The trouble with religion is that it’s backwards. If you’re religiously inclined, you start with a pre-ordained set of answers and then try earnestly to distort whatever you’re seeing so that it will lead you to the answers you’ve already seized upon. If religion gives you a round hole and reality gives you a square peg, you just keep banging on that square peg trying to force it into the round hole.
Teilhard de Chardin was both a paleontologist and a Jesuit priest. He wrote a book called The Phenomenon of Man in which he attempted to reconcile the findings of paleontology with the “truths” with which Catholic doctrine had supplied him. Faced with the concrete and unarguable evidence for the fact of evolution, he seized on the idea that evolution had been intended by “God” to produce us humans.
I don’t seem to have his book on my shelf anymore. I guess I recycled it years ago. I’ve requested a copy from the inter-library loan system, purely so I can have a look and then return to this post later and edit it if need be. I don’t want to misrepresent the man’s ideas. But while the details are fresh in my mind, I want to rip this preposterous notion into tiny pieces.
There are four or five problems with de Chardin’s hypothesis, each of them as big as the Rock of Gibraltar.
First, there is not a scintilla of credible evidence that such an entity as “God” exists or is capable of doing anything at all. But we’ll set that aside. It’s too large a subject, and not relevant to the point I want to make.
Second, the notion that evolution was aimed at producing the human species is breathtakingly arrogant. If we were able to ask an elephant, the elephant might, with equal plausibility, assert that evolution was quite obviously intended to produce elephants. Dolphins would insist that it was designed to produce the marvelous dolphin species. And so on. The idea that humans are somehow superior to the rest of the animal kingdom is Biblical in origin. It is not based on any scientific evidence. It’s perfectly true that we do a variety of things other animals don’t, but we’re still animals for all that — less beautiful than dolphins, less strong than elephants, less fleet of foot than antelope, shorter lived than tortoises, with less sensitive noses than dogs, eyes less keen than those of eagles, and entirely incapable of unassisted flight.
Third, if “God” had indeed been stacking the deck to produce the human species, he could surely have done it more quickly and with less muss and fuss. Life on Earth has existed for around three billion years. For the first two-plus billion of those years, if you were able to hop in a time machine and go back to check on how things were developing, you wouldn’t have seen any living creatures at all, because they were too small to be seen by the naked eye. For more than two billion years, life as we know it consisted, basically, of pond scum.
If an intelligent and benevolent deity had been aiming from the first at producing the exalted and noble human species, would he have dawdled along for two billion years tinkering with pond scum?
The same consideration applies to the history of the human species itself. For at least two million years, the most exalted activity that our own ancestors had mastered was bashing rocks together to produce a rock with a sharp edge. Also, they carried the rocks around and remembered not to drop them. This was an important survival skill, and I’m not complaining! Bashing rocks together is how we became what we are. But if the goal of a deity had been to produce modern humans, why waste all that time? Why not send a few angels down to show our ancestors new tricks they could do with rocks?
But wait, it gets worse. Having developed a species that mastered fire, knapping flint to make arrowheads, agriculture, irrigation, writing, the domestication of various other species, pottery, and the wheel, Chardin’s God then waited several thousand more years before descending upon a small nomadic tribe in the Middle East to explain to them what he was up to and finally to offer a means by which they might aspire to the perfection he had had in mind all along.
Why wasn’t the Son of Chardin’s God sent down to the Babylonians, the Egyptians, or the Hittites thousands of years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth? Was God just dawdling again? Chardin’s thesis would seem to rest firmly on that peculiar idea.
Fourth, death. Death, death, death, and more death, interleaved with thick slabs of pitiless cruelty. Evolution, you see, works its magic by using death. For every fast-sprinting antelope alive today, there are millions of antelope who were not its ancestors because they didn’t run quite fast enough and were eaten by lions before they could produce baby antelope. If there were no die-offs of creatures (and whole species) that failed at the game of survival, there would be no such thing as evolution. Evolution works by producing boatloads of random mutations in the genome of a species, most of which are harmful or irrelevant. The harmful mutations get weeded out, quickly or slowly, by means of death. The occasional helpful mutation gets passed on to future generations.
Chardin has proposed a God who makes callous and incessant use of death. Even the God of the Old Testament, who delighted in the destruction of entire cities, is wearing ribbons and playing patty-cake compared to Chardin’s God.
A rational scientist — that is, one who was not already committed to Catholic doctrine — would have understood all that. My fifth and final argument might easily have eluded Chardin, however. He died in 1955, before the evidence was widely seen or understood. It has now, belatedly, become quite apparent that the human race is a disaster of planetary proportions. We are well on the way to destroying the lions, the antelope, the elephants, the dolphins, and probably most other large vertebrates. There seems to be no way to stop us.
What has now become abundantly clear is that a benign, intelligent God would never have created the human species in the first place! A benign, intelligent God would have celebrated the beauties of the elephant, the antelope, the dolphin, the spider, the hummingbird, the redwood tree, and would never have been so grotesquely inept as to have taught a small band of African primates to bash rocks together.
In spite of all this, there are still a lot of people who think Teilhard de Chardin was a profound thinker. Me, I’m just an ordinary musician. I was born in Illinois. My grandfather was a farmer. If I can see the cavernously yawning problems with Chardin’s thesis, I have to wonder what’s wrong with these people? But that’s a subject for another time.
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Well done, Jim. Thank you for this thoughtful essay.