The Formation of the Noösphere

January 1947

The noösphere is the sum-total of mental activity which emerges out of a complex biosphere, and in this essay Teilhard describes how our planet is growing its very own mind.

Published in Revue des Questions Scientifiques (Louvain) and later The Future of Man.


To avoid misunderstanding it may be well to point out that the general synthesis outlined in these pages makes no claim to replace or to exclude the theological account of human destiny. The description of the Noösphere and its attendant biology, as here propounded, is no more opposed to the Divine Transcendence, to Grace, to the Incarnation or to the ultimate Parousia, than is the science of paleontology to the Creation, or of embryology to the First Cause. The reverse is true. To those prepared to follow the author in his thinking it will be apparent that biology merges into theology, and that the World made Flesh is to be regarded, not as a postulate of science—which would be in the nature of things absurd—but as something, a mysterious Alpha and Omega, taking its place within the whole plan of the universe, both human and divine.

Gradually, but by an irresistible process (through the work of Auguste Comte, Cournot, Durkheim, Lévy-Bruhl, and many others) the organic is tending to supersede the legalistic approach in the concepts and formulations of sociologists. A sense of collectivity, arising in our minds out of the evolutionary sense, has imposed a framework of entirely new dimensions upon all our thinking; so that mankind has come to present itself to our gaze less and less as a haphazard and extrinsic association of individuals, and increasingly as a biological entity wherein, in some sort, the proceedings and the necessities of the universe in movement are furthered and achieve their culmination. We feel that the relation between Society and Social Organism is no longer a matter of symbolism but must be treated in realistic terms. But the question then arises as to how, in this shifting of values, this passage from the juridical to the organic, we may correctly apply the analogy. How are we to escape from metaphor without falling into the trap of establishing absurd and oversimplified parallels which would make of the human species no more than a kind of composite, living animal? This is the difficulty which modern sociology encounters.

It is with the idea and in the hope of advancing towards a solution of the problem that I here venture, basing my argument on the widest possible zoological and biological grounds, to put forward a coherent view of the “thinking Earth” in which I believe we may find, undistorted but yet embodying the corrections required by a change of order, the whole process of Life and of vitalization.

To the naturalist mankind offers a profoundly enigmatic object of study. Anatomically, as Linnaeus perceived, humanity differs so little from the other higher primates that, in strict terms of the criteria normally applied in zoological classification, his group represents no more than a very small offshoot, certainly far less than an Order, within the framework of the category as a whole. But in “biospherical” terms, if I may be allowed the word, humanity’s place on earth is not only predominant but to a certain extent exclusive among living creatures. The small family of hominids, the last shoot to emerge from the main stem of evolution, has of itself achieved a degree of expansion equal to, or even greater than, that of the greatest vertebrate layers (reptile or mammal) that ever inhabited the earth. Moreover, at the rate it is going, we can already foresee the day when it will have abolished or domesticated all other forms of animal and even plant life.

What does this mean?

I believe that the paradox will disappear and the contradictions be reconciled (with the immediate prospect of a vast field of progress for the new sociology) if we adopt the following premises:

  1. We must first give their place in the mechanism of biological evolution to the special forces released by the psychic phenomenon of hominization;
  2. Secondly, we must enlarge our approach to encompass the formation, taking place before our eyes and arising out of this factor of hominization, of a particular biological entity such as has never before existed on earth—the growth, outside and above the biosphere,1 of an added planetary layer, an envelope of thinking substance, to which, for the sake of convenience and symmetry, I have given the name of the Noösphere. (From noos, mind: the terrestrial sphere of thinking substance.)

Let us pursue the matter by successively examining (without at any time leaving the plane of scientific thought):

  1. The birth (or, what amounts to the same thing, the zoological structure);
  2. The anatomy;
  3. The physiology;
  4. Finally, the principal phases of growth of the Noösphere.


Birth and Zoological Structure of the Noösphere

I have referred to the almost contradictory aspect which the section “homo” in the order of primates assumes in the eyes of naturalists: that of a single family suddenly emerging, at the end of the Tertiary Period, to achieve the dimensions of a zoological layer in itself.

If we are to appreciate this strange phenomenon we must look back over the normal development of living forms before the coming of man. It can be characterized in two words: from its first beginnings it never ceased to be “phyletic” and “dispersive.” Phyletic in the first place: every species (or group of species) formed a sort of shoot (or phylum) which was obliged to evolve “orthogenetically” (the word “orthogenesis” is here used in its widest sense: a prescribed orientation offsetting the effect of chance in the play of heredity.) along certain prescribed lines (reduction or adaptation of limbs, complication of teeth, increased specialization as carnivores or herbivores, runners, burrowers, swimmers, flyers, etc.); and secondly dispersive, since the different phyla separated at certain points of proliferation, certain “knots” which we may suppose to be periods of particularly active mutation (Dr. A. Blanc has recently given the name of “lysis” to this phenomenon of the releasing of morphological forces.) Until the coming of humanity, the pattern of the Tree of Life was always that of a fan, a spread of morphological radiations diverging more and more, each radiation culminating in a new “knot” and breaking into a fan of its own.

But at the human level a radical change, seemingly due to the spiritual phenomenon of reflection, overtook this law of development. It is generally accepted that what distinguishes humanity psychologically from other living creatures is the power acquired by its consciousness of turning in upon itself. The animal knows, it has been said; but only man, among animals, knows that he knows. This faculty has given birth to a host of new attributes in men—freedom of choice, foresight, the ability to plan and construct, and many others. So much is clear to everyone. But what has perhaps not been sufficiently noted is that, still by virtue of this power of Reflection, living hominized elements become capable (indeed are under an irresistible compulsion) of drawing close to one another, of communicating, finally of uniting. The centers of consciousness, acquiring autonomy as they emerge into the sphere of reflection, tend to escape from their own phylum, which granulates into a line of individuals. Instead they pass tangentially into a field of force which attracts one to another, fiber to fiber, phylum to phylum: with the result that the entire system of zoological radiations which in the ordinary course would have culminated in a knot and a fanning out of new divergent lines, now tends to fold in upon itself. In time, with the reflexion of the individual upon himself, there comes an inflexion, then a clustering together of the living shoots, soon to be followed (because of the biological advantage which the group gains by its greater cohesion) by the spread of the living complex thus constituted over the whole surface of the globe. The critical point of reflexion in the biological unit becomes the critical point of inflexion for the phyla, which in turn becomes the point of “circumflexion” (if I may use the word) for the whole sheaf of inward-folding phyla. Or, if you prefer, the reflective coiling of the individual upon himself leads to the coiling of the phyla upon each other, which in turn leads to the coiling of the whole system about the closed convexity of the celestial body which carries us. Or we may talk in yet other terms of psychic centration, phyletic intertwining and planetary envelopment: three genetically associated occurrences which, taken together, give birth to the Noösphere.

Viewed in this aspect, entirely borne out by experience, the collective human organism which the economists so hazily envisage emerges decisively from the mists of speculation to take its place and assume the brilliance of a clearly defined star of the first magnitude in the zoological sky. Until this point was reached, nature, in her generalized effort of “complexification,” to which I shall return later, had failed for lack of suitable material to achieve any grouping of individuals outside the family structure (the termitary, the ant-hill, the hive). With man, thanks to the extraordinary agglutinative property of thought, she has at last been able to achieve, throughout an entire living group, a total synthesis of which the process is still clearly apparent, if we trouble to look, in the “scaled” structure of the modern human world.

Anthropologists, sociologists, and historians have long noted, without being very well able to account for it, the enveloping and concretionary nature of the innumerable ethnic and cultural layers whose growth, expansion, and rhythmic overlapping endow humanity with its present aspect of extreme variety in unity. This “bulbary” appearance becomes instantly and luminously clear if we regard the human group, in zoological terms, as simply a normal sheaf of phyla in which, owing to the emergence of a powerful field of attraction, the fundamental divergent tendency of the evolutionary radiations is overcome by a stronger force inducing them to converge. In present-day mankind, within (as I call it) the Noösphere, we are for the first time able to contemplate, at the very top of the evolutionary tree, the result that can be produced by a synthesis not merely of individuals but of entire zoological shoots.

Thus we find ourselves in the presence, in actual possession, of the super-organism we have been seeking, of whose existence we were intuitively aware. The human conglomerate which the sociologists needed for the furtherance of their speculations and formulations now appears scientifically defined, manifesting itself in its proper time and place, like an object entirely new and yet awaited in the sky of life. It remains for us to observe the world by the light it sheds, which throws into astonishing relief the great ensemble of everyday phenomena with which we have always lived, without perceiving their reality, their immediacy, or their vastness.


Anatomy of the Noösphere

It may be said, speaking in very general terms, that in asserting the zoological nature of the Noösphere we confirm the sociologists’ view of human institutions as organic. Once the exceptional, but fundamentally biological, nature of the collective human complex is accepted, nothing prevents us (provided we take into account the modifications which have occurred in the dimensions in which we are working) from treating as authentic organs the diverse social organisms which have gradually evolved in the course of the history of the human race. Directly, humanity, from the nature of its origin, presents itself to our experience as a true super-body, the internal connections of this body, by reason of homogeneity, can only be treated and understood as super-organs and super-members. Thus, for example (due allowance being made for the change of scale and environment), it becomes legitimate to talk in the sphere of economics of the existence and development of a circulatory or a nutritional system applicable to mankind as a whole.

That we must proceed slowly and critically in this attempt to construct an “anatomy” of society is evident. Used without discernment and a profound knowledge of biology, the procedure is in danger of lapsing into puerile and sterile subtleties. But progressively pursued, and proceeding from certain major fields of knowledge, the method shows itself to be both fruitful and illuminating. This is what I shall seek to demonstrate in the three spheres of culture, machinery, and research, by successively “dissecting” the first hereditary, then the mechanical, and finally the cerebral apparatus of the Noösphere

  1. The apparatus of heredity.

    One of the paradoxes attaching to the human species, a cause of some bitterness among biologists, is that every person comes into the world as defenseless, and as incapable of finding its way single-handed in our civilization, as the new-born Sinanthropus a hundred thousand years ago. As Jean Rostand has remarked, the many centuries during which humanity has labored to improve itself have brought about no organic change in it, they have not affected its chromosomes. So much so, the author goes on to imply, that all the advances on which we so pride ourselves remain biologically precarious, superficial, or even exterior to ourselves. There is much that might be said about this; but let us pass over the question of whether we have not undergone some modification, even in our chromosomes, since the era of the pre-Hominids or even that of Cro-magnon man. Let us concede provisionally that we have developed no hereditary trait in that period rendering us more innately capable of perception and movement in the new dimensions of society, space, and time. How does this affect our appreciation and evaluation of human progress? I shall show that the answer is splendid and highly encouraging—provided we do not lose sight of the organic reality of the Noösphere.

    “Separate the newborn child from human society,” you may say, “and you will see how weak he is!” But surely it is clear that this act of isolation is precisely what must not be done, and indeed cannot be done. From the moment when, as I have said, the phyletic strands began to reach toward one another, weaving the first outlines of the Noösphere, a new matrix, coextensive with the whole human group, was formed about the newly born human child—a matrix out of which he cannot be wrenched without incurring mutilation in the most physical core of his biological being. Traditions of every kind, hoarded and manifested in gesture and language, in schools, libraries, museums, bodies of law and religion, philosophy and science—everything that accumulates, arranges itself, recurs and adds to itself, becomes the collective memory of the human race—all this we may see as no more than an outer garment, an epiphenomenon precariously superimposed upon all the other edifices of nature (the only truly organic ones, as it may appear): but it is precisely this optical illusion which we have to overcome if our realism is to reach to the heart of the matter. It is undoubtedly true that before humanity, hereditary characteristics were transmitted principally through the reproductive cells. But after the coming of humanity another kind of heredity shows itself and becomes predominant; one which was indeed foreshadowed and essayed long before humanity, among the highest forms of insects and vertebrates.2 This is the heredity of example and education. In humanity, as though by a stroke of genius on the part of life, an din accord with the grand phenomenon of phyletic coiling, heredity, hitherto primarily chromosomic (that is to say, carried by the genes) becomes primarily “noöspheric”—transmitted, that is to say, by the surrounding environment. In this new form, and having lost nothing of its physical reality (indeed, as much superior to its first state as the Noösphere is superior to the simple, isolated phylum) it acquires, by becoming exterior to the individual, an incomparable substance and capacity. For let me put this question: what system of chromosomes would be as capable as our immense educational system of indefinitely storing and infallibly preserving the huge array of truths and systematized technical knowledge which, steadily accumulating, represents the patrimony of mankind?

    Exteriorization, enrichment: we must not lose sight of these two words. We shall come upon them again, quite unchanged, when we turn to consider the machine.

  2. The mechanical apparatus.

    The fact was noted long ago3 what has enabled humanity zoologically to emerge and triumph upon earth, is that it has avoided the anatomical mechanization of its body. In all other animals we find a tendency, irresistible and clearly apparent, for the living creature to convert its own limbs into tools, its teeth and even its face. We see paws turned into pincers, paws equipped with hooves for running, burrowing paws and muzzles, winged paws, beaks, tusks, and so on—innumerable adaptations giving birth to as many phyla, and each ending in a blind-alley of specialization. On this dangerous slope leading to organic imprisonment humanity along has pulled up in time. Having arrived at the tetrapod stage he contrived to stay there without further reducing the versatility of his limbs. Possessing hands as well as intelligence, and being able, in consequence, to devise artificial instruments without becoming somatically involved, he has succeeded, while increasing and boundlessly extending his mechanical efficiency, in preserving intact his freedom of choice and power of reason.

    The significance and biological function of the tool separated from the limb has, as I say, long been recognized; and it has long been realized that the tool separated from humanity develops a kind of autonomous vitality (e.g. Jacques Lafitte, Réflexions sur la Science de La Machine. La Nouvelle Journée, no 21, 1932.) We have passive machines giving birth to the active machine, which in turn is followed by the automatic machine. Those are the main classifications; but within each classification what an immense proliferation there is of branches and offshoots, each endowed with a sort of evolutionary potential, irresistible both logically and biologically! We have only to think of the motor-car or the aeroplane.

    All this has been noted and often said. But what has not yet been sufficiently taken into account, although it explains everything, is the extent to which this process of mechanization is a collective affair, and the way in which it finally creates, on the periphery of the human race, an organism that is collective in its nature and amplitude.

    Let us consider this.

    With and since the coming of humanity, as we have seen, a new law of nature has come into force—that of convergence. The convergence of the phyla both ensues from, and of itself leads to, the coming together of individuals within the peculiarly “attaching” atmosphere created by the phenomenon of reflexion. And out of this convergence, as I have said, there arises a very real social inheritance, produced by the syntehtic recording of human experience. But if we look for it we may observe precisely the same phenomenon in the case of the machine. Every new tool conceived in the course of history, although it may have been invented in the first place by an individual, has rapidly become the instrument of all men; and not merely by being passed from hand to hand, spreading from one person to their neighbor, but by being adopted corporatively by all humans together. What started as an individual creation has been immediately and automatically transformed into a global, quasi-autonomous possession of the entire mass of humans. We see this from prehistoric times, and we see it with a vivid clarity in the present era of industrial explosion. Consider the locomotive, the dynamo, the airplane, the cinema, the radio—anything. Can there be any doubt that these innumerable appliances are born and grow, successively and in unison, from roots established in an existing mechanical world-state? For a long time past there have been neither isolated inventors nor machines. To an increasing extent every machine comes into being as a function of every other machine; and, again to an increasing extent, all the machines on earth, taken together, tend to form a single, vast, organized mechanism. Necessarily following the inflexive tendency of the zoological phyla, the mechanical phyla in their turn curve inward in the case of man, thus accelerating and multiplying their own growth and forming a single gigantic network girdling the earth. And the basis, the inventive core of this vast apparatus, what is it if not the thinking center of the Noösphere?

    When Homo faber came into being, the first rudimentary tool was born as an appendage of the human body. Today the tool has been transforemd into a mechanized envelope (coherent within itself and immensely varied) appertaining to all mankind. From being somatic it has become “noöspheric.” And just as the individual at the outset was enabled by the tool to preserve and develop his first, elemental psychic potentialities, so today the Noösphere, disgorging the machine from its innermost organic recesses, is capable of, and in process of, developing a brain of its own.

  3. The cerebral apparatus.

    between the human brain, with its milliards of interconnected nerve cells, and the apparatus of social thought, with its millions of individuals thinking collectively, there is an evident kinship with biologists of the stature of Julian Huxley have not hesitated to examine and expand on critical lines.4 On the one hand we have a single brain, formed of nervous nuclei, and on the other a Brain of brains. It is true that between these two organic complexes a major difference exists. Whereas in the case of the individual brain thought emerges from a system of nonthinking nervous fibers, in the case of the collective brain each separate unit is in itself an autonomous center of reflection. If the comparison is to be a just one we must, at every point of resemblance, take this difference into account. But when all allowance is made the fact remains that the analogies between the two systems are so numerous, and so compelling, that reason forbids us to regard the parallel as either purely superficial or a mere matter of chance. Let us take a rapid glance at the structure and functioning of what might be termed the “cerebroid” organ of the Noösphere.

    First, the structure: and here I must turn back to the machine. I have said that, thanks to the machine, humanity has contrived both severally and collectively to prevent the bet of itself from being absorbed in purely physiological and functional uses, as has happened to other animals. But in addition to its protective note, how can we fail to see the machine as playing a constructive part in the creation of a truly collective consciousness? It is not merely a matter of the machine which liberates, relieving both individual and collective thought of the trammels which hinder its progress, but also of the machine which creates, helping to assemble, and to concentrate in the form of an ever more deeply penetrating organism, all the reflective elements upon earth.

    I am thinking, of course, in the first place of the extraordinary network of radio and television communications which, perhaps anticipating the direct syntonization of brains through the mysterious power of telepathy, already link us all in a sort of “etherized” universal consciousness.

    But I am also thinking of the insidious growth of those astonishing electronic computers which, pulsating with signals at the rate of hundreds of thousands a second, not only relieve our brains of tedious and exhausting work but, because they enhance the essential (and too little noted) factor of “speed of thought,” are also paving the way for a revolution in the sphere of research. And there are other forms of technical equipment, such as the electronic microscope whereby our sensory vision, the principal source of our ideas, has been enabled to leap the optical gap between the cell and the direct observation of large molecules.

    There is a school of philosophy which smiles disdainfully at these and kindred forms of progress. “Commercial machines,” we hear them say, “machines for people in a hurry, designed to gain time and money.” One is tempted to call them blind, since they fail to perceive that ll these material instruments, ineluctably linked in their birth and development, are finally nothing less than the manifestation of a particular kind of super-Brain, capable of attaining mastery over some supersphere in the universe and in the realm of thought. “Everything for the individual!”—such was the reaffirmation of my brilliant friend, Gaylord Simpson,5 in a recent outburst of antitotalitarian fervor. But let us grasp this point clearly. No doubt it is true, scientifically speaking, that no distinct center of superhuman consciousness has yet appeared on earth (at least in the living world) for which it may be claimed or predicted that one day it will exercise a centralizing function, in relation to associated human thought, similar to the role of the individual “I” in relation to the cells of the brain. But that is far from saying that, influenced by the links which unite them, our grouped minds working together are not capable of achieving results which no one member of the group could achieve alone, and from which every individual within the collective process benefits “integrally,” although still not in the total sense.

    We have only to consider any of the new concepts and intuitions which, particularly during the past century, have become or are in process of becoming the indestructible keystones and fabric of our thought—the idea of the atom, for example, or of organic Time or Evolution. It is surely obvious that no human on earth could alone have evolved them; no one individual, thinking by itself, can encompass, master, or exhaust them; yet every person on earth shares, in themselves, in the universal heightening of consciousness promoted by the existence in our minds of these new concepts of matter and new dimensions of cosmic reality. It is not a question of simple repetitive “summation” but of synthesis. Not, it is true (at least not yet, here below) synthesis pushed to the point where it calls into being some new kind of autonomous supercenter in the depths of the synthesized, but a synthesis which at least suffices to erect, as thought it were a vault above our heads, a sphere of mutually reinforced consciousness, the seat, support and instrument of supervision and superideas. No doubt everything proceeds from the individual and in the first instance depends on the individual; but it is on a higher level than the individual that everything achieves its fulfillment.

We have touched upon the apparatus of heredity, machinery, and mind. It would be rash and often absurd to attempt to pursue further, and in detail, the comparison between the organism of the individual and that of the Noösphere. But the fact that the general line of analogy is valid and fruitful seems to me to be definitely proved by the very remarkable fact that these three systems, taken in conjunction, not only form a complementary and coherent whole, consistent within itself, but, which is even more easy of demonstration, that this whole is capable of breaking into motion and working—that it functions, in a word.


The Physiology of the Noösphere

One of the most impressive effects of the power of collective vision which is conferred upon us by the formation of a common brain is the perception of “great slow movements,” so vast and slow that they are only observable over immense stretches of time. The currents that give birth to sidereal systems; the folds and upthrusts that form mountains and continents; the ebb and flow within the biosphere—in each case what we had supposed to be the extreme of immobility and stability is discovered to be a state of fundamental and irresistible movement.

So it is with the Noösphere.

I have already attempted as sort of anatomy of the major organs of the Noösphere. It remains for me to show that these separate parts, planetary in their dimensions, are not designed to remain in a state of rest. The formidable wheels turn, and in their combined action hidden forces are engendered which circulate throughout the gigantic system. What goes on around us in the human mass is not merely a flurry of disordered movement, as in a gas; something is purposefully stirring, as in a living being [on the verge of birth].

Let us try to gain some understanding of this vast internal process of which we are all a part and to which we all contribute, almost without knowing it.

At the heart of the entire movement, like the mainspring of a clock, there reappears, in identifiable form, what we have termed the inflexion of human stems upon themselves. It was of this mysteriously compelled in-folding, as I have said, that the human race was born. I will now add that it is through the continued operation of the same movement that the race persists and functions. Indeed, we have only to open our eyes to be as it were spellbound by the dazzling vision, the spectacle of human shoots caught in the combined play of irresistible forces which slowly but surely continue to close and coil about us. Despite the havoc of war, the population on the limited surface of this planet which bears us is increasing in almost geometrical progression; while at the same time the scope of each human molecule, in terms of movement, information, and influence, is becoming rapidly coextensive with the whole surface of the globe. A state of tightening compression, in short; but even more, thanks to the biological intermingling developed to its uttermost extent by the appearance of reflection, a state of organized compenetration, in which each element is linked with every other. No one can deny that a network (a world network) of economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at ever-increasing speed which envelops and constantly penetrates more deeply within each of us. With every day that passes it becomes a little more impossible for us to act or think otherwise than collectively.

What is the significance of this multiform embrace, both external and internal, against which we struggle in vain? Can it mean that, caught in the ramifications of a sightless mechanism, we are destined to perish by stifling each other? No; for as the coil grows tighter and the tension rises the forces of supercompression in the vast generator find an effective outlet.

We begin to catch sight of it in the study of an all too familiar phenomenon, disquieting in appearance, but in fact highly revealing and reassuring—the phenomenon of unemployment. Owing to the extraordinarily rapid development of the machine a rapidly increasing number of workers, running into tens of millions, are out of work. The experts gaze in dismay at this economic apparatus, their own creation, which instead of absorbing all the units of human energy with which they furnish it rejects an increasing number, as though the machine they devised were working to defeat their purpose. Economists are horrified by the growing number of idle hands. Why do they not look a little more to biology for guidance and enlightenment? In its progress through a million centuries, mounting from the depths of the unconscious to consciousness, when has life proceeded otherwise than by releasing psychic forces through the medium of the mechanisms it has devised? We have only to consider the evolution of the nervous system in the animal series, proceeding by chronological stages over a great period of time. Or let the theorists consider themselves. How are they capable of reasoning at all if not because within them their visceral system has been taught to function automatically, while around them society is so well organized that they have both the strength and the leisure to calculate and reflect? What is true for each individual man is precisely what is happening at this moment on the higher level of mankind. Like a heavenly body that heats as it contracts, such, and in a twofold respect, is the Noösphere: first in intensity, the degree in which its tension and psychic temperature are heightened by the coming together and mutual stimulation of thinking centers throughout its extent; and also quantitatively through the growing number of people able to use their brains because they are freed from the need to labor with their hands. So that to attempt to suppress unemployment by incorporating the unemployed in the machine would be against he purpose of nature and a biological absurdity. The Noösphere can function only by releasing more and more spiritual energy with an ever higher potential.

To all this you may remark as follows: “Very well; let us agree that the combined effect of phyletic intertwining and mechanical progress causes life to boil over. But in that case, and surely it is the root of the matter, how are we to canalize and use the rising tide of liberated consciousness, that is still so crude and unformed?” My answer is: “By transforming it.” And at this point, having invited you to reflect upon the phenomenon of unemployment, I will draw your attention to another and no less universal phenomenon, equally characteristic of the present age—the phenomenon of research.

Understanding, discovery, invention… From the first awakening of its reflective consciousness, humanity has been possessed by the demon of discovery; but until a very recent epoch this profound need remained latent, diffused and unorganized in the human mass. In every past generation true seekers, those by vocation or profession, are to be found; but in the past they were no more than a handful of individuals, generally isolated, and of a type that was virtually abnormal—the “inquisitive.” Today, without our having noticed it, the situation is entirely changed. In fields embracing every aspect of physical matter, life, and thought, the research-workers are to be numbered in hundreds of thousands, and they no longer work in isolation but in teams endowed with penetrative powers that it seems nothing can withstand. In this respect, too, the movement is becoming generalized and is accelerating to the point where we must be blind not to see in it an essential trend in human affairs. Research, which until yesterday was a luxury pursuit, is in process of becoming a major, indeed th principal, function of humanity. As to the significance of this great event, I for my part can see only one way to account for it. It is that the enormous surplus of free energy released by the in-folding of the Noösphere is destined by a natural evolutionary process to flow into the construction and functioning of what I have called its “Brain.” As in the case of all the organisms preceding it, but on an immense scale, humanity is in process of “cerebralizing” itself. And our proper biological course, in making use of what we call our leisure, is to devote it to a new kind of work on a higher plane: that is to say, to a general and concerted effort of vision. The Noösphere, in short, is a stupendous thinking machine.

It is in this sense alone, as I believe, that the horizon appears and we can gain a clear view of the human world surrounding us. In harmony with the cosmic impulse which leads to the constant disintegration of atoms and the attendant release of energy, life (though probably localized on a few rare planets) compels us increasingly to view it as an underlying current in the flow of which matter tends to order itself upon itself with the emergence of consciousness. On the one hand we have physical radiation bound up with disintegration; and on the other hand psychic radiation bound up with an ordered aggregation of the stuff of the universe. In the eyes of nineteenth-century science the interiorization of the world, leading to the phenomenon of reflection, might still pass for an accident and an anomaly We now see it to be a clearly defined process coextensive with the whole of reality. Complexification due to the growth of consciousness, or consciousness the outcome of complexity: experimentally the two terms are inseparable. Like a pair of related quantities they vary simultaneously. And surely it is within this generalized cosmic process that the Noösphere, a particular and extreme case, has its natural place and takes its shape. The maximum of complication, represented by phyletic in-folding, and in consequence the maximum of consciousness emerging from the system of individual brains, coordinated and mutually supporting. And this is exactly what was to be expected.

But it is assuredly a remarkable coincidence that in justifying the organic interpretation of the Phenomenon of Man, as we have sought to do, we should also be paving the way for a reasonable forecast as to our future destiny, and the fate which is reserved for us at the end of time.


The Phases and Future of the Noösphere

We have found it possible to express the social totalization which we are undergoing in terms of a clearly identifiable biological process; proceeding from this we may surely look into the future and predict the course of the trajectory we are describing. Once we have accepted that the formation of a collective human organism, a Noösphere, conforms to the general law of recurrence which leads to the heightening of consciousness in the universe as a function of complexity, a vast prospect opens before us. To what regions and through what phases may we suppose that the extension of the rising curve of hominization will carry us?

Immediately confronting us (indeed, already in progress) we have what may be called a “phase of planetization.”

It can b truly said, no doubt, that the human group succeeded long ago in covering the face of the earth, and that over a long period its state of zoological ubiquity has tended to be transformed into an organized aggregate; but it must be clear that the transformation is only now teaching its point of full maturity. Let us glance over the main stages of this long history of aggregation. First, in the depths of the past, we find a thin scattering of hunting groups spread here and there throughout the Ancient World. At a later stage, some fifteen thousand years ago, we see a second scattering, very much more dense and clearly defined: that of agricultural groups installed in fertile valleys—centers of social life where man, arrived at a state of stability, achieved the expansive powers which were to enable him to invade the New World. Then, only seven or eight thousand years ago, there came the first civilizations, each covering a large part of a continent. These were succeeded by the real empires. And so on… patches of humanity growing steadily larger, overlapping, often absorbing one another, thereafter to break apart and again reform in still larger patches. As we view this process, the spreading, thickening and irresistible coalescence, can we fail to perceive its eventual outcome? The last blank spaces have vanished from the map of mankind. There is contact everywhere, and how close it has become! Today, embedded in the economic and psychic network which I have described, two great human blocks alone remain confronting one another. Is it not inevitable that in one way or another these two will eventually coalesce? Preceded by a tremor, a wave of “shared impulse” extending to the very depths of the social and ethnic masses in their need and claim to participate, without distinction of class or color, in the onward march of human affairs, the final act is already visibly preparing. Although the form is not yet discernible, mankind tomorrow will awaken to a “panorganized” world.

But, and we must make no mistake about this, there will be an essential difference, a difference of order, between the unitary state toward which we are moving and everything we have hitherto known. The greatest empires in history have never covered more than fragments of the earth. What will be the specifically new manifestations which we have to look for in the transition to totality? Until now we have never seen mind manifest itself on this planet except in separated groups and in the static state. What sort of current will be generated, what unknown territory will be opened up, when the circuit is suddenly completed?

I believe that what is now being shaped in the bosom of planetized humanity is essentially a rebounding of evolution upon itself. We all know about the real or imaginary projectiles whose impetus is renewed by the firing of a series of staged rockets. Some such procedure, it seems to me, is what life is preparing at this moment, to accomplish the supreme, ultimate leap. The first stage was the elaboration of lower organisms, up to and including humanity, by the use and irrational combination of elementary sources of energy received or released by the planet. The second stage is the superevolution of humanity, individually and collectively, by the use of refined forms of energy scientifically harnessed and applied in the bosom of the Noösphere, thanks to the coordinated efforts of all men working reflectively and unanimously upon themselves. Who can say whither, coiled back upon our own organism, our combined knowledge of the atom, of hormones, of the cell and the laws of heredity will take us? Who can say what forces ay be released, what radiations, what new arrangements never hitherto attempted by nature, what formidable powers we may henceforth be able to use, for the first time in the history of the world? This is life setting out upon a second adventure from the springboard it established when it created humankind.

But all this is no more than the outward face of the phenomenon. In becoming planetized humanity is acquiring new physical powers which will enable it to superorganize matter. And, even more important, is it not possible that by the direct converging of its members it will be able, as though by resonance, to release psychic powers whose existence is still unsuspected? I have already spoken of the recent emergence of certain new faculties in our minds, the sense of genetic duration and the sense of collectivity. Inevitably, as a natural consequence, this awakening must enhance in us, from all sides, a generalized sense of the organic, through which the entire complex of interhuman and intercosmic relations will become charged with an immediacy, an intimacy and a realism such as has long been dreamed of and apprehended by certain spirits particularly endowed with the “sense of the universal,” but which has never yet been collectively applied. And it is in the depths and by grace of this new inward sphere, the attribute of planetized life, that an event seems possible which has hitherto been incapable of realization: I mean the pervasion of the human mass by the power of sympathy. It may in part be passive sympathy, a communication of mind and spirit that will make the phenomenon of telepathy, still sporadic and haphazard, both general and normal. But above all it will be a state of active sympathy in which each separate human element, breaking out of its insulated state under the impulse of the high tensions generated in the Noösphere, will emerge into a field of prodigious affinities, which we may already conjecture in theory. For if the power of attraction between simple atoms is so great, what may we not expect if similar bonds are contracted between human molecules? Humanity, as I have said, is building its composite brain beneath our eyes. May it not be that tomorrow, through the logical and biological deepening of the movement drawing it together, it will find its heart, without which the ultimate wholeness of its powers of unification can never be fully achieved? To put it in other words, must not the constructive developments now taking place within the Noösphere in the realm of sight and reason necessarily also penetrate the sphere of feeling? The idea may seem fantastic when one looks at our present world, still dominated by the forces of hatred and repulsion. But is not this simply because we refuse to heed the admonitions of science, which is daily proving to us, in every field, that seemingly impossible changes become easy and even inevitable directly there is a change in the order of the dimensions?

To me two things, at least, now seem certain. The first is that, following the state of collective organization we have already achieved, the process of planetization can only advance ever further in the direction of growing unanimity. And the second is that this growth of unanimity, being of its nature convergent, cannot continue indefinitely without reaching the natural limit of its course. Every cone has an apex. In the case of this human aggregation how shall we seek, not to imagine but to define the supreme point of coalescence? In terms of the strictly phenomenal viewpoint which I have adopted throughout this paper, it seems to me that the following may be said:

What at the very beginning the first man, was, as we know, the heightening of the individual consciousness to the point where it acquired the power of reflection. And the measure of human progress during the centuries which followed is, as I have sought to show, the increase of this reflective power through the interaction, or conjugated thought, of conscious minds working upon one another. Well, what will finally crown and limit collective humanity at the ultimate stage of its evolution, is and must be, by reason of continuity and homogeneity, the establishment of a sort of focal point at the heart of the reflective apparatus as a whole.

If we concede this the whole of human history appears as a progress between two critical points: from the lowest point of elementary consciousness to the ultimate, noöspherical point of reflection. In biological terms, humanity will have completed itself and fully achieved its internal equilibrium only when it is psychically centered upon itself (which may yet take several million years).

In a final effort of thought let us remove ourselves to that ultimate summit where in the remote future, but seen from the present, the tide which bears us reaches its culmination. Is there anything further to be discerned beyond that last peak etched against the horizon?—Yes and no.

In the first place no, because at that mysterious pole crowning our ascent the compass that has guided us runs amok. It was by the law of “consciousness and complexity” that we set our course: a consciousness becoming ever more centered, emerging from the heart of an increasingly vast system of more numerous and better organized elements. But now we are faced by an entirely new situation: for the first time we have no multiple material under our hands. Unless, as seems infinitely probable, we are destined by contact with other thinking planets, across the abysses of space and time, some day to become integrated within an organized complex composed of a number of Noöspheres, humanity, having reached maturity, will remain alone, face to face with itself. And at the same time our law of recurrence, based on the play of interrelated syntheses, will have ceased to operate.

So in one sense it all seems to be over; as though, having reached its final point of noöspheric reflexion, the cosmic impulse toward consciousness has become exhausted, condemned to sink back into the state of disintegration implacably imposed on it by the laws of stellar physics. But in another sense nothing will be ended: for at this point, and at the height of its powers, individual consciousness acquires the formidable property something else comes into operation, a primary attribute of reflection concerning which we have hitherto said nothing—the will to survive. In reflecting upon itself the individual consciousness acquires the formidable property of foreseeing the future, that is to say, death. And at the same time it knows that it is psychologically impossible for it to continue to work in pursuance of the purposes of life unless something, the best of the work, is preserved from total destruction. In this resides the whole problem of action. We have not yet taken sufficient account of the fact that this demand for the Absolute, not always easily discernible in the isolated human unit, is one of the impulses which grow and are intensified in the Noösphere. Applied to the individual the idea of total extinction may not at first sight appall us; but extended to humanity as a whole it revolts and sickens us. The fact is that the more humanity becomes aware of its duration, its number and its potentialities—and also of the enormous burden it must bear in order to survive—the more does it realize that if all this labor is to end in nothing, then we have been cheated and can only rebel. In a planetized humanity the insistence upon irreversibility becomes a specific requisite of action; and it can only grow and continue to grow as life reveals itself as being ever more rich, an ever heavier load. So that, paradoxically, it is at that ultimate point of centration which renders it cosmically unique, that is to say apparently incapable of any further synthesis, that the Noösphere will have become charged to the fullest extent with psychic energies to impel it forward in yet another advance….

And what can this mean except that, like those planetary orbits which seem to traverse our solar system without remaining within it, the curve of consciousness, pursuing its course of growing complexity, will break through the material framework of time and space to escape somewhere toward an ultracenter of unification and consistence, where there will finally be assembled, and in detail, everything that is irreplaceable and incommunicable in the world.

And it is here, an inevitable intrusion in terms of biology, and in its proper place in terms of science, that we come to the problem of God.

Conclusion: The Rise of Freedom

Let us turn to cast an eye over the road that we have followed.

At the beginning we seemed to see around us nothing but a disconnected and disordered humanity: the crowd, the mass, in which, it may be, we saw only brutality and ugliness. I have tried, fortified by the most generally accepted and solid conclusions of science, to take the reader above this scene of turmoil; and as we have risen higher so has the prospect acquired a more ordered shape. Like the petals of a gigantic lotus at the end of the day, we have seen human petals of planetary dimensions slowly closing in upon themselves. And at the heart of this huge calyx, beneath the pressure of its in-folding, a center of power has been revealed where spiritual energy, gradually released by a vast totalitarian mechanism, then concentrated by heredity within a sort of superbrain, has little by little been transformed into a common vision growing ever more intense. In this spectacle of tranquility and intensity, where the anomalies of detail, so disconcerting on our individual scale, vanish to give place to a vast, serene and irresistible movement from the heart, everything is contained and everything harmonized in accord with the rest of the universe. Life and consciousness are no longer chance anomalies in nature; rather, we find in biology a complement to the physics of matter. On the one hand, I repeat, the stuff of the world dispersing through the radiation of its elemental energy; and on the other hand the same stuff reconverging through the radiation of thought. The fantastic at either end: but surely the one is necessary to balance the other? Thu harmony is achieved in the ultimate perspective, and, furthermore, a program for the future: for if this view is accepted we see a splendid goal before us, and a clear line of progress. Coherence and fecundity, the two criteria of truth.

Is this all illusion, or is it reality?

It is for the reader to decide. but to those who hesitate, or who refuse to commit themselves, I would say: “Have you anything else, anything better to suggest that will account scientifically for the phenomenon of man considered as a whole, in the light of his past development and present progress?”

You may reply to me that this is all very well, but is there not something lacking, an essential element, in this system which I claim to be so coherent? Within that grandiose machine-in-motion which I visualize, what becomes of that pearl beyond price, our personal being? What remains of our freedom of choice and action?

But do you not see that from the standpoint I have adopted it appears everywhere—and is everywhere heightened?

I know very well that by a kind of innate obsession we cannot rid ourselves of the idea that we become most masters of ourselves by being as isolated as possible. But is not this the reverse of the truth? We must not forget that in each of us, by our very nature, everything is in an elemental state, including our freedom of action. We can only achieve a wider degree of freedom by joining and associating with others in an appropriate way. This is, to be sure, a dangerous operation, since, whether it be a case of disorderly intermingling, or of some simple form of coordination, like the meshing of gear-wheels, our activities tend to cancel one another out or to become mechanical—we find this only too often in practice. Yet it is also salutary, since the approach of spirit to spirit in a common vision or a shared passion undoubtedly enriches all, in the case of a team, for example, or of two lovers. Achieved with sympathy, union does not restrict but exalts the possibilities of our being. We see this everywhere and every day on a limited scale. Why should it not be worth correspondingly more on a vast and all-embracing scale, if the law applies to the very structure of things? It is simply a question of tension within the field that polarizes and attracts. In the case of a blind aggregation, of some form of purely mechanical arrangement, the effect of large numbers is to materialize our activities. That is true: but where it is a matter of unanimity realized from within the effect is to personalize them, and, I will add, to make them unerring. A single freedom, taken in isolation, is weak and uncertain and may easily lose itself in mere groping. But a totality of freedom, freely operating, will always end by finding its road. And this incidentally is why throughout this paper, without seeking to minimize the uncertainties inherent in man’s freedom of choice in relation to the world, I have been able implicitly to maintain that we are moving both freely and ineluctably in the direction of concentration by way of planetization. One might put it that determinism appears at either end of the process of cosmic evolution, but in antithetically opposed forms: at the lower end it is forced along the line of the most probable for lack of freedom; at the upper end it is an ascent into the improbable through the triumph of freedom.

We may be reassured. The vast industrial and social system by which we are enveloped does not threaten to crush us, neither does it seek to rob us of our soul. The energy emanating from it is free not only in the sense that it represents forces that can be used: it is moreover free because, in the whole no less than in the least of its elements, it arises in a state that is ever more spiritualized. A thinker such as Cournot6 might still be able to suppose that the socialized group degrades itself biologically in terms of the individuals which comprise it. Only by reaching to the heart of the Noösphere (we see it more clearly today) can we hope, and indeed be sure, of finding, all of us together and each of us separately, the fullness of our humanity.


  1. This term, invented by Suess, is sometimes interpreted (Vernadsky) in the sense of the “terrestrial zone containing life.” I use it here to mean the actual layer of vitalized substance enveloping the earth.

  2. A small cynocephalus (baboon), born in captivity, will commit all kinds of blunders when set free (heredity of education). But in similar conditions a young otter, being put in the water, will at once know how to behave (chromosomic heredity). Cf. Eugene N. Marais, The Soul of the White Ant.

  3. Édouard Le Roy, Les Origines humaines et le Probleme de l’Intelligence.

  4. Lecture delivered in New York and published in the Scientific Monthly, 1940.

  5. George Gaylord Simpson, “The Role of the Individual in Evolution,” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, vol. 31, no. 1, 1941.

  6. Cournot, Considérations sur la Marche des idées et des Événements dans les Temps modernes (Réédition Mentré. Vol. II, p. 178).

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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