in process of developing astronautical means which will enable him to go elsewhere and continue his destiny in some other corner of the firmament?
That is what they say, and for all I know there may be people for whom this sort of reasoning does really dispel the clouds that veil the future. I can only say that for my part I find such consolations intolerable, not only because they do nothing but palliate and postpone our fears, which is bad enough, but even more because they seem to me scientifically false.
In order that the end of Mankind may be deferred sine die we are asked to believe in a species that will drag on and spread itself indefinitely; which means, in effect, that it would run down more and more. But is not this the precise opposite of what is happening here and now in the human world?
I have been insisting for a long time on the importance and significance of the technico-mental process which, particularly during the past hundred years, has been irresistibly causing Mankind to draw closer together and unite upon itself. From routine or prejudice the majority of anthropologists still refuse to see in this movement of totalization anything more than a superficial and temporary side-effect of the organic forces of biogenesis. Any parallel that may be drawn between socialization and speciation, they maintain, is purely metaphorical. To which I would reply that, if this is so, to what undisclosed form of energy shall we scientifically attribute the irreversible and conjugated growth of Arrangement and Consciousness which historically characterizes (as it does everywhere else, in indisputably ‘biological’ fields) the establishment of Mankind on Earth?
We have only to go a little further, I am convinced, and our minds, awakened at last to the existence of an added dimension, will grasp the profound identity existing between the forces of civilization and those of evolution. Man will then assume his true shape in the eyes of the naturalists -- that of a species which, having entered the realm of Thought, henceforth folds back its branches upon itself instead of spreading them. Man, a species which converges, instead of diverging like every other species on earth: so that we are bound to envisage its ending in terms of some paroxysmal state of maturation which, by its scientific probability alone, must illumine for us all the darkest menaces of the future.
For if by its structure Mankind does not dissipate itself but concentrates upon itself; in other words, if, alone among all the living forms known to us, our zoological phylum is laboriously moving towards a critical point of speciation, then are not all hopes permitted to us in the matter of survival and irreversibility?
The end of a ‘thinking species’: not disintegration and death, but a new break-through and a re-birth, this time outside Time and Space, through the very excess of unification and co-reflection.( Such reflexion, as I am constantly obliged to say, in no way entailing a diminution but on the contrary an increase of the ‘person’. Must I again repeat the truth, of universal application, that if it be properly ordered union does not confound but differentiates?)
It goes without saying that this idea of a salvation of the Species sought, not in the direction of any temporo-spatial consolidation or expansion but by way of spiritual escape through the excess of consciousness, is not yet seriously considered by the biologists. At first sight it appears fantastic. Yet if one thinks about it long and carefully, it is remarkable how it sustains examination, grows stronger and, for two particular reasons among others, takes root in the mind.
For one thing, as I have said, it corresponds more closely than any other extrapolation to the marked (even challenging) urgency of our own time in the broad progress of the Phenomenon of Man. But in addition it seems to be more capable than any other vision of the future of stimulating and steadying our power of action by counteracting the prevailing pessimism.
Finally, there is a fact which we must face.
In the present age, what does most discredit to faith in progress (apart from our reticence and helplessness as we contemplate the ‘end of the Race’) is the unhappy tendency still prevailing among its adepts to distort everything that is most valid and noble in our newly aroused expectation of an ‘ultra-human’ by reducing it to some form of threadbare millennium. The believers in progress think in terms of a Golden Age, a period of euphoria and abundance; and this, they give us to understand, is all that Evolution has in store for us.(I may cite, as an instance of this poverty of thought, the French film sheltering behind so many famous names, La Vie Commence Demain.) It is right that our hearts should fail us at the thought of so ‘bourgeois’ a paradise.
We need to remind ourselves yet again, so as to offset this truly pagan materialism and naturalism, that although the laws of biogenesis by their nature presuppose, and in fact bring about, an improvement in human living conditions, it is not well-being but a hunger for more-being which, of psychological necessity, can alone preserve the thinking earth from the taedium vitae. And this makes fully plain the importance of what I have already suggested, that it is upon its point (or superstructure) of spiritual concentration, and not on its basis (or infra-structure) of material arrangement, that the equilibrium of Mankind biologically depends.
For if, pursuing this thought, we accept the existence of a critical point of speciation at the conclusion of all technologies and civilizations, it means (with Tension maintaining its ascendancy over Rest to the end of biogenesis) that an outlet appears at the peak of Time, not only for our hope of escape but for our expectation of revelation.
And this is what can best allay the conflict between light and darkness, exaltation and despair, in which, following the rebirth in us of the Sense of Species, we arc now absorbed.
New York, 9 December, 1952. Psyché, February 1953.
NOTE BY FRENCH EDITOR Underlying this final testimony is Teilhard de Chardin’s earliest mystical intimation, set forth in La Vie Cosmique as early as 1916. The following extracts from that work show the unity of fundamental Christian vision and scientific knowledge which he preserved to the end.
Incapable of being mingled or confounded with the participating being whom He sustains, inspires and links with Himself, God is at the birth, the growth and the ultimate end of all things . . .
The unique business of the world is the physical incorporation of the faithful in Christ, who is of God. This major task is pursued with the rigor and harmony of a natural process of evolution . . .
At its inception an operation of a transcendent order was required, grafting -- in accordance with mysterious but physically regulated conditions -- the Person of a Deity on to the Human Cosmos.
Et Verbum caro factum est. That was the Incarnation. By this first and fundamental contact of God with our kind, by virtue of the penetration of the Divine into our nature, a new life was born, an unexpected enlargement and ‘obediential’ prolongation of our natural capacities: Grace. Grace is the unique sap passing from a single trunk into the branches, blood flowing into the veins from the pumping of a single heart, nervous impulses reaching the limbs at the bidding of a single head; and the radiant Head, the powerful Heart, the fruitful Trunk, these are inevitably Christ . . .
The Incarnation is a renewal and a restoration of all the forces and powers of the universe; Christ is the instrument, the center, the end of all animate and material Creation; by Him all things are created, sanctified, made alive. This is the constant and customary teaching of St. John and St. Paul (the most ‘cosmic’ of the sacred writers), the teaching conveyed by the most solemn sentences of the Liturgy. . . but which we repeat, and which fixture generations will repeat to the end, though they cannot master or measure its mysterious and profound significance: it is bound up with the comprehension of the Universe.
From the commencement of things an Advent of ploughing and harvesting began, in the course of which, gently and lovingly, the determinisms reached out and moved towards the growing of a Fruit that was beyond hope and yet awaited. So harmoniously adapted and arranged that the Supreme Transcendent might seem to be engendered wholly of their immanence, the energies and substances of the world concentrated and purified themselves in the stem of Jesse, composing of their distilled and accumulated riches the sparkling jewel of Matter, the pearl of the Cosmos and its link with the personal, incarnate Absolute: the blessed Virgin Mary, Queen and Mother of all things, the true Demeter. And when the day of the Virgin dawned, the profound and gratuitous finality of the Universe was suddenly revealed: from the day when the first breath of individualization, passing over the burgeoning supreme lower Center, caused the first monads within it to smile, everything moved towards the Child born of the Woman.
And since the time when Jesus was born, when He finished growing and died and rose again, everything has continued to move because Christ has not yet completed His own forming. He has not yet gathered in to Himself the last folds of the Garment of flesh and love which His disciples are making for him. The mystical Christ has not yet attained His full growth. In the pursuance of this engendering is situated the ultimate spring of all created activity. . . Christ is the Fulfillment even of the natural evolution of beings.