March 1997

Root Page of Article: Teilhard de Chardin and the Noosphere, by Rev. Phillip J. Cunningham, C.S.P.

Origins of Evolution

Philosophers have pondered man's ability to think for two-and-a-half millennia and it would be far beyond the scope of the present article to even summarize their observations. What can one say other than, "I think and I think you think."

When did the evolutionary process cross the threshold of thought? When did what we would call the first human come into existence? Our understanding of the evolution of the hominids has undergone considerable refinement since Teilhard's day and it continues. There were certainly crucial preliminary stages such as walking erect, modification of the vocal apparatus to increase the range of sounds produced and an increase in the complexity of socialization. Most significantly, as Teilhard believed, there was a dramatic increase in brain size.

What indices do we have of the transition to thought/reflection? Was it the use of tools? There is ample evidence that animals use tools. "But there is a great conceptual leap from using tools as simple hammers with which to break things to using stones to strike a flake off another stone." (Leakey/Lewin 1992, p. 169) With the appearance of Homo erectus some two to three million years ago, it would appear that the crucial transition had been made. "I believe Homo erectus has a well-developed sense of self and considerable language ability." (p. 171) In fact, it might well be that language is the real indication that humanity crossed the threshold of thought. "Human communication through language is unprecedented in the natural world, both in terms of rate and density of information transferred." (p. 245) Unfortunately, that transition left no fossil record. However, as Monod observes, it "amounts to assuming that spoken language, when it appeared among primitive mankind, not only made possible the evolution of culture but contributed to man's physical evolution. But on the day Zinjanthropus or one of his comrades first used an articulate symbol as represent a category, he enormously increased the probability that at some later day a brain might emerge capable of conceiving the Darwinian theory of evolution." (1972, pp. 136-137) That phase of evolution Teilhard called "noogenesis" (1961, p. 185).

Recent discoveries (New York Times, 12/13/96) hint that Homo erectus survived until relatively recently, thus coexisting with two other human species, the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. We had, therefore, a ramification of human forms just as with other species. But that changed because by 30,000 years ago only one species of homo still existed, H. sapiens. It was this form that came to dominate the planet and occupy all but the most inhospitable areas. The genetic unity of H. sapiens, however, supplies the foundation for a deeper unity, that of language. No matter how varied and complex individual linguistic groups may be, we are able to communicate across such barriers. At first, language was tribal (as it still is in many areas). The scope probably broadened with the appearance of farming and herding. However, it is with the development of trade "over the horizon" that a gigantic step was taken, written language. Primitive writing goes back some 30,000 years but written language as we know it developed over the past three millennia. It is a crucial advancement since it makes human communication possible, not only at a distance, but enables the past to communicate with the present and the future. The noosphere now transcends both distance and time.

It is quite likely that this transcendence paved the way for the formation of civilization, "the prelude and presage of some new and superior state for the noosphere." (1961, p. 209) Similar to biological species, Teilhard points to what he calls five "foci," the Mayan, Polynesian, Chinese, Indian (East) and the Sumerian/Egyptian. Their fates, however, differ. The Mayan (Meso-American) remained too isolated and the Polynesian (South Pacific) too dispersed." (pp. 209-10) ^

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