From the Pre-Human to the Ultra-Human

The Phases of a Living Planet

April 27, 1950

Teilhard de Chardin paints a grand vision of cosmic evolution, tracing life’s emergence from primordial proteins to the noösphere’s explosion of human thought. Rather than see humanity fading into senescence, he prophesies our passage to unimaginable trans-humanity. It’s a soaring perspective on mankind’s journey toward an ultimate destiny we can scarce conceive, leaving readers with an expanded sense of human possibility.

First published in Almanach des Sciences, 1951, then in The Future of Mankind.

Astronomy is beginning to detect and classify a life of the stars: red, blue, and white; giant, middle-sized, and dwarf; each type, in its dimensions, particular radiations, and brilliance being subject to a given evolutionary cycle.

It is a matter of great interest; but have we thought how much more interesting and moving it would be if we could observe or at least reconstruct the history, not of the glowing suns in the galaxies but of the mysterious living planets? Celestial bodies such as these (they undoubtedly exist as we shall see) give out no perceptible radiation, or none that our present instruments can detect. (But is it conceivable that there should some day be spectroscopes sensitive to some form of vital radiation?) We know nothing as yet of their number, their distribution, or their history. Our study of them, in short, is restricted to a single specimen, that of our own Earth, which is apparently far from having attained its full development.

It is an unfavorable situation, but capable nevertheless of being put to use, since by means of the remarkable phenomena of sedimentation and fossilization we can trace the biological past of this planet over a period of nearly a million years.

Using it as a representative example, though still unique in our experience and probably “immature,” let us seek to sketch on scientific lines the probable evolutionary curve of any living planet: a problem in which affective reasoning is singularly mingled with speculation, since what we are looking for and seeking to extrapolate is nothing less than our own destiny.

More than 600 million years ago, Earth, a nova of a singular kind, began to flush feebly with life. Under the influence of solar radiation, the sensitive film of its youthful waters became charged in places with asymmetrical and multiplying proteins. We do not know what caused this phenomenon, whether it was the outcome of some sudden convulsion or of a long process of ripening. What we do know is that the thing happened, and moreover that of statistical necessity it could not have failed to happen, given the physico-chemical conditions prevailing on the planet. However improbable in a mechanistic sense the elaborate organic structure created by life may appear, it seems increasingly evident that the cosmic substance is drawn toward these states of extreme arrangement by a particular kind of attraction which compels it, by the play of large numbers in which it is involved, to miss no opportunity of becoming more complex and thus achieving a higher degree of freedom.

So we may assume that sporadically, in the course of time, numerous centers of indeterminacy and consciousness can and must have appeared in sidereal space, of which our own Earth is one. Although life, by its structure, seems in certain ways to be highly exceptional, everything suggests that its pressure is exerted throughout the universe. And everything suggests that, wherever cosmic hazard has enabled it to hatch out and establish itself, it cannot thereafter cease to become intensified to the utmost, in accordance with an automatic process which may be analyzed as follows:

First, increase. Even in its lowest forms, living matter—by its physico-chemical nature—possesses the extraordinary power of reproducing itself indefinitely in a geometrical progression. However scattered the first patches of vitalized proteins may have been, they could do no other than spread rapidly until they covered the entire surface of the planet; and their expansion within a closed circle, after its initial unrestricted stage, produced an increasing degree of compression. A gas under mounting mechanical pressure as a rule changes its state. In the same way, a multitude of individuals, a living mass, being subjected to pressure within an enclosed space, and to increasing biological interpenetration, reacts by organizing itself upon itself: that is to say, by seeking through selective experiment for the individual or collective arrangements which best suit it, such arrangements being, in the event, those in which the degree of complexity is highest and therefor the state of indeterminacy the most advanced.

Many biologists, intent upon scientific objectivity, are reluctant to see in the development of terrestrial life anything more than a unlimited proliferation of forms, all on the same level. A steady increase of living creatures and living combinations, they agree; but, despite this, not more life. What reason have we for supposing that a mammal is more than a polypary?

Far more suggestive and convincing than this ‘flat’ vision of the biological world is the three-dimensional concept of a heavenly body on which, through the effect of planetary compression, the state of complexity (or, which amounts to the same thing, the “psychic” temperature of the biosphere) is continually rising. This explains the supersession in successive stages of arthropods by vertebrates, of pisciforms by tetrapods, and finally, within the tetrapod group, the progressive predominance of the mammals, gradually forming their own primate strain, with the growth, globally irreversible and constantly accelerated along certain favored lines, of “cerebration” from the beginning of life up to the present time. The quantity and quality of cephalized nervous substance on earth have indeed never been as great as they are today. This “orthogenetic” view of animal evolution is gradually becoming common ground among scientists; but it only achieves full validity, in terms of my argument, to the extent that it implies a continuous psychic “chain” going back to the beginning of life.

Looking back over the immense extent of geological time we can see that the separate links in the chain have undergone no essential change. It would seem that the principal factor making for progress is still the operation of forces of natural selection, choosing from outside the most successful and adaptable products of a process of expansion that is disorderly in itself. Where an important transformation seems to h ave taken place is at the level of the latest link in the chain, that of the “acquirement of consciousness.” For it is inevitable, by very reason of the selective growth of psychism in the biosphere, that each higher element engendered by evolution must, to the extent that it is more conscious, have a wider field of action. The mere fact of its “ultra-cerebration” causes it to take up more room. So that the compression of living matter, due in the first place simply to physical increase, is gradually heightened by its internal psychic expansion. The chain coils in upon itself and the intensity of the phenomenon tends to rise almost vertically. Or, to adopt another image, one might say that the “psychic tint” of the Earth—studied at a great distance by some celestial observer—would be seen in the course of eons of geological time to become gradually heightened in intensity until it reaches the peculiarly moving moment of climax when, in a spread of more active radiation covering Africa and southern Asia, a series of sparks begins to glow, foreshadowing the incandescence which is “hominization.”

Closely related though he is to the other major primates, among which he is biologically only one of a family, Man is psychically distinguished from all other animals by the entirely new fact that he not only knows, but knows that he knows. In him, for the first time on earth, consciousness has coiled back upon itself to become thought. To an observer unaware what this signifies, the event might at first seem to have little importance; but in fact it represents the complete resurgence of terrestrial life upon itself. In reflecting psychically upon itself, life embarked for a second time upon its cycle of multiplication, compression, and interiorization.

This is how the thinking layer of the Earth as we know it today—the noösphere—came rapidly into being, proceeding from certain centers of reflection which apparently emerged at the threshold of the Pleistocene Age somewhere in the tropical or sub-tropical spheres of the Ancient World (i.e., in the place where, during the Upper Tertiary Period, the group of the great anthropoids was first established and subsequently spread.): a planetary neo-envelope, essentially linked with the biosphere in which it has its root, yet distinguished from it by an autonomous circulatory, nervous, and finally, cerebral system. The noösphere: a new stage of life renewed.

One may say that until the coming of humanity it was natural selection that set the course of morphogenesis and cerebration, but that, after humanity, it is the power of invention that begins to grasp the evolutionary reins. A wholly inward change, having no direct effect on anatomy; but a change, as we know, entailing two decisive consequences for the future. The first is an unlimited increase in the aura of influence radiating from every living being; the second, even more radical, the prospect afforded to a growing number of individuals being joined together and ever more closely unanimized in the inextinguishable fire of research pursued in common.

From the Quaternary Period onward life has continued to super-develop itself, through humanity, in the second degree. But although this phenomenon is several hundred thousand years old, there are growing indications that the process, far from slowing down, is now entering upon a particularly accelerated and critical phase of its development.

So far as we are able to follow its historical progress, the grouping and organization of the human mass has in the past been broadly governed far more by the principle of expansion than by that of compression. Diverse civilizations were able to grow and rub shoulders on a sparsely inhabited planet without encountering any major difficulty. But now, following the dramatic growth of industry, communications, and populations in the course of a single century, we can discern the outline of a formidable event. The hitherto scattered fragments of humanity, being at length brought into close contact, are beginning to interpenetrate to the point of reacting economically and psychically upon each other; with the result, given the fundamental relationship between biological compression and the heightening of consciousness, of an irresistible rise within us and around us of the level of reflection. Under the influence of the forces compressing it within a closed vessel, human substance is beginning to “planetize” itself, that is to say, to be interiorized and animated globally upon itself.

We may have supposed that the human species, being matured, has reached the limit of its development. Now we see that it is still in an embryonic state. Science can discern, in the hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of years (Since mankind's behavior on the “tree of life” is rather that of a flowering than of an ordinary shoot, it is possible that the estimate of several million years, based on the average longevity of animal forms, should be materially reduced to allow for the acceleration due to the totalization of the noösphere.) lying ahead of the mankind we know, a deep if still obscure fringe of the “ultra-human.”

If this is so, and assuming that no sidereal accident interferes with the course of events, how is the adventure likely to conclude? Can we look forward to nothing but a state of senescence at the end of the planetary cycle of hominization or, on the contrary, will it be a paroxysm of the noösphere?

The senescence theory finds immediate and natural support in the fact of our individual ends. Since each separate thinking element of the earth is destined to wither and die, why should the sum total of them all, mankind, be exempt from a similar fate? This is the first thought that occurs to us: but is it sound? It is certain that we can extrapolate the general evolutionary pattern of the individual (ontogenesis) without making any correction? Nothing proves that we can, and there is a powerful argument against it. For although certain principles of wear and dissolution, which apparently cannot be prevented from growing more pronounced with age, seem to be inherent in the structure of our individual bodies, there is no indication of any similar factor in the global evolution of a living mass as large as the noösphere, where the overriding evolutionary law seems to be that, of statistical necessity, it must simply converge upon itself.

The more deeply we study this distinction the more probable does it seem that the human multitude is moving as time passes not towards any slackening but rather towards a super-state of psychic tension. Which means that it is not any sluggishness of the spirit that lies ahead of us, but on the contrary an eventual critical point of collective reflection. Not a gradual darkening but a sudden blaze of brilliance, an explosion in which Thought, carried to the extreme, is volatilized upon itself: such, if I had to be on it, is how I would depict the ultimate phase of a vitalized star.

But can even this, a supreme explosion, be considered a biologically satisfactory culmination of the phenomenon of man? It is here that we encounter the very root of the problem proposed to our scientific understanding by the existence of living planets.

In speaking of the rise of terrestrial psychic temperature I have always assumed that in the noösphere, as in the biosphere, the need and the will to grow both remain constant. There can be no natural selection, still less reflective invention, if the individual is not inwardly intent upon “super-living,” or at least upon survival. No evolutionary mechanism can have any power over a cosmic matter if it is entirely passive, less sill if it is opposed to it. But the possibility has to be faced of mankind falling suddenly out of love with its own destiny. This disenchantment would be conceivable, and indeed inevitable, if as a result of growing reflection we came to believe that our end could only be collective death in an hermetically sealed world. Clearly in face of so appalling a discovery the psychic mechanism of evolution would come to a stop, undermined and shattered in its very substance, despite all the violent tuggings of the chain of planetary in-folding.

The more one considers this eventuality (which cannot be dismissed as a myth, as certain morbid symptoms, such as Sartrian existentialism, show) the more does one tend to the view that the grand enigma presented by the phenomenon of man is not the question of knowing how life was kindled on Earth, but of understanding how it might be extinguished on Earth without being continued elsewhere. Having once become reflective it cannot acquiesce in its total disappearance without biologically contradicting itself.

In consequence on is the less disposed to reject as unscientific the idea that the critical point of planetary reflection, the fruit of socialization, far from being a mere spark in the darkness, represents our passage, by translation or dematerialization, to another sphere of the universe: not an ending of the ultra-human but its accession to some sort of trans-humanity as the ultimate heart of things.

From the Pre-Human to the Ultra-Human

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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