Michael Polanyi in 1960 on Teilhard de Chardin on evolution

Michael Polanyi was highly suspicious of the hyper-reductionism of neo-Darwinism. It’s reduction of the evolution of a thing so vast as life into a single causal mechanism. And it was a good call.

Darwin himself had proposed that natural selection was a major mechanism of evolution, but not the only one. He was good with the existence of Lamarckian mechanisms, which was a pretty good call given that they keep turning up. But neo-Darwinism held that there was just one mechanism behind evolution — genetic variation — and that this was driven exclusively by random mutation. It’s worth pondering the hankering for closure this claim embodies. Why the enthusiasm to shuffle such mechanisms off the scientific stage.

Neatness is one reason. Arrogance another. Laying down the law on the grounds that you’re uniquely qualified to pontificate about them is inherently satisfying to many. There’s also a doubling down on driving purpose out of evolution. And that’s something science had been doing since the scientific revolution — driving our Aristotelian notions of telos from biology. And that was also driving God out of biology. All good if God is seen as some imposition — some being intervening in the universe whenever he wants to vote someone off the island.

The thing is, immanent purpose is an obvious fact of biology. The heart has the purpose of pumping blood. It’s designed to pump blood. That doesn’t mean it has an intelligent designer watching on, occasionally reaching for their remote. But it does mean that it was designed. It was designed immanently. We’ve known for a long time that the immune system works this way — it creates a randomising process of experimentation and then puts its thumb on the scales by amplifying the more promising experiments. (This is the way social media is driving our species to conflict — only where the immune system is part of a healthy emergentism (at least from our point of view, and depending on your values, from the universe’s) the immanent design in social media is, at least in the first instance regressive, leading us down the brainstem towards lower levels of capability and organisation. Perhaps over time we will evolve ways of using its potential positively.

In any event the idea of systems of “directed chance” and the ‘emergentism’ that naturally arises from it fascinated Polanyi and lay as one of the core elements of his philosophy of science and of humanity.

Which meant that I was fascinated and impressed by this brief review.

An Epic Theory of Evolution

THE SUCCESS of “The Phenomenon of Man,” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a mystery and a portent. … I have seen a dozen reviews highly praising it and have noticed no adverse criticism. I, myself, had readily turned to Teilhard, since I reject the current genetical theory of evolution and had no doubt that Teilhard rejects it too.

But what about all those who so eagerly read and praise the book? Does their acclaim mark the rise of a vast underground movement, sweeping aside the writers and readers who had shortly before accepted the worldwide pronouncements made on the occasion of the Darwin centenary? Where was the public now applauding Teilhard when Sir Gavin de Beer declared that modern genetical research has “established as firmly as Newton’s laws of motion that hereditary resemblances are determined by discreet particles, the genes, situated in the chromosomes of the cells. . . “? Can this be reconciled with Teilhard’s teachings?

Puzzled by these questions, I kept fingering my copy of Teilhard’s English’ translation and finally looked through Julian Huxley’s introduction. In it he praises Teilhard’s work highly and, indeed, claims to have largely anticipated it. Yet it was Sir Julian’ Hpdey who prefaced one of thentost authoritative statements of current selectionist theory (“Evolution as a process”) with the words: “A single basic mechanism underlies the whale organic evolution—Darwinian selection acting upon the genetic. mechanism.”

Teilhard declares: “We do not yet know how characters are formed, acumulated and transmitted in the secret recesses of the germ cell.” In his view, “the blind determinism of the genes” plays but a subordinate part: “We are dealing with only one event,” he says, “the grand orthogenesis of everything living towards a higher degree of immanent spontaneity.” “The progressive leaps of life” must be interpreted “in an active and finalistic way.”

This active striving towards ever higher, more vividly conscious forms of existence, which eventually achieves responsible human personhood and establishes through man a realm of impersonal thought, is the dominant theme of “The Phenomenon of. Man.” . . ‘This image is.very different from that of the repeated failures of precision in the self-copying of Mendelian genes, to which Huxley and the rulihg orthodoxy attribute evolution. It is precisely the kind of theory violently condemned by this orthodoxy for trying to explain evolution by some inherent bias, guiding the direction mutations take. Admittedly, Teilhard’s wording is vague.…

Teilhard’s way r of shrugging aside any question concerning the mechanism of heredity also casts a veil of obscurity tn the foundations of his position. And this is how he avoids an explicit attack on genetical selectionism and also feels entitled to use, without more than the most cursory acknowledgment, the ideas of Samuel Butler, Bergson, and others who have previously interpreted evolution in his way.

And yet in these shortcomings we discover the secret of Teilhard’s achievement and success. He is a naturalist and a poet, endowed with contemplative genius. He refuses to look upon evolution like a detached observer who reduces experience to the exemplification of a theory. Instead he stages a dramatic action of which ‘man is both a product and a responsible participant. His purpose is to rewrite the Book of Genesis in terms of evolution. The thousand million years of evolution are seen here as one single act of cre-ative power, like that revealed by Genesis.

This creative act is inherent in the universe. By producing sentient beings the universe illuminates itself, and through human thought it gradually achieves communion with God. Teilhard uses scientific knowledge merely as a factual imager* in which to expound his vision. His work is an epic poem that keeps closely to the facts. Gaps in the factual imagery of a poem can be safely left- open. So there is no need for the author to argue with selectionism.

As a poet, Teilhard stands powerfully apart and commands assent from many who continue to hold views that are incompatible with his vision; and this is how his work is startlingly novel though it contains few new ideas. . But would Teilhard’s poetry have received such warm response fifty years ago? No, its contemporary success, is a portent. There is a tide of dissatisfaction mounting up against scientific obscurantism. Book after book comes out aiming against the scientific denaturation of some human subject.

Teilhard owes his present success to this movement. But, unfortunately, this has made his success a little too easy. I do not believe that the origin and- destiny of-man can be defined in such vague terms. A text that is so ambiguous that people whose views on its subject matter are diametrically opposed can read it with equal enthusiasm cannot be wholly satisfying. And I suppose that this is why, in spite of its many insuring and luminous passages, it is tedious to read ‘the book from cover to cover. Having avoided so many decisive issues, it can serve only as a new and powerful pointer towards problems that it leaves as unsolved as before.

Read the full review here.

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