In the last two posts, we saw how the idea of increasing complexity as an ‘axis’ of evolution is disputed by the materialists, who insist that evolution has no direction. We also saw how rejection of this fundamental principle of existence is necessary to keep ‘the divine foot out of the door’. It still remains to address the final major issue in the continuation of evolution through the human, that of the energy which unites humans in such a way as to effect the continuing increase of complexity, but today’s post will sum up the unique perspective of evolution and universal ‘becoming’ as seen by Teilhard.
Teilhard in a Nutshell
Teilhard was certainly an evolutionist, but his insights go far beyond the traditional treatment of Darwin’s theory in several basic but important areas:
Living Things Evolve From Matter:
First, biologic evolution proceeds from the birth of living things using the materials perfected by, staged by, cosmic evolution for billions of years. The complex atoms that make up our bodies came from stars long ago exploded and were grown and cultivated into the very complex molecules of amino acids, enzymes and proteins which continued the march to the cell through uniting into DNA strings. Evolution therefore begins at the big bang and manifests itself into ever new and innovative forms as it continues its thread through living things. Evolution is much more than Natural Selection.
There are critical points along this long journey where the birth of these new and innovative forms marks a step change in the process: radically new entities emerge with radically new and different capabilities and potentialities.
The atom provides a building block for millions of types of molecules that increase in complexity over time, and eventually form the cell.
The cell isn’t just a pile of molecules fused into something different, it’s an astoundingly new thing on the cosmic plate, just as were the subatomic, atomic and molecular formations that preceded it, and the conscious beings which follow.
Evolution expresses itself in newer and more complex forms in humans, which will lead to new ‘modes of being’ not available to the lower mammals, just as their capabilities could not be found in the reptiles which preceded them, and so on back to the most simple and ancient particles of “the stuff of the universe.”
At each new rung of complexity, the play of evolution develops new modes that could only be glimpsed in the potential of those which preceded it. As Teilhard puts it, “Evolution can be seen as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes in a universe in which there is always more to be seen.”
And, of course, we humans are living out these new modes at the same time that we are becoming aware of them. One of the key aspects of human maturity consists in the understanding of ourselves and our potential for fulfillment, at the same time that we are living out this process of understanding and fulfillment. To stand back and objectively see the upwelling of the universe personalized within us is a very difficult task indeed! We are building bridges to our future at the same time that we are standing on them.
Being of such vastly increased complexity over the pre-cellular molecules (which also consist of millions of atoms), cells represent an astounding capacity for unification, complexity, flexibility and further evolution compared to the molecules. The rules and laws under which they make their way up the spiral of complexity, and the energies to which they are subject, are entirely new, but connected to the long upwelling of the cosmos through the underlying law of “complexity-consciousness”.
As Teilhard sees it, this upwelling of complexity as the mainspring of evolution can be seen in the following characteristics:
- it rises through living things
- it always results in increased awareness, potential and flexibility
- it morphs through simple sensing and response to environment (bacteria and plants) into complex sensing and conscious reaction (animals)
- it results in the awareness of this consciousness (humans)
Not a single step, nor any resulting stage, of this long process from the very simple “stuff of the universe” to the human person is taken except in response to this law of complexity-consciousness. Complexity is hence the thread by which cosmic evolution can be traced from very simple particles of matter to conscious entities over long passages of time. It provides the context in which we humans can be understood. The human person is the most recent product of the universal process of evolution.
It’s Always Entities and Energy:
In each step of this process only two major aspects of the universe are active. At every step, the entity which climbs the ladder of complexity (muons into electrons, electrons into atoms, atoms into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into the bewildering cloud of living things, one branch of which is the human person), does so under the influence of some sort of energy: a field which engages the new entity by its new potentials and powers the transition to the new form. The universe is bathed in these fields (Higgs field, Strong and Weak nuclear forces, the mighty forces of gravity, the laws of cellular activity) which forge the unification of elements of the universe into ever more complex and ultimately animated forms. This astoundingly complex but universal phenomenon is underlain by a single proposition, the law of complexity-consciousness, which Teilhard describes as “Fuller being in closer union, and closer union through fuller being”.
Just as the human can be seen to be the first product of evolution to be aware of evolution. Through the action of complexity-consciousness the universe is growing the capacity for understanding itself.
Humans Emerge from Evolution:
Lastly, and this is the central theme of this blog, the human person is the latest manifestation of this cosmic process. Not only are we “the stuff of the stars” (with the atoms in our body emanating from some nova billions of years ago), but also, and more importantly, we can now be seen as the logical outcome (thus far) of the process of the evolution of the universe. If the human person is the most recent (and more importantly the most complex, and hence most conscious) appearance of the stuff of the universe, the newest entity, then love is the most complex energy, and hence the most important influence, on our evolution. The phenomenon of love, understood as the energy which unites us in such a way as to continue evolution’s march toward greater complexity, is the last issue to be addressed in our inquiry before we can begin to understand God from the perspectives of science.
The Next Post
We’ve followed Teilhard’s vision to the core concept of complexity-consciousness: increased complexity is now seen as the prime fruit of evolution which leads to the self-aware phenomenon of the human person. The next post will continue this enquiry into the unique manifestation of energy in which the human person continues this cosmic rise of complexity: Love.