Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Peter Medawar's review of The Phenomenon of Man

I just came across this via Why Evolution Is True, and there are so many choice quotes in this (very old!) book review that I had to capture them:

There is much else in the literary idiom of nature-philosophy: nothing-buttery, for example, always part of the minor symptomatology of the bogus. 'Love in all its subtleties is nothing more, and nothing less, than the more or less direct tract marked on the heart of the element by the psychical converge of the universe upon itself.' 'Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself,' and evolution is 'nothing else than the continual growth of. ... 'psychic' or 'radial' energy'. Again, 'the Christogenesis of St Paul and St John is nothing else and nothing less than the extension ... of that noogenesis in which cosmogenesis ... culminates'.

Ha ha, "nothing-buttery," I love it. I'm going to have to try to remember that one. I perhaps have fallen into this same rhetorical trap myself at times, but Medawar is right: It makes the speaker sound presumptuous and ridiculous.

...yet he uses in metaphor words like energy, tension, force, impetus and dimension as if they retained the weight and thrust of their specific scientific usages.

Ah, never have I seen such a damning critique of pseudoscience put so succinctly. It seems Medawar has described a special class of deepity, especially favored by New Age-y types. If I say, "I really feel negative energy coming from you," the metaphorical meaning is true-but-trivial (you are making me feel upset), while the literal meaning is earth-shattering-but-false (you are emitting a very real heretofore-undescribed physical force which I am able to detect).

Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.

A bit elitist, perhaps, but so very accurate. And frustrating.


  1. I reckon old Teilhard de Chardin was just mixing the languages he knew best, that is, the jargon of science, with the metaphor of a mystic. No need to get upset about it. He didn't violate your field. My copy of 'The Phenomenon of Man' is categorized as 'religion', and I read it as such. If you stop over- analysing (the Spirit and not the letter) you might get the real meaning of Teilhard's work, which boils down to (I hope I haven't offended you with the metaphor) universal love. Now if you've got a problem with that, that would be interesting to hear.

  2. To be honest, I have not read a shred of Teilhard. So I haven't the foggiest clue whether Medawar's description is accurate. From what I have heard, it would rather surprise me if I liked the book -- "universal love" and kindness towards one's fellow humans is a wonderful message that IMO is only clouded when you dress it up with crass religious imagery and hackneyed scientific metaphor -- but hey, who knows, I could someday read the book and love it, you never know.

    This post, rather, was responding to some of the prose in Medawar's review, which I found to be a vivid and entertaining description of pseudoscience and intellectualized mysticism in general. The criticisms I quoted apply oh so very well to a lot of the faux-philosophical claptrap you hear all too often in the popular media (*cough*Deepak Choprah*cough*); whether it also applies to Teilhard's work, I am unqualified to say.

  3. I believe Teilhard's book could have been better written without so much of the scientific jargon.
    I'm glad you're not opposed to the idea of universal love.
    New Age mysticism bothers me too.
    Peas be with you.

  4. The book would arguably be one of the best theoretical philosophy books on earth if it didn't have so much religious/mystic baggage on it.

    That being said, and being both an agnostic and de Chardin fan, I think Medawar misses the point of what the author was trying to do. Nice quotes, either way.

    1. Can you enlighten us regarding the point that Medawar missed?

  5. Medawar's review was based on Teilhard's claim in his book that it was a scientific work. Medawar tore into the scientific basis of that claim by cutting to the core of its scientific pretensions and showing them to be without substance or meaning. Even when "The Phenomenon of Man" moves into metaphysical argument, it is still very waffly and obscure, using a lot of words to say very little, and Medawar points this out. He does enlarge on this to wonder about the audience and why they think it's so wonderful, pointing to the obscurity as a possible cause.

    It's not the best theoretical philosophy book on Earth, not by any stretch of the imagination. Universal love is fine, and all things pointing to God (or the Omega Point) similarly wonderful. But the ideas that are expounded beyond this in "The Phenomenon of Man" are shallow but dressed in obscure language, confused in style, meaning and intent, and almost nothing to do with philosophy because they are a simplistic form of quasi-religious discussion. The RC Church tended to ban his writings and bar him from teaching because his views were both superficial and contrary to established religious orthodoxy.

    Medawar gave Teilhard the benefit of the doubt, by pointing out that Teilhard put a lot of effort into fooling himself before he set out to fool others, albeit inadvertently.

  6. Medawar's review really misses the point. I'm preparing a presentation on Teilhard, which is how I came across this blog and read Medawar's review. Teilhard's work is indeed profound and it doesn't seem that Medawar has had sufficient personal experience of the divine (or whatever we want to call it) to understand at all what Teilhard is pointing toward. Indeed, this is not uncommon with scientists and philosophers today. I'm not suggesting that one need abandon logic to get Teilhard's work - rather, it is more logical, given the commonality of various types of spiritual experience across time and space, to accept that there is something that needs explaining and integrating. Medawar misses the point of Teilhard's book in his final sentence: it is not to reconcile science and Christianity, it is to reconcile science and spirit. I personally reject Teilhard as a Christian, but I embrace him as a scientist and philosopher. His approach of taking our psychism as primary and explaining the universe from that starting point is entirely justified because ALL we know is psyche. Everything else is inferred, just symbols in our own psyche. When we recognize and go down the path that Teilhard, Whitehead, Bergson, and many other panpyschist philosophers have trod, we realize that the process that results in our own minds very likely continues onward and upward. We can call this higher level of consciousness God, or whatever we want.

  7. The Noospehere is the internet that you are all using right now. I wonder what Medawar would have to say about that?

  8. Just been in London today attending the National Secular Society Conference where Richard Dawkins mentioned how as a young student in Oxford he had "fallen in love" with "Le Phénomène Humain, 1955 written by French philosopher, paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He said that his papers in college emulated Teilhard's style, until he read Madawer's review and basically it was "what woke him up from his dogmatic slumber" if you will. He said he felt so humiliated that it woke him up to reason!

    Fantastic stuff.


  9. I have just started reading this book and so far, I have to agree with both Medawar's review and that of "Anonymous March 13, 2011 at 12:46 AM." Though I am also Christian, I disagree with Tam Hunt's review. To me, Teilhard trades science for his version of the New Age and he seems to enjoy floating like a butterfly with his own jargon. He appears to love hearing himself hence, the writing of the book and if we are unable to understand him, this is because we have not evolved enough. However, maybe Teilhard is the one who hasn't evolved himself and we need to extend compassionate love towards him as he grows or evolves?

  10. I feel that both the writer and the reviewers fail to address that most of the population of Earth is composed of people that don't understand science, are users, abusers, sadists, don't know right from wrong, the need to belong and be flocked, schizophrenics, jihadists, selfish, antagonists, greedy, should I go on? Most of the people don't accept the Greek philosophy and think that the age of enlightment is a myth just like the Bible. It isn't about evolution but mutation, we are mutating into gruesome creatures that still in the 21st Century are wondering how Science, hunger, war, and technology exists hand in hand. Good luck!

  11. Teilard is a 'poet' who just uses and merges both scientific and religious elements to try and reconcile his belief in Christianity who he thought was very much challenged by the discoveries of his day. Nonetheless, if this merging has led him to share his vision of a world (and a universe) evolving into some kind of a singularity, then this idea is awesome. Indeed, the internet and social media may be the manifestation and beginning of Teilhard's vision of a 'noosphere.' And for me, he has definitely changed my concept of 'god' compared to the traditional Jewish concept.