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

P B Medawar in 1960

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

This little bouquet of aphorism, each thought sufficiently necessary by its creator to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man. It’s a ebook 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 referred to as it the E-book of the 12 months — one, the E-book of the Century. But the better a part of it, I shall present, is nonsense, tricked out with a wide range of metaphysical conceits, and its creator will 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 out a 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 sooner or later; however take into account 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 imagine that scientists are one species of individual. They don’t seem to be to know that totally different branches of science require very totally different aptitudes and levels of ability for his or her prosecution. Teilhard practised an intellectually unexacting form of science by which 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 frequent decencies of scientific writing, although his ebook 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 occasions the identical deference was thought resulting from Germans, with equally little cause.) It’s as a result of Teilhard has such great deep ideas that he is so troublesome to comply with—actually it is past my poor mind however would not that simply present how profound and necessary it have to be?

The fireplace of Medawar’s evaluate was not simply aimed on the creator. Sir Julian Huxley got here in for it as a backer of Teilhard de Chardin or no less than 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 isn’t a language that lends itself naturally to the opaque and ponderous idiom of nature-philosophy, and Teilhard has in accordance resorted to the usage of that tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry which is without doubt 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 arms over the Human Predicament, we should always attend to these components of it that are wholly remediable, above all to the gullibility which makes it attainable for individuals to be taken in by such a bag of methods as this. If it had been an harmless, passive gullibility it might be excusable: however all too clearly, alas, it’s an energetic willingness to be deceived.

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

My aged mom was very shocked by my evaluate of Teilhard: ‘How may you be so horrid to that good previous man? she requested me. The rationale, I advised her, was that Teilhard had described his ebook 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 ‘primarily based on science’ in a lot the identical approach as some movies are stated to be primarily based on books to which within the final result they appear to bear little resemblance, then The Phenomenon of Man would have brought on no offence.

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) is now maybe higher remembered for his position within the preliminary excavations of Piltdown Man, that best 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 authentic was revealed in 1955, the years of Teilhard’s demise. 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.

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