This document was prepared with borrowed etext for Arthur’s Classic Novels. Etext was prepared by volunteers. XHTML markup by Arthur Wendover. Nov 10, 2004. (See source text for details.) This is the etext version of the book The Phenomenon Of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, taken from the original etext phenom10.txt.
Arthur’s Classic Novels
The Phenomenon Of Man
by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
with an introduction by Sir Julian Huxley
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in Auvergne in France in 1881 and died in 1955. He fits into no familiar categories as he was at once a biologist and palaeontologist of world renown, and also a Jesuit father. Long before his work was published his name was a byword in scientific circles both in France and elsewhere, He himself spent a good deal of his life outside his native country, in China (where he played a major role in the discovery of Peking Man in 1929) and latterly in the United States.
As Teilhard de Chardin was an original thinker of something that might be called genius, a brief summary can do no more than indicate the breadth and significance of his thought. But it can be said that he applied his whole life, his tremendous intellect and his great spiritual faith to the concept of building up a philosophy that would reconcile Christian theology with the scientific theory of evolution, that would relate the facts of religious experience to those of natural science. The Phenomenon of Man is Pere Teilhard’s most important book and contains the quintessence of his thought. Its subject could be described as the surging evolution of the world from the primal stuff of the universe, through life, to consciousness and man.
The Phenomenon of Man cannot be said to be an easy work, but it is a key book of our time, and once readers have made an effort to get inside it they may feel rewarded by the poetry of Pere Teilhard’s vision of the universe. For this remarkable scientist and scholar was also a visionary who looked forward with confidence to man’s further development. As Sir Julian Huxley says, concluding his introduction:
We, mankind, contain the possibilities of the earth, immense future, and can realise more and more of them on condition that we increase our knowledge and our love. That, it seems to me, is the distillation of The Phenomenon of Man.’
by the same author
Le Milieu Divine by Pierre Teilhard De Chardin
Introduction By Sir Julian Huxley
Book One: Before Life Came
Chapter I.The Stuff of the Universe
I. Elemental Matter
2. Total Matter
A. The System
B. The Totum
C. The Quantum
3. The Evolution Of Matter
A. The Appearance
B. The Numerical Laws
Chapter II. The Within of Things
2. The Qualitative Laws Of Growth
A. First Observation
B. Second Observation
C. Third Observation
3. Spiritual Energy
A The problem of the Two Energies
B. A Line of Solution
Chapter III. The Earth in its Early Stages
I. The Without
A. The Crystallising World
B. The Polymerising World
2. The Within
Book Two: Life
Chapter I The Advent of Llfe
I. The Transit To Life
A. Micro-organisms and Mega-molecules
B. Forgotten Era
C. The Cellular Revolution
2. The Initial Manifestations Of Life
A. The Milieu
B. Smallness and Number
C. The Origin of Number
D. Inter-relationship and Shape
3. The Season of Life
Chapter II The Expansion of Life
1. The Elemental Movements Of Life
F. Controlled Additivity
A Corollary: The Ways Of Life
2. The Ramifications Of The Living Mass
A. Aggregates of Growth
B. The Flourishing of Maturity
C. Effects of Distance
3. The Tree Of Life
A. The Main Lines
B. The Dimensions
C. The Evidence
Chapter III. Demeter
1. Ariadne’s Thread
2. The Rise Of Consciousness
3. The Approach Of Time
Book Three: Thought
Chapter I. The Birth of Thought
1. The Threshold Of Reflection
A. The Threshold of the Element: the Hominisation of the Individual
B. The Threshold of the Phylmn: the Hominisation of the Species
C. The Threshold of the Terrestrial Planet: The Noosphere
2. The Original Forms
Chapter II. The Deployment of the Noosphere
1. The Ramifying Phase Of The Prehominids
2. The Group Of The Neanderthaloids
3. The Homo Sapiens Complex
4. The Neolithic Metamorphosis
5. The Prolongations Of The Neolithic Age And The Rise Of The West
Chapter III. The Modern Earth
1. The Discovery Of Evolution
A. The Perception of Space-time
B. The Envelopment in Duration
C. The Illumination
2. The Problem Of Action
A. Modern Disquiet
B. The Requirements of the Future
C. The Dilemma and the Choice
Book Four: Survival
Chapter I. The Collective Issue
1. The Confluence Of Thought
A. Forced Coalescence
2. The Spirit Of The Earth
Chapter II. Beyond the Collective: the Hyper-Personal
1. The Convergence Of The Person And The Omega Point
A. The Personal Universe
B. The Persona lising Universe
2. Love As Energy
3. The Attributes Of The Omega Point
Chapter III. The Ultimate Earth
1. Prognostics To Be Set Aside
2. The Approaches
A. The Organisation of Research
B. The Discovery of the Human Object
C. The Conjunction of Science and Religion
3. The Ultimate
Epilogue: The Christian Phenomenon
1. Axes Of Belief
3. Power Of Growth
Postscript: The Essence Of The Phenomenon Of Man
1. A World In Involution
2. The First Appearance Of Man
3. The Social Phenomenon
Some remarks on the Place and Part of Evil in a World in Evolution
Perhaps a word may be permitted about some of the lesser problems involved in the translation of this book.
The author’s style is all his own. In some instances he coins words to express his thought — ‘ hominisation’, for instance, or noosphere ‘– and in others he adapts words to his own ends, as when he talks of the ‘within’ and the ‘without’ of things. His meaning, however, should become apparent as his thought unfolds, and I have dispensed with cumbrous efforts at defining his terms.
As far as possible I have dispensed with italics for his neologisms — they are repeated too often to stand italicisation in a work already thickly sprinkled with italics for emphasis. I have also, in obedience to the conventions of typography in England, eliminated the author’s initial capitals for all abstract nouns such as ‘science’, ‘life ‘, ‘thought’, and also for ‘world’, ‘universe’, ‘man’ and other such key-words of his work. There were disadvantages in this decision, but at least the printed page looks more normal to the English reader.
A number of people have contributed to the translation, some by substantial paper work, others by suggestions; and the outcome is in a sense a joint effort. Outstanding among participants are Mr. Geoffrey Sainsbury, Dr. A Tindell Hopwood, Professor D. M. MacKinnon and Mr. Noel Lindsay. At times versions or suggestions have been conflicting and I have had to take it on myself to make an editorial decision, The translator’s notes appear in square brackets. I should like to thank my wife, without whom it would have been impossible to produce this version. Finally, I must take on myself responsibility for the inadequacies that still persist.
Introduction By Sir Julian Huxley
The Phenomenon of Man is a very remarkable work by a very remarkable human being. Pere Teilliard de Chardin was at the same time a Jesuit Father and a distinguished palaeontologist. In The Phenomenon of Man he has effected a threefold synthesis of the material and physical world with the world of mind and spirit; of the past with the future; and of variety with unity, the many with the one. He achieves this by examining every fact and every subject of his investigation ‘sub specie evolutionis’, with reference to its development in time and to its evolutionary position. Conversely, he is able to envisage the whole of knowable reality not as a static mechanism but as a process. In consequence, he is driven to search for human significance in relation to the trends of that enduring and comprehensive process; the measure of his stature is that he so largely succeeded in the search. I would like to introduce The Phenomenon of Man to English readers by attenipting a summary of its general thesis, and of what appear to me to be its more important conclusions.
I make no excuse for this personal approach. As I discovered when I first met Pere Teilliard in Paris in 1946, he and I were on the same quest, and had been pursuing parallel roads ever since we were young men in our twenties. Thus, to mention a few sign-posts which I independently found along my road, already in 1913 I had; envisaged human evolution and biological evolution as two phases of a single process, but separated by a critical point, after which the properties of, the evolving material underwent radical change. This thesis I developed years; later in my Uniqueness of Man, adding that man’s evolution was unique in showing the dominance of convergence over divergence: in the same volume I published an essay on, Scientific Humanism (a close approximation to Pere Teilhard’s Neo-Humanism), in which I independently anticipated the title of Pere Teuhard’s great book by describing humanity as a phenomenon, to be studied and analysed by scientific methods. Soon after the first World War; in Essays of a Biologist, I made my first attempt at defining and evaluating evolutionary progress.
In my Romanes Lecture on Evolutionary Ethics, I made an attempt (which I now see was inadequate, but was at least a step in the right direction) to relate the development of moral codes and religions to the general trends of evolution; in 1942, in my Evolution, the Modern Synthesis, I essayed the first comprehensive post-Mendelian analysis of biological evolution as a process: and just before meeting Pere Teilhard had written a pamphlet entitled Unesco: its Purpose and Philosophy, where I stressed that such a philosophy must be a global, scientific and evolutionary humanism. In this, I was searching to establish an ideological basis for man’s further cultural evolution, and to define the position of the individual human personality in the process — a search in which I was later much aided by Pere’ Teilliard’s writings, and by our conversations and correspondence.
The Phenomenon of Man is certainly the most important of Pere Teilhard’s published works, of the rest, some, including the essays in ‘La Vision du Passe’, reveal earlier developments or later elaborations of his general thought, while others, like L’Apparition de i’Homme, are rather more technical.
Pere Teilliard starts from the position that mankind in its totality is a phenomenon to be described and analysed like any other phenomenon: it and all its manifestations, including human history and human values, are proper objects for scientific study.
His second and perhaps most fundamental point is the absolute necessity of adopting an evolutionary point of view. Though for certain limited purposes it may be useful to think of phenomena as isolated statically in time, they are in point of fact never static: they are always processes or parts of processes. The different branches of science combine to demonstrate that the universe in its entirety must be regarded as one gigantic process, a process of becoming, of attaining new levels of existence and organization, which can properly be called a genesis or an evolution. For this reason, he uses words like noogenesis to mean the gradual evolution of mind or mental properties and repeatedly stresses that we should no longer speak of a cosmology but of a cosmogenesis. Similarly, he likes to use a pregnant term like hominisation to denote the process by which the original proto-human stock became (and is still becoming) more truly human, the process by which potential man realised more and more of his possibilities. Indeed, he extends this evolutionary terminology by employing terms like ultra-hominisation to denote the deducible future stage of the process in which man will have so far transcended himself as to demand some new appellation.
With this approach he is rightly and indeed inevitably driven to the conclusion that, since evolutionary phenomena (of course including the phenomenon known as man) are processes, they can never be evaluated or even adequately described solely or mainly in terms of their origins: they must be defined by their direction, their inherent possibilities (including of course also their limitations), and their deducible future trends. He quotes with approval Nietzche’s view that man is unfinished and must be surpassed or completed; and proceeds to deduce the steps needed for his completion.
Pere Teilhard was keenly aware of the importance of vivid and arresting terminology. Thus in 1925 he coined the term noosphere to denote the sphere of mind, as opposed to, or rather superposed on, the” biosphere or sphere of life, and acting as a transforming agency promoting hominisation (or as I would put it, progressive psycho-social evolution). He may perhaps be criticised for not defining the term more explicitly. By noosphere did he intend simply the total pattern of thinking organisms (i.e. human beings) and their activity, including the patterns of their interrelations: or did he intend the special environment of man, the Systems of organised thought and its products in which men move and have their being, as fish swim and reproduce in rivers and the sea?1 Perhaps it might have been better to restrict noosphere to the first-named sense, and to use something like noosystem for the second. But certainly noosphere is a valuable and thought-provoking word.
He usually uses convergence to denote the ‘tendency of’ mankind, during its evolution, to superpose centripetal on centrifugal trends, so as to prevent centrifugal differentiation from leading to fragmentation, and eventually to incorporate the results of differentiation in an organised and unified pattern. Human convergence was first manifested on the genetic or biological level: after Homo sapiens began to differentiate into distinct races (or subspecies, in more scientific terminology) migration and inter-marriage prevented the pioneers from going further, and led to increasing interbreeding between all human variants. As a result, man is the only successful type which has remained as a singie interbreeding group or species, and has not radiated out into a number of biologically separated assemblages (like the birds, with about 8,500 species, or the insects with over half a million).
1 In Le Phenomene Humain he refers to the noosphere as a new layer or membrane on the earth’s surface, a thinking layer superposed on the living layer of the biosphere and the lifeless layer of inorganic material, the lithosphere. But in his earlier formulation of 1925, in La Vision du Passe (p.92), he calls it une sphere de la reflexion, de l’invention consciente, de l’union sentie des ames’.
Cultural differentiation set in later, producing a number of psychosocial units with different cultures. However, these ‘inter-thinking groups’, as one writer has called them, are never so sharply separated as are biological species; and with time, the process known to anthropologists as cultural diffusion, facilitated by migration and improved communications, led to an accelerating counter-process of cultural convergence, and so towards the union of the whole human species into a single interthinking group based on a single self-developing framework of thought (or noosystem).
In parenthesis, Pere Teilhard showed himself aware of the danger that this tendency might destroy the valuable results of cultural diversification, and lead to drab uniformity instead of to a rich and potent pattern of variety-in-unity. However, perhaps because he was (rightly) so deeply conterned with establishing a global unification of human awareness as a necessary prerequisite for any real future progress of mankind, and perhaps also because he was by nature and inclination more interested in rational and scientific thought than in the arts, he did not discuss the evolutionary value of cultural variety in any detail, but contented himself by maintaining that East and West are culturally complementary, and that both are needed for the further synthesis and unification of world thought.
Before passing to the full implications of human convergence, I must deal with Pere Teilhard’s valuable but rather difficult concept of complexification. This concept includes, as I understand it, the genesis of increasingly elaborate organisation during cosmogenesis, as manifested in the passage from subatomic units to atoms, from atoms to inorganic and later to organic molecules, thence to the first subcellular living units or self-replicating assemblages of molecules, and then to cells, to multicellular individuals, to cephalised metazoa with brains, to primitive man, and now to civilised societies.
But it involves something more, He speaks of complexification as an all-pervading tendency, involving the universe in all its parts in an enroulement organique sur soi-meme, or by an alternative metaphor, as a reploiement sur soi-meme. He thus envisages the world-stuff as being rolled up’ or ‘folded in’ upon itself, both locally and in its entirety, and adds that the process is accompanied by an increase of energetic ‘tension’ in the resultant corpuscular’ organisations, or individualised constructions of increased organisational complexity. For want of a better English phrase, I shall use convergent integration to define the operation of this process of self-complexification.
Pere Teilhard also maintains that complexification by convergent integration leads to the intensification of mental subjective activity — in other words to the evolution of progressively more conscious mind. Thus he states that full consciousness (as seen in man) is to be defined as ‘the specific effort of organised complexity’. But, he continues, comparative study makes it clear that higher animals have minds of a sort, and evolutionary fact and logic demand that minds should have evolved gradually as well as bodies and that accordingly mind-like (or ‘mentoid’, to employ a barbarous word that I am driven to coin because of its usefulness) properties must be present throughout the universe. Thus, in any case, we must infer the presence of potential mind in all material systems, by backward extrapolation from the human phase to the biological, and from the biological to the inorganic. And according to Pere Teilhard, we must envisage the intensification of mind, the raising of mental potential, as being the necessary consequence of complexification, operating by the convergent integration of increasingly complex units of organisation.
The sweep of his thought goes even further. He seeks to link the evolution of mind with the concept of energy. If I understand him right, he envisages two forms of energy, or perhaps two modes in which it is manifested energy in the physicists’ sense, measurable or calculable by physical methods, and ‘psychic energy’ which increases with the complexity of organised units.2 This view admittedly involves speculation of great intellectual boldness, but the speculation is extrapolated from a massive array of fact, and is disciplined by logic. It is, if you like, visionary: but it is the product of a comprehensive and coherent vision.
It might have been better to say that complexity of a sort is a necessary prerequisite for mental evolution rather than its cause. Some biologists, indeed, would claim that mind is generated solely by the complexification of certain types of organisation, namely brains. However, such logic appears to me narrow, The brain alone is not responsible for mind, even though it is a necessary organ for its manifestation. Indeed an isolated brain is a piece of biological nonsense, as meaningless as an isolated human individual. I would prefer to say that mind is generated by or in complex organisations of living matter, capable of receiving information of many qualities or modalities about events both in the outer world and in itself, or synthesizing and processing that information in various organised forms, and of utilising it to direct present and future action — in other words, by higher animals with their sense-organs, nerves, brains, and muscles. Perhaps, indeed, organisations of such complexity can only arise in evolution when their construction enables them to incorporate and interiorise varied external information: certainly no non-living, non-sentient organisation has reached anything like this degree of elaboration.
2 See, e.g., C. Cuenot, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Paris, 1958, p.430. We certainly need some new terms in this field: perhaps neurergy and psychergy would serve.
In human or psychosocial evolution, convergence has certainly led to increased complexity. In Pere Teilhard’s view, the increase of human numbers combined with the improvement of human communications has fused all the parts of the noosphere together, has increased the tension within it, and has caused it to become ‘infolded’ upon itself, and therefore more highly organised. In the process of convergence and coalescence, what we may metaphorically describe as the psycho-social temperature rises, Mankind as a whole will accordingly achieve more intense, more complex, and more integrated mental activity, which can guide the human species up the path of progress to higher levels of hominisation.
Pere Teilhard was a strong visualiser. He saw with his mind’s eye that the banal fact of the earth’s roundness’ the sphericity of man’s environment — was bound to cause this intensification of psychosocial activity. In an unlimited environment, man’s thought and his resultant psychosocial activity would simply diffuse outwards: it would extend over a greater area, but would remain thinly spread. But when it is confined to spreading out over the surface of a sphere, idea will encounter idea, and the result will be an organised web of thought, a noetic system operating under high tension, a piece of evolutionary machinery capable of generating high psychosocial energy. When I read his discussion of the subject, I visualised this selective web of living thought as the bounding structure of evolving man, marking him off from the rest of the universe and yet facilitating exchange with it: playing the same sort of role in delimiting the human unit of evolution and yet encouraging the complexification of its contents, as does the cell-membrane for the animal cell.
Years later, when at the University of California in 1952, the same vivid imagination led Pere Teilhard to draw a parallel between the cyclotron generating immense intensities of physical energy in the inwardly accelerating spiral orbits of its field of force, and the entire noosphere with its field of thought curved round upon themselves to generate new levels of ‘psychical energy ‘.3 How his imagination would have kindled at the sight of the circular torus of Zeta, within whose bounding curves are generated the highest physical energies ever produced by man!
3 En regardant un cyclotron: in Recherches et debats, Paris, April 1953, p. 123.
Pere Teilhard, extrapolating from the past into the future, envisaged the process of human convergence as tending to a final state,4 which he called ‘point Omega’, as opposed to the Alpha of elementaiy material particles and their energies. If I understand him aright, he considers that two factors are co-operating to promote this further complexification of the noosphere. One is the increase of knowledge about the universe at large, from the galaxies and stars to human societies and individuals, The other is the increase of psychosocial pressure on the surface of our planet. The result of the one is that the noosphere incorporates ever more facts of the cosmos, including the facts of its general direction and its trends in time, so as to become more truly a microcosm, which (like all incorporated knowledge) is both a mirror and a directive agency. The result of the other is the increased unification and the increased intensity of the system of human thought. The combined result, according to Pere Teilhard, will be the attainment of point Omega, where the noosphere will be intensely unified and will have achieved a ‘hyperpersonal’ organisation.
4 Presumably, in designating this state as Omega, he believed that it was a truly final condition. It might have been better to think of it merely as a novel state or mode of organization, beyond which the human imagination cannot at present pierce, though perhaps the strange facts of extra-sensory perception unearthed by the infant science of parapsychology may give us a clue to a possible more ultimate state.
Here his thought is not fully clear to me. Sometimes he seems to equate this future hyperpersonal psychosocial organisation with an emergent Divinity at one place, for instance, he speaks of the trend as a Christogenesis; and elsewhere he appears not to be guarding himself sufficiently against the dangers of personifying the non-personal elements of reality. Sometimes, too, he seems to envisage as desirable the merging of individual human variety in this new unity. Though many scientists may, as I do, find it impossible to follow him all the way in his gallant attempt to reconcile the supernatural elements in Christianity with the facts and implications of evolution, this in no way detracts from the positive value of his naturalistic general approach.
In any case the concept of a hyperpersonal mode of organisation sprang from Pere Teilhard’s conviction of the supreme importance of personality. A developed human being, as he rightly pointed out, is not merely a more highly individualised individual. He has crossed the threshold of self-consciousness to a new mode of thought, and as a result has achieved some degree of conscious integration — integration of the self with the outer world of men and nature, integration of the separate elements of the self with each other. He is a person, an organism which has transcended individuality in personality. This attainment of personality was an essential element in man’s past and present evolutionary success: accordingly its fuller achievement must be an essential aim for his evolutionary future.
This belief in the pre-eminent importance of the personality in the scheme of things was for him a matter of faith, but of faith supported by rational inquiry and scientific knowledge. It prevented him from diluting his concept of the divine principle inherent in reality, in a vague and meaningless pantheism, just as his apprehension of the entire process of reality as a system of interrelations, and of mankind as actively participating in that process, saved him from losing his way in the deserts of individualism and existentialism.
He realised that the appearance of human personality was the culmination of two major evolutionary trends — the trend towards more extreme individualism, and that towards more extensive interrelation and co-operation: persons are individuals who transcend their merely organic individuality in conscious participation.
His understanding of the method by which organisms become first individualised and then personalised gave him a number of valuable insights. Basically, the process depends on cephalisation — the differentiation of a head as the dominant guiding region of the body, forwardly directed, and containing the main sense-organs providing information about the outer world and also the main organ of co-ordination or brain.
With his genius for fruitful analogy, he points out that the process of evolution on earth is itself now in the process of becoming cephalised. Before the appearance of man, life consisted of a vast array of separate branches, linked only by an unorganised pattern of ecological interaction. The incipient development of mankind into a single psychosocial unit, with a single noosystem or common pool of thought, is providing the evolutionary process with the rudiments of a head. It remains for our descendants to organise this global noosystem more adequately, so as to enable mankind to understand the process of evolution on earth more fully and to direct it more adequately.
I had independently expressed something of the same sort, by saying that in modern scientific. man, evolution was at last becoming conscious of itself — a phrase which I found delighted Pere Teilhard. His formulation, however, is more profound and more seminal: it implies that we should consider inter-thinking humanity as a new type of organism, whose destiny is to realise new possibilities for evolving life on this planet. Accordingly, we should endeavour to equip it with the mechanisms necessary for the proper fulfilment of its task — the psychosocial equivalents of sense-organs, effector organs, and a co-ordinating central nervous system with dominant brain; and our aim should be the gradual personalisation of the human unit of evolution — its conversion, on the new level of co-operative inter-thinking, into the equivalent of a person.
Once he had grasped and faced the fact of man as an evolutionary phenomenon, the way was open towards a new and comprehensive system of thought. It remained to draw the fullest conclusions from this central concept of man as the spearhead of evolution on earth, and to follow out the implications of this approach in as many fields as possible. The biologist may perhaps consider that in The Phenomenon of Man he paid insufficient attention to genetics and the possibilities and limitations of natural selection,5 the theologian that his treatment of the problems of sin and suffering was inadequate or at least unorthodox, the social scientist that he failed to take sufficient account of the facts of political and social history. But he saw that what was needed at the moment was a broad sweep and a comprehensive treatment. This was what he essayed in The Phenomenon of Man. In my view he achieved remarkable success, and opened up vast territories of thought to further exploration and detailed mapping.
5 Though in his Institute for Human Studies he envisaged a section of Eugenics.
The facts of Pere Teilhard’s life help to illuminate the development of his thought. His father was a small land-owner in Auvergne, a gentleman farmer who was also an archivist, with a taste for natural history. Pierre was born in 1881, the fourth in a family of eleven. At the age of ten he went as a boarder to a Jesuit College where, besides doing well in all prescribed subjects of study, he became devoted to field geology and mineralogy. When eighteen years old, he decided to become a Jesuit, and entered this order. At the age of twenty-four, after an interlude in Jersey mainly studying philosophy, he was sent to teach physics and chemistry in a Jesuit College at Cairo. In the course of his three years in Egypt and a further four studying theology in Sussex, he acquired real competence in geology and palaeontology; and before being ordained priest in 1912, a reading of Bergson’s ‘Evolution Creatrice’ had helped to inspire in him a profound interest in the general facts and theories of evolution. Returning to Paris he pursued his geological studies and started working under Marcellin Boule, the leading prehistorian and archaeologist of France, in his Institute of Human Palaeontology at the Museum of Natural History. It was here that he met his lifelong friend and colleague in the study of prehistory, the Abbe Breuil, and that his interests were first directed to the subject on which his life’s work was centred — the evolution of man. In 1913 he visited the site where the famous (and now notorious) Piltdown skull had recently been unearthed, in company with its discoverer Dr. Dawson and the leading English palaeontologist Sir Arthur Smith Woodward. This was his first introduction to the excitements of palaeontological discovery and scientific controversy.
During the First World War he served as a stretcher-bearer, receiving the Military Medal and the Legion of Honour, and learnt a great deal about his fellow men and about his own nature. The war strengthened his sense of religious vocation, and in 1918 he made a triple vow of poverty, chastity and obedience.
By 1919 the major goals of his life were clearly indicated. Professionally, he had decided to embark on a geological, career, with special emphasis on palaeontology. As a thinker, he had reached a point where the entire phenomenal universe, including man, was revealed as a process of evolution, and he found himself impelled to build up a generalised theory or philosophy of evolutionary process which would take account of human history and human personality as well as of biology, and from which one could draw conclusions as to the future evolution of man on earth. And as a dedicated Christian priest, he felt it imperative to try to reconcile Christian theology with this evolutionary philosophy, to relate the facts of religious experience to those of natural science.
Returning to the Sorbonne, he took his Doctorate in 1922. He had already become Professor of Geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris, where his lectures attracted great attention among the students (three of whom are now teaching in the University of Paris). In 1923, however, he went to China for a year on behalf of the Museum, on a palaeontological mission directed by another Jesuit, Pere Licent. His Lettres de Voyage reveal the impression made on him by the voyage through the tropics, and by his first experiences of geological research in the desert remoteness of Mongolia; and north-western China. This expedition inspired La Messe sur le Monde, a remarkable and truly poetical essay which was at one and the same time mystical and realistic, religious and philosophical.
A shock awaited him after his return to France. Some of the ideas which he had expressed in his lectures about original sin and its relation to evolution, were regarded as unorthodox by his religious superiors, and he was forbidden to continue teaching. In 1926 he returned to work with Pere Licent in China, where he was destined to stay, with brief returns to France and excursions to the United States, to Abyssinia, India, Burma and Java, for twenty years. Here, as scientific adviser to the Geological Survey of China, centred first at Tientsin and later at Peking, he met and worked with outstanding palaeontologists of many nations, and took part in a number of expeditions, including the Citroen Croisiere Jaune under Haardt, and Davidson, Black’s expedition which unearthed the skull of Peking man.
In 1938 he was appointed Director of the Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Geology and Palaeontology in Paris, but the outbreak of war prevented his return to France. His enforced isolation in China during the six war years, painful and depressing though it often was, undoubtedly helped his inner spiritual development (as the isolation of imprisonment helped to mature the thought and character of Nehru and many other Indians). It encouraged ample reading and reflection, and stimulated the full elaboration of his thought.
It was a nice stroke of irony that the action of Pere Teilhard’s religious superiors in barring him from teaching in France because of his ideas on human evolution, should have led him to China and brought him into intimate association with one of the most important discoveries in that field, and driven him to enlarge and consolidate his dangerous thoughts.
During the whole of this period he was writing essays and books on various aspects and implications of evolution, culminating in 1938 in the manuscript of Le Phenomene Humain. But he never succeeded in obtaining permission to publish any of his controversial or major works. This caused him much distress, for he was conscious of a prophetic mission: but he faithfully observed his vow of obedience. Professionally too he was extremely active throughout this period. He contributed a great deal to our knowledge of palaeolithic cultures in China and neighbouring areas, and to the general understanding of the geology of the Far East. This preoccupation with large-scale geology led him to take an interest in the geological development of the world’s continents: each continent, he considered, had made its own special contribution to biological evolution. He also did important palaeontological work on the evolution of various mammalian groups.
The wide range of his vision made him impatient of over-specialisation, and of the timidity which refuses to pass from detailed study to broad synthesis. With his conception of mankind as at the same time an unfinished product of past evolution and an agency of distinctive evolution to come, he was particularly impatient of what he felt as the narrowness of those anthropologists who limited themselves to a study of physical structure and the details of primitive social life. He wanted to deal with the entire human phenomenon, as a transcendence of biological by psychosocial evolution. And he had considerable success, in redirecting along these lines the institutions with which he was connected.
Back in France in 1946, Pere Teilhard plunged eagerly into European intellectual life, but in 1947 he had a serious heart attack, and was compelled to spend several months convalescing in the country. On his return to Paris, he was enjoined by his superiors not to write any more on philosophical subjects: and in 1948 he was forbidden to put forward his candidature for a Professorship in the College de France in succession to the Abbe Breuil, though it was known that this, the highest academic position to which he could aspire, was open to him. But perhaps the heaviest blow awaited him in 1950, when his application for permission to publish Le Groupe Zoologique Humain (a recasting of Le Phenomene Humain) was refused in Rome. By way of compensation he was awarded the signal honour of being elected Membre de l’Institut, as well as having previously become a Corresponding Member of the Academie des Sciences, an officer of the Legion d’Honneur, and a director of research in the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
Already in 1948 he had been invited to visit the U.S.A., where he made his first contacts with the Wenner-Gren Foundation (or Viking Foundation as it was then called), in whose friendly shelter he spent the last four years of his life. The Wenner-Gren Foundation also sponsored his two visits to South Africa, where he was able to study at first hand the remarkable discoveries of Broom and Dart concerning Australopithecus, that near-ancestor of man, and to lay down a plan for the future co-ordination of palaeontological and archaeological work in this area, so important as a centre of hominid evolution.
His position in France became increasingly difficult, and in 1951 he moved his headquarters to New York. Here, at the Wenner-Gren Foundation, he played an important role in framing anthropological policy, and made valuable contributions to the international symposia which it organised. And here, in 1954, I had the privilege of working with him in one of the remarkable discussion groups set up as part of the Columbia Bicentennial celebrations. Just before this, he had returned to France for a brief but stimulating month of discussion.
Throughout this period, he had been actively developing his ideas, and had written his spiritual autobiography, Le Coeur de Za Matiere, the semi-technical Le Groupe Zoologique Humain, and various technical and general articles later included in the collections entitled La Vision du Passe and L’Apparition de l’Homme.
He was prevailed on to leave his manuscripts to a friend. They therefore could be published after his death, since permission to publish is only required for the work of a living writer. The prospect of eventual publication must have been a great solace to him, for he certainly regarded his general and philosophical writings as the keystone of his life’s work, and felt it his supreme duty to proclaim the fruits of his labour.
It was my privilege to have been a friend and correspondent of Pere Teilhard for nearly ten years; and it is my privilege now to introduce this, his most notable work, to English-speaking readers.
His influence on the world’s thinking is bound to be important. Through his combination of wide scientific knowledge with deep religious feeling and a rigorous sense of values, he has forced theologians to view their ideas in the new perspective of evolution, and scientists to see the spiritual implications of their knowledge. He has both clarified and unified our vision of reality, In the light of that new comprehension, it is no longer possible to maintain that science and religion must operate in thought-tight compartments or concern separate sectors of life; they are both relevant to the whole of human existence, The religiously-minded can no longer turn their backs upon the natural world, or seek escape from its imperfections in a supernatural world; nor can the materialistically-minded deny importance to spiritual experience and religious feeling.
Like him, we must face the phenomena. If we face them resolutely, and avail ourselves of the help which his intellectual and spiritual travail has provided, we shall find a more assured basis for our thought and a more certain direction for our evolutionary advance. But, like him, we must not take refuge in abstractions of generalities. He always took account of the specific realities of man’s present situation, though set against the more general realities of long-term evolution; and he always endeavoured to think concretely, in terms of actual patterns of organisation their development, their mode of operation and their effects. As a result, he has helped us to define more adequately both our own nature, the general evolutionary process, and our place and role in it, Thus clarified, the evolution of life becomes a comprehensible phenomenon. It is an antientropic process, running counter to the second law of thermodynamics with its degradation of energy and its tendency to uniformity. With the aid of the sun’s energy, biological evolution marches uphill, producing increased variety and higher degrees of organisation.
It also produces more varied, more intense and more highly organised mental activity or awareness, During ‘evolution, awareness (or if you prefer, the mental properties of living matter) becomes increasingly important to organisms, until in mankind it becomes the most important characteristic of life, and gives the human type its dominant position.
After this critical point has been passed, evolution takes on a new character: it becomes primarily a psychosocial process, based on the cumulative transmission of experience and its results, and working through an organised system of awareness, a combined operation of knowing, feeling and willing. In man, at least during the historical and proto-historical periods, evolution has been characterised more by cultural than by genetic or biological change.
On this new psychological level, the evolutionary process leads to new types and higher degrees of organisation. On the one hand there are new patterns of co-operation among individuals –co-operation for practical control, for enjoyment, for education, and notably in the last few centuries, for obtaining new knowledge; and on the other there are new patterns of thought, new organisations of awareness and its products.
As a result, new and often wholly unexpected possibilities have been realised, the variety and degree of human fulfilment has been increased. Pere Teilhard enables us to see which possibilities are in the long run desirable. What is more, he has helped to define the conditions of advance, the conditions which will permit an increase of fulfilment and prevent an increase of frustration. The conditions of advance are these: global unity of mankind’s noetic organisation or system of awareness, but a high degree of variety within that unity; love, with goodwill and full co-operation; personal integration and internal harmony; and increasing knowledge.
Knowledge is basic. It is knowledge which enables us to understand the world and ourselves, and to exercise some control or guidance. It sets us in a fruitful and significant relation with the enduring processes of the universe. And, by revealing the possibilities of fulfilment that are still open, it provides an over-riding incentive.
We, mankind, contain the possibilities of the earth’s immense future, and can realise more and more of them on condition that we increase our knowledge and our love. That, it seems to me, is the distillation of The Phenomenon of Man.
London, December 1958
If this book is to be properly understood, it must be read not as a work on metaphysics, still less as a sort of theological essay, but purely and simply as a scientific treatise. The title itself indicates that. The book deals with man solely as a phenomenon; but it also deals with the whole phenomenon of man.
In the first place, it deals with man solely as a phenomenon. The pages which follow do not attempt to give an explanation of the world, but only an introduction to such an explanation. Put quite simply, what I have tried to do is this; I have chosen man as the centre, and around him I have tried to establish a coherent order between antecedents and consequents. I have not tried to discover a system of ontological and causal relations between the elements of the universe, but only an experimental law of recurrence which would express their successive appearance in time. Beyond these first purely scientific reflections, there is obviously ample room for farther-reaching speculations of the philosopher and the theologian. Of purpose, I have at all times carefully avoided venturing into that field of the essence of being. At most I am confident that, on the plane of experience, I have identified with some accuracy the combined movement towards unity, and have marked the places where philosophical and religious thinkers, in pursuing the matter further, would be entitled, for reasons of a higher order, to look for breaches of continuity.1
1 See, for example, the footnotes on pp. 187, 206, 327.
But this book also deals with the whole phenomenon of man. Without contradicting what I have just said (how-ever much it may appear to do so) it is this aspect which might possibly make my suggestion look like a philosophy. During the last fifty years or so, the investigations of science have proved beyond all doubt that there is no fact which exists in pure isolation, but that every experience, however objective it may seem, inevitably becomes enveloped in a complex of assumptions as soon as the scientist attempts to express it in a formula. But while this aura of subjective interpretation may remain imperceptible where the field of observation is limited, it is bound to become practically dominant as soon as the field of vision extends to the whole. Like the meridians as they approached the poles, philosophy and religion are bound to converge as they draw nearer to the whole. I say ‘converge’ advisedly, but without merging, and without ceasing, to the very end, to assail the real from different angles and on different planes. Take any book about the universe written by one of the great modern scientists, such as Poincare, Einstein or Jeans, and you will see that it is impossible to attempt a general scientific interpretation of the universe without giving the impression of trying to explain it through and through. But look a little more closely and you will see that this hyperphysics is still not a metaphysic.
In the course of every effort of this kind to give a scientific description of the whole, it is natural that certain basic assumptions, on which the whole further structure rests, should make their influence felt to the fullest possible extent. In the specific instance of the present Essay, I think it important to point out that two basic assumptions go hand in hand to support and govern every development of the theme. The first is the primacy accorded to the psychic and to thought in the stuff of the universe, and the second is the ‘biological’ value attributed to the social fact around us.
The pre-eminent significance of man in nature, and the organic nature of mankind; these are two assumptions that one may start by trying to reject, but without accepting them, I do not see how it is possible to give a full and coherent account of the phenomenon of man.
Paris, March 1947
This work may be summed up as an attempt to see and to make others see what happens to man, and what conclusions are forced upon us, when he is placed fairly and squarely within the framework of phenomenon and appearance.
Why should we want to see, and why in particular should we single out man as our object?
Seeing. We might say that the whole of life lies in that verb — if not ultimately, at least essentially. Fuller being is closer union: such is the kernel and conclusion of this book. But let us emphasise the point: union increases only through an increase in consciousness, that is to say in vision. And that, doubtless, is why the history of the living world can be summarised as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen. After all, do we not judge the perfection of an animal, or the supremacy of a thinking being, by the penetration and synthetic power of their gaze? To try to see more and better is not a matter of whim or curiosity or self-indulgence. To see or to perish is the very condition laid upon everything that makes up the universe, by reason of the mysterious gift of existence. And this, in superior measure, is man’s condition.
But if it is true that it is so vital and so blessed to know, let us ask again why we are turning our attention particularly to man. Has man not been adequately described already, and is he not a tedious subject? Is it not precisely one of the attractions of science that it rests our eyes by turning them away from man?
Man has a double title, as the twofold centre of the world, to impose himself on our effort to see, as the key to the universe.
Subjectively, first of all, we are inevitably the centre of perspective of our own observation. In its early, naive stage, science, perhaps inevitably, imagined that we could observe phenomena in themselves, as they would take place in our absence. Instinctively physicists and naturalists went to work as though they could look down from a great height upon a world which their consciousness could penetrate without being submitted to it or changing it. They are now beginning to realise that even the most objective of their observations are steeped in the conventions they adopted at the outset and by forms or habits of thought developed in the course of the growth of research; so that, when they reach the end of their analyses they cannot tell with any certainty whether the structure they have reached is the essence of the matter they are studying, or the reflection of their own thought. And at the same time they realise that as a result of their discoveries, they are caught body and soul to the network of relationships they thought to cast upon things from outside: in fact they are caught in their own net. A geologist would use the words metamorphism and endomorphism. Object and subject many and mutually — transform each other in the act of knowledge; and from now on man willy-nilly finds his own image stamped on all he looks at.
This is indeed a form of bondage, for which, however, a unique and assured grandeur provides immediate compensation.
It is tiresome and even humbling for the observer to be thus fettered, to be obliged to carry with him everywhere the centre of the landscape he is crossing. But what happens when chance directs his step to a point of vantage (a crossroads, or intersecting valleys) from which, not only his vision, but things themselves radiate? In that event the subjective viewpoint coincides with the way things are distributed objectively, and perception reaches its apogee. The landscape lights up and yields its secrets. He sees.
That seems to be the privilege of man’s knowledge. It is not necessary to be a man to perceive surrounding things and forces ‘in the round’. All the animals have reached this point as well as us. But it is peculiar to man to occupy a position in nature at which the convergent lines are not only visual but structural. The following pages will do no more than verify and analyse this phenomenon. By virtue of the quality and the biological properties of thought, we find ourselves situated at a singular point, at a ganglion which commands the whole fraction of the cosmos that is at present within reach of our experience. Man, the centre of perspective, is at the same time the centre of construction of the universe. And by expediency no less than by necessity, all science must be referred back to him, If to see is really to become more, if vision is really fuller being, then we should look closely at man in order to increase our capacity to live.
But to do this we must focus our eyes correctly.
From the dawn of his existence, man has been held up as a spectacle to himself. Indeed for tens of centuries he has looked at nothing but himself. Yet he has only just begun to take a scientific view of his own significance in the physical world. There is no need to be surprised at this slow awakening. It often happens that what stares us in the face is the most difficult to perceive. The child has to learn to separate out the images which assail the newly-opened retina. For man to discover man and take his measure, a whole series of ‘senses’ have been necessary, whose gradual acquisition, as we shall show, covers and punctuates the whole history of the struggles of the mind:
A sense of spatial immensity, in greatness and smallness, disarticulating and spacing out, within a sphere of indefinite radius, the orbits of the objects which press round us;
A sense of depth, pushing back laboriously through endless series and measureless distances of time, which a sort of sluggishness of mind tends continually to condense for us in a thin layer of the past;
A sense of number, discovering and grasping unflinchingly the bewildenng multitude of material or living elements involved in the slightest change in the universe;
A sense of proportion, realising as best we can the difference of physical scale which separates, both in rhythm and dimension, the atom from the nebula, the infinitesimal from the immense;
A sense of quality, or of novelty, enabling us to distinguish in nature certain absolute stages of perfection and growth, without upsetting the physical unity of the world;
A sense of movement, capable of perceiving the irresistible developments hidden in extreme slowness — extreme agitation concealed beneath a veil of immobility — the entirely new insinuating itself into the heart of the monotonous repetition of the same things;
A sense, lastly, of the organic, discovering physical links and structural unity under the superficial juxtaposition of successions and co-activities.
Without these qualities to illuminate our vision, man will remain indefinitely for us — whatever is done to make us see what he still represents to so many minds: an erratic object in a disjointed world. Conversely, we have only to rid our vision of the threefold illusion of smallness, plurality and immobility, for man effortlessly to take the central position we prophesied — the momentary summit of an anthropogenesis which is itself the crown of a cosmogenesis.
Man is unable to see himself entirely unrelated to mankind, neither is he able to see mankind unrelated to life, nor life unrelated to the universe.
Thence stems the basic plan of this work Pre-Life: Life: Thought — three events sketching in the past and determining for the future (Survival) a single and continuing trajectory, the curve of the phenomenon of man.
The phenomenon of man — I stress this:
This phrase is not chosen at random, but for three reasons.
First to assert that man, in nature, is a genuine fact falling (at least partially) within the scope of the requirements and methods of science;
Secondly, to make plain that of all the facts offered to our knowledge, none is more extraordinary or more illuminating;
Thirdly, to stress the special character of the Essay I am presenting.
I repeat that my only aim, and my only vantage-ground in these pages, is to try to see; that is to say, to try to develop a homogeneous and coherent perspective of our general extended experience of man. A whole which unfolds.
So please do not expect a final explanation of things here, nor a metaphysical system. Neither do I want any misunderstanding about the degree of reality which I accord to the different parts of the film I am projecting. When I try to picture the world before the dawn of life, or life in the Palaeozoic era, I do not forget that there would be a cosmic contradiction in imagining a man as spectator of those phases which ran their course before the appearance of thought on earth. I do not pretend to describe them as they really were, but rather as we must picture them to ourselves so that the world may be true for us at this moment. What I depict is not the past in itself, but as it must appear to an observer standing on the advanced peak where evolution has placed us. It is a safe and modest method and yet, as we shall see, it suffices, through symmetry, to bring out ahead of us surprising visions of the future.
Even reduced to these humble proportions, the views I am attempting to put forward here are, of course, largely tentative and personal. Yet inasmuch as they are based on arduous investigation and sustained reflection, they give an idea, by means of one example, of the way in which the problem of man presents itself in science to-day.
When studied narrowly in himself by anthropologists or jurists, man is a tiny, even a shrinking, creature, His over-pronounced individuality conceals from our eyes the whole to which he belongs; as we look at him our minds incline to break nature up into pieces and to forget both its deep inter-relations and its measureless horizons: we incline to all that is bad in anthropo-centrism. And it is this that still leads scientists to refuse to consider man as an object of scientific scrutiny except through his body.
The time has come to realise that an interpretation of the universe even a positivist one –remains unsatisfying unless it covers the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter. The true physics is that which will, one day, achieve the inclusion of man in his wholeness in a coherent picture of the world.
I hope I shall persuade the reader that such an attempt is possible, and that the preservation of courage and the joy of action in those of us who wish, and know how, to plumb the depths of things, depend on it.
In fact I doubt whether there is a more decisive moment for a thinking being than when the scales fall from his eyes and he discovers that he is not an isolated unit lost in the cosmic solitudes, and realises that a universal will to live converges and is hominised in him.
In such a vision man is seen not as a static centre of the world’s he for long believed himself to be — but as the axis and leading shoot of evolution, which is something much finer.
Book One — Before Life Game
The Stuff Of The Universe
To push anything back into the past is equivalent to reducing it to its simplest elements. Traced as far as possible in the direction of their origins, the last fibres of the human aggregate are lost to view and are merged in our eyes with the very stuff of the universe, As for the stuff of the universe — the ultimate residue of the ever more advanced analyses of science — I have not cultivated that direct and familiar contact with it which would enable me to do it justice, that contact which comes from experiment and not from reading and makes all the difference. Besides, I know the danger of trying to construct a lasting edifice with hypotheses which are only expected to last for a day, even in the minds of those who originate them.
To a considerable extent, the representation of the atom accepted at this moment is nothing more than a simple means, graphic even while subject to revision, enabling the scientist to put together and to show the non-contradiction of the ever more various effects manifested by matter — many of which, moreover, have still no recognisable prolongation in man.
As I am a naturalist rather than a physicist, obviously I shall avoid dealing at length with or placing undue reliance upon these complicated and fragile edifices.
On the other hand, among the variety of overlapping theories, a certain number of characteristics emerge which are inevitable in any suggested explanation of the universe. It is of these imposed factors that it is not unbecoming for a naturalist to speak when engaged on a general study of the phenomenon of man. In fact, inasmuch as they express the conditions belonging to all natural change, even biological, he is bound to take them as his point of departure.
I. ELEMENTAL MATTER
Observed from this special angle, and considered at the outset in its elemental state (by which I mean at any moment, at any point, and in any volume, the stuff of tangible things reveals itself with increasing insistence as radically particulate yet essentially related, and lastly, prodigiously active.
Plurality, unity, energy: the three faces of matter.
The profoundly ‘atomic’1 character of the universe is visible in everyday experience, in raindrops and grains of sand, in the hosts of the living, and the multitude of stars; even in the ashes of the dead. Man has needed neither microscope nor electronic analysis in order to suspect that he lives surrounded by and resting on dust. But to count the grains and describe them, all the patient craft of modern science was necessary. The atoms of Epicurus were inert and indivisible. And the infinitesimal worlds of Pascal could still possess their animalcules. Today we have gone far beyond such instinctive or inspired guesswork both in certainty and precision. The scaling down is unlimited. Like the tiny diatom shells whose markings, however magnified, change almost indefinitely into new patterns, so each particle of matter, even smaller and smaller, under the physicist’s analysis tends to reduce itself into something yet more finely granulated. And at each new step in this progressive approach to the infinitely small the whole configuration of the world is for a moment blurred and then renewed.
When we probe beyond a certain degree of depth and dilution, the familiar properties of our bodies — light, colour, warmth, impenetrability, etc. — lose their meaning.
Indeed our sensory experience turns out to be a floating condensation on a swarm of the indefinable. Bewildering in its multiplicity and its minuteness, the substratum of the tangible universe is in an unending state of disintegration as it goes downward.
On the other hand the more we split and pulverise matter artificially, the more insistently it proclaims its fundamental unity.
In its most imperfect form, but the simplest to imagine, this unity reveals itself in the astonishing similarity of the elements met with. Molecules, atoms, electron — whatever the name, whatever the scale — these minute units (at any rate when reviewed from our distance) manifest a perfect identity of mass and of behaviour. In their dimensions and actions they seem astonishingly calibrated — and monotonous. It is almost as if all that surface play which charms our lives tends to disappear at deeper levels. It is almost as if the stuff of which all stuff is made were reducible in the end to some simple and unique kind of substance.
Thus the unity of homogeneity. To the cosmic corpuscles we should find it natural to attribute an individual radius of action as limited as their dimensions. We find, on the contrary, that each of them can only be defined by virtue of its influence on all around it. Whatever space we suppose it to be in, each cosmic element radiates in it and entirely fills it. However narrowly the heart of an atom may be circumscribed, its realm is co-extensive, at least potentially, with that of every other atom. This strange property we will come across again, even in the human molecule.
We add: collective unity. The innumerable foci which share a given volume of matter are not therefore independent of each other. Something holds them together. Far from behaving as a mere inert receptacle, the space filled by their multitude operates upon it like an active centre of direction and transmission in which their plurality is organised. We do not get what we call matter as a result of the simple aggregation and juxtaposition of atoms. For that, a mysterious identity must absorb and cement them, an influence at which our mind rebels in bewilderment at first but which in the end it must perforce accept.
We mean the sphere above the centres and enveloping them.
Throughout these pages, in each new phase of anthropogenesis, we shall find ourselves faced by the unimaginable reality of collective bonds, and we shall have to struggle with them without ceasing until we succeed in recognising and defining their true nature. Here in the beginning it is sufficient to include them all under the empirical name given by science to their common initial principle, namely energy.
Under this name, which conveys the experience of effort with which we are familiar in ourselves, physics has introduced the precise formulation of a capacity for action or, more exactly, for interaction. Energy is the measure of that which passes from one atom to another in the course of their transformations. A unifying power, then, but also, because the atom appears to become enriched or exhausted in the course of the exchange, the expression of structure. From the aspect of energy, renewed by radio-active phenomena, material corpuscles may now be treated as transient reservoirs of concentrated power. Though never found in a state of purity, but always more or less granulated (even in light) energy nowadays represents for science the most primitive form of universal stuff. Hence we find our minds instinctively tending to represent energy as a kind of homogeneous, primordial flux in which all that has shape in the world is but a series of fleeting ‘vortices’. From this point of view, the universe would find its stability and final unity at the end of its decomposition. It would be held together from below.
Let us keep the discoveries and indisputable measurements of physics. But let us not become bound and fettered to the perspective of final equilibrium that they seem to suggest. A more complete study of the movements of the world will oblige us, little by little, to turn it upside down; in other words, to discover that if things hold and hold together, it is only by reason of complexity, from above.
2. TOTAL MATTER
Up to now we have been looking at matter as such, that is to say according to its qualities and in any given volume — as though it were permissible for us to break off a fragment and study this sample apart from the rest. It is time to point out that this procedure is merely an intellectual dodge. Considered in its physical, concrete reality, the stuff of the universe cannot divide itself but, as a kind of gigantic atom, it forms in its totality (apart from thought on which it is centred and concentrated at the other end) the only real indivisible. The history of consciousness and its place in the world remaln incomprehensible to anyone who has not seen first of all that the cosmos in which man finds himself caught up constitutes, by reason of the unimpeachable wholeness of its whole, a system, a totum and a quantum: a system by its plurality, a totum by its unity, a quantum by its energy; all three within a boundless contour. Let us try to make this clear.
A. The System
The existence of ‘system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature, no matter whom.
The arrangement of the parts of the universe has always been a source of amazement to men, But this disposition proves itself more and more astonishing as, every day, our science is able to make a more precise, and penetrating study of the facts. The farther and more deeply we penetrate into matter, by means of increasingly powerful methods, the more we are confounded by the interdependence of its parts. Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others: from beneath itself by the mysterious phenomenon of ‘composition’, which makes it subsistent through the apex of an organised whole; and from above through the influence of unities of a higher order which incorporate and dominate it for their own ends.
It is impossible to cut into this network, to isolate a portion without it becoming frayed and unravelled at all its edges.
All around us, as far as the eye can see, the universe holds together, and only one way of considering it is really possible, that is, to take it as a whole, in one piece.
B. The Totum
Now, if we consider this whole more attentively, we quickly see that it is something quite other than a mere entanglement of articulated inter-connections. If one says fabric or network, one thinks of a homogeneous plexus of similar units which it may indeed be impossible to section, but of which it is sufficient to have recognised the basic unit and to have defined the law to be able to understand the whole by repetition: a crystal or arabesque whose laws are valid for whatever space it fills, but which is wholly contained in a single mesh.
Between such a structure and the structure of matter there is nothing in common.
In its different orders of magnitude, matter never repeats its different combinations. For expedience and simplicity we sometimes like to imagine the world as being a series of planetary systems superimposed, the one on the other, and grading from the infinitely small to the infinitely big: Pascal’s two abysses once again. This is only an illusion. The envelopes composing matter are thoroughly heterogeneous the one with regard to the other. First we have a vague circle of electrons and other inferior units; then a better-defined circle of simple bodies in which the elements are distributed as periodic functions of the atom of hydrogen; farther on another circle, of inexhaustible molecular combinations; and lastly, jumping or recoiling from the infinitesimal to the infinite, a circle of stars and galaxies. These multiple zones of the cosmos envelop without imitating each other in such a way that we cannot pass from one to another by a simple change of coefficients. Here is no repetition of the same theme on a different scale, The order and the design do not appear except in the whole. The mesh of the universe is the universe itself.
Thus it is not merely to assert that matter forms a block or whole.
The stuff of the universe, woven in a single piece according to one and the same system,2 but never repeating itself from one point to another, represents a single figure. Structurally, it forms a Whole.
2 Which we shalt call later on ‘the Law of Consciousness and Complexity’.
C. The Quantum
Now, if the natural unity of concrete space indeed coincides with the totality of space itself, we must try to re-define energy with reference to space as a whole.
This leads us to two conclusions.
The first is that the radius of action proper to each cosmic element must be prolonged in theory to the utmost limits of the world itself. As we said above, since the atom is naturally co-extensive with the whole of the space in which it is situated — and since, on the other hand, we have just seen that a universal space is the one space there is — we are bound to admit that this immensity represents the sphere of action common to all atoms. The volume of each of them is the volume of the universe. The atom is no longer the microscopic, closed world we may have imagined to ourselves. It is the infinitesimal centre of the world itself.
Now, on the other hand, let us turn our attention to the entirety of the infinitesimal centres which share the universal sphere among themselves. Indefinite though their number may be, they constitute in their multitude a group which has precise effects. For the whole, because it exists, must express itself in a global capacity for action of which we find the partial resultant in each one of us. Thus we find ourselves led on to envisage and conceive a dynamic standard of the world.
True the world has apparently limitless contours. To use varying metaphors: it behaves to our senses, either as a progressively attenuated environment which vanishes without a limital surface in an infinitely decreasing gradation, or as a curved and closed space within which all the hues of our experience turn back upon themselves, in which case matter only appears boundless to us because we cannot emerge from it.
This is no reason for refusing it a quantum of energy, which the physicists, incidentally, already think they are in a position to measure.
But this quantum only takes on its full significance when we try to define it with regard to a concrete natural movement — that is to say, in duration.
3. THE EVOLUTION OF MATTER
Physics was born, in the last century, under the double sign of fixity and geometry. Its ideal, in its youth, was to find a mathematical explanation of a world imagined as a system of stable elements in a closed equilibrium. Then, following all science of the real, it was inevitably drawn by its own progress into becoming a history. Today, positive knowledge of things is identified with the study of their development. Farther on, in the chapter on Thought, we shall have to describe and interpret the vital revolution in human consciousness brought about by the quite modern discovery of duration, Here we need only ask ourselves how our views about matter are enlarged by the introduction of this new dimension.
In essence, the change wrought in our experience by the appearance of what we shall soon call space-time is this, that everything that up to then we regarded and treated as points in our cosmological constructions became instantaneous sections of indefinite temporal fibres. To our opened eyes each element of things is henceforth extended backwards (and tends to be continued forwards) as far as the eye can see in such a way that the entire spatial immensity is no more than a section ‘at the time t’ of a trunk whose roots plunge down into the abyss of an unfathomable past, and whose branches rise up somewhere to a future that, at first sight, has no limit. In this new perspective the world appears like a mass in process of transformation. The universal totum and quantum tend to express and define themselves in cosmogenesis. What at this moment are the appearance (qualitative) assumed from the point of view of the physicists and the rules followed (quantitative) by this evolution of matter?
A. The Appearance
As seen in its central portion, which is the most distinct, the evolution of matter, in current theory, comes back to the gradual building up by growing complication of the various elements recognised by physical chemistry. To begin with, at the very bottom there is a still unresolved simplicity, luminous in nature and not to be defined in terms of figures. Then, suddenly(?)3 came a swarming of elementary corpuscles, both positive and negative (protons, neutrons, electrons, photons) the list increases incessantly. Then the harmonic series of simple bodies, strung out from hydrogen to uranium on the notes of the atomic scale. Next follows the immense variety of compound bodies in which the molecular weights go on increasing up to a certain critical value above which, as we shall see, we pass on to life, There is not one term in this long series but must be regarded, from sound experimental proofs, as being composed of nuclei and electrons. This fundamental discovery that all bodies owe their origin to arrangements of a single initial corpuscular type is the beacon that lights the history of the universe to our eyes. In its own way, matter has obeyed from the beginning that great law of biology to which we shall have to recur time and time again, the law of ‘complexification ‘.4
3 Some years ago this first birth of the corpuscles was imagined rather as a sudden condensation (as in a saturated environment) of a primordial substance or stuff, diffused throughout limitless space. Nowadays, for various convergent reasons, notably Relativity combined with the centrifugal retreat of the galaxies, physicists prefer to turn to the idea of an explosion pulverising a primitive quasi-atom within which space-time would be strangulated (in a sort of natural absolute zero) at only some milliards of years behind us. For understanding the following pages, the two hypotheses are equivalent, in the sense that they put us, the one just as much as the other, in the midst of a corpuscular multitude from which we cannot escape in any direction; neither round about nor behind — but possibly forwards (cf. Part 4, chapter 2) through a singular point of interiorisation.
4 (Complexification in the original: taken over here as the substantival form of the very rare English verb ‘complexify’– to make complex.)
I say in its own way because, at the stage of the atom, we are still ignorant of many points in the history of the world.
First of all, must all the elements mount each successive rung of the ladder from the most simple to the most complicated by a kind of onto- or phylo-genesis in order to raise themselves in the series of simple bodies? Or do the atomic numbers only represent a rhythmic series of states of equilibrium, sets of pigeon-holes, as it were, into which nuclei and electrons fall in rough assemblages? Moreover, in the one instance as in the other, must we regard the various combinations of nuclei as being equally possible at any one time? Or, on the other hand, must we suppose that on the whole, statistically, the heavy atoms only appear in a determinate order, after the lighter ones?
It does not appear that science is at present able to give definitive answers to these questions, or to others like them. At the present time we are less well informed about the ascending evolution of atoms (I do not say ‘the disintegration’) than we are about the pre-living and living molecules. It is none the less true, and this is the only point of real importance that concerns us here, that from its most distant formulations matter reveals itself to us in a state of genesis or becoming — this genesis allowing us to distinguish two of the aspects most characteristic of it in its subsequent stages. First of all, to begin with a critical phase, that of granulation, which abruptly and once and for all gave birth to the constituents of the atom and perhaps to the atom itself, Next, at least from the molecular level, of going on additively by a process of growing complexity.
Everything does not happen continuously at any one moment in the universe, Neither does everything happen everywhere in it.
So we may summarise in a few lines the ideas about the transformations of matter accepted by science today: but only by considering the latter in their temporal succession, and without as yet putting them anywhere within the cosmic expanse. Historically, the stuff of the universe goes on becoming concentrated into ever more organised forms of matter. But where, then, do these metamorphoses take place, beginning, let us say, with the framework of molecules? Is it indifferently at any point in space? Not at all, as we all know, but only in the heart and on the surface of the stars. From having considered the infinitely small elements we are abruptly compelled to raise our eyes to infinitely great sidereal masses.
The sidereal masses . . . Our science is at the same time troubled and fascinated by these colossal unities, which in some ways behave like atoms, but whose constitution baffles us by its enormous and — in appearance only? — irregular complexity. Perhaps the day will come when some arrangement or periodicity will become apparent in the stellar distribution both as regards their composition and their position. Do not a ‘stratigraphy’ and a ‘chemistry’ of the heavens inevitably extend the story of the atoms?
We have not to entangle ourselves in these still misty perspectives. No matter how fascinating they may be, they surround man rather than lead up to him. On the other hand, because of its consequences even up to the genesis of the intellect, we must notice and record the definite connection which, genetically, associates the atom with the star. For a long time yet physics may hesitate over the structure to be assigned to the astral immensities. In the meantime one thing is certain and is enough to guide our steps along the ways of anthropogenesis. That is that the making of greater material complexes can only take place under cover of a previous concentration of the stuff of the universe in nebulae and suns. Whatever the overall figure of the worlds may be, the chemical function of each one of them already has a definable meaning for us. The stars are laboratories in which the evolution of matter proceeds in the direction of large molecules, and that according to determinate quantitative rules which we must now discuss.
B. The Numerical Laws
What ancient thought half perceived and imagined as a natural harmony of numbers, modern science has grasped and realised in the precision of formulae dependent on measurement. Indeed, we owe our knowledge of the macro-structure and micro-structure of the universe far more to increasingly accurate measurements than to direct observations. And, again, it is ever bolder measurements that have revealed to us the calculable conditions to which every transformation of matter is subject according to the force it calls into play.
This is not the place for me to embark on a critical discussion of the laws of energy. That part of them that is indispensable and accessible to every world-historian may be simply summarised. Considered from this biological aspect, broadly speaking, they may be reduced to the two following principles:
First Principle. During changes of a physico-chemical type we do not detect any measurable emergence of new energy.
Every synthesis costs something. That is a fundamental condition of things which persists, as we know, even into the spiritual zones of being. In every domain, the achievement of progress requires an access of effort and therefore of force. Now whence does this increase come?
In the abstract, one might assume an internal growth of the world’s resources, an absolute increase in mechanical wealth corresponding to the expanding needs of evolution; but, in fact, things seem to happen otherwise. In no case does the energy required for synthesis appear to be provided by an influx of fresh capital, but by expenditure. What is gained on one side is lost on the other. Nothing is constructed except at the price of an equivalent destruction.
Experimentally and at first sight, when we consider the universe in its mechanical functions, it does not reveal itself to us as an open quantum capable of containing an even greater reality within its embrace, but as a closed quantum, within which nothing progresses except by exchange of that which was given in the beginning.
That is a first appearance.
Second Principle. In every physico-chemical change, adds thermodynamics, a fraction of the available energy is irrecoverably ‘entropised’, lost, that is to say, in the form of heat. Doubtless it is possible to retain this degraded fraction symbolically in equations, so as to express that in the operations of matter nothing is lost any more than anything is created, but that is merely a mathematical trick. As a matter of fact, from the real evolutionary standpoint, something is finally burned in the course of every synthesis in order to pay for that synthesis. The more the energy-quantum of the world comes into play, the more it is consumed. Within the scope of our experience, the material concrete universe seems to be able to continue on its way indefinitely in a closed cycle, but traces out irreversibly a curve of obviously limited development. And thus it is that this universe differentiates itself from purely abstract magnitudes and places itself among the realities which are born, which grow, and which die. From time it passes into duration; and finally escapes from geometry dramatically to become, in its totality as in its parts, an object of history.5
Let us translate into images the natural significance of these two principles of the Conservation and Dissipation of Energy.
We said above that qualitatively the evolution of matter reveals itself to us, ‘hic et nunc’, as a process during which the constituents of the atom are inter-combined and ultra-condensed. Quantitatively, this transformation now appears to us as a definite, but costly, operation in which an original impetus slowly becomes exhausted. Laboriously, step by step, the atomic and molecular structures become higher and more complex, but the upward force is lost on the way. Moreover, the same wearing away that is gradually consuming the cosmos in its totality is at work within the terms of the synthesis, and the higher the terms the quicker this action takes place. Little by little, the improbable combinations that they represent become broken down again into more simple components, which fall back and are disaggregated in the shapelessness of probable distributions.
A rocket rising in the wake of time’s arrow, that only bursts to be extinguished; an eddy rising on the bosom of a descending current — such then must be our picture of the world, So says science: and I believe in science: but up to now has science ever troubled to look at the world other than from without?
5 (cf. concluding sections of R. 0. Collingwood: Idea of Nature (O.U.P. 1944).)
The Within Of Things
On the scientific plane, the quarrel between materialists and the upholders of a spiritual interpretation, between finalists and determinists, still endures. After a century of disputation each side remains in its original position and gives its adversaries solid reasons for remaining there.
So far as I understand the struggle, in which I have found myself involved, it seems to me that its prolongation depends less on the difficulty that the human mind finds in reconciling certain apparent contradictions in nature — such as mechanism and liberty, or death and immorality — as in the difficulty experienced by two schools of thought in finding a common ground. On the one hand the materialists insist on talking about objects as though they only consisted of external actions in transient relationships. On the other hand the upholders of a spiritual interpretation are obstinately determined not to go outside a kind of solitary introspection in which things are only looked upon as being shut in upon themselves in their ‘immanent’ workings. Both fight on different planes and do not meet; each only sees half the problem.
I am convinced that the two points of view require to be brought into union, and that they soon will unite in a kind of phenomenology or generalised physic in which the internal aspect of things as well as the external aspect of the world will be taken into account. Otherwise, so it seems to me, it is impossible to cover the totality of the cosmic phenomenon by one coherent explanation such as science must try to construct.
We have just described the ‘without’ of matter in its connections and its measurable dimensions. Now, in order to advance still farther in the direction of man, we must extend the bases of our future edifices into the within of that same matter.
Things have their within; their ‘reserve’, one might say; and this appears to stand in definite qualitative or quantitative connections with the developments that science recognises in the cosmic energy. These three statements (i.e., that there is a within, that some connections are qualitative, that others are quantitative) are the basis of the three sections of this new chapter. To deal with them, as here I must, obliges me to overlap ‘Before Life’ and somewhat to anticipate ‘Life’ and ‘Thought’. However, is not the peculiar difficulty of every synthesis that its end is already implicit in its beginnings?
If there is one thing that has been cleariy brought out by the latest advances in physics, it is that in our experience there are ‘spheres’ or ‘levels’ of different kinds in the unity of nature, each of them distinguished by the dominance of certain factors which are imperceptible or negligible in a neighbouring sphere or on an adjacent level. On the middle scale of our organisms and our constructions velocity does not seem to change the nature of matter. None the less, we now know that at the extreme values reached by atomic movements it profoundly modifies the mass of bodies. Among ‘normal’ chemical elements, stability and longevity appear to be the rule: but that illusion has been destroyed by the discovery of radioactive substances. By the standards of our human existence, the mountains and stars are a model of majestic changelessness. Now we discover that, observed over a sufficiently great duration of time, the earth’s crust changes ceaselessly under our feet, while the heavens sweep us along in a cyclone of stars.
In all these instances, and in others like to them, there is no absolute appearance of a new dimension. Every mass is modified by its velocity. Every body radiates. Every movement is veiled in immobility when sufficiently slowed down. But on a different scale, or at a different intensity, there will become visible some phenomenon that spreads over the horizon, blots out the other distinctions, and gives its own particular tonality to the whole picture.
It is the same with the within of things.
For a reason that will soon appear, objects in the realm of physic-chemistry are only made manifest by their outward determinisms.
In the eyes of the physicist, nothing exists legitimately, at least up to now, except the without of things. The same intellectual attitude is still permissible in the bacteriologist, whose cultures (apart from some substantial difficulties) are treated as laboratory reagents. But it is already more difficult in the realm of plants. It tends to become a gamble in the case of a biologist studying the behaviour of insects or coelenterates. It seems merely futile with regard to the vertebrates. Finally, it breaks down completely with man, in whom the existence of a within can no longer be evaded, because it is the object of a direct intuition and the substance of all knowledge.
The apparent restriction of the phenomenon of consciousness to the higher forms of life has long served science as an excuse for eliminating it from its models of the universe. A queer exception, an aberrant function, an epiphenome-non-thought was classed under one or other of these in order to get rid of it. But what would have happened to modern physics if radium had been classified as an abnormal substance, without further ado? Clearly, the activity of radium had not been neglected, and could not be neglected, because, being measurable, it forced its way into the external web of matter — whereas consciousness, in order to be integrated into a world-system, necessitates consideration of the existence of a new aspect or dimension in the stuff of the universe. We shrink from the attempt, but which of us does not in both cases see an identical problem facing research workers, which have to be solved by the same method, namely, to discover the universal hidden beneath the exceptional?
Latterly we have experienced it too often to admit of any further doubt: an irregularity in nature is only the sharp exacerbation, to the point of perceptible disclosure, of a property of things diffused throughout the universe, in a state which eludes our recognition of its presence. Properly observed, even if only in one spot, a phenomenon necessarily has an omnipresent value and roots by reason of the fundamental unity of the world. Whither does this rule lead us if we apply it to the instance of human ‘self-knowledge’?
‘Consciousness is completely evident only in man’ we are tempted to say, ‘therefore it is an isolated instance of no interest to science.’
‘Consciousness is evident in man,’ we must continue, correcting ourselves, ‘therefore, half-seen in this one flash of light, it has a cosmic extension, and as such is surrounded by an aura of indefinite spatial and temporal extensions.
The conclusion is pregnant with consequences, and yet I cannot see how, by sound analogy with all the rest of science, we can escape from it.
It is impossible to deny that, deep within ourselves, an ‘interior’ appears at the heart of beings, as it were seen through a rent. This is enough to ensure that, in one degree or another, this ‘interior’ should obtrude itself as existing everywhere in nature from all time. Since the stuff of the universe has an inner aspect at one point of itself, there is necessarily a double aspect to its structure, that is to say in every region of space and time-in the same way, for instance, as it is granular: co-extensive with their ‘Without’, there is a ‘Within’ to things.
The consequent picture of the world daunts our imagination, but it is in fact the only one acceptable to our reason. Taken at its lowest point, primitive matter is something more than the particulate swarmings so marvellously analysed by modern physics. Beneath this mechanical layer we must think of a ‘biological’ layer that is attenuated to the uttermost, but yet is absolutely necessary to explain the cosmos in succeeding ages. The within, consciousness1 and then spontaneity — three expressions for the same thing. It is no more legitimate for us experimentally to fix an absolute beginning to these three expressions of one and the same thing than to any other lines of the universe.
1 Here, and throughout this book, the term ‘consciousness’ is taken in its widest sense to indicate every kind of psychism, from the most rudimentary forms of interior perception imaginable to the human phenomenon of reflective thought.
In a coherent perspective of the world: life inevitably assumes a ‘pre-life’ for as far back before it as the eye can see.2
2 These pages had been written for some time when I was surprised to find their substance in some masterly lines recently written by J. B. S. Haldane:
‘We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter, and we naturally study them most easily where they are most completely manifested; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary forms, all through the universe.’
And he goes on to add these words which my readers would do well to recall when I come to unveil (with all due reservations and corrections) the perspective of the ‘Omega Point’: ‘Now, if the co-operation of some thousands of millions of cells in our brain can produce our consciousness, the idea becomes vastly more plausible that the co-operation of humanity, or some sections of it, may determine what Comte calls a Great Being.’ (Essay on Science and Ethics in The Inequality of Man, Chatto, 1932, p. 113.)
What I say is thus not absurd. Moreover, any metaphysician must rejoice to discover that even in the eyes of physics the idea of absolutely brute matter (that is to say, of a pure ‘transient’) is only a first very rough approximation of our experience.
In that case — and the objection will come from materialists and upholders of spirituality alike — if everything in nature is basically living, or at least pre-living, how is it possible for a mechanistic science of matter to be built up and to triumph?
Determinate without, and free within — would the two aspects of things be irreducible and incommensurable? If so, where is your solution?
The answer to this difficulty is already implicit in what we have said before about the diversity of ‘spheres of experience’ superposed in the interior of the world. It will appear more clearly when we have discerned the qualitative laws that govern in their growth and variation the manifestations of what we have just called the within of things.
2. THE QUALITATIVE LAWS OF GROWTH
To harmonise objects in time and space, without presuming to determine the conditions that can rule their deepest being: to establish an experimental chain of succession in nature, not a union of ‘ontological’ causality; to see, in other words, and not to explain — this, let it not be forgotten, is the sole aim of the present study.
From this phenomenal point of view (which is the scientific point of view) can one go beyond the position where our analysis of the stuff of the universe has just stopped? In this last we have recognised the existence of a conscious inner face that everywhere duplicates the ‘material’ external face, which alone is commonly considered by science. Can we go further and define the rules according to which this second face, for the most part entirely hidden, suddenly shows itself, and then as suddenly bursts through into certain other regions of our experience?
Yes, so it seems, and even quite easily, provided there are placed one after the other three observations that each one of us could have made, but which do not take on their true value until we think of linking them together.
A. First Observation
Considered in its pre-vital state, the ‘within’ of things, whose reality even in the nascent forms of matter we have just admitted, must not be thought of as forming a continuous film, but as assuming the same granulation as matter itself.
Soon we shall have to return to this essential point. As far back as we began to descry them, the first living things reveal themselves to our experience as kinds of ‘mega-’ or ‘ultra-’. molecules, both in size and in number: a bewildering multitude of microscopic nuclei. Which means that for reasons of homogeneity and continuity, the preliving can be divined, below the horizon, as an object sharing in the corpuscular structure and properties of the world. Looked at from within, as well as observed from without, the stuff of the universe thus tends likewise to be resolved backwardly into a dust of particles that are (i) perfectly alike among themselves (at least if they are observed from a great distance); (ii) each co-extensive with the whole of the cosmic realm; (iii) mysteriously connected among themselves, finally, by a global energy. In these depths the world’s two aspects, external and internal, correspond point by point. So much is this so that one may pass from the one to the other on the sole condition that ‘mechanical interaction’ in the definition of the partial centres of the universe given above is replaced by ‘consciousness’.
Atomicity is a common property of the ‘Within’ and the ‘Without’ of things.
B. Second Observation
Virtually homogeneous among themselves in the beginning, the elements of consciousness, exactly as the elements of matter which they subtend, complicate and differentiate their nature, little by little, with the passage of duration. From this point of view and considered solely from the experimental aspect, consciousness reveals itself as a cosmic property of variable size subject to a global transformation. Taken on the ascent, this huge phenomenon that we shall have to follow all along the development of life right up to the appearance of thought, has ended by appearing commonplace. Followed in the opposite direction, it leads us, as we have already seen, to the less familiar idea of inferior states that are less well defined and, as it were, distended.
Refracted rearwards along the course of evolution, consciousness displays itself qualitatively as a spectrum of shifting shades whose lower terms are lost in the night.
C. Third Observation
Finally, let us take from two different regions of this spectrum two particles of consciousness that are at unlike stages of evolution. As we have seen, there corresponds to each of them, by construction, a certain definite material grouping of which they form the within. Let us compare these two external groupings the one with the other and ask ourselves how they are arranged with regard to each other and with regard to the portion of consciousness that each of them encloses.
The answer comes at once.
Whatever instance we may think of, we may be sure that every time a richer and better organised structure will correspond to the more developed consciousness.
The simplest form of protoplasm is already a substance of unheard-of complexity. This complexity increases in geometrical progression as we pass from the protozoon higher and higher up the scale of the metazoa. And so it is for all the rest always and everywhere, Here again, the phenomenon is so obvious that we have long since ceased to be astonished by it. Yet its importance is decisive. For thanks to it we possess a tangible ‘parameter’ allowing us to connect both the internal and the external films of the world, not only in their position (point by point), but also, as we shall verify later on, in their motion.
The degree of concentration of a consciousness varies in inverse ratio to the simplicity of the material compound lined by it. Or again a consciousness is that much more perfected according as it lines a richer and better organised material edifice.
Spiritual perfection (or ‘conscious centreity’) and material synthesis (or complexity) are but the two aspects or connected parts of one and the same phenomenon.3
And now we have arrived, ipso facto, at the solution of the problem posed for us. We are seeking a qualitative law of development that from sphere to sphere should be capable of explaining, first of all the invisibility, then the appearance, and then the gradual dominance of the ‘within’ in comparison to the ‘without’ of things. This law reveals itself once the universe is thought of as passing from State A, characterised by a very large number of very simple material elements (that is to say, with a very poor ‘within’), to a State B defined by a smaller number of very complex groupings (that is to say, with a much richer ‘within’).
In State A, the centres of consciousness, because they are extremely numerous and extremely loose at the same time, only reveal themselves by overall effects which are subject to the laws of statistics. Collectively5 that is, they obey the laws of mathematics. This is the proper field of physico-chemistry:
3 From this aspect one might say that, on the phenomenal plane, each being is constructed like an ellipse on two conjugate foci: a focus of material organisation and a focus of psychic centering the two foci varying solidarily and in the same sense.
In State B, ‘on the other hand, these less numerous4 and at the same time more highly individualised elements gradually escape from the slavery of large numbers. They allow their basic non-measurable spontaneity to break through and reveal itself. We can begin to see them and follow them one by one, and in so doing we have access to the world of biology.
4 As we shall see, this is despite the specifically vital mechanism of multiplication.
In sum, all the rest of this essay will be nothing but the story of the struggle in the universe between the unified multiple and the unorganised multitude: the application throughout of the great Law of complexity and consciousness: a law that itself implies a psychically convergent structure and curvature of the world.
But we must not go too quickly, and since we are still concerned with pre-life let us only keep in mind that, from the qualitative viewpoint, there is no kind of contradiction involved in admitting that a universe of mechanistic appearance may be built up of ‘liberties’ — provided that the liberties are therein contained in a sufficiently fine state of division and imperfection.
3. SPIRITUAL ENERGY
There is no concept more familiar to us than that of spiritual energy, yet there is none that is more opaque scientifically. On the one hand the objective reality of psychical effort and work is so well established that the whole of ethics rests on it and, on the other hand, the nature of this inner power is so intangible that the whole description of the universe in mechanical terms has had no need to take account of it, but has been successfully completed in deliberate disregard of its reality
The difficulties we still encounter in trying to hold together spirit and matter in a reasonable perspective are nowhere more harshly revealed. Nowhere either is the need more urgent of building a bridge between the two banks of our existence — the physical and the moral — if we wish the material and spiritual sides of our activities to be mutually enlivened.
To connect the two energies, of the body and the soul, in a coherent manner: science has provisionally decided to ignore the question, and it would be very convenient for us to do the same. Unfortunately, or fortunately, caught up as we are here in the logic of a system where the ‘within’ of things has just as much or even more value than their ‘without’, we colide with the difficulty head on. It is impossible to avoid the clash: we must advance.
Naturally the following considerations do not pretend be a truly satisfactory solution of the problem of spiritual energy. Their aim is merely to show by means of one example what, in my opinion, an integral science of nature should adopt as its line of research and the kind of interpretation it should follow.
A. The Problem of the Two Energies
Since the inner face of the world is manifest deep within our human consciousness, and there reflects upon itself, it would seem that we have only got to look at ourselves in order to understand the dynamic relationships existing between the within and the without of things at a given point in the universe.
In fact so to do is one of the most difficult of all things. We are perfectly well aware in our concrete actions that the two opposite forces combine. The motor works, but we cannot make out the method, which seems to be contradictory. What makes the crux — and an irritating one at that of the problem of spiritual energy for our reason is the heightened sense that we bear without ceasing in ourselves that our action seems at once to depend on, and yet to be independent of, material forces.
First of all, the dependence. This is depressingly and magnificently obvious. ‘To think, we must eat.’ That blunt statement expresses a whole economy, and reveals, according to the way we look at it, either the tyranny of matter or its spiritual power. The loftiest speculation, the most burning love are, as we know only too well, accompanied and paid for by an expenditure of physical energy. Sometimes we need bread, sometimes wine, sometimes a drug or a hormone injection, sometimes the stimulation of a colour, sometimes the magic of a sound which goes in at our ears as a vibration and reaches our brains in the form of inspiration.
Without the slightest doubt there is something through which material and spiritual energy hold together and are complementary. In last analysis, somehow or other, there must be a single energy operating in the world. And the first idea that occurs to us is that the ‘soul’ must be as it were a focal point of transformation at which, from all the points of nature, the forces of bodies converge, to become interiorised and sublimated in beauty and truth.
Yet, seductive though it be, the idea of the direct transformation of one of these two energies into the other is no sooner glimpsed than it has to be abandoned. As soon as we try to couple them together, their mutual independence becomes as clear as their interrelation.
Once again: ‘To think, we must eat,’ But what a variety of thoughts we get out of one slice of bread! Like the letters of the alphabet, which can equally well be assembled into nonsense as into the most beautiful poem, the same calories seem as indifferent as they are necessary to the spiritual values they nourish.
The two energies of — mind and matter — spread respectively through the two layers of the world (the ‘within’ and the ‘without’) have, taken as a whole, much the same demeanour. They are constantly associated and in some way pass into each other. But it seems impossible to establish a simple correspondence between their curves. On the one hand, only a minute fraction of ‘physical energy’ is used up in the highest exercise of spiritual energy; on the other, this minute fraction, once absorbed, results on the internal scale in the most extraordinary oscillations.
A quantitative disproportion of this kind is enough to make us reject the naive notion of ‘change of form’ (or direct transformation)– and hence all hope of discovering a ‘mechanical equivalent’ for will or thought. Between the within and the without of things, the interdependence of energy is incontestible. But it can in all probability only be expressed by a complex symbolism in which terms of a different order are employed.
B. A Line of Solution
To avoid a fundamental dualism, at once impossible and anti-scientific, and at the same time to safeguard the natural complexity of the stuff of the universe, I accordingly propose the following as a basis for all that is to emerge later.
We shall assume that, essentially, all energy is psychic in nature; but add that in each particular element this fundamental energy is divided into two distinct components: a tangential energy which links the element with all others of the same order (that is to say, of the same complexity and the same centricity) as itself in the universe; and a radial energy which draws it towards even greater complexity and centricity — in other words forwards.5
5 Let it be noted in passing that the less an element is ‘centred’ (i.e. the feebler its radial energy) the more will its tangential energy reveal itself in powerful mechanical effects. Between strongly ‘centred’ particles (i.e. of high radial energy) the tangential seems to become ‘interiorised’ and to disappear from the physicist’s view.
Probably we have here an auxiliary principle which could help to explain the apparent conservation of energy in the universe (see para. b. below). We probably ought to recognise two Sorts of tangential energy, one of radiation (at its maximum with the lowest radial values, as in the atom), the other of arrangement (only appreciable with the highest radial values, as in living creatures, man in particular).
From this initial state, and supposing that it disposes of a certain free tangential energy, the particle thus constituted must obviously be in a position to increase its internal complexity in association with neighbouring particles, and thereupon (since its centricity is automatically increased) to augment its radial energy. The latter will then be able to react in its turn in the form of a new arrangement in the tangential field. And so on.
In this view, whereby tangential energy represents ‘energy’ as such, as generally understood by science, the only difficulty is to explain the interplay of tangential arrangements in terms of the laws of thermo-dynamics. As regards this we may remark the following:
a. First of all, since the variation of radial energy in function of tangential energy is effected, according to our hypothesis, by the intervention of an arrangement, it follows that as much as you like of the first may be linked with as little as you like of the second — for a highly perfected arrangement may only require an extremely small amount of work. This fits in with the facts noted in section A above.
b. Moreover, in the system here proposed, we are paradoxically led to admit that cosmic energy is constantly increasing, not only in its radial form, but — which is much more serious — in its tangential one (for the tension between elements increases with their centricity itself). This would seem to be in direct contradiction with the law of conservation of energy. It must be noted, however, that this increase of the tangential of the second kind (the only one troublesome for physics) only becomes appreciable with very high radial values (as in man, for instance, and social tensions). Below this level, and for an approximately constant number of initial particles in the universe, the sum of the cosmic tangential energies remains practically and statistically invariable in the course of transformations. And this is all that science requires.
C. Lastly, since according to our reading, the entire edifice of the universe is constantly supported at every phase of its progressive centration by its primary arrangements, it is plain that its achievement will be conditioned up to the highest stages by a certain primordial quantum of free tangential energy, which will gradually exhaust itself, following the principle of entropy.
Looked at as a whole, this picture satisfies the requirements of reality.
Three questions remain still unanswered, however:
a. By virtue of what special energy does the universe propagate itself along its main axis in the less probable direction of the higher forms of complexity and centricity?
b. Is there a definite limit and end to the ‘elemental’ value and to the sum total of the radial energies developed in the course of transformation?
c. Is this final and resultant form of radial energies, supposing it exists, subject to reversal? Is it destined one day to start disintegrating so as to satisfy the principle of entropy, and fall back indefinitely into pre-living and still lower centres, by the exhaustion and gradual levelling down of the free tangential energy — contained in the successive envelopes of the universe from which it has emerged?
To be answered satisfactorily, these three questions must await a much later chapter, when the study of man will have led us to the concept of a superior pole to the world — the omega point.
The Earth In Its Early Stages
Some thousands of millions of years ago, not, it would appear, by a regular process of astral evolution, but as the result of some unbelievable accident (a brush with another star? an internal upheaval?) a fragment of matter composed of particularly stable atoms was detached from the surface of the sun. Without breaking the bonds attaching it to the rest, and just at the right distance from the mother-star to receive a moderate radiation, this fragment began to condense, to roll itself up, to take shape.1 Containing within its globe and orbit the future of man, another heavenly body — a planet this time — has been born.
1 Once again astronomers seem to be returning to a more Laplacean concept of the birth of planets by the effect of knots and bulges in the cloud of cosmic dust originally floating around each star.
So far our eyes have been straying over the unlimited layers in which the stuff of the universe is deployed.
From now on let us concentrate our attention on this diminutive, obscure, but fascinating object which had just appeared. It is the only place in the world in which we are so far able to study the evolution of matter in its ultimate phases, and as far as ourselves.
Let us have a look at the earth in its early stages, so fresh yet charged with latent powers, as it balances in the chasms of the past.
I. THE WITHOUT
What arouses the physicist’s interest in this globe — new born, it would seem, by a stroke of chance in the cosmic mass — is the presence of composite chemical bodies not to be observed anywhere else.2 At the extreme temperature occurring in the stars, matter can only survive in its most dissociated states. Only simple bodies exist on these incandescent stars. On the earth this simplicity of the elements still obtains at the periphery, in the more or less ionised gases of the atmosphere and the stratosphere and, probably, far below, in the metals of the ‘barysphere’. But between these two extremes comes a long series of complex substances, harboured and produced only by stars that have ‘gone out’. Arranged in successive zones, they demonstrate from the start the powers of synthesis contained in the universe. First the siliceous zone, preparing the solid crust of the planet. Next the zone of water and carbonic acid, enclosing the silicates in an unstable, mobile and penetrating envelope.
2 Except, though very fugitively, in the atmosphere of the planets nearest to our own.
In other words we have the barysphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and stratosphere. This fundamental composition may have varied and become elaborated in detail, but by and large it can be said to have established itself from the beginning. And it is from it that geo-chemistry develops progressively in two different directions.
A. The Crystallising World
In one direction, much the more common, terrestrial energy has tended from the outset to be given off and liberated. Silicates, water, carbon dioxide — these essential oxides were formed by burning up and neutralising (alone or in association with other simple bodies) the affinities of their elements. Carrying the scheme progressively further, the result is the rich variety of the ‘mineral world’.
The mineral world is a much more supple and mobile world than could be imagined by the science of the ancients. Vaguely analogous to the metamorphoses of living creatures, there occurs in the most solid rocks, as we now know, perpetual transformation of a mineral species.
But it is a world relatively poor in compounds, because of the narrow limit to the internal architecture of its elements. According to latest estimates, we have found only a few hundred silicates in nature.
Looking at them ‘biologically’ we may say it is the characteristic of minerals (as of so many other organisms that have become incurably fixed) to have chosen a road which closed them prematurely in upon themselves. By their innate structure the molecules are unfitted for growth. To develop beyond a certaln size they have in a way to get out of themselves, to have recourse to a trick of purely external association, whereby the atoms are linked together without true combination or union. Sometimes we find them in strings as in jade, sometimes in planes as in mica, and sometimes in a solid quincunx as in garnet.
In this way, by simple juxtaposition of atoms or relatively simple atomic groups in geometrical patterns, regular aggregates may be produced whose level of composition is often very high, but they correspond to no properly centred units, they are an indefinitely extended mosaic of small elements such as we know to be the structure of a crystal, which thanks to X-rays, can now be photographed. And such is the organisation, simple and stable, which the condensed matter around us has by and large perforce adopted from its origins.
Considered in the mass, the earth is veiled in geometry as far back as we can see. It crystallises.
But not completely.
B. The Polymerising World
In the course of and by virtue of the initial advance of the elements on earth towards the crystalline state, energy was constantly released and liberated (just as, today, it is released by mankind as a result of machinery). This was constantly augmented by energy furnished by the atomic decomposition of radio-active substances and by that given off by solar rays. Where could this surplus energy, available on the surface of the earth in its early stages, go to? Was it merely to be lost around the globe in obscure emanations?
Another much more probable hypothesis occurs to us when we look at the world today. When it became too weak to escape in incandescence, the free energy of the newborn earth became capable of reacting on itself in a work of synthesis. Thus, as today, it passed with the absorption of heat into building up certain carbonates, hydrates or hydrites, and nitrates like those which astonish us by their power to increase indefinitely the complexity and instability of their elements. This is the realm of polymerisation,3 in which the particles ‘concatenate’, group themselves and exchange positions, as in crystals, in a theoretically endless network. Only this time it is molecules with molecules in such a way as to form on each occasion (by closed or at all events limited combination) an even larger and more complex molecule.
3 I trust I shall be forgiven (as later in the case of ‘orthogenesis’) for using this term in so generalised a sense, i.e. to include (as well as the strict polymerisation of the chemists) the entire piocess of ‘additive complexification’ producing large molecules.
The world of ‘organic compounds’ is ours. We live among them and are made of them. So intimately do we see it as connected with the phenomena of life that we have got into the habit of considering it only in direct association with life already constituted. Moreover, despite its incredible wealth of forms, which far surpasses the variety of mineral compounds, it concerns such a tiny part of the substance of the earth that we are instinctively inclined to relegate it to a minor position of geo-chemistry — like the ammonia and oxides that surround the lightning’s flash.
If we wish later to fix the place of man in nature, it seems to me essential to restore to this phenomenon its true physiognomy and its ‘seniority’.
Whatever the quantitative disproportion of the masses they respectively involve, inorganic and organic chemistry are only and can only be two inseparable facets of one and the same telluric operation. And the second, no less than the first, must be regarded as already under way in the infancy of the earth; We are back at the refrain that runs all the way through this book. In the world, nothing could ever burst forth as final across the different thresholds successively traversed by evolution (however critical they be) which has not already existed in an obscure and primordial way. If the organic had not existed on earth from the first moment at which it was possible, it would never have begun later.
There is good reason to think that around our nascent planet, in addition to the inchoation of a metame barysphere, a siliceous lithosphere, a hydrosphere and an atmosphere, there was the outline of a special envelope, the antithesis, we might say, of the first four: the temperate zone of polymerisation, in which water, ammonia and carbon dioxide were already floating in the rays of the sun. To ignore that tenuous film would be to deprive the infant earth of its most essential adornment. For, as we shall see, it is in this that the ‘within of the earth’ was soon to be gradually concentrated (if we hold to what I have already said).
2. THE WITHIN
When I speak of the ‘within’ of the earth, I do not of course mean those material depths in which — a few miles beneath our feet — lurks one of the most vexatious mysteries of science: the chemical nature and the exact physical condition of the internal regions of the globe. The ‘within’ is used here, as in the preceding chapter, to denote the ‘psychic’ face of that portion of the stuff of the cosmos enclosed from the beginning of time within the narrow scope of the early earth. In that fragment of sidereal matter which has just been isolated, as in every other part of the universe, the exterior world must inevitably be lined at every point with an interior one. This we have shown already. Only here the conditions have changed. Matter no longer spreads out beneath our eyes in diffuse and undefinable layers. It coils up round itself in a closed volume. How will its inner layer react to such involution? First let it be noted that, by the very fact of the individualisation of our planet, a certain mass of elementary consciousness was originally emprisoned in the matter of earth. Some scientists have felt obliged to invest some interstellar germs with the power of fecundating cooling stars. This hypothesis disfigures, without explaining, the wonderful phenomenon of life, with its noble corollary, the phenomenon of man, It is in fact quite useless. Why should we turn to space to look for a fecundating principle for the earth — which is incomprehensible in any case? By its initial chemical composition, the early earth is itself, and in its totality, the incredibly complex germ we are seeking. Congenitally, if I may use the word, it already carried pre-life within it, and this, moreover, in definite quantity. The whole question is to define how, from this primitive and essentially elastic quantum, all the rest has emerged.
To form an idea of the first phases of this evolution it will be enough to compare, stage by stage, on the one hand the general laws we have felt able to lay down for the development of spiritual energy, and on the other the physico-chemical conditions we have just acknowledged in the nascent earth, We have said that spiritual energy, by its very nature, increases in ‘radial’ value, positively, absolutely, and without determinable limits, in step with the increasing chemical complexity of the elements of which it represents the inner lining. But the chemical complexity of the earth increases in conformity with the laws of thermo-dynamics in the particular, superficial zone in which its elements polymerise. If we put these two propositions side by side we see that they interweave and shed light upon each other without ambiguity. With one accord they tell us that pre-life is no sooner enclosed in the nascent earth than it emerges from the torpor to which it appeared to have been condemned by its diffusion in space. Its activities, hitherto dormant, are now set in motion ‘pari passu’ with the awakening of the forces of synthesis enclosed in matter. And at one and the same stroke, over the whole surface of the new-formed globe, the tension of internal freedoms begins to rise.
Let us look more attentively at this mysterious surface.
A character to be noted at the outset is the extremely small size and the extremely great number of the particles of which it consists. For a thickness of some miles, in water, in air, in muddy deposits, ultra-microscopic grains of protein are thickly strewn over the surface of the earth. Our imaginations boggle at the mere thought of counting the flakes of this snow. Yet if we take it that pre-life has already emerged in the atom, are not these myriads of large molecules just what we ought to expect?
But there is another point to consider.
In a sense more remarkable than their multitude (and as important to keep in mind for future developments) is the solidarity due to their very genesis which unites the specks of this primordial dust of consciousness. That which permits the growth of elementary freedoms is, essentially, I repeat, the growing synthesis of the molecules they subtend. And let me also repeat that this synthesis itself would never take place if the globe as a whole did not enfold within a closed surface the layers of its substance.
Thus, wherever we look on earth, the growth of the ‘within’ only takes place thanks to a ‘double related involution’, the coiling up of the molecule upon itself and the coiling up of the planet upon itself.4 The initial quantum of consciousness contained in our terrestrial world is not formed merely of an aggregate of particles caught fortuitously in the same net. It represents a correlated mass of infinitesimal centres structurally bound together by the conditions of their origin and development.
4 Precisely the conditions we find later on, at the other end of evolution, presiding over the genesis of the noosphere’.
Here again, but in a better defined field and on a higher level, we find the fundamental condition characteristic of primordial matter — the unity of plurality. The earth was probably born by accident; but, in accordance with one of the most general laws of evolution, scarcely had this accident happened than it was immediately made use of and recast into something naturally directed. By the very mechanism of its birth, the film in which the ‘within’ of the earth was concentrated and deepened emerges under our eyes in the form of an organic whole in which no element can any longer be separated from those surrounding it. Another ‘indivisible’ has appeared at the heart of the great ‘indivisible’ which is the universe, In truth, a pre-biosphere.
And this is the envelope which, taken in its entirety, is to be our sole pre-occupation from now on.
As we continue peering into the abysses of the past, we can see its colour changing. From age to age it increases in intensity. Something is going to burst out upon the early earth, and this thing is Life.
Book Two — Life
The Advent Of Life
After what we have said about the latent germinal powers of the early earth, it might be thought that nothing had been left in nature which could pin-point the beginning of life, and that therefore my chapter heading is inappropriate. The mineral world and the world of life seem two antithetical creations when viewed by a summary glance in their extreme forms and on the intermediary scale of our human organisms; but to a deeper study, when we force our way right down to the microscopic level and beyond to the infinitesimal, or (which comes to the same thing) far back along the scale of time, they seem quite otherwise — a single mass gradually melting in on itself.
At such depths all differences seem to become tenuous. For a long time we have known how impossible it is to draw a clear line between animal and plant on the unicellular level. Nor can we draw one (as we shall see later) between ‘living’ protoplasm and ‘dead’ proteins on the level of the very big molecular accumulations. We still use the word ‘dead’ for these latter unclassified substances, but have we not already come to the conclusion that they would be incomprehensible if they did not possess already, deep down in themselves, some sort of rudimentary psyche?
So, in a sense, we can no more fix an absolute zero in time (as was once supposed) for the advent of life than for that of any other experimental reality. On the experimental phenomenological plane, a given universe and each of its parts can only have one and the same duration, to which there is no backward limit. Thus each thing extends itself and pushes its roots into the past, even farther back, by that which makes it most itself. Everything, in some extremely attenuated extension of itself, has existed from the very first. Nothing can be done in a direct way to counter this basic condition of our knowledge.
But to have realised and accepted once and for all that each new being has and must have a cosmic embryo-genesis in no way invalidates the reality of its historic birth.
In every domain, when anything exceeds a certain measurement, it suddenly changes its aspect, condition or nature. The curve doubles back, the surface contracts to a point, the solid disintegrates, the liquid boils, the germ cell divides, intuition suddenly bursts on the piled up facts. . . Critical points have been reached, rungs on the ladder, involving a change of state — jumps of all sorts in the course of development. Henceforward this is the only way in which science can speak of a ‘first instant’. But it is none the less a true way.
In this new and more complicated sense even after (precisely after) what we have said about pre-life — our task, now, is to consider and define a beginning of life.
Through a duration to which we can give no definite measure but know to be immense, the earth, cool enough now to allow the formation on its surface of the chains of molecules of the carbon type, was probably covered by a layer of water from which emerged the first traces of future continents. To an observer equipped with even the most modern instruments of research, our earth would probably have seemed an inanimate desert. Its waters would have left no trace of mobile particles even upon the finest of our filters, and the most powerful microscope would only have detected inert aggregates.
Then at a given moment, after a sufficient lapse of time, those same waters here and there must unquestionably have begun writhing with minute creatures. And from that initial proliferation stemmed the amazing profusion of organic matter whose matted complexity came to form the last (or rather the last but one) of the envelopes of our planet: the biosphere.
No amount of historical research will ever reveal the details of this story. Unless the science of tomorrow is able to reconstruct the process in the laboratory, we shall probably never find any material vestige of this emergence of the microscopic from the molecular, of the organic from the chemical, of the living from the pre-living. One thing is certain, however — a metamorphosis of this sort could be the result of a simple continuous process. By analogy with all we have learnt from the comparative study of natural developments, we must postulate at this particular moment of terrestrial evolution a coming to maturity, a threshold, a crisis of the first magnitude, the beginning of a new order.
We shall now try to determine what must have been on the one hand the nature, on the other the spatial and temporal modalities of this transformation; and find an explanation that will fit in both with what we presume to have been the conditions on the early earth and with those of the earth as it is today.
I. THE TRANSIT TO LIFE
Seen from outside and materially, the best we can say at the moment is that life properly speaking begins with the cell. For a century science has concentrated its attention on this chemically and structurally ultra-complex unit, and the longer it continues to do so the more evident it becomes that in it lies the secret of which we have as yet no more than an inkling — the secret of the connection between the two worlds of physics and biology. The cell is the natural granule of life in the same way as the atom is the natural granule of simple, elemental matter. If we are to take the measure of the transit to life and determine its precise nature, we must try to understand the cell.
But to understand it, how are we to regard it?
Volumes have been written about the cell. Whole libraries are insufficient to contain all that has been meticulously observed concerning its texture, the functions of its ‘cytoplasm’ and nucleus, the way it divides, and its connection with heredity. Yet, in itself, it is still a closed book, still as enigmatic as ever. It seems as though, once we have reached a certain depth in our explanation, we find ourselves reduced to marking time in front of an impregnable fortress.
It might seem that the histological and physiological methods of analysis have given us all we could expect of them and that, to get any farther, our approach must be made from another angle.
For obvious reasons, cytology has so far proceeded with an almost exclusively biological outlook. The cell has been viewed as a micro-organism, or an example of proto-life, that must be interpreted in relation to its highest forms and associations.
But this attitude has left half our problem in the dark. Like the moon in its first quarter, the cell has been illumined only on the side that looks towards the highest forms of life, leaving the other side (the layers we have called pre-life) floating in darkness. That is most likely the reason scientifically speaking why its mystery has been so unduly prolonged.
Marvellous as it is, marvelous as it seems to us in its isolation among the other constructions of matter, the cell, like everything else in the world, cannot be understood (i.e. incorporated in a coherent system of the universe) unless we situate it on an evolutionary line between a past and a future. We have turned a good deal of attention to its development and its differentiations. It is on its origins, that is to say on its roots in the inorganic, that we must now focus our researches if we want to grasp the essence of its novelty.
Despite what experience has taught us in every other field, we have let ourselves become too much accustomed to thinking of the cell as an object without antecedents. Let us see what happens if we regard it and treat it (as we certainly should) as something at one and the same time both the outcome of long preparation and yet profoundly original, that is to say, as a thing that is born.
A. Micro-organisms and Mega-molecules
First of all the preparatory process.
When we try to look at the beginning of life in relation to its antecedents rather than its consequents, we at once notice something which, strangely enough, had never struck us before, It is in and by means of the cell that the molecular world ‘appears in person (if I may so express myself), touching, passing into, and disappearing in the higher constructions of life.
Perhaps a word of explanation is needed.
When we look at bacteria, it is always against a background of the higher plants and animals, and this blinds our vision. What we should do is start from another angle, shutting our eyes to all the more advanced forms in living nature and even to most of the protozoa because, in their main lines, they are almost as differentiated as metazoa. In the latter, moreover, let us ignore the highly specialised and often very large cells of the nervous, muscular and reproductive systems. In other words let us confine ourselves to the more or less independent elements, externally amorphous or polymorphous, such as abound in natural ferments, are present in our blood and accumulate in our organs in the form of connective tissue, in other words let us confine ourselves to what appear the simplest and the most primitive cells in nature today. This done, let us look at this corpuscular mass in relation to the matter beneath it. Can we fail for a moment to see the obvious relationship, in both composition and appearance, between the proto-living world on the one hand and the physico-chemical one on the other? When we consider the simplicity of the cellular form, the structural symmetry, the infinitesimal size, the outer uniformity in character and behaviour in the mass or multitude, do we not find the unmistakable characteristics and habits of the granular formations? In other words, we are still on that first rung of life, if not at the heart of ‘matter’, at least fully on its border.
Without exaggeration it may be said that just as man, seen in terms of palaeontology, merges anatomically with the mass of mammals that preceded him, so, probing backwards, we see the cell merging qualitatively and quantitatively with the world of chemical structures. Followed in a backward direction, it visibly converges towards the molecule.
This is already something more than a simple intellectual intuition.
Only a few years ago what I have just said concerning the gradual conversion of the ‘granule.’ of matter into the ‘granule’ of life might have been thought of as being as suggestive, but at the same time as unfounded, as the first dissertations of Darwin or Lamarck on evolution. But things are now changing. Since the days of Darwin and Lamarck, numerous discoveries have established the existence of the transitional forms postulated by the theory of evolution. At the same time the latest advances in biochemistry are beginning to establish the reality of molecular aggregates which really do appear to reduce to measurable proportions the gaping void hitherto supposed to exist between protoplasm and mineral matter. If certain calculations (admittedly indirect) are accepted as correct, the molecular weights of some of the natural proteinous substances (such as the viruses so mysteriously associated with the zymotic diseases in plants and animals) may well be in terms of millions. Much smaller than any bacteria — so small in fact that no filter can retain them — the particles forming these substances are none the less colossal compared with thc molecules normally dealt with in organic chemistry. It is fruitful to note that if we cannot yet consider them cells, some of their properties (particularly their faculty of multiplying in contact with living tissue, definitely fore-shadow those of proper organic beings.1
1 Since the viruses have now become visible under the powerful magnification of the electron microscope in the form of fine rods asymmetrically active at their two extremities, the opinion has gained ground that we should include them among bacteria rather than among ‘molecules’, But then, surely, the study of enzymes and other complex chemical substances is beginning to reveal that ‘molecules have a form and even a great variety of forms.
Thanks to the discovery of these giant corpuscles the foreseen existence of intermediate states between the microscopic living world and the ultra-microscopic ‘inanimate’ one has now passed into the field of direct experimentation.
So from now on we are justified not only by our intellectual need of continuity but by positive indications when we state that, in accordance with our theoretical anticipation of the reality of a pre-life, some natural function really does link the mega-molecular to the micro-organic both in the sequence of their appearance and in their present existence.
And this preliminary finding takes us another step towards a better understanding of the preparations for, and hence the origins of life.
B. Forgotten Era
I am not enough of a mathematician to be able to judge either the well-foundedness or the limits of relativity in physics. But, as a naturalist, I am obliged to recognise that the assumption of a dimensional milieu in which space and time are organically combined is the only way we have found to explain the distribution around us of animate and inanimate substances. Indeed the further we advance in our knowledge of the natural history of the world, the more clearly we realise that the distribution of objects and forms at any given moment can only be explained by a process whose duration in time varies directly with the spatial (or morphological) dispersion of the objects in question. Every distance in space, every morphological deviation, presupposes and expresses a duration.
Let us take the very simple case of existing vertebrates. In the time of Linnaeus the classification of these animals had advanced sufficiently for them to be arranged in a definite structure of orders, families, genera, etc. Yet the naturalists of the day were unable to provide any scientific explanation of this system. We know now that the system of Linnaeus merely represents a present-day cross-section of a diverging bundle of phyla2 emerging one after the other through the centuries.3 Accordingly the zoological separation of living creatures into different types reveals and measures in each case a difference in age. In the constellation of species, everything which exists and the place which it occupies implies a certain past, a certain genesis. In particular every time the zoologist meets a more primitive type than those he is familiar with (take the amphioxus, for example) the result is not merely to extend by one more unit the range of animal forms: no, a discovery of that sort ‘ipso facto’ implies another stage, verticil, or ring on the tree-trunk of evolution. For the amphioxus we can only find a place in the present animal kingdom by supposing a whole ‘proto-vertebrate’ stage of life in the past, coming somewhere beneath the fishes.
2 (Throughout this work, the author uses the word phylum in its looser sense for a zoological branch regardless of dimension.)
3 See what I have to say on this subject in the next chapter, section 3, The Tree of Life.
In the biologist’s space-time, the introduction of a new morphological end-form or stage needs immediately to be translated by a corrective prolongation of the axis of duration.
Keeping this principle in mind, let us return to these astonishing giant molecules detected by recent science.
It is possible, though unlikely, that these enormous particles form in nature today no more than an exceptional and relatively restricted group. But however rare they may be, and however modified by secondary association with the living tissue they batten on parasitically, we have no right whatever to treat them as monstrosities or aberrant forms. On the contrary, everything points to their being representative forms, even if only as a surviving residue of some particular stage in the construction of terrestrial matter.
Thus, between our cellular zone and our molecular zone, hitherto supposed adjacent, another, the mega molecular zone, has now insinuated itself. And at the same time, because of the close relation we have established between space and duration, an additional period must accordingly be inserted at some point far behind us in the history of the earth. Another circle on the trunk of the tree means another interval of time in the life of the universe The discovery of viruses and other similar elements not only adds another and important term to our series of states and forms of matter; it obliges us to interpolate a hitherto forgotten era (an era of sub-life) in the series of ages that measure the past of our planet.
Accordingly, working down from incipient life, we find once again in a clearly defined terminal form that phase and that aspect of the early earth which we were led to suppose earlier on when we were climbing the ladder of multiple elements.
Naturally we are not yet in a position to say anything definite concerning the length of time required for the establishment of the mega-molecular world. But though we cannot put it into figures, there are nevertheless some considerations to help us to form an idea of its order of magnitude. Here are three reasons among others for believing the process to have been one of the utmost slowness.
In the first place, its appearance and development must have been narrowly dependent on the transformation of the general conditions, chemical and thermal, prevailing on the surface of the planet. In contrast to life, which seems to have spread with an inherent speed in practically stable material surroundings, the mega-molecules must have developed according to the earth’s sidereal rhythm, i.e. incredibly slowly.
Secondly, the transformation, once begun, must have extended to a mass of matter sufficiently important and sufficiently large to constitute a zone or envelope of telluric dimensions before it could form the necessary basis for the emergence of life. That, too, must have taken a very long time.
Thirdly, mega-molecules seem to show traces of a long history, How could we possibly imagine them forming suddenly, like the simpler corpuscles, and remaining so once and for all? Their complication and their instability, rather like those of life, both suggest a long process of gradual accretions over a series of generations.
For these three reasons, we may now hazard the guess that the duration required for the formation of proteins on the surface of the earth waters as long as, perhaps longer than, the whole, of geological time from the Cambrian period to the present day.
And so the abyss of the past is deepened by yet another level or layer; and though our incurable intellectual weakness encourages us to compress it into an ever thinner slice of duration, scientific analysis is constantly forcing us to enlarge it.
This gives us the sort of basis we need for the views which follow.
Without a long period for maturing no profound change can take place in nature. On the other hand, granted such a period, it is inevitable that something quite new should be produced. A terrestrial era of the mega-molecule is not merely a supplementary period added to our schedule of durations. For something much more than that is involved, namely the requirement of a critical point which concludes and closes it. Which is exactly what we need to justify the idea that an evolutionary break of the first