Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Jesuit and his brain

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a fascinating figure, one I first heard about in Catholic school. He was a man of enviable energy, as I'm learning in the book The Jesuit & the Skull, written by Amir Aczel. A Jesuit priest by vocation, he also had a strong scientific curiosity, leading him to the study of human origins. Plus a stint as a stretcher-bearer in the Great War, showing what's described as a "contempt for danger."

Teilhard de Chardin advanced a kind of post-Darwin mysticism that the entire cosmos was evolving toward the body of Christ. I'm not sure I agree with this, but it has a certain beauty. The world if ideas is poorer without some that acknowledge substance in the universe beyond the mechanical.

He might have a more difficult time of it now, being both a man of faith and a dedicated amateur scientist. Admitting to any kind of religious faith seems to cost scientists a lot of respect now. On the other side, religious poeple who angrily reject evolution, science, and seemingly the idea of evidence are an organized political force now. Of course the amount of trouble he got from the Vatican was bad enough. Plus ça change, perhaps.

There's also this blackly humoroous anecdote about Teilhard de Chardin's cohort, Canadian anatomist Davidson Black

Black procured cadavers for research, obtained from the Peking pilice department. These cadavers were mostly of people who had been executed for various crimes; the police regularly sent Black truckloads of the bodies of these executed convicts. Execution in China was by beheading, and thus the cadavers Black received lacked heads and had mutilated necks. After some time, he asked the police whether there was any possibility of getting better dead bodies for research—corpses that were intact. The next day, he received a shipment of convicts, all chained together, with a note from the police asking him to kill them in any way he chose. Hoffified, Black sent the prisoners back to the police, and thereafter obtained all his cadavers from the city morgue.
Um, yikes.


susan said...

Teilhard de Chardin is one of a very few philosophers who I believe might actually be successful at cutting through the silly arguments that Christian fundametalists and the proponents of scientism have brought about in our era. He gave the Catholic Church an opportunity to become progressive, but instead of allowing him to teach and publish, something that would have fostered more understanding between science and religion, he was silenced. Once it struck me as strange that he remained a Jesuit but the fact he did so has only served to strengthen his insights.

Did you know he was the one who coined the term 'biosphere'?

Ben said...

Whether it was institutional inertia, fear that new ideas would drive out the old ones, or a probable combination of the two, I do think the Church made a mistake in censoring Teilhard de Chardin. But yeah, the spread of the concept of the biosphere shows how prescient he was in a lot of ways, how many are still catching up.


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