Printed in the Winter 2020 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Sorkhabi, Rasoul, "The Priest and the Biologist" Quest 108:1, pg 28-31
Teilhard de Chardin and Sir Julian Huxley offer a grand vista of human life as they integrate Darwin’s theory of evolution with our social and spiritual development.
By Rasoul Sorkhabi
On July 12, 1941, in the midst of World War II, Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and geologist living in China, sent a letter from Peking to his friend the Abbé Breuil in Paris, in which he wrote: “I am continuing to work towards a better presentation, clearer and more succinct, of my ideas on the place of man in the universe. Julian Huxley has just brought out a book, or rather a series of essays, called The Uniqueness of Man, in a way so parallel to my own ideas (even though without integrating God as the term of the series) that I feel greatly cheered . . . I know that my book has arrived safely in Rome and has been under consideration for three months. I don’t dare to hope for favorable news: and yet isn’t this just the time for a Catholic to speak openly and as a Christian on lines determined by the best scientific thought of today?” (Chardin, Letters, 283–84).
Teilhard is alluding to the fact that his book the now-classic Le phénomène humain (The Phenomenon of Man) reached Rome for ecclesiastical censorship in 1944. Later that year, Teilhard learned that his book, like his previous philosophical writings, was not permitted for publication. Because of World War II, Teilhard’s letter did not reach the Abbé Breuil until July 5, 1945. Nevertheless, this letter is significant even today, because it juxtaposes two eminent intellectuals and scientists: Teilhard and Sir Julian Huxley, the latter a secular humanist and zoologist, who, like Teilhard, made a pioneering attempt to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with humankind’s cultural and spiritual growth.
Many people know about Teilhard or Huxley through numerous books and articles about each of them, but less known is the friendship and intellectual exchanges between these two men from 1946, when they first met in Paris, until 1955, when Teilhard died. Here I explore this subject based primarily on their own letters, writings, memoirs, and accounts of their meetings. In this article I pursue two specific questions. First, how did Teilhard and Huxley come independently to a similar position on the theory of evolution; second, how did they entertain a lasting friendship and respectful dialogue despite their different backgrounds—one an ordained priest and the other an admitted atheist? These questions are especially relevant to our time, where polarization rather than understanding is promoted by extremists in both science and religion.
Two Parallel Lives
Teilhard was born in 1881 in the French province of Auvergne, with its green mountains and volcanic soil. His father was a landowner and an amateur naturalist; his mother a devout Catholic. At age eleven, Teilhard entered a Jesuit school. In 1901, when the French government restricted religious institutions, the Jesuits moved their houses to the U.K. Teilhard, then twenty, went there to study theology and natural science, and was ordained a priest in 1911. He then returned to Paris and conducted research on mammalian fossils at the National Museum of Natural History. He got his PhD in geology from the Sorbonne in 1922. The following year, Teilhard went to China for geological research and lived there in exile, working for the Geological Survey of China until the end of World War II, because the Catholic officials did not welcome his evolutionary ideas in Europe.
Julian Huxley was born in 1887 in London to a family of intellectuals. His younger brother, Aldous, became a famous novelist. His grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley was a renowned biologist and agnostic thinker. An eager defender of Darwin in the second half of the nineteenth century, he was called “Darwin’s bulldog.” Julian studied at Eton College and later at Balliol College, Oxford, where he majored in biology in 1909. He held various positions at Rice University in the U.S., Oxford University, King’s College (University of London), the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the Zoological Society of London. Huxley was a prolific writer of scientific texts and essays, and Teilhard had read some of his work before they first met.
Meeting in Paris
The year 1946 saw major changes for both Teilhard and Huxley. In that year, Teilhard returned to Paris from China, and Huxley was appointed director-general of the newly established United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. Recalling these years in his Memoirs, Huxley writes: “Perhaps the most interesting acquaintance I made was that of the Jesuit, Père Teilhard de Chardin, to whom I was introduced in the lobby of Unesco by the geologist Edmond Blanc. Blanc thought that I, as the author of Religion without Revelation, ought to know Teilhard, who had written a number of essentially humanist works with an evolutionary as well as a religious background” (Huxley, Memoirs, 27).
In a letter to a friend dated November 7, 1946, Teilhard reported on his meeting with Huxley: “During October I had also a dinner with Julian Huxley (executive-secretary of UNESCO), but with Breuil and a few others, so that I could not contact him on the vital points. But I sent him a recent article of mine about Planetisation and he answered me that we were very close” (King and Gilbert, 191).
This meeting was the beginning of their friendship, which lasted nearly a decade and during which they met several times, wrote letters to each other, and attended a few conferences together.
The New Humanism
Both Huxley and Teilhard, who had witnessed the deadly effects of two world wars, were concerned that traditional belief systems as well as modern science could be misused for destructive purposes. This partly motivated them to offer a humanistic position for science and thus create a bridge between rational science and spiritual life. Huxley called it “evolutionary humanism”; Teilhard called it “neo-humanism.”
At the heart of this new humanism was the concept of evolution, which both Huxley and Teilhard had studied as practicing scientists. Huxley the zoologist focused on the processes of evolution: his book Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, published in 1942 and revised in 1974, still remains a major work on this subject. Teilhard the geologist was more interested in the fossil record and patterns of evolution over geological time. His scientific perspective is best described in a small book he wrote in 1949 in Paris: Man’s Place in Nature, echoing the title of Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1904 book, Man’s Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays. Teilhard wrote this book purely on scientific grounds, without including theology, in the hope that it would not meet the fate of his previous writings. But the Catholic authorities did not let him publish it either.
According to Huxley and Teilhard, when we look at the history of life on earth, we see a pattern of progress from simpler forms to more complex and more conscious ones. Huxley discusses what this “evolutionary progress” means (Huxley, Evolution, chapter 10): Although millions of species have become extinct in the past, they have not taken life backward; rather, life forms have branched, radiated, and flourished. Moreover, each surviving species, whether higher or lower, is well adapted to its environment: a jellyfish is as well suited to its environment as a bird, and one cannot survive in the other’s. This is specialization at the species level, and many well-adapted species may remain unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. Nevertheless, viewing life as a whole, the history of evolution shows that specialization and species have become more complex and more cogent through time. Capability to move, see, feel, control body temperature, communicate, manipulate the environment, and overcome physical limitations have become stronger and more refined.
With the appearance of humankind, both Huxley and Teilhard argued, there was a new threshold in evolution: self-reflection, or life becoming conscious of itself. Conscious cultural evolution thus began. Science as well as religion are by-products of this new evolution—something that no other species has ever achieved. In other words, Darwin’s theory of evolution did not reduce humankind to unimportance: humankind is a unique phenomenon in the history of earth. “Biology,” Huxley wrote, “thus reinstates man in a position analogous to that conferred on him as Lord of Creation by theology” (Huxley, Man Stands Alone, 5).
From this perspective, Huxley offered an optimistic view of the future, in which men and women progress in science, arts, technology, and culture. Teilhard gave a religious flavor to his equally optimistic outlook. The culmination of human’s evolution, he said, was “Christ consciousness.” This was the Omega Point, which would unite evolved humanity with the Word that was present at the beginning (John 1:2). Teilhard also posited the emergence of a new realm on earth in addition to the lithosphere (rocks), the atmosphere (the air), the hydrosphere (the oceans) and biosphere (life forms); he called it the noosphere—the interconnected realm of the human mind. Today some people regard the global spread of the Internet and information technology as a validation of Teilhard’s concept.
Difference Is Good
The parallels between Teilhard’s and Huxley’s thought should not lead us to ignore their differences. These actually make their ideas complementary and our examination of their thoughts richer.
To begin with, Teilhard’s focus was Christianity. As a Christian apologist, he wanted to reconcile evolution with his religion; he did not venture into how other religions would embrace the evolutionary science. Huxley, on the other hand, had no affiliation with Christianity or any other religion. He viewed all religions as evolutionary products of human culture and thinking, and suggested how to develop the role and function of religion in harmony with modern knowledge and needs.
Teilhard viewed evolution as a universal characteristic of matter. Huxley, on the other hand, limited his discussion to the evolution of life on earth. In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard offers a grander view of evolution in four phases: (1) the creation of the universe (“cosmogenesis”), including the formation of earth (“geogenesis”); (2) the development of life forms (“biogenesis”); (3) the emergence of human intelligence (“homogenesis”); and (4) the spiritual convergence of humankind at the Omega Point (“christogenesis”).
Two other differences between these men are mentioned in the following comment by Huxley: “I have always regretted that Teilhard neglected to explain and discuss the mechanisms of biological evolution as well as its results in its long temporal course, and I was quite unable to follow him in his conclusions about Christification, Point Omega, and the like. But this in no way detracts from his essential achievement of linking science and religion across the bridge of evolution.” (Huxley, foreword to Barbour, 9).
Huxley’s remark about the religious tone of Teilhard’s ideas overlooks the fact that Huxley promoted his “evolutionary humanism” as a “developed religion without revelation”; he embraced the importance of “religious sentiments” and suggested that the traditional religions needed to update themselves about modern science. He even spoke of his “evolutionary humanism” as a “developed religion” (Huxley, Religion, chapter 9).
For his part, Teilhard believed that Huxley’s evolutionary science was missing a sense of psychological “drive” or spiritual energy inherent in matter and life. In a letter to Huxley dated February 27, 1953, Teilhard formulated his criticism in a question: what is it that drives evolution and life forms to take advantage of chances (through natural selection) toward more complexity and greater consciousness? (Cuénot, 304). This is also probably why Teilhard once wrote: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire” (Chardin, Toward the Future, 86).
Theologian Charles Raven, Teilhard’s first American biographer, commented: “If the world is a cosmos and evolution its history, the progress must be judged not only by its origins but by its results. No honest student of it can ignore the fact this planet has been the birthplace of life and man, and of Christ and the saints” (Raven, 158).
The intellectual differences between Huxley and Teilhard reveal themselves in their style of writing. When one reads Huxley’s essays, one feels that it comes from the pen of a scientist who is reaching out to our best human side. Teilhard’s essays are rich in poetic expressions, romantic conversation with the universe, and at times even prayers.
The Religion of Tomorrow
Teilhard died in New York, where he had been living in his second exile since 1951. His philosophical works were published only after his death, thanks to the efforts of Jeanne-Marie Mortier, his literary executor in Paris. When the English translation of The Phenomenon of Man was published in 1959, it included a lengthy introduction by Julian Huxley, which called it “a very remarkable work by a very remarkable human being,” and ended, “We, mankind, contain the possibilities of the earth’s immense future, and can realise more and more of them on condition that we increase our knowledge and our love. That, it seems to me, is the distillation of The Phenomenon of Man.” Huxley, who died in 1975 in London, lived long enough to witness the tremendous popularity and impact of his friend’s ideas and writings, even though the Vatican placed a monitum (warning) on Teilhard’s books in 1962.
In an essay written just a month before his death, Teilhard talked of “the religion of tomorrow,” in which humankind partakes in the grand scheme of evolution toward its best possibilities; Teilhard also envisioned a “re-born Christianity, capable of becoming the religion whose specific property it is to provide the driving force in evolution” (Teilhard, Heart of Matter, 99). This was indeed the common ground between Teilhard and Huxley, who also wrote: “Spiritual forces at work in the cosmos are seen as part of nature just as much as the material forces . . . Our basic hypothesis is thus not merely naturalistic as opposed to supernaturalist, but monistic as opposed to dualistic, and evolutionary as opposed to static” (Huxley, Religion, 210).
Recent popes, especially Benedict XVI, have spoken or written approvingly of Teilhard's ideas, and have even sometimes used his phrases in their speeches, but alas, without acknowledging that Teilhard had to endure the injustice of not being able to publish in his lifetime.
Huxley and Teilhard present an illustrative case, not only of a dialogue and common ground between science and religion but also of respect, friendship, and compassion that our violent and divided world needs in these critical times.
George B. Barbour, In the Field with Teilhard de Chardin. Foreword by Sir Julian Huxley. New York: Herder and Herder, 1965.
Cuénot, Claude, Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study. Translated by Vincent Colimore. Baltimore: Helicon, 1965
Huxley, Sir Julian. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. 3d ed. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974.
———. Man Stands Alone. New York: Harper & Bros., 1941. Published in the U.K. under the title The Uniqueness of Man.
———. Memoirs II. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
———. Religion without Revelation. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Bros., 1957.
King, Thomas M., and Mary W. Gilbert, eds. The Letters of Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1993.
Raven, Charles E. Teilhard de Chardin: Scientist and Seer. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Sorkhabi, Rasoul. “Geology and Spirituality: The Evolution of Teilhard de Chardin.” The World & I online magazine, June 2005.
———. “Sir Julian Huxley Bridged Biology and Humanity.” The World and I online magazine, April 2006.
———. “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sir Julian Huxley: A Tale of Two Friends.” Teilhard Studies 79 (fall 2019).
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Heart of Matter. Translated by René Hague. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
———. Letters from a Traveler. Translated by Bernard Wall. New York: Harper & Row.
———. The Phenomenon of Man. Translated by Bernard Wall. Foreword by Sir Julian Huxley. New York: Harper & Row, 1959. A new translation of this work is entitled The Human Phenomenon. Translated by Sarah Appleton-Weber. Brighton, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 1993.
———. Toward the Future. Translated by René Hague. New York: Harcourt, 1973.
Rasoul Sorkhabi, PhD, is a professor of geology at the University of Utah. His life spans both East and West, as he has lived and studied in Iran, India, Japan, and the U.S. He has published numerous articles on the interfaces of modern science and spiritual philosophy. His article “Garden of Secrets: The Real Rumi” was published in Quest, summer 2010. For more information, visit: www.rasoulsorkhabi.com.