A few years ago I read The Phenomenon of Man, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and was amazed by its current relevance. Teilhard was a Jesuit Priest and famed paleontologist at a time when science was regarded as a suitable path to God. Teilhard’s path was too radical for the Catholic Church, however, and his best-known work was not published until after his death in 1955. Over the decades, Teilhard was largely forgotten as a scientist but remained widely read for his spiritual quality. What did I, a practicing evolutionary scientist, find so relevant about his work?
Teilhard wrote that humans are both a biological species and a new evolutionary process. As a biological species, we are little different from our primate cousins, and there was no divine spark in our origin (this did not play well with the Catholic Church!). As a new evolutionary process, however, our origin was almost as momentous as the origin of life. Teilhard called the human-created world the noosphere, which slowly spread like a skin over the planet, like the biological skin (the biosphere) that preceded it. He imagined “grains of thought” coalescing at ever-larger scales until they became a single global consciousness that he called the Omega Point.
I tell Teilhard’s story in a chapter of my book The Neighborhood Project titled “We Are Now Entering the Noosphere,” where I also say that reading his book was like the strings of a musical instrument resonating to the strings of another instrument being played nearby. Teilhard anticipated, far ahead of his time, the concept of an evolutionary process built by evolution. Today, this concept is sometimes called a “Darwin Machine,” and it is described with great clarity in a book titled Evolution in Four Dimensions, by Eva Jablonka and Miriam Lamb. They remind us that Darwin’s theory of natural selection requires heredity, not genes. Genes constitute one mechanism of heredity. Genes as we know them were not the starting point of evolution; before genes there was evolution without replicators. Genes, in turn, produced other mechanisms of heredity, including epigenetic mechanisms (involving the expression of genes), learning mechanisms, and systems of symbolic thought that are trans-generational. The second (epigenetics) and third (learning) dimensions of evolution exist for many species, but the fourth (symbolic thought) is nearly uniquely human. Moreover, the symbolic inheritance system rivals genetic inheritance for its combinatorial diversity. There are nearly an infinite number of genotypes in a sexually reproducing species, each potentially producing a different phenotype for natural selection to act upon. Similarly, the diversity of imagined worlds is nearly infinite, and each “symbotype” potentially motivates a different suite of actions in the real world for natural selection to act upon. Thanks to this combinatorial diversity, our ancestors spread over the planet, adapting to all climatic zones and hundreds of ecological niches, displacing countless biological species along the way, for better or for worse. Culturally, we are more like an entire adaptive radiation, similar to the dinosaurs, birds, and mammals, than a single biological species.
Read more at Center for Humans and Nature.