Survival, Part 2: Life



Now, picture the infant Earth a thousand million years ago: covered by a layer of water, volcanoes erupting, and the forming of land masses and continents. The world is ripe and fertile for the advent of the cell. To modern observers it might have seemed completely inanimate. Yet, upon closer examination we would see the infinitesimal smallness and innumerable number of these sub-life, mega-molecular forms. Life, as it emerges from inorganic matter, is dripping with molecularity.


We have a sort of super-saturated solution, with the Earth in a state of biological super-tension. Yet, the climb to life is a slow, deliberate process. For, only after immense duration—when the conditions are just right—then, suddenly, life in cellular form is born. The delicate physical and psychical structure which complexity-consciousness had taken up to this point has changed state to better survive the crushing competition of its earlier forms. And it is important to remember that these changes occur on all levels of complexity for reasons of survival.


So we have seen the elemental stuff of the universe transformed into atoms, and atoms into inorganic molecules and mega-molecules, and finally, into cells. Life as we know it was born.


Life advances by mass exertions of multitudes flung into action without apparent plan. The individual unit seems to count for little in the process. Let’s look at life as it expands from a single cell.


First, the living particle is wrenched from itself. Secondly, it is caught up in an aggregate greater than itself—that is, it is lost in number. Thirdly, it is absorbed in collectivity. And finally, it stretches out in ‘becoming,’ transformed into something greater than itself. This dramatic and perpetual opposition—between the many born out of the one and the one constantly being born out of the many—runs right through evolution.


Millions of forms jostling, shoving, devouring one another, fighting for elbow room, and the best and the largest living space. Survival of the fittest by natural selection and groping as a solution to survival. Yet, it would be a mistake to see this movement as mere chance. Groping is directed chance.


On the large scale, life may seem to be entangled in utter confusion. Or it might be considered a continuous wave from a single centered origin. But no: life branches. That is, it ramifies. It is arranged in tiers: classes, orders, families, genera, species. So life, as it advances, splits into natural living bundles, called phyla. Each phylum is elastic and is a collective reality. It can be as small and simple as a single species, or as vast and complex as a sub-kingdom.


The Tree of Life is a well-defined structural reality. Each member is traceable down to a common origin. Let us see how—like a living tree—it develops and flourishes. Life—in its totality, from the very first stages of its evolution—is one single and gigantic organism laboriously rooted in the abysses of the immeasurable past. Let’s watch our tree of life as it grows.


There are three major branches on this tree. One leads to the plant kingdom, another leads to the insect world, and the third is the vertebrate branch. Below these three major branches is a tangled complex of non-skeletal animals and primitive one-celled creatures of the primeval slime.


As we center our attention on this branch we shall see it is the only one that leads directly to our target: man. Let’s follow this branch through its earliest evolution among the proto-chordates into the world of primitive fish. And out of this, a new stem: that which leads to the mammal world.


Life crawls out of the waters to breathe air and live on land. Such a transition must have taken place when certain forms of life—in order to survive the overcrowded seas—went through a process of mutation and became amphibian more than 200 million years ago. Then, from the amphibia, the reptiles, birds, and the mammals. Each layer shown represents approximately 50 million years. At the very top a poor, tiny lobe will appear: a belated offshoot on the tree of life. In it, man will finally make its appearance on the scene some two to three million years ago—a mere split-second in the total evolution of things.


Looking at this Tree of Life, we may well receive an initial shock. The sort of shock we get when an astronomer speaks of our solar system as a simple star, and of our stars as a Milky Way, and all of our Milky Way as a mere atom among other galaxies. So, under the efforts of our analysis, life sheds its husk. From top to bottom, from the biggest to the smallest, each newly discovered form finds its natural place on the tree of life.


The spontaneous arrangement of overlapping relationships—subspecies and races, larger species and genera, biotas and, to end with, the whole assemblage—forming one single, gigantic biota, rooted like a single stem, steeped in the depths of the mega-molecular world: the living Tree of Life. What more do we need to be convinced that all this has grown?


Yet, to locate the area that shows outstanding growth of the ‘within,’ let us look at the huge stem on the left of the tree: the chordate branch. This includes all those species that have developed a spinal cord. Here we find, from layer to layer, massive leaps in consciousness. There is a tendency, in time, for a development toward ever more cerebralized forms—meaning, from form to form, from age to age, the nerve ganglions begin to concentrate, they become localized, and finally grow forward into the head. So we see consciousness developing and concentrating in upon itself through the perfecting of ever-better nervous systems and the formation and development of a brain.


From the dinosaurs—whose small brain was little more than a string of lobes on the spinal nervous system, reminding us of the amphibians and fishes lower down—we pass into the stage above: the mammals. Here, the average brain is much larger than in any of the other vertebrates. The brain, then, is the sign and measure of consciousness, for it is continually perfecting itself with time. The further back in time science establishes the origins of primitive animals, the smaller are their brains, the simpler their nervous systems.


This, then, is our guide through the labyrinth of living creatures. Evolution has ordained that the mammals and their successors provide the dominant branch on the tree of life. And to its leading shoot, the primates, belongs the honor of bridging the eras of life and thought—the furthest extension of consciousness. Why the primates? Because in them, evolution went straight to work on the brain, neglecting everything else.


In one well-marked region at the heart of the mammals, where the most powerful brains ever made by nature are to be found, they become red-hot. And right at the heart of that glow burns a point of incandescence. We must not lose sight of that line, crimsoned by the dawn. After millions of years rising below the horizon, a flame bursts forth at a strictly localized point. Thought is born: a primate becomes reflective.

Survival, Part 2: Life

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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