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Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man

by Amir D. Aczel

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-59448-956-3
Publisher: Riverhead

A priest/paleontologist’s fraught efforts to reconcile the theory of evolution with his faith.

Aczel (The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed, 2006, etc.) doesn’t bother much with biographical detail in this proficient account of Teilhard de Chardin’s role in the international quest for a “missing link” that would demonstrate the evolutionary ties between apes and humans. Ordained in 1911, Chardin did not believe that his devout Catholicism required him to ignore the period’s rapid advances in science. He had experienced those advances firsthand as a participant in exciting fossil discoveries in Egypt, in French caves and on digs in China with Rockefeller-funded fossil-hunter Davidson Black. The new field of paleoanthropology was emerging, Aczel shows, driven by discoveries of the fossils of three hominids inhabiting the world at overlapping periods: Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon Man), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) and Homo erectus (Java Man). A spectacular example of erectus was discovered in 1929 by Chardin and the David crew in China’s Zhoukoudian caves. There they unearthed the fossil dubbed Peking Man—“as typical a link between man and the apes as one could wish for,” the priest wrote exultantly. (This vital find, along with many other fossils, vanished in 1941 during the Japanese occupation of China.) Chardin extensively considered the relationship of science and religion in his books, which attempted to prove that “God works through evolutionary processes to propel humanity ever forward.” His ideas continually got him into trouble with his Jesuit superiors, who essentially exiled him to America. Aczel manipulates an enormous amount of material in an orderly fashion, and his admiration for Chardin’s humanity is evident.

No-frills intellectual history for the lay reader.