The Transformation and Continuation in Man of the Mechanism of Evolution

November 19, 1951


Nobody today has any serious doubt that, speaking in terms of anatomy and psyche, man appeared towards the end of the Tertiary as a function of the general process of zoological evolution. However, since that initial emergence, has man continued, and does he still continue, to move and change organically in relation to himself? In other words, does man represent a threshold, or on the contrary a ceiling, in the progress of biogenesis?

It is curious to note the reaction of professional scientists when confronted by this fundamental question (which, nevertheless, is still so seldom explicitly formulated); they either evade it, on the ground that it lies outside their competence, or they take a completely opposite line, and adopting the ‘common sense’ attitude of the man in the street, decide that after all there is every possibility that man has reached a zoological dead end of evolution. For, they say, echoing a commonplace of moralists and writers, ‘As long as we have known man, he has always been the same; or, if mankind is changing it is no longer doing so, as life does, in an organic field, but solely on a cultural and technical plane. Which is a completely different matter.’

At the root of this hesitancy, or even persistent refusal, on the part of anthropologists to recognize a biological value, properly so called, in human progress, there lies, to my mind, a strange forgetfulness of what one might call the general law of transformation of physical processes in nature.

Theoretically, for a geometrician who deals with pure variables, any magnitude (length, volume, density, number, temperature, speed) may increase or decrease indefinitely, in accordance with a constant formula. However, physics teaches us that in the concrete realization of things it is quite a different story. Just as a river whose flow constantly changes as it makes its way to the sea, so any real transformation you care to study—because it depends on a complex cluster of interdependent factors—inevitably changes its form (or even its state) as it proceeds, as a result of the unequal increase in the different variables it includes. The physicists quote as an example the rapid increase in mass which occurs at very great speeds, until it makes any further acceleration impossible; or again (to take a case to which I shall be returning later) the ultimate transformation into airborne flight of the progressively accelerated motion of an aircraft along the runway.

What I hope briefly to make clear in this essay is how, when we are prepared to apply this general effect of differential increase to the particular case of the development of life, the zoological process of evolution does not weaken or even fade out at the level of man (as is so persistently maintained); on the contrary, it is unmistakably continued and even intensified in man.

The movement is there all the time, and the evidence stares us in the face—and yet we do not recognize it.

How, in the first place, as the appearance of man becomes imminent, the progress of biogenesis, without the least slackening of speed, so changes its aspect as to seem to us unrecognizable at first; and how, secondly, once the new mechanism of evolution has been distinguished all around us, there is a sudden metamorphosis, a sudden vivification, of the way in which it was until then still possible for us to look at the present and the future of mankind.

These are two points with which I shall deal in turn.


The Transformation, Starting with Man, of the Process of Evolution

However little one may, by conviction or temperament, be ‘Darwinist,’ it is impossible to deny the immense part (at least in the first stages of the phenomenon) played by chance effects in the appearance and intensification of life within our universe.

‘Given a very large number of elements taken in a state simultaneously of agitation and compression (or, which comes to the same thing, of agitation and multiplication), experience teaches us that such a system tends intrinsically and automatically to develop its arrangement additively to an ever more marked degree: subject to the condition that, for some reason, certain types of arrangement can be considered as specially favoured. For once such a type of association has been effected by chance at one point for the first time (as an effect of the tentative gropings of large numbers and of agitation), then this “initial atom of arrangement” tends (through the selective influence of compression, that is, of competition) to take advantage of new chances and so grow and intensify in the favourable diraction—and this continues indefinitely.’

Such is the first rough picture we can draw of the process of evolution, in its elementary and primordial essence.

Let us start from this approximate definition and try to press it further home—to approximate rather more closely to an accurate picture. We have just spoken of ‘specially favoured arrangements.’ What precisely should we understand by this expression—on which everything depends?

In the classic formulations of ‘Darwinian transformism,’ this nice point is generally expressed as ‘the survival of the fittest.’ To my mind, however, the phrase is unfortunate and unsatisfactory, and for two reasons.

In the first place, because it is too vague and lends itself to no precise standard of measurement.

And secondly, because by expressing a purely relative superiority among ‘arrangements,’ it does not bring out that factor in the rise of life which, going beyond the effects of competition, gives unmistakable evidence of an exuberant tendency to expand and of a sense of absolute advance.

Supposing, on the other hand, we substitute ‘most complex’ in our formula, for ‘fittest.’[1] In other words supposing we admit that, under the tentative play of chance, the Weltstoff behaves, by nature, as though by preference it fell into those forms of arrangement which are at the same time the richest, the most closely associated, and the most fully centered.

Let us look at the consequences and the advantages of this change of variable.

In the first place, we find, now that we have thought of it, that we at last possess the absolute parameter that is essential to us if we are to follow and scientifically appreciate the movements of life. For after all, historically, the biosphere did not spread out like a spot of oil simply through morphological diversification in every direction on the surface of the earth. On the contrary, along each of its rays (and more particularly along a very small number of principal axes) it has continually been increasing from age to age the number of useful components in its constructions: and it has never ceased, either, to secure in them the maximum of perfection and co-ordination (the phenomena of cephalization and cerebration). As an explanation (and, still more as a standard of measurement) of this so clearly oriented (or polarized) trend, to speak of ‘the greatest capacity for survival in the organisms’ is quite useless. On the other hand, the situation is clarified and can be seen with accuracy if we envisage, as the basis of cosmic physics, the existence of a sort of second entropy (or anti-entropy) which, as an effect of chances that are seized, draws a portion of matter in the direction of continually higher forms of structurization and centration.

By the introduction of biogenesis of the notion (or principle) of greatest complexity, let me emphasize, the general situation of life in the universe can be seen accurately in terms of energetics. At the same time, and further, another valuable piece of evidence is disclosed: and it is precisely the one that could be of most service to us in understanding what happens to evolution starting with man.

I referred earlier to the fruitful impact upon modern physics of the observation and admission of the fact that the acceleration of the real speed[2] of bodies was productive of mass.

In biology, a further fact (at once so glaring, so simple, and nevertheless as yet so little understood) cannot fail before very long to be equally revolutionary: I mean the fact that the organic complexity of beings (the true parameter, we have just seen, of evolution) cannot increase concretely without producing, at its core, a rapidly increasing quantity of indetermination and psychism. By its very nature, as the cosmic stuff’s power of self-arrangement is realized more fully, so there tends to be a gradual interiorization of its driving force and the methods it uses. As a universal experience of things teaches us, the increasing complexification of matter, while in its origins principally the effect of chance, is gradually shot through and loaded with ‘choice.’ When the process first appears, in monocellular beings, it is forcibly imposed or automatic; but among highly cerebralized beings it tends irreversibly to become one of active preference.

We must, therefore, admit that an important correction must be applied to our first idea that once the movement producing the arrangement of matter has been initiated by the play of chance, it can and must continue to develop as it is indefinitely—that it must ‘snowball.’

‘Indefinitely’: not precisely (cf. below, in the conclusion, the possibility in the future of a higher focus-point of ultra-humanization).

‘As it is’: most certainly not.

Just like the aircraft I spoke of at the beginning, which gradually lifts its tail and finally takes off as it gains speed—so evolution, from being initially selective, cannot but make itself elective in higher living beings, as a direct effect of complexity: until the time comes when, with the appearance of the faculty of thought, it reflects definitively upon itself and so ‘takes off’ and suddenly opens out into planned invention (technology) and higher co-consciousness (civilization).

And it is here, if I am not mistaken, that the true nature of the phenomenon of man becomes apparent in its full grandeur and simplicity.


The Continuation, Through and Beyond Man, of the Process of Evolution

A better understanding of the degree to which time introduces change into the process of evolution, enables us to realize that the ongoing forces of life do not become weaker in man nor superficial; on the contrary, through his industrialization and collectivization, they become interiorized and reinforce one another. From the moment we appreciate that fact, a radical transformation is clearly effected in the traditional, classic, view of a mankind that has biologically come to a halt.

A new form of complexification (arrangement sought from within) replaces the old type of evolution (in which arrangement was imposed from outside(orig. text) ). The artificial takes over from the natural and continues it. The social takes on the value of the ultra-organic.

As a result of this single transformation, as though by magic, our eyes are opened and we see a world that might have seemed to us permanently stabilized stir into movement.

Everything starts anew; everything is in movement; everything continues, in a higher way, to evolve with even more vigour. And thereby everything in the hearbreaking multiplicity of man in which we could have thought we were lost, falls into a coherent pattern.

In the first place, we recognize the continued activity in and around us of the primordial forces of large numbers, of agitation and compression, which since all time have unceasingly nourished and impelled ahead, in its full extension and at all its degrees, the mass of vitalized matter. Without tentative gropings, and without failures, without death and without planetary compression, man, as a human being, would have remained stationary. This is a grim condition that could have humiliated and repelled us so long as we thought that we had come to a halt; but we now suddenly realize that it simply expresses the depth, the vigour, and the continuity of the cosmic current to which we belong.

Secondly, at last we see the emergence as a scientific fact of a generalized and optimistic sense of history.

The sense of history—

In spite of all the enormous efforts of learning and synthesis that have recently been devoted to obtaining a better understanding of the rise and decline of cities and peoples, we may well say that no truly coherent and constructive interpretation has yet been given of the successive states and over-all behaviour of the phenomenon of man. Even for minds as acute and powerful as Spengler and Toynbee, history is reduced essentially to a periodic function, without beginning or end, whereas the problem in understanding man is to discover some basic current beneath the superficial cultural oscillations. Moreover, to make matters worse, even for the most up to date historians, the human, taken as a whole, seems to constitute in the heart of things no more than a juridical microcosm, tossed to and fro, and closed. And yet the whole problem raised by modern science is how to include it, genetically and organically, in the domains of physics and biology.

Let us try to improve on this, taking as our guide our ‘evolutionary parameter of complexity.’ And in order to do so, let us for the time being leave aside details of empires, of wars and cultures, and concentrate directly on the main part of the phenomenon, which is the major, and most remarkable, process of totalization: for, to an observer at a sufficient height to have a commanding view, it is to this process that is reduced, and in that process is harmonized, the combined play of all human activities, reacting on one another for nearly a million years.

In itself, the reality of the fact is blatantly obvious: so much so, that here again we might say that our eyes are dazzled by the truth.

As mankind lives longer, not only does it increase numerically and spread out geographically; but, what is more, economically, politically, and mentally it is daily more thoroughly pounded together and intermixed and more closely bound into one. We can see connexions of all sorts continually—and in geometric progression—multiplying and intensifying between each human individual and all the others on the surface of the globe.

Until quite recent times, it would seem that man was not unduly concerned about these symptoms of social ‘concretion’ and of society’s grip on the individual: the reason being, that the phenomenon, whether an enslavement or a benefit, could be taken, like sunshine or rain, for a constant condition or magnitude, long representing an established order.

In less than two centuries, however (that is, since the simultaneous birth of science, industry, and research), it has become clear, on the contrary, that the process of social consolidation, slowly set in motion in the course of several thousands of years, is suddenly beginning to come out into the open in its full vigour and to enter its phase of rapid acceleration. One would have to be blind today not to notice this. Under the combined influence of a number of fundamental cosmic conditions (the closed surface of the earth, the proliferation of living substance, the expansive power of reflective psychism and its coalescence upon itself) mankind is henceforth inexorably fated—by the very operation of its countless individual preferences—ever more rapidly and ever more fully to complexify and coalesce upon itself.

Faced with this factual situation, many minds, even with scientific training behind them, are still disconcerted by what seems to them to be a dangerous crisis (if not a retrogression or self-destruction) of evolution: evolution, through the mechanizing effect of large numbers, re-absorbing and destroying the individual centres of autonomy and reflection which, through the tentative gropings of large numbers, it had so patiently produced.

That is he great fear of today: that we may founder in the multitude.

However, once we have become familiar with the notion of the ‘parameter of complexity’ and its application, we cannot fail to see, on the contrary, that what we have to deal with in the totalizing trend we find so disturbing is not some antagonistic or parasitic by-product of evolution but a direct super-effect.

We cannot possibly, it is true, fail to be struck by the fact that the rise of the collective and of mass-man is accompanied by a first wave of slavery, of levelling-down, of ugliness and disaster.

But, looking further, beneath the froth of this wave we cannot fail to be aware of a fantastic increase in the flexibility and speed of inter-communication—of organization and penetrative power of research, of efficiency and forcefulness in action—and, finally, of breadth and depth in our view of the world around us.

It is a remarkable leap forward (involving, indeed, a change of order) in arrangement—one that is accompanied by another, no less remarkable, whether it be in the reduction of chance in the world (planned and co-operative invention) or in the biological interiorization of consciousness (all the individual reflective particles of the earth being impelled to associate planetarily in one single reflective system).

By this twofold evidence, in truth (the combined increase of complexity and consciousness), we are obliged to recognize that the progressive and irresistible technico-cultural unification now being effected in mankind is an event whose nature is specifically organic; and that in it the general process of cosmic biogenesis can not only still be distinguished but is attaining, in the field of our experience, a supreme degree of its development.

It is not only that in man, as Julian Huxley has said, evolution becomes conscious (that is, reflectively inventive); what is more, by the gathering together and concentration of all its forces and all its strands, from being divergent it is becoming convergent.

Such, reduced to a single word, would appear to be the full and authentic lesson of history: and also, maybe, the greatest discovery ever bequeathed to the natural sciences since that other discovery of the existence of an evolution.

In man, and starting with man, we have a folding back and a general convergence upon itself (both in its mechanism and in its products) of evolution’s most axial nucleus.

If the scientific reality of this massive phenomenon (as massive, in truth, as, at the other extreme of things, the expansion of the universe) were to be definitively confirmed, a great light would certainly dawn over the world of tomorrow.

Intellectually at first, we would begin to understand once and for all what is going on all around us on earth at this moment. This zoological proliferation of mankind in which the phyla, continually being born from the prolonged activity of speciation, never cease to involute upon one another without ever succeeding in separating; this appearance of collective organisms (for the circulation of food-supplies and of ideas, for the promotion of discovery and its additive progress), in which, so disconcertingly (because in some way exteriorized and taken to a planetary scale) we meet again the fundamental processes which have for long been recognized in animate organisms by anatomy and physiology—all this confused and disturbing medley of relationships and differences between the living and the human, is readily explained once we have found, to lead us from one domain into the other, the law of transposition and of transformation.

But above all, affectively—hominization, instead of spreading out at random (as we had at first thought) would be given a direction; and in consequence we would awake scientifically to the idea that in the form of some critical point of ultra-hominization (or of complete and final reflection), some issue to—that is, some justification of—life may well be waiting for us at the term of existence: because, physically and biologically, the process is convergent!

And in consequence the zest for action, the impetus to action, would be re-born and re-bound in our hearts in step with the ever greater evolutionary effect we have to make in order to ensure the progress of a complexity whose burden becomes progressively heavier to bear.

This, we must never forget, is the dynamic condition essential to survival for a biogenesis that has definitively passed in us from the state of passively experienced evolution to the state of auto- or self-evolution.


  1. I say ‘complex’ advisedly, and not ‘complicated’: because, as we all know, if an organism (whether natural or artificial) is to be perfect, it must combine with the plurality and differentiation of its parts, a maximum of lightness and simplicity. Side by side with the complication which makes a thing unwieldy, there is useful (or centered) complexity: and here we are concerned only with the latter.

  2. ‘Real speed,’ as opposed to the abstract speed of kinematics.

The Transformation and Continuation in Man of the Mechanism of Evolution

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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