Who was Teilhard de Chardin and what is his connection to anthropology? A French Jesuit Priest born in 1881, Teilhard de Chardin occupies a distinct niche in the annals of anthropology often overlooked in textbooks and academic publications. If he is mentioned at all, it is typically in association with the famous Piltdown Man forgery where Chardin is often wrongly implicated in this hoax.
Such is the case with the Thackeray J. Francis (2012) article titled “Deceiver, joker or innocent? Teilhard de Chardin and Piltdown Man.” The Piltdown skull supposedly provided evidence that early humans had occupied Britain a million years ago but proved to be nothing more than the bones of an orangutan and modern human, expertly fused together to fool any investigator. Francis alleges that Chardin was the culprit, an assertion now thoroughly discredited.
Evolution is Teleological
A naturalist and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin was thoroughly familiar, and conversant with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (though Chardin maintained the process was teleological or purposeful).
He participated in many excavations around the world in pursuit of early man fossils, such as the Peking Man site in Zhoukoudian, China, along with other expeditions. As a member of the original digging team at the Piltdown site in England where the first fragments of the “Piltdown Man” were recovered in 1912, Chardin’s scientific reputation would later be brought into question, though extensive research into this episode has exonerated Chardin and implicated Charles Dawson as the probable culprit.
The Phenomenon of Man
Not only as scientist, but also as philosopher and theologian, Teilhard de Chardin frequently found himself on the wrong side of pre-Vatican II Catholic dogma. His classic book The Phenomenon of Man, for example, earned him condemnation from the Church but also from science. The manuscript was ready in 1941 and submitted to Rome who forbade its publication.
A highly educated Jesuit Priest and scientist in the fields of geology and paleontology, he sought to reconcile his faith with the scientific truths of Darwinian evolution, writing and creating his own metaphysical niche in the process, which did not earn him any kudos from the Church or science. We must remember that this book was finally published in 1955, ten years before the revolutionary paradigmatic shift of 1965 when the Vatican II Council pronounced its findings. This is the same Catholic Church that did not reverse itself on Galileo until Pope John Paul II assumed the Vicar of Christ in 1979.
Teilhard de Chardin suffered much indignation in his life for his scientific and theological beliefs. In a final blow to freedom of thought, one source states “The Diocese of Rome on 30 September 1963 required Catholic booksellers in Rome to withdraw his works as well as those that supported his views.” His own order also joined the chorus of condemnation, as for example when Spanish Jesuits issued a warning in 1958 that Chardin’s works had been published without previous ecclesiastical examination. Chardin died in 1955 while he was in residence at the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York. He leaves behind an impressive body of work in paleontology, philosophy and theology that awaits our investigation, as well as final liberation from the ongoing injunctions of the Catholic Church.
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