OUCH. Medawar’s Demolition of Teilhard de Chardin’s Fifties guide, The Phenomenon of Man

P B Medawar in 1960

In his assessment revealed in 1961, now deservedly extra well-known than the guide* itself, Peter Medawar began as he meant to go on. After quoting 5 aphorisms he extracted, Medawar wrote:

This little bouquet of aphorism, every one thought sufficiently essential by its writer to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man. It’s a guide extensively held to be of the utmost profundity and significance; it created one thing like a sensation upon its publication in France, and a few reviewers hereabouts known as it the E-book of the Yr — one, the E-book of the Century. But the higher a part of it, I shall present, is nonsense, tricked out with a wide range of metaphysical conceits, and its writer might be excused of dishonesty solely on the grounds that earlier than deceiving others he has taken nice pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man can’t be learn with no feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing round for sense. There may be an argument in it, to make certain — a feeble argument, abominably expressed — and this I shall expound in the end; however contemplate first the fashion, as a result of it’s the fashion that creates the phantasm of content material, and which is a trigger in addition to merely a symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.

The dissection, evaluation and demolition of the Jesuit priest’s bestseller on the evolution of man—which stored him in bother with the Catholic Church—is so well-known and available on-line that I cannot embrace massive extracts. Some, nonetheless, are too scrumptious to withstand:

Laymen firmly consider that scientists are one species of particular person. They aren’t to know that completely different branches of science require very completely different aptitudes and levels of ability for his or her prosecution. Teilhard practised an intellectually unexacting sort of science wherein he achieved a reasonable proficiency. He has no grasp of what makes a logical argument or of what makes for proof. He doesn’t even protect the widespread decencies of scientific writing, although his guide is professedly a scientific treatise.

It’s written in an all however completely unintelligible fashion, and that is construed as prima-facie proof of profundity. (At current this is applicable solely to works of French authorship; in later Victorian and Edwardian instances the identical deference was thought as a result of Germans, with equally little purpose.) It’s as a result of Teilhard has such great deep ideas that he is so tough to observe—actually it is past my poor mind however does not that simply present how profound and essential it should be?

The hearth of Medawar’s assessment was not simply aimed on the writer. Sir Julian Huxley got here in for it as a backer of Teilhard de Chardin or at the very least a part of what Huxley thought he was saying. Maybe, like me, Medawar thought that Huxley, however not the opposite Huxleys, was a grossly over-rated participant in early twentieth century biology. Oh, and the French didn’t escape:

French just isn’t a language that lends itself naturally to the opaque and ponderous idiom of nature-philosophy, and Teilhard has in accordance resorted to using that tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry which is likely one of the extra tiresome manifestations of the French spirit.

Medawar concluded:

I have learn and studied The Phenomenon of Man with actual misery, even with despair. As an alternative of wringing our palms over the Human Predicament, we must always attend to these elements of it that are wholly remediable, above all to the gullibility which makes it potential for folks to be taken in by such a bag of tips as this. If it have been an harmless, passive gullibility it will be excusable: however all too clearly, alas, it’s an lively willingness to be deceived.

When the English translation of Teilhard’s guide appeared in Britain, Medawar was getting ready his Reith Lectures for BBC Radio. They have been on ‘The Way forward for Man’. Medawar returned to his assessment and republished it as a chapter in his 1982 guide, Pluto’s Republic. He mentioned it in an introductory chapter and ended with:

My aged mom was very shocked by my assessment of Teilhard: ‘How may you be so horrid to that good previous man? she requested me. The explanation, I instructed her, was that Teilhard had described his guide as a piece of science—and one executed with remorseless logic—and as a piece of science it has been accepted by its extra gullible readers. If solely he had described it as an imaginative rhapsody ‘based mostly on science’ in a lot the identical manner as some movies are mentioned to be based mostly on books to which within the end result they appear to bear little resemblance, then The Phenomenon of Man would have precipitated no offence.

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) is now maybe higher remembered for his position within the preliminary excavations of Piltdown Man, that biggest hoax. Some suspect he was concerned however on Medawar’s reasoning his personal gullibility was so nice that he would have simply been fooled. He was concerned within the excavation of Peking Man, spending 20 years in China as priest/explorer/geologist/theologian/palaeontologist, additionally the reason for friction between him and his superiors in Rome.

Teilhard de Chardin

*The French unique was revealed in 1955, the years of Teilhard’s loss of life. The English translation was revealed in 1959.

Medawar PB. 1961. The Phenomenon of Man. By Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. With an introduction by Sir Julian Huxley. Collins, London, 1959 .Thoughts 70, 99-106.

Medawar PB. 1982. Pluto’s Republic. Oxford College Press.

Leave a Comment