Previously, we saw that after identifing the main thread of evolution as ‘increased complexity’, Teilhard went on to identify the key branch as the one eventually leading to the most complex product of evolution known. This is the human brain, located in the entity of the (currently) highest complexity, which is the human person. Teilhard concludes that consciousness is the latest manifestation of the phenomenon of complexity. Put another way, the evolution of complexity is the single thread which leads from the big bang to the appearance of human consciousness and therefore unites the three stages of cosmological history.
Today we will continue to pursue Teilhard’s unique vision of human evolution and open the inquiry into how such complexity manifests itself in the human neurological system.
The Thread of Evolution Through the Human Person
Teilhard’s vision neatly resolves the missing pieces of Darwinistic evolutionary theories:
- It identifies the increase of ‘complexity’ as the thread for understanding the evolution of inorganic matter throughout the universe, as opposed to the Darwin keys of ‘reproduction’ and ‘survival’.
- It shows how this thread can be seen to continue through living things. Yes, Darwin’s Natural Selection, but now understood in service to the rise of complexity.
- It incorporates the human person into the warp and woof of cosmological evolution as the next step of complexity.
Teilhard sees development of complexity through the tangle of cosmic evolution as the thread which not only opens a fresh perspective on the evolution of ‘pre life’ but also on human evolution. In keeping with his new perspective which views all entities evolving through the increase of complexity, the phenomenon of the human person as well as the activity of his relationships can now be seen in a new and clearer light. This view of evolution as a process in which entities have relationships which lead to the creation of more complex entities sees this process as eventually leading to the appearance of entities of persons united by the energies which bind them.
He observes that evolution speeds up as complexity develops: billions of years are spent at the level of gravity, atomic and electronic fields, millions of years at the planetary/biological level, and thousands of years at the level of personal, cognitive, and social development.
At the human level, evolutionary changes no longer require anatomical and neurological development to increase complexity. As contrasted to the process of mutation of the ‘lower’ forms of life to gain complexity, in the human, complexity increases as understanding matures and relationships develop, as humans begin to understand their potential and play these potentialities out in their relationships
This activation of potential in turn spurs the development of the person, increasing his potential for relationship. In other words, physical manifestations of change are no longer necessary in the human person to increase his complexity.
There is a tendency to see the process of evolution as coming to a halt in the present day; that humans have “arrived”. The process of evolution seems to have stopped, and it is difficult to see the chance of any further substantial changes.
It’s much more probable that the process of evolution which got us here isn’t going to stop, but will instead continue. This shouldn’t be a surprise: if you draw a line between two points, past and present, the slope of the line in the future isn’t going to change unless something drastically changes in the underlying process. Therefore we can expect the process of evolution to continue through the human person and the energies which unite him.
Ian Barber echoes Teilhard’s thinking in his recent book, “Religion and Science”, in which he recognizes both the continuation of evolution through the human person as well as the “change of state” that we saw in the last post:
“Today we can see that in the long history of the world, the emergence of humanity marks a genuinely new chapter- not one disconnected from previous chapters and yet one that involves factors not previously present. Something radically different takes place when culture rather than the genes becomes the principal means by which the past is transmitted to the future and when conscious choice alters that future.”
If we see the evolutionary process of entities and energy through Teilhard’s eyes, as leading from more simple things to more complex things which have more capacity for interconnection, then we can extrapolate this continuation of evolution to ever more complex human persons and more comprehensive compliance with the energies of human connection.
The Advent of the Human Person
So, what’s really different about the human person? Considering the materialistic belief that “we are all molecules”, and the atheistic belief that “there’s nothing special about humans, they’re just a different form of animal”, what really changes (if anything indeed does) in the transition from ‘pre-human’ to ‘human”? Are not animals conscious? Are they not aware? And if so, how can it be said that humans are different?
Teilhard observes that the single most important characteristic which separates humans from their non-human ancestors is their ‘redundant awareness’, which he refers to as “reflexive consciousness”. In simpler terms, humans ‘know that they know’; they are aware of their awareness.
His use of the word ‘reflexive’ also indicates the ‘rebounding’ effect that such consciousness has on the human person. Knowledge of one’s knowledge contributes to personal growth, enhancing his capacity for relationship, which enhances his knowledge. Each loop of the spiral towards increased consciousness, which is increased complexity, adds to potential for the next loop.
Then the question can be asked: what sort of physical change can be seen in the fossil record that would reflect such a monumental change? The answer, of course, lies in the growth of brain capacity as measured in cranial size.
Each onset of three major stages of evolution (pre-life, life, conscious life) is marked at the beginning by characteristics of the previous stage. The primitive cell emerges as a more complex molecule, the primitive human as simply a more complex animal.
Life at its onset is overwhelmed by the characteristics of pure matter. In the earliest stages the activity of primitive cells is heavily influenced by the laws of chemistry and physics which dominated the stage of ‘pre-life’. Eventually Natural Selection becomes more powerful and accounts for successful replication and survival of successful mutations.
Beneath Natural Selection, however, the biological entity continues the increase in complexity that we saw in the era of ‘pre-life”, but at a substantially increased rate. Complexity in the evolution of animals is marked by such characteristics as increased sensory capacity leading to increased awareness, social behavior, and the size of brains.
At the onset of those animals which are conscious of their awareness, humans, the laws of Natural Selection which had such success governing the development of ‘pre-human’ entities can be expected to initially be the primary influence. In the same way as activity of the earliest cells could be barely distinguished from that of the more complex nonliving entities which preceded them, the earliest humans would have been barely distinguishable from their ‘pre-human’ ancestors.
The Next Post
The next post will continue to examine this perspective and take a brief look at how science sees evolution proceeding through the human neurological system.