Xavier Le Pichon —
Fragility and the Evolution of Our Humanity

Xavier Le Pichon, one of the world's leading geophysicists, helped create the field of plate tectonics. A devout Catholic and spiritual thinker, he raised his family in intentional communities centered around people with mental disabilities. He shares his rare perspective on the meaning of humanity — a perspective equally informed by his scientific and personal encounters with fragility as a fundament of vital, evolving systems. Le Pichon has come to think of caring attention to weakness as an essential quality that allowed humanity to evolve.

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is professor emeritus at the Collège de France in Aix-en-Provence. He resides at La Maison Thomas Philippe, a retreat for families struggling with mental illness.

Pertinent Posts

An illustration of Xavier Le Pichon’s analogies between the “rigidity” and what he calls “ductility” of the earth, and human communities he's witnessed from India to France.

Selected Poems

Le Vase Brisé (The Broken Vase)

by Sully Prudhomme

Le Pichon describes how his mother taught him a version of this lovely poem. So, we commissioned a new English translation for you, and asked a Québécois poet to recite the poem in French and English. Listen along, and compare to Le Pichon's memorized version.

Ecce Homo ("Behold Humanity")

In his essay, Le Pichon explores some of the observations he's made in anthropological and historical perspective, and reflects on the radical advance in human self-understanding in what we call the Axial Age. Read the text or download a PDF!

About the Image

Scientists emerge from the submersible Bathyscaphe Archimède after a dive in 1973 as part of Project FAMOUS. Le Pichon led the French team that explored the volcanic valley rifting the Atlantic Ocean floor from the Arctic to Antarctica.

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I am listening eagerly to back issues of SOF, and listened to this and the Autism issue from 2008 back to back. I am struck that your guest noted that he had to leave geology at one point because he found he was so focused on his science that he was missing the people around him. As a family physician, I often find myself having conversations with patients about potential diagnoses of ADD. I try to help people understand that ADD is a spectrum, as your 2008 program guests describe Autism. It was striking to me to hear the geologist in this program talk about how focused he became on his work, and how the priest advised him to continue his work. He and the priest may not have realized that in another context, what helped him make great discoveries about our world, would be considered disease. Thank goodness he went to his priest instead of his doctor!

What this man said had a deep application to my life,up to a point.Nevertheless, a distinction has to be made between essential weakness and that assigned by society. I have lived through the black,the feminist and the gay liberation struggles, and in each case, though I was not a member of these classes, their revolution made my life better! When they cast off their masks of helplessness, the cleansing of the atmosphere became palpable. In the late 80s, my freelance existence became blocked by homelessness. I joined in a group of people in Oakland, California that seized warehoused properties and began fixing them up, and several of these men found a new dignity in struggling against the political and economic forces against them. However many of them contented themselves with victim status and banked on the 'poor me' position. Much more needs to be said.We are approaching a new crisis in which taken-for-granted 'realities' will be proclaimed against the swelling ranks of the poor.A good crisis is a terrible thing to waste. One of my favorite thinkers, George Gurdjieff, said the were periodic cusps of planetary tension, called solioonensius, which caused amplified psychic tension. Typically this issues in war, where each side thinks the people of the other side the worst kind of people. Yet these moments are favorable for an advance in consciousness, If we but take it.

A fascinating interview which - for a rare time in my life makes me glad to have insomnia. When I can't sleep, I listen to NPR and the BBC and it is often at 3:00 a.m. that I hear the most compelling radio that raises my consciousness. (An earlier Joe Biden speech at the World Affairs Council, as Presidential candidate, readily leaps to mind.)

As one who believes in science, I found this segment to be among the most enlightened and specific in terms of the interplay between faith and reason, and hearing it made me recall some of the most significant relationships I have had in my career with loving people - in business, volunteerism, and/or leadership circles - that I can only aspire to emulate.

My action is to share this story with a diverse group of those whom I care about, ranging from my wife, mother, in laws, and three of the other wisest people I have had the good fortune to know.

This interview reminds me of the intrigue and hope that I regularly felt when watching Charlie Rose converse with leaders in the technology field routinely. It also makes me think of a Thomas Dolby line... "They say travel broadens the mind, so... I went over the falls in a barrel."

This 53 minute segment is an embarrassment of riches. Well done.

I'm sure Mr. Pichon has many gems of wisdom- when I tuned in I heard him give Rousseau's answer to Voltaire- to which I would have responded- well, so man did not chose to live in the forest- but God made this man did he not? Voltaire wins hands down.

Ingmar Bergman, through a minister in one of his films says- speak not of God- speak of the holiness in man. (and I would say man and woman and other beings). We need to do more of that.

Speculation about God is fun but jabberish- Zen is the only way- which of course tends to undermine doing endless programs on faith and God- but I know you try.

Dave Eberhardt in Baltimore- the august, the hermeneutical, GEDDP-Grise Eminence du Docteur Philosophe

Dave, I find your comment "Zen is the only way" to be the seed of conflict. To have respect for others' thoughts and views on religion, spirituality or anything else for that matter, is truly "Zen". May I suggest that you run this comment past your Zen Master. Maybe then you may be "enlightened", and a little less of a smart-ass.

The strength of our civilization is measured by how well the poorest amongst us are able to become successful. My wife and I work very hard to create a diverse group of friends to become part of our family

I just wanted to thank you for this programing in general, but especially for this latest program with Xavier LePichon. The whole subject of fragility and suffering is such an enormous question among believers and nonbelievers alike. However, this conversation put a perspective on the whole issue that was refreshing and potentially life changing for those who are willing to embrace it. There were so many pieces of information that I don't want to forget, but particularly his take on "normalcy". I have come to believe that we do ourselves and others a great injustice by trying to define what normalcy is when that is such an impossibility. That uniqueness in everything is exactly what makes life (every kind of life) so precious and links each of us to everything that ever was, is or will be.
Thank you again for your wonderful work. I look forward with great delight to more.

I just heard the piece on Xavier LePichon, and was deeply moved and grateful for the thoughtful interview and the extraordinary thoughts shared, both on the show and on the website. As a species, we have so much to learn and so much to heal. The compassion and clarity of LePichon was inspiring. I am a professor of leadership and a healing practitioner (in traditional Hawaiian methods), and I also believe that we must approach the challenges of saving the earth and each other with a rich and profoundly diverse approach. To hear a scientist of tectonic shifts in the planet talk about his own shifts in consciousness and the tectonic shifts required for our souls and relationships: well, all I can say is that it was a powerful and satisfying experience. Mahalo (thank you!)

Sneaking in on your message, not knowing how to send one to the show. Pardon!

I was somewhat disappointed to hear M. Le Pichon continuing to use the term "mankind", he being such a highly conscious person. I'm hoping that mankind will fall into disuse in our 21st century that now is acknowledging the importance of women in the human race so I'm advocating the term "humankind" instead.

Best regards to all involved in your much appreciated show! Aloha, namaste!

I was driving home from Portland when I heard the interview with Xavier Le Pichon...what an incredible human being he is! I was particularly touched by this comment(paraphrased)... 'My heart cannot be educated by myself! This can only come out of relationship with others." I sit with the dying. As Elizabeth K.Ross said to us once at a workshop..."bring your gifts to the dying and suffering...they have much to teach you." My mom died last Dec. and indeed she had much to teach me about le joie de vivre in her last years.
Thank you for this important interview ....thank you for sharing this holy man with us.
PS. Please put a bug in Bill Moyer's ear! :)

Here's my morning's blog post (July 4), having heard this broadcast yesterday while working out at the gym. What a great program!
________________________

Don't have any firecrackers today, no sparklers, no bottle rockets. I could have. Last night, in the rain, I passed on by the state line shack where I've bought them in the past (they're legal in South Dakota). Maybe I'm just getting old.

But the truth is, what I'm doing right now is a far better way to celebrate "the Fourth." That I can sit down here in the semi-darkness this morning, punch keys, create sentences, and send them forth hither and yon is a striking act of independence. It can't be done these days as easily in Iran, or in China or certainly that most bizarre of places, North Korea. But here, in my basement, I can say just about anything I want, including blashphemy, vulgarity, and outright, deliberate, character-maiming falsehood.

That I can do what I'm doing is a blessing attributable, of course, to Jefferson and Franklin and the 54 other signers of the Declaration of Independence, who did so today, many years ago (you do the math). The fact is, this piece of technology in front of me has made us all more independent, more free, less restrained by corporate or media will. Today, we choose almost everything we do. And that's an absolutely beautiful thing. [Note to self: a little John Phillip Sousa would do well right here.]

I'm an avid listener of American Public Radio's Speaking of Faith, which is itself a terrific, free course in ethics, morality, faith, and world religion. Yesterday, via podcast, I heard an wonderful interview Krista Tippett did with Xavier Le Pichon, a French geo-physicist, who happens to be among those rarest of birds, a devout Christian and a world-class scientist, a man who lives in an intentionally-Christian community that puts those members of the community with mental and emotional illnesses at the heart of all their lives.

Le Pichon claims that God creates us with the potential to evolve. He is himself an evolutionist--and a devout Catholic; his argument is that we can and do learn to be better human beings by taking care of those who are not as blessed. Somewhere late in the interview he said something to this effect--what all of us require as human beings in this evolution is "an education of the heart."

An education of the heart. What a great thought. It begins at a place most Christians understand, the biblical thou-shalt of loving God with heart, soul, and mind--and the gent or lady next door just as much as we do ourselves. Le Pichon says it's actually an ethic hard-wired into us because only humans don't leave their weak somewhere behind them to die. Animals do. We don't--many of us anyway. But even though our care for the less fortunate is remarkably unusual in the animal world, it's still an attribute we've got to practice to learn, to get right.

There's some shady paradox beneath all of us this, of course, as there is beneath most truth. Today is a day to celebrate our independence, which I'm doing right now, as these odd little squiggles march up and out of nowhere across my computer screen, but it may well be that our greatest joy in life itself arises from exercising that independence by being dependent on others.

Or something like that.

Listen yourself to Le Pichon. Interesting ideas for Independence Day. [Okay, turn up "Stars and Stripes Forever."]

I read this and wished you would find time to interview Stephen Angell, Sr. who lives now at Kendal/Crosslands, a Quaker CCRC. He is very humble. He created a project called the Alternatives to Violence project which works to bring an end to the causes of violence. AVP as it is known is operating in many varied settings in the world now. How he came to develop this and what he has seen develop out of it would be interesting to hear.

The other larger topic that interests me and might be worth an interview is how the historic peace churches each come to their views on peace and how their perceptions are different and elicit different responses. This is not to say that other denominations don't have specific stances out of their calling; they do. I am interested in these though because they are not nearly as visible and yet are operating in quite interesting parts of the world.

I love you programs.

Using the words of Polkinghorne in another interview on SOF, "There's a deeper, stranger and more satisfying story to be found, both in science and religion;" the interview with Le Pichon, as well as his article 'Ecce Homo' have really provided this deeper, stranger and more satisfying story in my own faith. Thank you for this program and putting the mp3's online. It's wonderful that we Europeans can also enjoy listening to it in the car...

I have been a nurse for over 40 years. Sometimes the suffering I bear witness to and attempt to heal is overwhelming and the tendancy is to harden my heart behind technical and so-called professional distance. But when I find the courage to face suffering I find that it breaks my heart open so that compassion and sensitivity to our shared human experience can flow in. It is then that I think of Ezekial 36:26 and feel closest to God.

I wish i could put into words what this program means to me. I feel it fills a big void in my life. to be able to hear the wise voices of people today is so refreshing and hard to find anywhere else. thank you for this. have you every had anyone speak on deep ecology? it is very spiritual, moral and ethical....

I have been reading on line the segment Ecce Homo and finding this deeply interesting. I am now taking a course called Ecce Homo, about Jesus, the Man, taught in the Brandeis Bolli Adult Learning Program. I think it's fascinating to examine the mirroring that occurs throughout life, and that coming to a deep and profound thinking by a geologist, in terms of life's tectonics, as a mirror for the faults in the earth and that fragility, is what I am referencing. It does seem, as I go through life, that we are all experiencing profound metaphoric connects whatever we do, that are applicable on a grander, more cosmic scale, to a description of life itself, in all its experiential grandeur and pathos. I think it's not random that cruel and crewel are aurally synonymous, because I see a profound weave, present in language itself, that does it seems, define in its bipolarities, our very lives. Could it be we are activating the potential within the letters themselves? Could it be that the mystics, were right, and that God created out of the letters, the Hebrew letters and beyond, a universe, and that there is a deep alchemy to words if we look, if we deconstruct, if we deeply attend to meaning on all levels? The Greeks called this study hermeneutics and the Biblical Jewish exegists, and spiritual Kabbalists call this Pardes, namely the deepening layers of interpretation of text. Again, a very inspiring, inspirited, and thoughtful interview!

The next time you interview a scientist who is also a believer, I wish you would ask this question: As a scientist, presumably, you think rigorously, and demand evidence before accepting some claim as true. How come, then, you require NO evidence for your belief in God and the things of traditional religion (soul, afterlife, etc)? This is especially relevant for Catholic scientists, given Catholicism's (?in-?)famous idea, "credo absurdum est"--"I believe BECAUSE it is absurd." Thank you.

Dear Krista, Thank you for your interview with Xavier Le Pichon. It’s inspiring to hear people who forge connections between science and spirituality. In particular, his description of cooling and cracking rocks near the earth’s surface as an analogy for people’s inflexible thinking reminded me of what Joseph Campbell called being “absorbed by the machine” of ideology. And thank you for the archives. I often find that I “tune out” during the broadcast to think about how it relates to what I’ve read (and lived) over the years, and miss the next 10-15 minutes. The beauty of downloading the archives is that I can pause the MP3 player, and start it again when I’ve sifted through my thoughts. Speaking of flexible thinking, there’s a cover story in the current issue of Psychology Today on introverts, by Laurie Helgoe. I was so impressed with her article that I read her book on the same subject, Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength. All my life I’ve felt that there must be something wrong with me because I prefer to organize my thoughts rather than party; now it turns out that I’m a perfectly normal introvert. And we’re not only normal, but the majority (57%, possibly higher among NPR listeners). Her book has been a great blessing and relief. Please invite her to talk about healthy introverts, and how we can thrive in our extraverted American culture. Thanks, and keep up the good work! Keith Heiberg Brighton, MA

Good morning, I was amazed to wake up this morning to my radio alarm and catch part of the interview with Xavier LaPichon. I just launched my new company a few days ago - Keys to Evolution - that discusses the same thing (but focuses on four key evolutionary traits that make up our humanity/spirituality). Wow - it felt like divine confirmation. I'm so glad I woke up to hear it. Thank you for sharing such moving and inspirational content. I caught a piece of your program a few weeks ago and overheard the discussion about the name change (again - it's my radio alarm and I don't usually wake up before 7 AM on a Sunday, so the information was 'groggily' processed). I remember laying there and feeling overjoyed at discovering your program and wondering how I could have missed it before. Today's broadcast yanked me out of bed and compelled me to write down the new name of your program and LaPichon's name. Now, after my morning routine - I looked you up and found you here. Ahhh, nice! As the selection of the content subject states, I want to offer praise on your work! Hearing that many of us are discussing these issues around the planet in a variety of different forums is proof we're on the right path. "On Being" captures the mission in a way that attracts many - I like the new name and am looking forward to waking up each Sunday at 6AM to hear more... :) Blessings, peace & best of care to all of you and your loved ones, Kimberly Key

Xavier Le Pichon speaks of "fragility" and "vulnerability."

In my book, "The Bitterness of Job: A Philosophical Reading" (U. of Michigan Press, 1989), I argued that (human) vulnerability or weakness was a central theme of the theophany near the end of the biblical Book of Job--that human weakness in relation to other creatures was one of the three themes in the speech of God from the whirlwind--that human weakness, not God's power, was the relevant point there. And then I tried to explain how that theme was related to the central dialogue, with its debate over the problem of evil, and to the opening and closing parts of the book.

Some of your listeners/readers might be interested.

In listening to Sunday morning's program, I was reminded once again of an e e cummings poem. You may know it, but if you do not it goes something like this (I'm not certain of the line breaks): when any mortal even the most odd can justify the ways of man to god i will think it strange that normal mortals can not justify the ways of god to man

The notion that some things our society looks down upon, and urges us to avoid could actually be healthy and useful in their own right, is something that has just occurred to recently.
I play in two person band, and we recently wrote a song which I didn't quite understand until I listened to this broadcast.
the lyrics are below, the song is titled You Can Break Me:

Went for a walk in February, in an ice-storm menagerie
sometimes it's hard for me to see the forest for the trees.

Except times like these, when there's a thin layer of ice on all the trees
and everything shows its fragility.
Everything shows its fragility

so you can break me anywhere, you can break me anywhere, you can lay me down to die.
You can crack me anyplace, but these are parts you can't replace, so be gentle, be gentle with me.

Except times like these, when there's a thin layer of ice on all the trees
and everything shines with such clarity.
And everything shines with such clarity.

So you can break me anywhere, you can break me, I don't care.
You can lay me down to die. You can crack me anyplace, but these are parts you can't replace, so be gentle, be gentle with me. And I know you will, I know you.
- Amy McIntire of The Ahs

I only heard the last 1/2 hour of the interview but downloaded the unedited ver. He is fantastic! Some of what he said strongly recalled Teilhard's "The Phenomon of Man", esp. when he mentioned the world's need for "collective" solutions to modern problems. And he comments on the childish view that the attitude that God isn't good or doesn't exist because wrongdoing does. Very good point. Letting ones you love have their freedom! I would love to know if he's studied Teilhard and can offer insights into understanding the difficult book, "The Phenomon of Man". Thank you for a great interview. Dennis

How serendipitous! T de C came immediately to my mind.

Am trying to live out the same kind of a faith based commitment to the lives of others in an inner city community in Philadelphia (with considerably fewer intellectual resouces than le Pichon.)

Can't wait for a spare hour or two to meditate on Ms. Tippett's podcast.

Sincerely,

Trent Gilliss's picture

Ted, you'll be pleased to hear that we will be producing a show on Teilhard de Chardin, which should be available for broadcast/podcast sometime in November.

Ted, I too am a fan of Teilhard (and now le Pichon as well). I live in nearby Kennett Square and am interested in the community of which you speak in Philadelphia.
Peace,
greg

I was disappointed that he dismissed that attitude by saying it was a very childish conception of God. Why couldn't he have addressed it better?

I note that M. Le Pichon, so highly spiritual and conscious, continues to use the term "mankind" whereas I hope more and more this term will become obsolete in the 21st century in favor of "humankind", where women are included in references to the human race.

TY to all involved for your greatly appreciated show! Aloha !

Being such a compassionate person, what would M. Le Pichon have to say about violent and murderous psychopaths? Should that compassion be extended to these individuals who are such a threat to others or can we consider them beyond the pale of receiving any compassion except in God's eyes?

I have never heard your program before. The combination of his brilliant science mind, his compassion for people and his commitment to Christ was very moving to me. Thank you for bringing this conversation to public radio. I will be sharing it with my family and friends.

I heard my soul move me. Not with hand out,nor slick donation ploys. You had me. Win me back. Respectively, R.J.Henderson,Jr.

Profoundly affecting. Strongly reminiscent of the life of Albert Schweitzer and Pierre Taillard de Chardin's breadth of intellect. Cant wait to revisit the podcast.

Excelled interview with Zavier. He brought me so close to suffering as strength as one of the building blocks to human heart. Communion not only recognizing Jesus suffering of an example to deepest love but sharing another's suffering. I did not know that caring for others was found in humans throughout history. I listen to the broadcast x2 and reflected on the message since awakening this morning. Thank you Krista

It is hard not to be reminded of the great Alexander Graham Bell and his deaf supportive wifes relationship when i read this .... how wonderfully and complementary they are.

I was preparing a message on the parable of the good samaritan when I heard this replay, and Xavier's comment that he discovered his own humanity in helping a dying child in the streets of Calcutta widened my perspective. The lawyer asked "who is my neighbor" in wanting to know who he is responsible for (and who he is not responsible for). But at the end of the parable, the neighbor is not so much who is helped but the one who is helping, the samaritan. Jesus deftly changes the concept of the neighbor to do away with categorization which is a sophisticated ploy for inaction. But another shift is made. The one who helps is also the one who is helped in discovering his humanity.

This note from the world's leading geophysicist is something worthy to read. Xavier Le Pichon is one of the best men and thinker I have ever heard of. I agree with the fact that the caring attention to weakness is a major part to the evolution of the humanity.

apples