Teilhard de Chardin on the Process of Hominization
- 1 Contextual Quote
- 2 Discussion
"Teilhard links hominization with the emergence of the noosphere—during which time “the earth ‘gets a new skin’” (Teilhard de Chardin, 1959/2002, p. 183). The noosphere then develops through socialization .. and the later, planetization, which he saw as beginning to emerge in his times." 
Excerpted from the Phenomenon of Man:
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
"From a purely positivist point of view man is the most mysterious and disconcerting of all the objects met with by science. In fact we may as well admit that science has not yet found a place for him in its representations of the universe.
[...]Between the last strata of the Pliocene period, in which man is absent, and the next, in which the geologist is dumbfounded to find the first chipped flints, what has happened? And what is the true measure of this leap?
I. THE THRESHOLD OF REFLECTION
A. The Threshold of the Element: the Hominisation of the Individual
Biologists are not yet agreed on whether or not there is a direction (still less a definite axis) of evolution... .
reflection is, as the word indicates, the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to take possession of itself as of an object endowed with its own particular consistence and value: no longer merely to know, but to know oneself; no longer merely to know, but to know that one knows. By this individualisation of itself in the depths of itself, the living element, which heretofore had been spread out and divided over a diffuse circle of perceptions and activities, was constituted for the first time as a centre in the form of a point at which all the impressions and experiences knit themselves together and fuse into a unity that is conscious of its own organisation.
[...] The being who is the object of its own reflection, in consequence of that very doubling back upon itself, becomes in a flash able to raise itself into a new sphere. In reality, another world is born. Abstraction, logic, reasoned choice and inventions, mathematics, art, calculation of space and time, anxieties and dreams of love—all these activities of inner life are nothing else than the effervescence of the newly-formed centre as it explodes onto itself.
[...] It is not a matter of change of degree, but of a change of nature, resulting from a change of state.
[...] Life, being an ascent of consciousness, could not continue to advance indefinitely along its line without transforming itself in depth.
By the end of the Tertiary era, the psychical temperature in the cellular world had been rising for more than 500 million years. From branch to branch, from layer to layer, we have seen how nervous systems followed pari passu the process of increased complication and concentration. Finally, with the primates, an instrument was fashioned so remarkably supple and rich that the step immediately following could not take place without the whole animal psychism being as it were recast and consolidated on itself. Now this movement did not stop, for there was nothing in the structure of the organism to prevent it advancing. When the anthropoid, so to speak, had been brought ‘mentally’ to boiling point some further calories were added. Or, when the anthropoid had almost reached the summit of the cone, a final effort took place along the axis. No more was needed for the whole inner equilibrium to be upset. What was previously only a centred surface became a centre. By a tiny ‘tangential’ increase, the ‘radial’ was turned back on itself and so to speak took an infinite leap forward. Outwardly, almost nothing in the organs had changed. But in depth, a great revolution had taken place: consciousness was now leaping and boiling in a space of super-sensory relationships and representations; and simultaneously consciousness was capable of perceiving itself in the concentrated simplicity of its faculties. And all this happened for the first time.Those who adopt the spiritual explanation are right when they defend so vehemently a certain transcendence of man over the rest of nature. But neither are the materialists wrong when they maintain that man is just one further term in a series of animal forms. [...] From the cell to the thinking animal, as from the atom to the cell, a single process (a psychical kindling or concentration) goes on without interruption and always in the same direction.
...to culminate in man at the stage of reflection, life must have been preparing a whole group of factors for a long time and simultaneously... .
[...] Life does not work by following a single thread, nor yet by fits and starts. It pushes forward its whole network at one and the same time. [...] ...the birth of intelligence corresponds to a turning in upon itself, not only of the nervous system, but of the whole being.
...the access to thought represents a threshold which had to be crossed at a single stride; a ‘trans-experimental’ interval about which scientifically we can say nothing, but beyond which we find ourselves transported onto an entirely new biological plane.
[...] A moment ago we compared the simplicity of the thinking mind with that of a geometrical point. It would have been better to speak of a line or an axis. [...] It centres itself further on itself by penetration into a new space, and at the same time it centres the rest of the world around itself by the establishment of an ever more coherent and better organised perspective in the realities which surround it.
Caught up in the chain of succeeding generations, the animal seemed to lack the right to live; it appeared to have no value for itself. It was a fugitive foothold for a process which passed over it and ignored it. Life... was more real than living things.
With the advent of the power of reflection... everything is changed, and we now perceive that under the more striking reality of the collective transformations a secret progress has been going on parallel to individualisation. [...] The animal grew in relation to the species. [...] The cell has become 'someone'.
Above the point of reflection, does the whole interest of evolution shift, passing from life into a plurality of isolated living beings? Nothing of the sort.
Only, from this crucial date the global spurt, without slackening in the slightest, has acquired another degree, another order of complexity. The phylum does not break like a fragile jet just because henceforward it is fraught with thinking centres; it does not crumble into its elementary psychisms. On the contrary it is reinforced by an inner lining, an additional framework. Until now it was enough to consider in nature a simple vibration on a wide front, the ascent of individual centres of consciousness. What we now have to do is to define and regulate harmoniously an ascent of consciousnesses (a much more delicate phenomenon). We are dealing with a progress made up of other progresses as lasting as itself; a movement of movements.
Let us try to lift our minds high enough to dominate the problem.
B. The Threshold of the Phylum: the Hominisation of the Species
According to all appearances, propagation, multiplication and ramification went on in man, as in other animals, after the threshold of thought, as busily as before. Nothing, one might think, had altered in the current. But the water in it was no longer the same. Like a river enriched by contact with an alluvial plain, the vital flux, as it crossed the stages of reflection, was charged with new principles, and as a result manifested new activities.
Consciousness rises through living beings: that was about all we were able to say. But from the moment the threshold of thought is crossed its progress becomes easier to unravel; for life has not only reached the rung on which we ourselves stand, but begins to overflow freely by its free activity beyond the boundary within which it had been confined by the exigences of physiology. The message is more clearly written, and we are better able to follow it, because we recognise ourselves in it. [...]
...I referred to the unparalleled complexity of the human group—all those races, those nations, those states whose entanglements defy the resourcefulness of anatomists and ethnologists alike. There are so many rays in that spectrum that we despair of analysing them. Let us try instead to perceive what this multiplicity represents when viewed as a whole. If we do this we will see that its disturbing aggregation is nothing but a multitude of sequins all sending back to each other by reflection the same light. We find hundreds or thousands of facets, each expressing at a different angle a reality which seeks itself among a world of groping forms. We are not astonished (because it happens to us) to see in each person around us the spark of reflection developing year by year. We are all conscious, too, at all events vaguely, that something in our atmosphere is changing with the course of history. If we add these two pieces of evidence together (and rectify certain exaggerated views on the purely ‘germinal’ and passive nature of heredity), how is it that we are not more sensitive to the presence of something greater than ourselves moving forward within us and in our midst?
C. The Threshold of the Terrestrial Planet: the Noosphere
The biological change of state terminating in the awakening of thought does not represent merely a critical point that the individual or even the species must pass through. Vaster than that, it affects life itself in its organic totality, and consequently it marks a transformation affecting the state of the entire planet.
[...] We have been following the successive stages of the same grand progression from the fluid contours of the early earth. Beneath the pulsations of geo-chemistry, of geo-tectonics and of geo-biology, we have detected one and the same fundamental process, always recognisable—the one which was given material form in the first cells and was continued in the construction of nervous systems. We saw geogenesis promoted to biogenesis, which turned out in the end to be nothing else than psychogenesis.
[...] Psychogenesis has led to man. Now it effaces itself, relieved or absorbed by another and a higher function—the engendering and subsequent development of the mind, in one word noögenesis.
As regards our understanding of the earth [the consequences of this discovery] are decisive.
Geologists have for long agreed in admitting the zonal composition of our planet. We have already spoken of the barysphere, central and metallic, surrounded by the rocky lithosphere that in turn is surrounded by the fluid layers of the hydrosphere and atmosphere. Since Suess, science has rightly become accustomed to add another to these four concentric layers, the living membrane composed of the fauna and flora of the globe, the biosphere, so often mentioned in these pages, an envelope as definitely universal as the other ‘spheres’ and even more definitely individualised than them. For, instead of representing a more or less vague grouping, it forms a single piece, of the very tissue of the genetic relations which delineate the tree of life.
The recognition and isolation of a new era in evolution, the era of noögenesis, obliges us to distinguish correlatively a support proportionate to the operation—that is to say, yet another membrane in the majestic assembly of telluric layers. A glow ripples outward from the first spark of conscious reflection. The point of ignition grows larger. The fire spreads in ever widening circles till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence. Only one interpretation, only one name can be found worthy of this grand phenomenon. Much more coherent and just as extensive as any preceding layer, it is really a new layer, the ‘thinking layer,’ which, since its germination at the end of the Tertiary period, has spread over and above the world of plants and animals. In other words, outside and above the biosphere there is the noösphere.
With that it bursts upon us how utterly warped is every classification of the living world (or, indirectly, every construction of the physical one) in which man only figures logically as a genus or a new family. This is an error of perspective which deforms and uncrowns the whole phenomenon of the universe. To give man his true place in nature it is not enough to find one more pigeon-hole in the edifice of our systematisation or even an additional order or branch. With hominisation, in spite of the insignificance of the anatomical leap, we have the beginning of a new age. The earth ‘gets a new skin.’ Better still, it finds its soul.
[...] Among all the stages successively crossed by evolution, the birth of thought comes directed after, and is the only thing comparable in order of grandeur to, the condensation of the terrestrial chemism or the advent of life itself.
[...] ...steeped as we are in what is human like a fish in the sea, we have difficulty in emerging from it in our minds so as to appreciate its specificness and breadth. But let us look round us a little more carefully. This sudden deluge of cerebralisation, this biological invasion of a new animal type... , this irresistible tide of fields and factories, this immense and growing edifice of matter and ideas... seem to proclaim that there has been a change on the earth and a change of planetary magnitude. [...] ...to a Martian capable of analysing sidereal radiations psychically no less than physically, the first characteristic of our planet would be, not the blue of the seas or the green of the forests, but the phosphorescence of thought.
The greatest revelation open to science today is to perceive that everything precious, active and progressive originally contained in that cosmic fragment from which our world emerged, is now concentrated in and crowned by the noosphere.
2. THE ORIGINAL FORMS
Man came silently into the world. As a matter of fact he trod so softly that, when we first catch sight of him as revealed by those indestructible stone instruments, we find him sprawling all over the old world from the Cape of Good Hope to Peking. Without doubt he already speaks and lives in groups; he already makes fire. After all, this is surely what we ought to expect. As we know, each time a new living form rises up before us out of the depths of history, it is always complete and already legion.
It is not in their germinal state that beings manifest themselves but in their florescence. Taken at the source, the greatest rivers are no more than narrow streams.
To grasp the truly cosmic scale of the phenomenon of man, we had to follow its roots through life, back to when the earth first folded in on itself. But if we want to understand the specific nature of man and divine his secret, we have no other method than to observe what reflection has already provided and what it announces ahead."