The Place of Technology in a General Biology of Mankind

January 16, 1947

Teilhard argues that biology and technology are the same thing: technology is simply advanced biology which has reached a minimum threshold of self-awareness, allowing it to harvest and sheperd energy from its environment and utilize it to intelligently organize matter for further evolutionary development. Written after an address given in Paris at the Salle d’horticulture (National Society of Horticulture).


Man has entered the age of industry, and this brings with it socialization. Let us examine the significance of this great fact which is inaugurating a new era.

Should we see in it a sort of dead weight bearing down on the shoulders of mankind, crushing it beneath the mass of processes it has discovered, something that calls to mind the gigantic phenomena of animal forms, the infinitely prolonged tusks of the great elephants, the huge shells which the mollusks build around themselves, to name only a couple?

Or, so far from being a parasitic adjunct, a meaningless step, may not the fact of industrial development have a profound significance; may there not be beneath it a biological reality which can serve as a signpost to our minds?

It is this reality that I hope to bring out by showing that the progress of industry is not accidental but constitutes an event that can entail the most far-reaching spiritual consequences.

For our starting point, let us go a long way back. If we are to understand the place of technical skills in human society, we must begin with the general progress of the world’s evolution. We may look on this evolution as a development of life that includes a progressive rise of consciousness; consciousness for which, before it became reflective, the way was paved by the ‘interiority’ of things: things have a small-scale ‘within.’

The rise of consciousness can be explained by a very simple and very clear law which I call the law of complexity and consciousness. It is necessary to emphasize the relationship between organic complexity and consciousness. For a long time there seemed to be an irreconcilable opposition between life and matter. It used to seem impossible to build a bridge between physics and biology, but a deeper appreciation of their relationship is now tending to eliminate that impossibility.

Physical science has made us familiar with the idea that certain magnitudes amount to universal properties that are perceptible only in certain conditions. We know that the mass of a body varies with its speed, but the change is perceptible only when great speeds are attained. Similarly, metals do not appear to us to give off radiation at all temperatures; but a piece of iron heated to 500°C gives off red radiations. Nevertheless, this does not prove that there was no radiation earlier.

Why should we not apply the same idea to life, as follows: supposing we divide the world into two parts—on the one side, matter which has no roots in mass consciousness, and on the other side the living being. Would we not be justified then in saying, “But—interiority, the rudiment of consciousness, exists everywhere; it is only that if the particle is extremely simple, the consciousness is so small that we cannot perceive it; if there is an increase in complexity, this consciousness comes out into the open and we have the world of life?”

Thus, when we reach an order of combined atoms whose number amounts to approximately a million, we meet these remarkable bodies, the viruses, which, without yet being living, display certain properties of life. And if we move up to still greater complexities, we find particulate elements in which consciousness can be seen unmistakably as a manifestation of life.

Seen from this angle, life, ‘the within,’ is a universal property of things, perceptible only at certain extreme degrees of the complexity of matter; consciousness properly so-called is the property specific to very large complexes; it is a result of them. (To estimate the complexity of a living being, one would have to know all the degrees of inter-arrangement of the atoms.)

This can all be represented geometrically in the form of an ellipse of which one focus is complexity and the other consciousness. Without going into the question of the metaphysical relation between these two foci, I may say that it is just as though being were progressively propagated between them. The most general experience of evolution may be described as the appearance of consciousness as a function of its degree of complexity.

Along the line of evolution or of the rise of consciousness, the most advanced term is man. It is in his brain that the two foci attain their obvious maximum of complexity, in that organ where thousands of millions of cells are grouped in such a way as to constitute a transmitting and receiving and coordinating centre of which we can form only a very imperfect idea. Can nature show us, outside the human brain, a quantity of organic matter contained in a smaller volume? Hardly! But can there possibly be anything more complex outside the individual man?

We are confronted by the phenomenon of society, of which there are at this moment two conflicting interpretations.

The first is superficial and simply says that there is nothing very special in the phenomenon of society. Men live in association because there are so many of them; there is no particular value in the whole body; the economic and juridical links we notice have no resemblance to the structures of nature.

The second interpretation has suggested itself to philosophers for many years; we meet it again in the world of Islam, and among the Florentine Platonists. But it is most of all in our time that, based on a positive knowledge of the facts, it has come into its own. Following Cournot, Durkheim, and Levy-Bruhl, the idea of a possible extension of the organic has again been entertained. Just as man appeared as the result of a process which complexified the cells, so, in virtue of the law of complexity, might he not seek to produce a complex of a particular type involving a higher ‘within,’ a higher psychism?

For my own part, I incline to the second view. It rests upon a large number of observed facts. Let us, then, review the points that support the belief that the social phenomenon is more akin to a biological than to a secondary phenomenon.

From the sociological point of view, mankind is not an aggregation, but forms a structural whole. The more closely science studies the problem of man, the more he seems to have appeared in the same way as the other species, in the form of a cluster of types all extremely close to one another. While, however, in the case of the other species, the different modalities of the form that has just come into being tend to diverge, man’s behaviour, by reason of his high degree of psychism, is quite different. What happens is that at the level of man, the cluster folds in on itself around the planet, so that mankind forms a bulb-shape fascicle in which individual leaves are recognizable. Numbers of potential species appear within this mass, continually forming a whole whose closing-in on itself produces a completely determined structure. The fact that man represents the system produced by the closing-up of all the leaves, would bring about another cluster. This is one reason for recognizing the natural element in the social phenomenon.

However, this is not all: if we try to form a picture of the anatomy of mankind we recognize certain characteristics that point to a special order.

Man is a being characterized by hands and a brain: he is a cerebro-manual—and cannot we recognize this character of cerebrality and manuality in global mankind?

With hands, we are in the domain of the machine; machines are discovered by the individual; the tool is handed on from the individual to the group. Then there appears this machine-entity whose joint development are so fully integrated that moral behaviour and the machine cannot progress divorced from one another.

What is true of the hand is even more true of the brain. Is not something, itself analogous to a brain, being produced within the totality of human brains? When we think about means of communication, we notice most of all their commercial side; but the psychological side is much more important, and brings with it far-reaching effects.

This cerebroid system, discussed by Julian Huxley, presents enormous differences in comparison with an individual brain, inasmuch as the latter is governed by a thinking ego; but it is nevertheless true that we would be mistaken in regarding the totality of human brains as forming no more than an added sum. There is something more: these united brains build up a sort of dome, from which each brain can see, with the assistance of the others, what would escape it if it had to rely solely on its own field of vision. The view so obtained goes beyond anything the individual can compass, nor can he exhaust it.

Take, for example, the concept of the atom: at the present moment the brain of no single physicist can embrace the whole of it, and yet each one has a view of it that he alone can have.

In the general organism constituted by the human whole we meet a reality which can be regarded as an extension of the law of complexity. The whole of mankind may equally well be compared to an ellipse in which the focus of technical organization is allied to a focus of psychic knowledge. And from the fact that mankind is accepted as a reality with its two foci, this conclusion follows automatically—general technology is not merely a sum of commercial enterprises, a mechanical dead-weight on our shoulders, but rather the sum of processes combined reflectively in such a way as to preserve in men the state of consciousness which corresponds to our state of aggregation and conjunction.

Technology has a role that is biological in the strict sense of the word: it has every right to be included in the scheme of nature. From this point of view, which agrees with that of Bergson, there ceases to be any distinction between the artificial and the natural, between technology and life, since all organisms are the result of invention; if there is any difference, the advantage is on the side of the artificial.

In recognizing what technology is in relation to mankind, have we rally touched on the essence of its value? Or have we still to face the important problem of deciding whether technology stimulates human consciousness? Have the two foci attained the limit of their influence? Has man reached his ceiling? What about the future? It is here that we meet the vast phenomenon of the almost unlimited power of disposition over matter that man is beginning to acquire in his environment.

In spite of its rudimentary forms of organization and its extremely simple techniques (the collar for draught animals, the discovery of the wheel), the beginning of socialization produced important technical results and improvements in methods of transport. When, however, we turn to our own case, we observe the enormous power over the elements that man has acquired: after obtaining new organic substances (and after resistors, capacitors, the electronic eye, etc.) he is still not content with manipulating the stuff of the universe, but moves on to reconstructing its very fabric; this we see in the prodigy of physicists working on the nucleus of the atomic structure. Similarly, biologists are making us envisage the possibility of working on chromosomes and of modifying the powers of the organism through hormones. Psychoanalysis, too, is trying to get down to the underlying forces which control what seemed to us the most intimate core of our being.

This power means that mankind holds in its hands the means of varying the complexity of the focus on which its whole future depends. In that case, however, the other focus will come into play with equal force in order to increase its concentration. There will be an upward leap in the consciousness of man. If we look around us, can we not see that psychic energy is even now rising in quantity, in intensity, and in quality?

In quantity—and I am thinking of the phenomenon of unemployment which causes such anxiety to economists but which, to a biologist, is the most natural thing in the world: it heralds the release of spiritual energy—every pair of hands freed means a brain freed for thought. I realize that this phenomenon is still not sufficiently advanced in maturity, but from the biological point of view it shows that, granted the increase in technical resources, the available energy will rise and be directed towards the focus of consciousness.

In quantity and intensity, I said: it is beyond the bounds of possibility that we should one day succeed in constructing certain instruments capable of recording the rays emitted by thinking brains, and channeling the whole of the energy of these highly charged brains in a given direction? From the psychic point of view the earth would seem to be becoming progressively hotter, continually even more incandescent. If we consider not its harmony but its general intensity, the earth has never been through a phase to equal the present.

We can appreciate, too, that this human energy is rising in quality. I am thinking of the phenomenon of the generalization of research among men. A century ago it was a practically unknown avocation. Today a large number of men have been enthralled by the daemon of discovery, and ‘observation domes’—incomplete as yet—are being built which work together and develop common views. Here we have energy properly qualified as spiritual.

From this emerges a very simple idea: through man evolution is making a fresh bound. At this moment it is like those devices in which a first rocket is launched and then a second fires and continues the movement. That, when we look at the whole body of evolutionary phenomena, is how nature acts. It reached the point of producing man, while at the same time providing, through other launching pads, for the use of other energies. And now the phenomenon seems to be starting again towards a new rise of spirit.

If, through technology, evolution is making a fresh bound, at the same time it is becoming reflective. Huxley has said that man is evolution become conscious of itself. Evolution has now to make its own choice. So long as true freedom did not exist life seemed to grope its way forward; now that man has become conscious, reflective, and responsible for dispositions on which the rest of the process is based, a direction must be found: life can no longer proceed at random—technology brings with it the inescapable necessity of an ideology.

Two ideologies now confront one another: a materialist ideology which defines its meaning as follows: organization is everything; in other words only the first of our two foci is truly important and real; the focus of consciousness is secondary. This view, which would appear basically to be that of Marxism, seems to me completely inadequate as a solution of the problem. It does not determine the direction to be followed: maximum organization is not a direction, it is not necessarily the road towards the optimum. If everything is put into organization, the individual feels that he is jeopardizing something that is essential. To confide the whole problem of man to organization is to lead us to a total, inevitable, death, for the more complex the arrangement the more unstable and reversible it becomes. The individual man can advance only in an irreversible direction, for otherwise he loses his zest for action; and that is the supreme criterion by which technology must be judged.

The other, the ideology of the spirit, asserts: of the two foci, it is the spiritual which is the more important and controls the other. From this point of view there is a complete change: we now have a means of judging the goodness or badness of arrangements. The individual is protected in the midst of technology because his focus of consciousness is still clearly recognized; life is safe, because while it is true that the focus of complexity is unstable, the other focus centres upon itself and acquires irreversibility.

This spiritual view must be pushed to its extreme limit. It is here that Christianity intervenes with a contribution of extreme value. It is, in fact, a spiritual ideology which offers a divine centre at once emerged and immersed; by its immersion this centre is in continuous contact with energy. The more one reflects on the deep harmony which the idea of incarnation displays with the relationships disclosed by the other phenomena, the more one becomes convinced that Christianity meets all the conditions necessary for it to become the religion of progress.

These conclusions are a complete confirmation of the relationship between technology an consciousness, the impact of technology being such as to make us develop powers of a grander order—of a spiritual order—and to force us to make up our minds on the question of a religion.

The Place of Technology in a General Biology of Mankind

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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