Survival, Part 1: Before Life Came



In this century, the works of Teilhard de Chardin shine like a beacon of hope in a world increasingly characterized by apathy and despair. Teilhard de Chardin: realist and mystic, scientist and seer, paleontologist and priest. In the life and work of this remarkable man, the tools and methods of science were combined with the insights of spirituality to yield a perspective profound in its implications for the future of humankind.

More than 40 years after the appearance of The Phenomenon of Man, the vision of Teilhard continues to stand as a vital and far-reaching influence on modern thought in almost every field of human endeavor.

The following program is based on Teilhard de Chardin’s great masterwork and is tribute to its author.



Teilhard de Chardin’s masterwork, The Phenomenon of Man, focuses on one subject: man. Man as situated in an evolving universe. To understand man’s unique position in this incredibly vast cosmos, we will first look into the distant past of life’s origins, then trace the remarkable unfoldment of life to the present, and finally, try to discern its progress into the future.


At all times we will be looking at one continuous evolutionary process. The book is divided into four major sections, each covering a given span of cosmic time. First: pre-life. The universe and, in particular, our planet Earth as it existed before the appearance of life. An evolving, inorganic world consisting of elementary particles, atoms, minerals, and finally, mega-molecules. The vertical on the chart marks the birth of life, the critical threshold crossed by evolution with the appearance of the first cells.


Second: life itself. A time span in which there is a development from the first simple cell, through the more complex cells—superforms of life such as algae and fish, amphibia, reptiles, mammals—to ever more complex forms of biological life. The second vertical represents another critical threshold: that point in time when, with the first appearance of man, reflective thought is born.


Third: thought. The development of man from the earliest forms of pre-hominoids up to present-day man. The third vertical represents the 20th century; today.


And finally, the future—or, as Teilhard so aptly calls it: survival. Do we reach the present after billions upon billions of years of evolution, and then suddenly stop evolving? Or, if evolution continues, what does the future hold for us? Do we or can we become extinct? Is there a future?


In this brief summary of The Phenomenon of Man, the various building blocks of cosmic evolution—the elementary particle, the atom, the inorganic molecule, the organic mega-molecule, the cell, and man will be represented by simple geometric symbols. The magenta dots will symbolize the dynamic interior aspect of all things, the ‘within’, or consciousness. The curved black line will represent the Law of Complexity, denoting the ever-increasing physical complexity of things in the long history of our universe. The curved magenta line will represent the rise of consciousness in the evolutionary process.


We now see before us a symbolic representation of space-time: the lower left representing the very simple forms in nature, the upper right: the very complex forms. From alpha to omega—a beginning and the end.

Book One

Before Life Came


To push any physical form in nature back in time is equivalent to reducing it to its simplest elements. Thus, when we attempt to trace man’s roots back into the dim, distant past of cosmic evolution, we find ourselves exploring with the physicists the very elemental units that form the fabric of our universe.


In reality, all matter is in a constant state of genesis. Our dynamic, evolving universe is a mass in transformation in which every part is enveloped in time, duration, and the process of becoming concentrated into ever higher forms. To better understand this vast evolutionary process, let us focus our attention on the very bottom layer.


Over a sufficient duration of time, these subatomic particles collect together, pack in, and condense until they reach a super-saturated state. Finally, with the addition of one more particle, there is a change of state into the world of the atom. This process of matter evolving into higher complexities is the fundamental action of evolution.


Thus far, we have looked at matter—the stuff of the universe—only from the ‘without’, viewing its evolution in terms of the Law of Increasing Complexity. The physicist and geologist might tell us that this is all there is to evolution. But the biophysicist and microbiologist, working on the border between physics and biology, have reason to wonder about the implications of the spontaneity exhibited by even the most primitive virus and bacteria. The botanist finds it more difficult to assume that plants do not have some kind of interiority—or ‘within’, to use Teilhard’s term. This same assumption becomes a gamble for the biologist studying the behavior of insects or the lower forms of life.


It seems futile to disregard the ‘within’ in the higher forms of life, and impossible to ignore it when we reach the level of man, in whom a certain interiority—or ‘within’—unquestionably exists. This ‘within’ cannot be ignored, since it forms the basis of all knowledge and is experienced by every man through direct intuition.


The consciousness in man has a cosmic extension and, as such, is surrounded by an aura of indefinite spatial and temporal extensions. That is, consciousness exists everywhere throughout space and time. We cannot deny that, deep within ourselves, an interior appears at the heart of beings. That is enough to leave Teilhard to suggest that, in one degree or another, this interior should assert itself as existing everywhere in nature from all time.


Many of today’s scientists prefer to disregard the important inner aspect of man’s consciousness. For them it is an isolated—and hence, unimportant—phenomenon in nature. But is this logical? Would it not be more logical and more in keeping with the consistency of our universe to suggest that, in all matter, there is an inner aspect paralleling the exterior complexity and intimately interwoven with it?


For Teilhard, the ‘within’ (or consciousness) is a term to indicate, in its fullest sense, every kind of psychism. From the most rudimentary form of interiority imaginable to the complex phenomenon of reflective thought which we perceive in man.


Obviously, the consciousness of elemental matter and the consciousness of man are not on the same level. For just as there is an evolution of the exterior aspect of complexity, there is also a continual evolution of consciousness. In the less complex forms of nature, this evolution of the ‘within’ represents the emergence of a continually increasing power to respond, and perhaps can be best expressed in terms of spontaneity, or freedom.


To understand the nature of energy in its relation to the ‘within’ and ‘without’ of things, Teilhard divides the one fundamental energy of each particular element into two components. First, the external aspect of energy which links each element with all other elements of the same complexity, such as atom to atom, mineral to mineral, or molecule to molecule. This is the tangential component. However, there is an internal aspect of energy which links center to center in a way that draws the elements onward toward ever greater complexity and consciousness. This is the radial component.


In the earliest stages of evolution, subatomic particles are drawn together by the tangential component of their energy so that, in time, each particle with its own particular center of consciousness intermingles and combines with other, like particles until—under the influence of the radial component of their energy—there begins a process of transformation. And with this sudden change of state, a new form of reality appears: the atom.


True, this operation is very costly when viewed from the ‘without,’ because every time something new is created, something is finally burned in its creation. There is an irrecoverable loss on the physical level.[1] But in reality, this apparent loss manifests itself as a much richer consciousness, or ‘within.’ The tangential (or physical) aspect of energy has been directly transformed into the radial (or spiritual) aspect, which becomes the foundation for a higher consciousness.


A similar change of state occurs when atoms converge to form the world of the inorganic molecule, giving it a far richer interior. Another transformation occurs when the inorganic molecules combine in the formation of organic molecules. Again, there is an increase of the ‘within,’ which is manifested in a greater spontaneity. These organic molecules gather together, ultimately evolving into the first living cells. And with the cell there is a tremendous increase of the ‘within.’


In an evolutionary world, matter is continually being converted into spirit because they are the two essential aspects of the same basic reality. The Law of Increasing Complexity must then be expanded into the Law of Increasing Complexity-Consciousness, for with every step up the ladder of physical complexity, we find a corresponding increase of the ‘within,’ or consciousness.


In adding the dimension of time to our picture of the universe, we see that we can no longer speak of a static cosmos. Rather, we are now dealing with a cosmogenesis—that is, an evolving universe. And we can speak of its history in terms of an evolutionary monism, and not the more traditional dualism [Alternatively, Buddhist dualism] of classic thought, which draws a sharp line between matter and spirit. In an evolutionary monism, the evolving universe gradually shifts its emphasis from the exterior to the interior so that ever-higher levels of consciousness emerge from the growing complexity of the world’s exterior face.


The universe will not find its stability and final end in its decomposition. The universe is not held together from below, as the laws of entropy imply. But if the universe holds together at all, it is from above. Something is not only drawing our universe toward ever greater complexity, but also toward ever greater consciousness.


So far, we have been skimming over the diffuse and unlimited layers in which the stuff of the universe is deployed on an apparently insignificant event: a tiny cosmic birth in one corner of our vast universe. It occurred some several billion years ago when a fragment of matter that was composed of particularly stable atoms detached itself from the surface of the sun. At just the right distance from the mother star to receive moderate radiation, this fragment—containing a certain mass of elementary consciousness—begins to roll itself up to condense, to take shape. Matter is no longer able to spread out and diffuse at will. Instead, it coils up within the closed volume of a sphere. Yet, this cosmic event holds far-reaching consequences, for within its globe is contained the future of man.


So now, we will restrict our further examination of cosmic evolution to this tiny planet, for it is the only place in the universe where we are able, so far, to study the evolution of matter to its ultimate phases. Let us, then, look at our Earth in its early stages: so new, yet charged with latent powers as it balances in the abysses of the past.


The central sphere is the barysphere—the hot metallic core of the Earth—in which only the simplest forms of dissociated matter can exist. The surface of the barysphere cools to form a thin, rocky skin: the lithosphere. This is the crust of the Earth; womb of inorganic evolution, the world of minerals and crystals. The hydrosphere comprises the fluid layers of our Earth, in whose temperate zone water, ammonia, and carbon dioxide combine and group themselves in long chains around the carbon atom, forming ever-larger and more complex combinations. This is the world of the mega-molecule.


The involution of matter, which formed the spheres of the Earth, causes pressure to build up on the various layers of complexity. This pressure brings about a competition for limited space. Thus it is, for reasons of survival, that matter on this planet has continually changed into higher and higher forms, ever more complex physically, and much more complex spiritually.


So, as we continue gazing into the abysses of the past, we can see the color changing. From age to age it increases in intensity. Something is about to burst out upon the early Earth, and this something is life.


  1. The Curator of The Library disagrees with this viewpoint. A water molecule could not exhibit its properties if its component hydrogen and oxygen atoms ceased to retain their individual identities.

Survival, Part 1: Before Life Came

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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