Chapter 6: Life and the Planets
During the five years that the Earth has trembled beneath our feet, its vast human masses splitting and reforming, we have begun to be conscious of the fact that we are in the grip of forces many millions of times transcending our individual liberties. For even the most positivist and realist among us the evidence is growing that the present crisis far exceeds the economic and political factors which seemed to provoke it, and within the framework of which we may have hoped that it would remain confined. This conflict is no merely localized and temporary affair, a matter of periodical readjustment between nations. The events we are witnessing and undergoing are unquestionably bound up with the general evolution of terrestrial life; they are of planetary dimensions. It is therefore on the planetary scale that they must be assessed, and it is in these terms that I ask you to consider them, so that we may better understand, better endure, and, I will add, better love these things greater than ourselves which are taking place around us and sweeping us along in their course.
What does the world-adventure upon which we are embarked look like, when we seek to interpret it both objectively and hopefully in the light of the widest, soundest and most modern concepts of astronomy, geology and biology? That is what I propose to discuss here: not from the viewpoint of Sirius, as the saying is -- that is to say, with the lofty detachment of an observer seeing things from so far off that they fail to touch him -- but with the anxious intensity of a son of Earth who draws back in order to be able to see more deeply into the matter and spirit of a movement upon which his happiness depends.
This lecture is divided into three parts:
One. The place of living planets in the Universe. Smallness and vastness.
Two. The place of Man on the planet Earth -- at the head.
Three. The place of our generation -- our own place -- in the evolution of Mankind. Assessment.
And finally a summing-up: the end of planetary life. Death or escape?
Let us begin.
I. Living Planets in the Universe
1. From the point of view of the Immense: the apparent insignificance of the earth
From what we now know of astronomy the planets would seem at first sight to be a perfectly insignificant and negligible element in the universe as a whole. How does the sidereal universe look to the eyes of modern science? No doubt you have gazed up at the sky on a fine winter’s night and, like innumerable human beings before you, had an impression of a serene and tranquil firmament twinkling with a profusion of small, friendly lights, all apparently at the same distance from yourself. But telescopic and spectroscopic observation, and increasingly exact calculations, are transforming this comfortable spectacle into a vision that is very much more unsettling, one which in all probability will profoundly affect our moral outlook and religious beliefs when it has passed from the minds of a few initiates into the mass-consciousness of Mankind as a whole: immensities of distance and size, huge extremes of temperature, torrents of energy. . . .
That we may better understand what the earth means, we must try to penetrate, step by step, within this ‘infinity’.
First, the stars.
The stars constitute the natural sidereal unit. It is towards them therefore, the analysis of their structure and the study of their distribution, that the researches of astrophysics are principally directed. The process of research is one based entirely on the analysis of light, calling for miracles of patience, ability and acumen; but it is astonishingly fruitful, since it enables exact measurements to be made of the mass, energy, diameter, distance and movement of objects vast in themselves but ultra-microscopic to us because of their remoteness.
The first thing to note is that, in certain aspects, the stars seem to vary a great deal among themselves. Certain of them, the ‘red giants’, are of colossal dimensions, their diameter exceeding 450 times that of the Sun (if the sun were as large as they it would extend beyond Earth, Jupiter and Saturn as far as Uranus!) Others, the ‘white dwarfs’, are smaller than the earth; and still others, the most numerous category, closely resemble the sun both in their dimensions and their yellow colour. We find similar contrasts of brilliance and temperature. One star may be the equivalent of 300,000 suns in luminosity, whereas another may amount to only a fifty-thousandth part of it (as great a difference, the astronomer Sir James Jeans observed, as there is between a lighthouse and a glow-worm). These, of course, are extreme cases. In the matter of surface-temperature, if the Sun and the majority of stars are round about 6,000˚ Centigrade (three times the temperature of an electric arc) there are some of 11,000˚ (Sirius) and even of 23,000˚; and on the other hand there are some as low as 3,500˚ (the red giants).
But beneath this great diversity, which is due principally to the varying ages of the stars, there is concealed a sort of deep identity. Whether giants, medium-sized or dwarfs, the stars are curiously similar in mass (from one to ten times the mass of the sun), which proves, incidentally, that they must vary prodigiously in their mean density -- 1.4 in the case of the Sun, but 50,000 and even 300,000 in the case of the dwarf stars (a fragment the size of a pinch of snuff, brought from one of these to Earth, would weigh a ton!)
So we have approximate identity of mass, and therefore calibration. If we now consider the number of the stars (15,000 x 106 visible to the optical telescope alone) you will understand how it is possible to say, cosmically speaking, that we are enveloped in a sort of monstrous gas formed of molecules as heavy as the Sun moving at distances from each other so great that they have to be reckoned in light-years (bearing in mind that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, and that we are only 8 light-minutes distant from the sun) -- a gas made of stars!
A gas of stars. The very conjunction of the two words is startling. But the shock is even greater when we learn that these myriads of suns scattered in the void are no more than the grains forming a super-grain of infinitely greater magnitude, and that this in its turn is no more than one unit amid a myriad of similar units! Imagination is confounded. . . . Yet this is what we learn, beyond any possibility of doubt, from the Milky Way and the other galaxies.
You will all have gazed in curiosity at the Milky Way, that long whitish ribbon which, extending from east to west over the two hemispheres, girdles our firmament. Astronomers have long felt that this mysterious, luminous train must constitute one of the most important structural features of the Universe. They sought, therefore, to decipher it, and they have succeeded in doing so. This is the conclusion, dumbfounding but certain, at which they have arrived. The Milky Way, they tell us, is not at all, as one might suppose, a sort of cloud of diffused matter drifting like a mist among the stars. Instead, it denotes the boundary, it marks the equatorial contour, of a prodigious lenticular accumulation of cosmic matter nursing, in its spiral arms, the solar system, all our constellations, all our visible stars, and further millions besides (perhaps 100,000 x 106 altogether); these latter being so remote from us that they convey no more than a vague, milky impression to our eyes. It has been possible to calculate the dimensions of this extraordinary celestial formation and the speed with which it rotates upon itself. According to Jeans its diameter is about 200,000 light-years and it takes 3 million years to complete a single revolution, at a peripheral speed of several hundred miles per second. Compared with this stupendous disc, Jeans remarks, the earth’s orbit is no bigger than a pin’s head compared with the surface of the American continent.
But the Milky Way, our Milky Way, is not the only one of its kind in the Universe. Here and there small milky patches are to be discerned in the sky, which the telescope shows to be spiral clouds containing sparks of brilliance. These, as we now know, are infinitely further away from us than the stars. They do not belong to our own, immediate world -- or, as one might put it, to the sidereal vessel which bears us. They are other islands, other fragments of the Universe, other Milky Ways sailing in convoy with our own through space (or even diverging from it at fantastic speeds). Several millions of these galaxies have already been counted (each, we must remember, composed of millions upon millions of stars), separated from one another by an average distance of 2 million light-years, and all of approximately the same size! A gas of galaxies on top of a gas of stars. . . . This is the truly overwhelming spectacle, far beyond our power to picture it, in which our present vision of the Universe culminates when we look in the direction of the Immense.
But must we not assume, following the logic of this principle of recurrence, that even beyond this there are super-galaxies, each formed of a group of spiral nebulae? We cannot be sure, but it seems improbable. The Universe is not composed, as Pascal thought, of pieces enclosed one in another, repeating themselves indefinitely and identically from bottom to top, from the infinitesimal to the immense. At a certain level the cosmic structure stops dead, and we pass on to ‘something else’. Beyond the galaxies there is nothing, according to Einsteinian physics, unless it be the spherical frame of Space- Time within which all things move in a circle, without ever coming to an end or being able to leave it. . . . Let us put aside this still unresolved problem of the upper limits of the world, and since we do not yet know what may be beyond or around the galaxies, let us at least consider what unites them -- that is to say, try to describe the genesis of their swarm. It is along this path, as you will see, that we shall eventually encounter the planets in search of which we started out.
At the very beginning, so the astronomers tell us -- that is to say, billions of years ago -- there was in place of the present world a diffused atmosphere, billions of times less dense than air, spreading in all directions over billions of miles. This ‘primordial chaos’, as Jeans calls it, must have seemed homogeneous; but inasmuch as it was subject to the force of gravity it was excessively unstable. A slight unevenness of distribution occurring by chance at any given point (a contingency that was bound to arise) was all that was needed to cause the entire edifice to break up into parts which, sundering themselves from their neighbors, coiled in more and more tightly upon themselves in enormous clots -- their vastness, by the law of celestial mechanics, being directly proportionate to the lightness of the matter of which they were originally composed. This was the first stage of the birth of the galaxies. The same disruptive process then operated within the separate galaxies, engendering smaller clots, since cosmic matter had become heavier. Thus the stars appeared.
Are we then to suppose that a third stage occurred in which the stars, in their turn, gave birth to planets through the condensation of their substance? This was the famous theory of Laplace; but a more thorough analysis of the problem has shown that it could not have happened in this way. Astronomers are today agreed that the distribution and movement of the heavenly bodies composing the solar system can only be explained by the hypothesis of a purely fortuitous occurrence -- for example, the near contact of two stars. This is to say that Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or little Pluto, the furthest of all, would not exist had not another Sun, by an extraordinary chance, passed so near to our Sun as almost to touch it (within three diameters!) wresting from it, by force of attraction, a long, cigar-shaped filament which in the course of time broke up into a string of separate globes.
And this brings us to the heart of the problem we set out to solve, namely: What is the place, the significance and the importance of our planets in the Universe?’
Because of their very small dimensions (even Jupiter is a dwarf compared with the Sun), the extreme weakness of the energy they radiate, and the short time they have been in existence (the galaxies were billions of years old when the solar system was born); even more important, because of their mode of existence, the planets look not merely like poor relations but like strangers and intruders in the sidereal system. Created by chance, they have no place in the normal and orthodox evolution of astral matter; with the exasperating result that we know nothing for certain about the existence or frequency of occurrence of planets outside the solar system. In Laplace’s thesis almost every star should have its girdle of planets. In present-day theory perhaps one star in 100,000 (Jeans’s estimate: Eddington puts the figure at millions) possesses them. And if to this we add the fact that, in the case of any given planet, it calls for a further extremely rare accident to produce the conditions which would endow it with life, we can see what a fantastically small figure, quantitatively speaking, our Earth cuts in the Universe.
I said just now, in seeking to describe the magnitude of the human events which are overtaking us, that they were of ‘planetary’ importance. But is not ‘planetary’ almost synonymous with ‘infinitesimal’? Let me recall from memory the hard words of Jeans (he wrote more hopeful ones later, you will be relieved to learn): ‘What does life amount to? We have tumbled, as though through error, into a universe which by all the evidence was not intended for us. We cling to a fragment of a grain of sand until such time as the chill of death shall return us to primal matter. We strut for a tiny moment upon a tiny stage, well knowing that all our aspirations are doomed to ultimate failure and that everything we have achieved will perish with our race, leaving the Universe as though we had never existed. . . . The Universe is indifferent and even hostile to every kind of life.’
But let us boldly state it: this bleak vista is not only so discouraging as to make action impossible; it is so much at variance, physically, with the existence and exercise of our intelligence (which, after all, is the one force in the world capable of dominating the world) that it cannot be the last word of Science. Following the physicists and astronomers we have thus far been contemplating the Universe in terms of the Immense -- immensity of space, time, energy and number. But is it not possible that we have been looking through the wrong end of the telescope, or seeing things in the wrong light? Suppose, instead, we survey the same landscape -- without, of course, attempting in any way to alter its arrangement -- in its bio-chemical aspect, that of Complexity.
2. In terms of Complexity; or the Planets as vital centers of the Universe
We will define the ‘complexity’ of a thing, if you allow, as the quality the thing possesses of being composed --
a of a larger number of elements, which are
b more tightly organized among themselves.
In this sense an atom is more complex than an electron, a molecule more complex than an atom, and a living cell more complex than the highest chemical nuclei of which it is composed, the difference depending (on this I insist) not only on the number and diversity of the elements included in each case, but at least as much on the number and correlative variety of the links formed between these elements. It is not, therefore, a matter of simple multiplicity but of organized multiplicity; not simple complication but centrated complication.
This idea of complexity (more exactly, centro-complexity) is easily grasped. In a universe where science ends by analyzing everything and taking everything apart, it simply expresses a particular characteristic applicable to every kind of body, like its mass, volume or any other dimension. But what do we gain by using this characteristic, rather than another, for the purpose of classifying the objects around us?
I will cite two advantages, although it means somewhat anticipating the latter parts of this lecture.
First, in the multitude of things comprising the world, an examination of their degree of complexity enables us to distinguish and separate those which may be called ‘true natural units’, the ones that really matter, from the accidental pseudo-units, which are unimportant. The atom, the molecule, the cell and the living being are real units because they are both formed and centrated, whereas a drop of water, a heap of sand, the Earth, the Sun, the stars in general, whatever the multiplicity or elaborateness of their structure, seem to possess no organization, no ‘centricity’. However imposing their extent they are false units, aggregates arranged more or less in order of density.
Secondly, the coefficient of complexity further enables us to establish, among the natural units which it has helped us to ‘identify’ and isolate, a system of classification that is no less natural and universal. Let us try to depict this classification in schematic form, as it might be drawn on a blackboard.
At the very bottom of the board we have the 92 simple chemical elements (from hydrogen to uranium) formed by groups of atomic nuclei together with their electrons.
Above these come the molecules composed of groups of atoms. These molecules, in the case of the carbon compounds, may become enormous. In the albuminoids (or proteins) there may be thousands of associated atoms: the molecular weight of hemoglobin is 68,000.
Above these again come the mysterious viruses, strange bodies producing a variety of maladies in animals and plants, concerning which we do not yet know if they are monstrous chemical molecules or living infra-bacteria. Their molecular weight runs into millions.
Higher still we come to the lowest cells. I do not know if any attempt has yet been made to ascertain the atomic content of these (it must amount to billions) but they are undoubtedly groups of proteins.
And finally we reach the world of higher living forms, each composed of groups of cells. To take a very simple instance, that of the plant duckweed; its content is estimated to be 4 X 1020 atoms.
For the present we will disregard an even higher category which may conceivably have its place at the head of the list -- that formed by the grouping, not merely of cells, but of metazoa synthetically associated in such a manner as to comprise, when taken together, a single, living super-organism. We shall come back to this.
This scheme of classification, based essentially on the intimate structure of objects, is undeniably natural in principle. But it can also be seen to possess a double and extreme significance.
It is significant, in the first place, because for the scientist it bridges the long-standing, troublesome and seemingly irreducible gap between biology and physics. The wide distinction which for philosophical reasons we have thought it necessary to draw between life and matter ceases to be valid as a law of recurrence comes to light, in the phenomenal field, for practical purposes linking these two orders of phenomena. Beyond the millionth atom everything happens as though the material corpuscles stirred and were vitalized; the Universe organizes itself in a single, grand progression, somewhat untidy no doubt, but on the whole clear in its orientation, ascending from the most rudimentary atom to the highest form of living things.
Secondly it is significant because, arranged according to our scale of complexity, the elements succeed one another in the historical order of their birth. The place in the scale occupied by each corpuscle situates the element chronologically in the genesis of the Universe, that is to say, in Time. It dates it.
Thus the rising scale conforms both to the ascending movement towards higher consciousness and to the unfolding of evolutionary time. Does not this suggest that, by using the degree of complexity as a guide, we may advance very much more surely than by following any other lead as we seek to penetrate to the truth of the world and to assess, in terms of absolute values, the relative importance, the place, of all things?
With this in mind let us look again at the vast sidereal units (galaxies and suns) and this time try to assess their importance not in terms of their immensity or even complexity (since, as I have said, nebulae and stars are no more than aggregates) but in terms of the complexity of the elements which compose them.
We now see a very different picture; a complete reversal of values and perspective.
Let us look first at what is largest, the galaxies. In their least condensed parts (that is to say, in what they still contain of the vestiges of primordial chaos), the matter composing them is extremely tenuous; probably hydrogen, the most primitive substance known to us in the field of distinguishable matter. One nucleus and one electron: the simplest combination imaginable.
Now come down a stage in the scale of the immensities and look at the stars. Here the chemism is more elaborate. Whether in the red giants, the medium yellows or the white dwarfs, we may surmise at the presence in the center of heavy and extremely unstable elements possessing a greater atomic weight than uranium (unless these are simply ‘ordinary matter’ reduced to a physical state of extraordinary compression). At the same time, in the lighter surface-zone enveloping these depths the spectroscope can discern the entire range of our simple elements. In the stars, therefore, if we compare them with the original galaxies, the degree of complexity rises rapidly; but, and this is of major importance, it cannot go beyond a certain stage; that is to say (if we except a number of simple groups perceptible in the incandescent atmosphere of certain stars) it cannot reach the level of the composite bodies, i.e., the large molecules. The fact is that even on the periphery of these prodigious centers of energy the temperature is far too great for any higher combination to possess stability. The stars are essentially laboratories in which Nature, starting with primordial hydrogen, manufactures atoms. For the operation to go beyond this point we have to imagine two astonishing things:
First, that by a sort of ‘skimming’ process a portion of the stellar substance separates from the rest, deriving entirely from the surface-zone of lighter atoms which are not constantly threatened with radio-active disintegration. The larger molecules can only be constructed of elements possessing almost unlimited stability.
Secondly, that this light and stable ‘cream’ of any given star, having escaped beyond the reach of the tempest of energy blazing at the heart of the parent-body, may yet remain sufficiently close to it to derive a moderate benefit from its radiations: for the large molecules need energy for their synthesis.
But are not these two providential occurrences (the selection of a suitable ‘dough’ and its treatment in a suitable ‘oven’) precisely what that mysterious body, our father-star, effected in a single operation when, passing close to our Sun, it detached from its surface and scattered over a wide distance the ribbon of matter that became the planets?
You will now see where my argument is tending, or more exactly, where the guide which we have elected to follow, the scale of complexity, is irresistibly leading us. Despite their vastness and splendor the stars cannot carry the evolution of matter much beyond the atomic series: it is only on the very humble planets, on them alone, that the mysterious ascent of the world into the sphere of high complexity has a chance to take place. However inconsiderable they may be in the history of sidereal bodies, however accidental their coming into existence, the planets are finally nothing less than the key-points of the Universe. It is through them that the axis of Life now passes; it is upon them that the energies of an Evolution principally concerned with the building of large molecules is now concentrated.
We may well be dismayed by the rarity and improbability of heavenly bodies such as our own. But does not everyday experience teach us that in every order of Nature, and at every level, nothing succeeds except at the cost of prodigious waste and fantastic hazards? A monstrously fragile conjunction of chances normally dictates the birth of the most precious and essential beings. We can only bow before this universal law whereby, so strangely to our minds, the play of large numbers is mingled and confounded with a final purpose. Without being overawed by the Improbable, let us now concentrate our attention on the planet we call Earth. Enveloped in the blue mist of oxygen which its life breathes, it floats at exactly the right distance from the sun to enable the higher chemisms to take place on its surface. We do well to look at it with emotion. Tiny and isolated though it is, it bears clinging to its flanks the destiny and future of the Universe.
II. Man on the Planet Earth: The Most Complex of Molecules
Having established, on the basis of complexity, the astral preeminence of the planets in the sidereal system, and particularly that of the Earth, our obvious next step is to seek to determine, in cosmic terms, the significance and value on Earth of what we very improperly call ‘the human species’.
If the essential function and dignity of the Earth consist in its being one of the rare laboratories where, in time and space, the synthesis of ever larger molecules is proceeding; and if, as our table of complexity shows, living organisms, far from originating in germs fallen upon Earth from the celestial spaces, are simply the highest composites to spring from planetary geochemism,(I need hardly point out that for the purpose of this lecture, which does not seek to go outside the field if scientific observation, only the succession and interdependence of phenomena are taken into account: that is to say, an experimental law of recurrence, not an ontological analysis of causes.) then the discovery of Man’s absolute place in the Universe becomes simply a matter of deciding what position we who constitute Mankind occupy in the evolving range of super-molecules.
Here, however, a difficulty arises.
Where relatively simple molecular units are concerned their order of complexity may be roughly expressed by the number of atoms they contain, their ‘corpuscular number’ as one might call it. But when this corpuscular number exceeds a million (from the virus on) and still more when we come to the higher forms of life (there are something like a hundred billion cells in an average mammal, and hundreds of millions of atoms to each cell!) it becomes impossible to estimate the number of atoms, which would be so vast as to be almost meaningless even if it could be calculated. At this level of organization, in fact, the actual number of atoms contained in complex units is of minor importance compared with the number and quality of the links established between the atoms.
How then are we to go about classifying the higher living units so that the position of Man in terms of complexity may be determined? What method shall we adopt?
We can do it very simply by introducing what is called a change of variable. The more complex a being is, so our Scale of Complexity tells us, the more is it centered upon itself and therefore the more aware does it become. In other words, the higher the degree of complexity in a living creature, the higher its consciousness; and vice versa. The two properties vary in parallel and simultaneously. If we depict them in diagrammatic form, they are equivalent and interchangeable. So it comes to this, that when we have reached the point where complexity can no longer be reckoned in numbers of atoms we can nevertheless continue to measure it (and accurately) by noting the increase of consciousness in the living creature -- in practical terms, the development of its nervous system. This is the solution of our problem.
Accordingly, if we use the factor of psychic growth (or, which comes to the same thing, progress of cerebralization) as a scale whereby we may measure the growth of complexity through the maze of invertebrates, anthropoids and vertebrates, the position and significance of the human type in nature at once becomes apparent. For of all the numberless types of living unit that have appeared in the course of the last 300 million years, Man, judged by his power of reflection (itself bound up with the ultra-complexity of a brain composed of many millions of cells) not only comes indisputably first, but occupies a place of his own at the head of all the other ‘very great complexes’ evolved on Earth. And this incidentally explains why he tends increasingly to break away from the rest of terrestrial life, to detach himself in such a manner as to form (we shall return to this) a separate planetary envelope.
What does this mean except that, having been led by the idea of complexity to consider the Earth one of the vital points of the Universe, we find ourselves compelled, following the same principle, to recognize in Man the most advanced, and therefore the most valuable, of all the planetary elements? If it is the Earth which bears the fortunes of the world, then it is Man, in his extreme centro-complexity, who bears the fortunes of the Earth.
But if that is our situation, what is our destiny?
III. The Present State of Mankind: The Phase of Planetization
To open any book treating scientifically, philosophically or sociologically of the future of the Earth (whether by a Bergson or a Jeans) is to be struck at once by a presumption common to most of their authors, certain biologists excepted. Explicitly or by inference they talk as though Man today had reached a final and supreme state of humanity beyond which he cannot advance; or, in the language of this lecture, that, Matter having attained in Homo sapiens its maximum of centro-complexity on Earth, the process of super-molecularization on the planet has for good and all come to a stop.
Nothing could be more depressing, but also, fortunately, more arbitrary and even scientifically false, than this doctrine of immobility. No proof exists that Man has come to the end of his potentialities, that he has reached his highest point. On the contrary, everything suggests that at the present time we are entering a peculiarly critical phase of super-humanization. This is what I hope to persuade you of by drawing your attention to an altogether extraordinary and highly suggestive condition of the world around us, one which we all see and are subject to, but without paying any attention to it, or at least without understanding it: I mean the increasingly rapid growth in the human world of the forces of collectivization.
The phenomenon calls for no detailed description. It takes the form of the all-encompassing ascent of the masses; the constant tightening of economic bonds; the spread of financial and intellectual associations; the totalization of political regimes; the closer physical contact of individuals as well as of nations; the increasing impossibility of being or acting or thinking alone -- m short, the rise, in every form, of the Other around us. We are all constantly aware of these tentacles of a social condition that is rapidly evolving to the point of becoming monstrous. You feel them as I do, and probably you also resent them. If I were to ask your views you would doubtless reply that, menaced by this unleashing of blind forces, there is nothing we can do but evade them to the best of our ability, or else submit, since we are the victims of a sort of natural catastrophe against which we are powerless and in which there is no meaning to be discerned.
But is it true that there is nothing to understand? Let us look more closely, once again by the light of our principle of complexity.
The first thing to give us pause, as we survey the progress of human collectivization, is what I would call the inexorable nature of a phenomenon which arises directly and automatically out of the conjunction of two factors, both of a structural kind: first, the confined surface of the globe, and secondly, the incessant multiplication, within this restricted space, of human units endowed by ever-improving means of communication with a rapidly increasing scope for action; to which may be added the fact that their advanced psychic development makes them preeminently capable of influencing and inter-penetrating one another. Under the combined effect of these two natural pressures a sort of mass-hold of Mankind upon itself comes of necessity into operation.
But, the second noteworthy point, this phenomenon of holding, or cementing, turns out to be no sudden or unpredictable event. Looking at the picture as a whole we see that Life, from its lowest level, has never been able to effect its syntheses except through the progressively closer association of its elements, whether in the oceans or on land. Upon an imaginary earth of constantly increasing extent, living organisms, being only loosely associated, might well remain at the mono-cellular stage (if indeed they got so far); and certainly Man, if free to live in a scattered state, would never have reached even the neolithic stage of social development. The totalization in progress in the modern world is in fact nothing but the natural climax and paroxysm of a process of grouping which is fundamental to the elaboration of organized matter. Matter does not vitalize or super-vitalize itself except by compression.
I do not think it is possible to reflect upon this twofold in -- rooting, both structural and evolutionary, which characterizes the social events affecting us, without being at first led to the surmise, and finally overwhelmed by the evidence, that the collectivization of the human race, at present accelerated, is nothing other than a higher form adopted by the process of moleculatization on the surface of our planet. The first phase was the formation of proteins up to the stage of the cell. In the second phase individual cellular complexes were formed, up to and including Man. We are now at the beginning of a third phase, the formation of an organico-social super-complex, which, as may easily be demonstrated, can only occur in the case of reflective, personalized elements. First the vitalization of matter, associated with the grouping of molecules; then the hominization of Life, associated with a super-grouping of cells; and finally the planetization of Mankind, associated with a closed grouping of people: Mankind, born on this planet and spread over its entire surface, coming gradually to form around its earthly matrix a single, major organic unity, enclosed upon itself; a single, hyper-complex, hyper-centrated, hyperconscious arch-molecule, co-extensive with the heavenly body on which it was born. Is not this what is happening at the present time -- the closing of this spherical, thinking circuit?
This idea of the planetary totalization of human consciousness (with its unavoidable corollary, that wherever there are life-bearing planets in the Universe, they too will become encompassed, like the Earth, with some form of planetized spirit) may at first sight seem fantastic: but does it not exactly correspond to the facts, and does it not logically extend the cosmic curve of molecularization? It may seem absurd, but in its very fantasy does it not heighten our vision of Life to the level of other and universally accepted fantasies, those of atomic physics and astronomy? However mad it may seem, the fact remains that great modern biologists, such as Julian Huxley and J. B. S. Haldane, are beginning to talk of Mankind, and to predict its future, as though they were dealing (all things being equal) with a brain of brains.
So why not?
Clearly this is a matter in which I cannot compel your assent. But I can assure you, of my own experience, that the acceptance of this organic and realistic view of the social phenomenon is both eminently satisfying to our reason and fortifying to our will.
Satisfying to the intelligence above all. For if it be true that at this moment Mankind is embarking upon what I have called its ‘phase of planetization’, then everything is clarified, everything in our field of vision acquires a new sharpness of outline.
The tightening network of economic and psychic bonds in which we live and from which we suffer, the growing compulsion to act, to produce, to think collectively which so disquiets us -- what do they become, seen in this way, except the first portents of the super-organism which, woven of the threads of individual men, is preparing (theory and fact are at one on this point) not to mechanize and submerge us, but to raise us, by way of increasing complexity, to a higher awareness of our own personality?
The increasing degree, intangible, and too little noted, in which present-day thought and activity are influenced by the passion for discovery; the progressive replacement of the workshop by the laboratory, of production by research, of the desire for well-being by the desire for more-being -- what do these things betoken if not the growth in our souls of a great impulse towards super-evolution?
The profound cleavage in every kind of social group (families, countries, professions, creeds) which during the past century has become manifest in the form of two increasingly distinct and irreconcilable human types, those who believe in progress and those who do not -- what does this portend except the separation and birth of a new stratum in the biosphere?
Finally, the present war; a war which for the first time in history is as widespread as the earth itself; a conflict in which human masses as great as continents clash together; a catastrophe in which we seem to be swept off our feet as individuals -- what aspect can it wear to our awakened eyes except that of a crisis of birth, almost disproportionately small in relation to the vastness of what it is destined to bring forth?
Enlightenment, therefore, for our intelligence. And, let it be added, sustenance and necessary reassurance for our power of will. Through the centuries life has become an increasingly heavy burden for Man the Species, just as it does for Man the Individual as the years pass. The modern world, with its prodigious growth of complexity, weighs incomparably more heavily upon the shoulders of our generation than did the ancient world upon the shoulders of our forebears. Have you never felt that this added load needs to be compensated for by an added passion, a new sense of purpose? To my mind, this is what is ‘providentially’ arising to sustain our courage -- the hope, the belief that some immense fulfillment lies ahead of us.
If Mankind were destined to achieve its apotheosis, if Evolution were to reach its highest point, in our small, separate lives, then indeed the enormous travail of terrestrial organization into which we are born would be no more than a tragic irrelevance. We should all be dupes. We should do better in that case to stop, to call a halt, destroy the machines, close the laboratories, and seek whatever way of escape we can find in pure pleasure or pure nirvana.
But if on the contrary Man sees a new door opening above him, a new stage for his development; if each of us can believe that he is working so that the Universe may be raised, in him and through him, to a higher level -- then a new spring of energy will well forth in the heart of Earth’s workers. The whole great human organism, overcoming a momentary hesitation, will draw its breath and press on with strength renewed.
Indeed, the idea, the hope of the planetization of life is very much more than a mere matter of biological speculation. It is more of a necessity for our age than the discovery, which we so ardently pursue, of new sources of energy. It is this idea which can and must bring us the spiritual fire without which all material fires, so laboriously lighted, will presently die down on the surface of the thinking earth: the fire inspiring us with the joy of action and the love of life.
All this, you may say to me, sounds splendid: but is there not another side to the picture? You tell us that this new phase of human evolution will bring about an extension and deepening of terrestrial consciousness. But do not the facts contradict your argument? What is actually happening in the world today? Can we really detect any heightening of human consciousness even in the most highly collectivized nations? Does it not appear, on the contrary, that social totalization leads directly to spiritual retrogression and greater materialism?
My answer is that I do not think we are yet in a position to judge recent totalitarian experiments fairly: that is to say, to decide whether, all things considered, they have produced a greater degree of enslavement or a higher level of spiritual energy. It is too early to say. But I believe this can be said, that in so far as these first attempts may seem to be tending dangerously towards the sub-human state of the ant-hill or the termitary, it is not the principle of totalization that is at fault but the clumsy and incomplete way in which it has been applied.
We have to take into account what is required by the law of complexity if Mankind is to achieve spiritual growth through collectivization. The first essential is that the human units involved in the process shall draw closer together, not merely under the pressure of external forces, or solely by the performance of material acts, but directly, center to center, through internal attraction. Not through coercion, or enslavement to a common task, but through unanimity in a common spirit. The construction of molecules ensues through atomic affinity. Similarly, on a higher level, it is through sympathy, and this alone, that the human elements in a personalized universe may hope to rise to the level of a higher synthesis.
It is a matter of common experience that within restricted groups (the pair, the team) unity, far from diminishing the individual, enhances, enriches and liberates him in terms of himself. True union, the union of heart and spirit, does not enslave, nor does it neutralize the individuals which it brings together. It super-personalizes them. Let us try to picture the phenomenon on a terrestrial scale. Imagine men awakening at last, under the influence of the ever-tightening planetary embrace, to a sense of universal solidarity based on their profound community, evolutionary in its nature and purpose. The nightmares of brutalization and mechanization which are conjured up to terrify us and prevent our advance are at once dispelled. It is not harshness or hatred but a new kind of love, not yet experienced by man, which we must learn to look for as it is borne to us on the rising tide of planetization.
Reflecting, even briefly, on the state of affairs which might evoke this universal love in the human heart, a love so often vainly dreamed of, but which now leaves the fields of Utopia to reveal itself as both possible and necessary, we are brought to the following conclusion: that for men upon earth, all the earth, to learn to love one another, it is not enough that they should know themselves to be members of one and the same thing; in ‘planetizing’ themselves they must acquire the consciousness, without losing themselves, of becoming one and the same person. For (and this is writ large in the Gospel) there is no total love that does not proceed from, and exist within, that which is personal.
And what does this mean except, finally, that the planetization of Mankind, if it is to come properly into effect, presupposes, in addition to the enclosing Earth, and to the organization and condensation of human thought, yet another factor? I mean the rise on our inward horizon of a cosmic spiritual center, a supreme pole of consciousness, upon which all the separate consciousnesses of the world may converge and within which they may love one another: the rise of a God.
It is here that reason may discern, conforming to and in harmony with the law of complexity,(Which here culminates, we may note, in a sort of proof of the existence of God: ‘proof by complexity’) an acceptable way of envisaging ‘the end of the world’.
Iv. The End of Planetary Life: Maturity and Withdrawal
The end of the world -- for us, that is to say, the end of Earth. . . . Have you ever thought seriously, in human terms, about that somber and certain eventuality?
Life at the beginning seemed modest in its requirements. A few hours in the sun were all it seemed to ask. But this was only a semblance, belied at the earliest stages of vitalization by the tenacity with which the most humble cells reproduce themselves and multiply. This tenacity continues through all the enormous effusion of the animal kingdom, and bursts into the light of day with the appearance, in thinking Man, of the formidable power of pre-vision. It cannot but grow still more imperious with every forward stride of human consciousness. I have spoken of the impulse to act, without which there can be no action. But in practice it is not enough, if the impulse is to be sustained in face of the ever-growing onslaughts of the taedium vitae, for it to be offered nothing more than an immediate objective, even though this be as great as the planetization of Mankind. We must strive for ever more greatness; but we cannot do so if we are faced by the prospect of an eventual decline, a disaster at the end. With the germ of consciousness hatched upon its surface, the Earth, our perishable earth that contemplates the final, absolute zero, has brought into the Universe a demand, henceforth irrepressible, not only that all things shall not die, but that what is best in the world, that which has become most complex, most highly centrated, shall be saved. It is through human consciousness, genetically linked to a heavenly body whose days are ultimately numbered, that Evolution proclaims its challenge: either it must be irreversible, or it need not go on at all! Man the individual consoles himself for his passing with the thought of the offspring or the works which he leaves behind. But what will presently be left of Mankind?
Thus every attempt to situate Man and the Earth in the framework of the Universe comes inevitably upon the heavy problem of death, not of the individual but on the planetary scale -- a death which, if we seriously contemplate it, must paralyze all the vital forces of the Earth.
In an attempt to dispel this shadow Jeans calculated that the Earth has many millions of years of habitability ahead of it, so that Man is still only on the threshold of his existence. He bade us warm our hearts, in this fresh dawn, with the almost limitless prospects of the glorious day that is only beginning. But a few pages previously he had talked of Mankind sadly growing old and disillusioned on a chilling globe, faced by inevitable extinction. Does not that first thought destroy the second?
Others seek to reassure us with the notion of an escape through space. We may perhaps move to Venus -- perhaps even further afield. But apart from the fact that Venus is probably not habitable (is there water?) and that, if journeying between celestial bodies were practicable, it is hard to see why we ourselves have not already been invaded, this does no more than postpone the end.
We cannot resolve this contradiction, between the congenital mortality of the planets and the demand for irreversibility developed by planetized life on their surface, by covering it up or deferring it: we have finally to banish the specter of Death from our horizon.
And this we are enabled to do by the idea (a corollary, as we have seen, of the mechanism of planetization) that ahead of, or rather in the heart of, a universe prolonged along its axis of complexity, there exists a divine center of convergence. That nothing may be prejudged, and in order to stress its synthesizing and personalizing function, let us call it the point Omega. Let us suppose that from this universal center, this Omega point, there constantly emanate radiations hitherto only perceptible to those persons whom we call ‘mystics’. Let us further imagine that, as the sensibility or response to mysticism of the human race increases with planetization, the awareness of Omega becomes so widespread as to warm the earth psychically while physically J it is growing cold. Is it not conceivable that Mankind, at the end of its totalization, its folding-in upon itself, may reach a critical level of maturity where, leaving Earth and stars to lapse slowly back into the dwindling mass of primordial energy, it will detach itself from this planet and join the one true, irreversible essence of things, the Omega point? A phenomenon perhaps outwardly akin to death: but in reality a simple metamorphosis and arrival at the supreme synthesis. An escape from the planet, not in space or outwardly, but spiritually and inwardly, such as the hyper-centration of cosmic matter upon itself allows.
This hypothesis of a final maturing and ecstasy of Mankind, the logical conclusion of the theory of complexity, may seem even more far-fetched than the idea (of which it is the extension) of the planetization of Life. Yet it holds its ground and grows stronger upon reflection. It is in harmony with the growing importance which leading thinkers of all denominations are beginning to attach to the phenomenon of mysticism. In any event, of all the theories which we may evolve concerning the end of the Earth, it is the only one which affords a coherent prospect wherein, in the remote future, the deepest and most powerful currents of human consciousness may converge and culminate: intelligence and action, learning and religion.
Lecture delivered at the French Embassy in Peking, 10th March, 1945. Ètudes, May 1946.