P. B. Medawar: Critique of Teilhard de Chardin

Yesterday’s post discussed the Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man.  While I do think the cosmic evolution holds the key to understanding if life is, or is not meaningful, I would be remiss if I didn’t note my discomfort with some of Teilhard’s more esoteric ideas. And I would also be negligent if I didn’t alert readers to the famous, devastating critique of Teilhard’s book by P. B. Medawar.

Sir Peter Brian Medawar OM CBE FRS (1915 – 1987)[1] was a British biologist born whose work on graft rejection and the discovery of acquired immune tolerance was fundamental to the practice of tissue and organ transplants. He was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. For his works he is regarded as the “father of transplantation”.[2]He is remembered for his wit in real life and popular writings. Famous zoologists such as Richard Dawkins, referred to him as “the wittiest of all scientific writers”,[3] and Stephen Jay Gould called Medawar “the cleverest man I have ever known”.[4]

In 1961, in the philosophical journal Mind, Medawar reviewed Teilhard’s book. The review is unique in eviscerating both the book and its audience. Medawar begins:

It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance … Yet the greater part of it … is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense.

The book’s style and language appal Medawar: “the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is a cause as well as merely a symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.” He hates Teilhard’s fuzzy concepts and obfuscating metaphors. “… 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.” And Medawar hates Teilhard’s adjectives:

Teilhard is for ever shouting at us: things or affairs are, in alphabetical order, astounding, colossal, endless, enormous, fantastic, giddy, hyper-, immense, implacable, indefinite, inexhaustible, extricable, infinite, infinitesimal, innumerable, irresistible, measureless, mega-, monstrous, mysterious, prodigious, relentless, super-, ultra-, unbelievable, unbridled or unparalleled.

And here is a typical incomprehensible paragraph:

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.

This may be profound—if only we knew what he was talking about. Medawar also felt this kind of writing appealed to the scientifically illiterate and the credulous.

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.

Ouch! Medawar concludes with an exhortation to clear thinking:

I have read and studied The Phenomenon of Man with real distress, even with despair. Instead of wringing our hands over the Human Predicament, we should attend to those parts of it which are wholly remediable, above all to the gullibility which makes it possible for people to be taken in by such a bag of tricks as this. If it were an innocent, passive gullibility it would be excusable; but all too clearly, alas, it is an active willingness to be deceived.

Such a critique reminds us not to take flights of fancy too quickly.

4 thoughts on “P. B. Medawar: Critique of Teilhard de Chardin

  1. Having just been introduced to Teilhard’s works, I consider myself to be a blank slate where understanding of this new perspective on theology is concerned. Several friends are very enthusiastic about Teilhard’s works. To be part of their discussions I attended six sessions of a class on T’s ideas (continuing in spring of 2016). I am left with a pleasant feeling of having read the works of a gifted poet and manager of words. Due to their lack of substantial meaning, lack of scientific specificity, and irritating logical leaps, I am also left with a somewhat chaotic internal state . It was refreshing to find the comments of Sir Brian Medawar which accurately describe this state as “a gasping and flailing around for sense.”

  2. I think your analysis is about right. Still, even as a non-theist, I have a surprising sympathy for his cosmic vision when detached from its Christian theological components.

  3. There is an excellent book on Teilhard’s scientific method, ‘Teilhard’s Vision of the Past’ by Robert J. O ‘Connell, which retraces the nature and subtlety of Teilhard’s scientific thought (looking for example at the influence of mathematician Pierre Duhem on his method) and showing that Medawar completely misunderstands the nature of Teilhard’s scientific approach. It makes much sense of Medawar’s so-called ‘devastating’ critique. Hope this helps – for those who are interested in at least attempting to understand Teilhard before dismissing him (pace Medawar, J. Gould, Dawkins…)

  4. Thanks for the comment and I’ll try to take a look at O’Connell. However I must say that I’m skeptical of his defense from the outset. Thanks again.

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