Ursula King, Andrew Revkin, and David Sloan Wilson
Teilhard de Chardin's "Planetary Mind" and Our Spiritual Evolution
Ursula King is Professor Emerita of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Bristol.
David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York.
Andrew Revkin is a journalist, author, and educator who has reported on the environment — from the North Pole to the White House to the Amazon — for more than three decades, mainly for The New York Times. As the Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University, he teaches courses in online communication and environmental documentary production. Revkin has won top awards in science and investigative journalism and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has written books on global warming, the changing Arctic, and the Amazon rain forest and, in spare moments, is a performing songwriter.
January 23, 2014
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: It’s a constant theme these days: Where is technology taking us? Are we heading towards greatness, or just hyperconnected collapse? This challenge, our challenge, was foreseen a century ago by Teilhard de Chardin.
A world-renowned paleontologist, he helped verify fossil evidence of human evolution. A Jesuit priest and philosopher, he penned forbidden ideas that seemed mystical at the time but are now coming true — that humanity would develop capacities for collective, global intelligence; that a meaningful vision of the earth and the universe would have to include, as he put it, “the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter.”
The coming stage of evolution, he said, won’t be driven by physical adaptation but by human consciousness, creativity and spirit. It’s up to us. We visit Teilhard de Chardin’s biographer, and we experience his ideas energizing New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson.
[Music: “Life I” by Armand Ama]
DAVID SLOAN WILSON: The main thing he said, which is only now becoming back in back in vogue, is that in one sense the origin of man was just another species, but in another sense we were an entirely new evolutionary process, and that made us in some ways as significant as the evolution of life [laugh].
URSULA KING: The whole region of cyberspace, you see there are some people who say Teilhard is the patron saint of the World Wide Web. He somehow had this idea that we will intensify our communication. But what are we doing; what do we do with it?
ANDREW REVKIN: There are the Kurzweils of the world who talked about the singularity when they kind of see the potential for this system to essentially become more powerful than we are. But I think what’s much more powerful right now is this growing capacity to collaboratively create things — and collaboratively feel things and experience things as well. It’s not just a function of computing power, there’s something else that’s going on.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born France in 1881 and died on Easter Sunday of 1955. He became a Jesuit at a young age. He studied and taught geology and paleontology in Paris, England, and Egypt. Teilhard de Chardin is best known to modern readers for books his religious superiors never allowed him to publish in his lifetime: The Phenomenon of Man; The Divine Milieu.
He spent the better part of his professional life in and out of China — nearly a quarter century — where he contributed to the discovery and understanding of the famous “Homo Erectus” or Peking Man fossil. Ursula King is Teilhard de Chardin’s biographer — the author of numerous books about his life, science, and philosophy.
MS. TIPPETT: How did you discover Teilhard?
DR. KING: Well, that’s quite a wonderful story because I was a very keen student and I went to the Sorbonne to do philosophy and theology. My theological lectures came from Jesuit professors, and one of the professors, he had known Teilhard de Chardin and he had tried to publish some of his essays before Teilhard died. Teilhard wasn’t allowed to get things published. Then in 1962, when the Vatican issued documents saying that Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas should not be taught in any Catholic seminary, he …
MS. TIPPETT: This was after his books had been published, after is death?
DR. KING: It was after his death, but only two or three of his books were out. This was at the beginning. But he was very well known in France. He was very well known.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
DR. KING: And so this very enterprising, audacious professor, he decided he would give a series of public lectures in Paris on Teilhard de Chardin and that’s how I discovered him. And it was a wonderful experience and he lent me almost the very last essay that Teilhard wrote, called “The Heart of Matter,” and that contains, in a nutshell, his inner development in how he really discovered this wonderful, you know, the development of the world, the evolution of the cosmos, and the way this really is intertwined with human development and spiritual development.
MS. TIPPETT: So I think this is also a passage from “Heart of the Matter,” and this also gets at the fact that matter [laugh] initially in the beginning of his life, you know, matter in its most solid form in terms of how we perceive it, rocks, captivated him. And he grew up, of course, in a mountainous region of France where there were extinct volcanoes. So here …
DR. KING: It’s in the Auvergne.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I’m just going to read some of these lines that really struck me. “At the very beginning of my conscious life in my efforts to attain and grasp the solidity to which my innate demand for plentitude impelled me, I tried above all to capture the essence of matter by looking for it in its most closely defined and concentrated and heaviest forms. Then it was that my newly born attraction to the world of rocks began to produce the beginning of what was to be a permanent broadening of the foundations of my interior life.” And he says, the truth is, that he’s never been able to feel at home even at the peak of his spiritual trajectory unless immersed in an ocean of matter.
DR. KING: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s just so vivid and unusual.
DR. KING: Yeah. I mean, he grew up in a volcanic area in Auvergne, so he had this sense. And his father was an amateur scientist who encouraged all his children to do fossil collections. That’s how it really started. He was brought up in a very devout Catholic traditional family. He could have become just a traditional priest without all this, but because his father encouraged them to do this, he had this great curiosity and he was always drawn to the outside. So he was drawn to geology. He became a geologist. He had doubts about it when he was first a young Jesuit —whether really you could do that — but he did it, and he really devoted his life to it and became an internationally known scientist. But he always had this very deep spiritual vision of things.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And it seems to me that the other cathartic experience that then continued to shape him was — so he became a Jesuit and he became a scientist. And then, in 1914, he went into the trenches of World War I where he worked as a stretcher-bearer. He discovered in that experience — alongside his sense of the milieu of nature, of matter — he discovered this whole new human milieu. And I want you to talk to me about how you think that then shaped his vision, including how he then went back into his science and his theology.
DR. KING: Right. When he went to war. He didn’t want — I mean, he had the right and he should have really been an officer and he didn’t want to be an officer. He wanted to be with the ordinary man. He wanted to be just an ordinary soldier. So because he was a priest, he couldn’t fight and be a combatant, so he became a stretcher-bearer. He was with the Tunisian regiment, you see. And this regiment consisted largely of Muslims and had no pastoral care. There was no Muslim chaplain or anything.
MS. TIPPETT: I didn’t know that, right.
DR. KING: Now this is very, very important because he describes very vividly how he brings these dying men, these wounded men, from the front back to the back of the fighting lines to be, you know, attended to. You know, he sees immense suffering of people. And in all this kind of turmoil, he starts writing his essays because he felt he might die any moment. This is in 1914, at the beginning of the war. And in the inward vision, the very first essay he ever wrote was called “Cosmic Life.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I have that in front of me. So these essays were collected in a book with the title Writings in Time of War. He starts pulling all of this together, right? His vision as a paleontologist, as a spiritual man, as somebody who’s in the midst of war. “My starting point is the fundamental initial fact that each one of us is perforce linked by all the material, organic and psychic strands of his being to all that surrounds him.” You know, what strikes me about that is it sounds like something that someone would write in the 21st century, but not in 1914 [laugh].
DR. KING: That’s a very, very perceptive observation. You see, I often find this. I find people write something today and I think, my goodness, I read this in Teilhard in the ’20s and ’30s.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. KING: And this is why he was such a lonely man, why he had a vision that really was so comprehensive and so alive and so forward-going, you know, that it was very unusual in his time. You know, he’d say sometimes, I would love to be a musician, maybe to create a symphony or something, to express the whole music of the universe.
[Music: “Arterial” by Rachel’s]
MS. TIPPETT: I think something that I hadn’t realized until I got into Teilhard was that he was an exact contemporary of Einstein. They died in the same year, in 1955.
DR. KING: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: That he was an paleontologist. He was often in China. He was helping authenticate the remains of the Peking Man fossil. So his science didn’t directly overlap, but he was also there as the theory of relativity was born, as quantum mechanics were born. So there was this whole new view of space, time, and the universe that was unfolding on many spheres, and it’s so clear to me that all of that is there. And yet, he’s taking it to a different place as a theological and spiritual thinker, right? This idea of this cosmic vision. I mean, even the word cosmic, which took on a whole new meaning through science in the 20th century. I mean, when you think about how he used that term, you know, what did he mean when he …
DR. KING: Very early on, you see, very early on, he was also a promoter of the notion of the biosphere. The biosphere, that word, was only created in 1874. Teilhard was …
MS. TIPPETT: Teilhard created that word? It was somebody else, right?
DR. KING: It’s Swiss. It’s a Swiss paleontologist, Swiss geographer, who created this word and he wrote four volumes which are translated as “the face of the earth,” and Teilhard uses that title for an essay in 1922 because he’s suddenly aware that we are not just living in one place in one country, but it’s as you have just said, space and time. We’re living on a globe. We’re living on the whole earth and the earth has a face and a kind of identity, almost physiognomy, like a person. It’s like a cosmic person. And for him, religiously speaking, he sees this cosmic person as the body of Christ. I mean, he sees it really in his own Christian …
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and he even used the term “cosmic Christ.”
DR. KING: Yeah. He uses “cosmic Christ.” He speaks about the cosmic, and he sees us. You see, he speaks about we are but an atom in the universe. And let us all be an atom in the body of Christ, he writes. You see, he’s looking always for something very, very comprehensive, all-embracing, all interconnected. And then after the war, when he had regular discussions with a philosopher friend, quite a famous philosopher, Edouard Le Roy. They met and they discussed all these ideas and they came up together with this notion of the noosphere.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. KING: It’s first a development. It’s a flowering out and grows out of the biosphere.
MS. TIPPETT: And it’s n-o-o-s. Noos is the Greek term for mind, right?
DR. KING: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: So the way I understand it, the biosphere is the earth of the layer of living things and the noosphere is really about the layer of thinking beings and, in fact, of consciousness, right, right.
DR. KING: And more. Noos, the Greek term of noos, is not our reason. It’s not about analysis. It’s about synthesis, you see. And it’s the self-thinking, yes, but it’s also the thinking that connects us. It’s a fear of specifically human, which he feels is still emerging. We are not fully, how should I say? The human is not fully developed yet.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So I want to stop there because it’s evolutionary is how he thinks about it. And that’s the other huge sphere of science that — the theory of evolution — that the world is still wrestling with in his lifetime and in some ways in ours.
DR. KING: Today, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And that he as a Jesuit, of course, this is an intimate struggle that he has. All of his career, he sees evolution as — I mean, there’s this phrase, “the holiness of evolution. God is at work within life.”
DR. KING: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And not just that. I mean, as we said, he is working on the fossils of what we call the Peking Man in China. But then, as you just pointed at, he sees evolution happening both on a physical and …
DR. KING: … a spiritual level.
MS. TIPPETT: What does he say? Yes, that evolution proceeds toward spirit. And in some way, you have a sense that even as he looks at Peking Man and he sees himself as a 20th-century human looking back at this primitive creature, that he imagines future man looking back and seeing a primitive spirituality. But he imagines this flowering of consciousness, as you just described. It’s evolutionary consciousness.
DR. KING: It’s mind-blowing, mind-boggling. I mean, the whole region of cyberspace, you see there some people who say Teilhard is the patron saint of the World Wide Web. He’s foreseen this. He has somehow had this idea that we will intensify our communication, but what are we doing? What do we do with it? That is really the big question and the big choice and option because we have to really create it.
MS. TIPPETT: One thing that’s very striking is this “Mass on the World” that he set in China.
DR. KING: Oh, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So here you kind of have how he captured much of this in his religious sensibility. “Since I have neither bread nor wine nor altar, I will raise myself beyond the assembles up to the pure majesty of the real itself. I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it I will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.”
DR. KING: It’s a wonderful passage, wonderful passage. He speaks in “The Mass on the World” about The Divine Milieu that is also a concept or an idea and experience that comes from the First World War onward.
MS. TIPPETT: But how would you describe that, The Divine Milieu? What he meant when he used that term?
DR. KING: You know, for me, the milieu in the French sense is the center, but we also use milieu in terms of the environment. It’s both the center. Something comes together like in a diamond, you know, just something captured in one center but then it radiates throughout the entire. God is everywhere, in a sense, hidden, not visible, but somehow reachable.
MS. TIPPETT: Was it also in the context of “The Divine Milieu” that he spoke of the human as “matter at its most incendiary stage”?
DR. KING: Yes, I think you’re right. I think you’re right. That’s a wonderful …
MS. TIPPETT: Which is also such a wonderful image.
DR. KING: It’s a wonderful phrase. So, you see, I think he has this dynamic awareness from his evolutionary approach, so one could call his spirituality also an evolutionary spirituality, as some people do. And he feels that we are today at a very, very important threshold of immerging into a new phase of humanization, of becoming human, in a different way from the way our forebears were.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. KING: They pull from the future and towards the future. And he’s less and less interested in the past and more and more interested in where are we going, what are we doing with the potential we have, with the imagination, the creativity, the consciousness, the complexification of people thinking together and acting together. What is all this aiming for?
[Music: “Pot Melody” by So Percussion]
MS. TIPPETT: Biographer and theologian Ursula King. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today exploring the ideas and the evolutionary spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin, the 20th-century Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher. David Sloan Wilson is one of the people informed by Teilhard’s ideas in the present. He’s an evolutionary biologist — and an atheist. But he admires what religions do right in human societies and he’s committed to applying the insights of evolutionary biology towards social good. He’s working on urban renewal in this spirit in the neighborhoods of Binghamton, New York. The book David Sloan Wilson wrote about that project has a chapter in honor of Teilhard de Chardin, called “We Are Now Entering the Noosphere.”
MS. TIPPETT: Teilhard de Chardin is a figure in the last century who you discovered in preparation for a Vatican conference. Had you not heard of him before?
DR. WILSON: Oh, of course, I’d heard of him. Most people who become evolutionists have heard of him, but have they read him? Would they regard his ideas as current? The answer to those questions are, for the most part, no. So I felt the need to read him more closely during the Year of Darwin in preparation for this conference at the Vatican because, of course, Teilhard was a Jesuit priest and a world-famous paleontologist at a time when being a priest and a scientist was not so unusual.
MS. TIPPETT: What captured you? I mean, what spoke to you in his writings in terms of the work you were doing and the life you were leading a hundred years later?
DR. WILSON: Well, what I discovered to my amazement really was that Teilhard was ahead of his time scientifically, that much of what he was saying actually passed muster from a modern evolutionary perspective. And the main thing he said, which is only now becoming back into vogue, is that in one sense the origin of man was just another species. We were just another primate.
But in another sense, we were an entirely new evolutionary process and that made us in some ways as significant as the evolution of life [laugh]. To translate that into modern terms, our capacity for symbolic thought is something that began, for the most part, with humans. So symbolic thought as a mechanism of inheritance and the enormous diversity of what we do as cultures, as in evolutionary process, it really is a new evolutionary process. Teilhard was correct about that and that amazed me.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I would love to read the definition you gave of the noosphere in your book about the neighborhood project. You mention that “the word biosphere had already been coined to describe the influence of life on earth and Teilhard adopted the term with pleasure. Now for Teilhard’s own contribution. He asks the reader to imagine excavating layers of soil. Deep down, there is only the physical earth. Closer to the surface, organic materials begin to appear. Then still closer to the surface, human artifacts start to appear. At first they are barely present, such as flakes of stones chipped from rocks to make tools. Then they become more abundant. In the immensity of space and time, the artifacts of human activity spread over the surface of the planet and form a kind of skin, like the skin of life that preceded it. A word is needed for this human skin. The noosphere.” [laugh]
DR. WILSON: That’s right [laugh].
MS. TIPPETT: But also, I’m not even sure, in that paragraph what you’re saying also is it’s not just our artifacts; it’s thought entering the equation of evolution, right?
DR. WILSON: It’s thought and, by thought, of course, he meant many things. There’s not a one-to-one translation here.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. WILSON: But I think the salient part is the fact of the phenomenon of symbolic thought. So what that means is, cultural evolution can produce this field of behaviors that enables humans to adapt to certainly all environments. That’s why we spread over the planet and hundreds of ecological niches put us humans in a new environment. And we’ll adapt, but only because we have this flexible system of symbolic thought that enables us to adapt. That’s why it qualifies as a new evolutionary process and why we became the dominant species on earth for better or for worse. And there’s a lot of worse in there.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. WILSON: We could evolve to extinction this way.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and you feel like this may be something that Teilhard got wrong or that his view was too optimistic?
DR. WILSON: Well, first let me tell you another thing that he got right and then the one thing that he got wrong. Another thing he talked about was that he called them grains of thought. And what he meant by that is that at first, of course, humans existed in tiny groups and they each had their separate symbolic systems, which were disconnected to each other. Then he imagined these grains of thought coalescing and that corresponds to increasing the scale of society. Indeed, that has happened. Then he thought that his would result in a single global consciousness that he called the Omega Point.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, the process of evolution reflecting on itself.
DR. WILSON: [laugh] Now it is true that we have the increasing scale of society all the way to the mega societies of today, but the idea that this was going to result in a single global brain, and especially that there is some inevitability about this, is what’s not quite right. It could happen. It’s within the realm of possibilities, but it is by no means certain. There is such a thing as collapse. And I think one of the reasons that his work does have the spiritual quality is because of the idea that there is an Omega Point and we’re going towards the Omega Point. I think the real situation is that, yes, there’s an Omega Point, but we have to work real hard to get there. And if we don’t get there, then woe is us.
[Music: “White Trash Heroes” by Archers of Loaf]
MS. TIPPETT: One of the things that makes it seem more realistic to me, if you will, is the sense of time he had. I mean, if I think of him looking at the Peking Man fossil and seeing how primitive that seemed to us now, my sense is he might look at us spiritually even now, I mean, just a few generations after him, and still see us as not there yet, still having a long way to go, as you say. But I guess you’re also saying along the way we might extinguish ourselves [laugh].
DR. WILSON: Right. Well, there is what Teilhard thought and then there’s what we should be thinking. One of the most amazing things about Teilhard is what he experienced during his lifetime, including World War I as a stretcher-bearer.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. WILSON: So he experienced more horror than any of us have or most of us have anyhow. Yet he remained so optimistic and positive spiritually. He had this uncomfortable relationship with the church, you know, the Vatican suppressing him and banishing him to China and depriving him of all sorts of awards that he could have gotten. He bore all of that and still managed to think of Christianity, even though he referred to the Vatican as stroking the whiskers of the tiger [laugh].
He also thought of Christianity primarily as Christian love and as the leading edge basically of a belief system that was capable of uniting people from all walks of life based upon love. I don’t think we’re any more spiritually advanced today than during Teilhard’s time. I think in some ways, we’ve gone backwards. And when we think of what it means for spirituality to be the leading edge of evolution, we need to understand what spirituality means, what words such as spirit and soul actually mean and why we’re impelled to use them in everyday life.
And when we do that, I think we can come up with a very satisfying meaning for them, which need not require a belief in supernatural agents. And so we can speak frankly about having a soul and even our groups having a soul, our cities having a soul, and even the planet having a soul. I mean, that actually can have a straightforward meaning. Any major word is diverse, by the way. I’ve actually studied major words such as altruism and selfishness, and what you find is that there’s a diversity of meanings which actually you can study the diversity of meanings as different species of thought …
MS. TIPPETT: Because this is a linguistic biodiversity [laugh ]
DR. WILSON: Yeah, it’s awesome. I mean, I’m telling you.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, let me just ask you one more question about Teilhard. It seems to me that one of the points he was making was that spirit as he envisioned it, the spirit that evolution is driving towards, I mean, it wasn’t spirituality as a state of, you know, comfort. It was about being able to galvanize for something, as you say, to work for the greater good.
DR. WILSON: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: And in that sense, you know, when I look at what you’re doing, it kind of seems to me that his thinking is having that effect for you or supporting you in that movement.
DR. WILSON: It definitely is and the way to state that modern evolutionary terms is that evolution only sees action. Whatever goes on in the head is invisible to evolution unless it is manifested in terms of what people do. So if what’s inside your head, if your meaning system does not cause you to act in the right way, then it is not very good as a meaning system.
We want a meaning system that causes us to be highly motivated to act and, of course, do the right thing. And in modern life, that needs to be highly respectful of the facts of the world. And then we also need to have values that we’re more aware of than ever before and we must then use those values to consult those facts in order to plan our actions basically in a world that’s increasingly complex and which requires management at a planetary scale.
[Music: “Aprés la fugue (Extrait de “La faute a Fidel!)” by Armand Amar]
MS. TIPPETT: David Sloan Wilson. He’s SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. Hear a whole program we devoted to his work applying evolutionary biology to neighborhoods and schools — it’s called “Evolving a City,” and you’ll find links at onbeing.org.
Coming up, renowned science journalist and environmental blogger Andrew Revkin on the resonance he finds between Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas and the emerging global brain we call the Internet.
I’m Krista Tippett, On Being continues in a moment.
[Music: “Aprés la fugue (Extrait de “La faute a Fidel!)” by Armand Amar]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, tracing the prescience and wisdom of Teilhard de Chardin — the 20th-century Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and philosopher. He’s best known for writings he was not allowed to publish in his lifetime — including The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man. New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin is an influential voice in spheres where Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas are finding a new resonance — journalism and science on the environment, and the broader realm of making sense of emerging technology and humanity.
In recent years, Andrew Revkin has been playing with Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the noosphere — the idea that human activity, invention, and spirit are driving a new stage of evolution. Some scientists are now saying that the force of the human imprint on the planet is giving rise to a new geological age they’re calling the “anthropocene.” There’s also new evidence emerging that the universe, the brain, and the Internet grow in similar ways — forming organically by connection.
MS. TIPPETT: How did you discover Teilhard de Chardin? And I’m curious if you first discovered the spiritual Teilhard or the scientific Teilhard.
MR. REVKIN: Well, for me, it actually started with Vladimir Vernadsky, who was a Russian geochemist who intersected with Teilhard and others intellectually in the early 20th century. He was the first scientist who really sort of said we were becoming a global geological force. And then he had articulated aspects of this idea of a growing noosphere. And Teilhard and he and others started articulating it in new ways.
So I was writing about the whole issue of the growing impact of humans on the planetary system and then I backed into Teilhard. Although then, I realized he intersected with other stuff that I’d been reading and writing about from decades earlier just even before I was a journalist, the work of René de Borst, the work of Thomas Berry, and it was just wonderful. So many of these characters I’ve ended up focusing on are at the intersection of spiritual and scientific. It’s really interesting.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So you studied biology and then you became a journalist. I mean, here you are with this very 21st-century life. You’ve been writing about the environment and climate change looks to me like nearly three decades. So, I mean, you have a very different life from this Jesuit paleontologist. But I see things you say, like “we are slowly enveloping the world in our own intelligence.” It’s exactly the kind of thing that Teilhard de Chardin was saying from such a different vantage point, you know, a hundred years ago.
MR. REVKIN: I know. Well, then as I dug in even more, I did a piece a few years ago on Dot Earth, tracing this back through actually Václav Havel and then back to Darwin. In The Descent of Man, in 1871, Darwin wrote a passage about how we were fundamentally tribal, but that the more that human were interrelating with each other, you know, through commerce, through trade, the more our sense of tribe would expand. Then he said, only an artificial barrier stands before we will become essentially one tribe, not just intelligence, but a global community. And now, of course, we’re breaching that artificial barrier with technology.
MS. TIPPETT: And you talk about this also in evolutionary terms. I mean, you say things like, you know, “we have been in puberty as a species,” and science is saying to us you have to grow up. And yet, it’s tricky, isn’t it? Because this technology that maybe somebody like Teilhard or Darwin couldn’t have conceived is also in its infancy, right? I mean, that it’s growing us up and yet we have to grow it up at the same time.
MR. REVKIN: Oh, yeah, and there was a wonderful cover story in National Geographic sometime last year by my friend David Dobbs, on the teenage brain. And everything he said about the teenage brain is exactly replicated when you look around the world at the turbulent nature of how we’re using information right now.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, my gosh, that’s so interesting. Right.
MR. REVKIN: And one thing that was fascinating was he said that the transition from teenage brain to adult brain involves a lot of not just new wiring, but rewiring. Things are kind of being unmade and remade. All these connections in the brain are fundamentally going through transformations and, of course, that’s reflected in behavior through it and all kinds of turbulence. So you look at anything from stock markets to the way the Tahrir Square events unfolded and then kind of refolded and kind of modulated themselves through Twitter and Facebook, to me it’s as if we’re test driving new wiring and we definitely have not figured out how it’s all going to work.
Then as a blogger, you know, I live in this arena. It can flame up a lie instantaneously, but then the reality becomes exposed equally. Not quite as instantaneously, but, you know, Wikipedia has proved — I think I saw a study that Wikipedia entries now are on a par with Encyclopedia Britannica entries in terms of their reliability, if not greater. And that’s all part of — you know, the upside of all this for me is that we’re evolving the capacity to collaborate constructively. And as I say, you know, it could work in two directions.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So if we kind of take this fossil analogy, this world that Teilhard lived in, I mean, the way you see it, if we think about this noosphere, this planetary mind, the Internet is really — where’d you say once somewhere, “one cable and computer at a time,” this is kind of the skeleton building infrastructure of this noosphere.
MR. REVKIN: Yeah, and this leads to some interesting questions. You know, there are the Kurzweils of the world. I talked about the singularity when they kind of see the potential for this system to essentially become more powerful than we are. But I think what’s actually much more powerful right now underway is this growing capacity for this system to help us collaboratively create things, and collaboratively feel things and experience things as well in ways that weren’t possible before. So it’s actually this kind of capacity to share and shape ideas that’s just hard to — it’s mind-boggling. It’s not just a function of computing power; there’s something else that’s going on.
MS. TIPPETT: So Teilhard’s — the word he coined was noosphere, n-o-o-s from the Greek for mind, and you have taken that up and are calling it the knowosphere, k-n-o-w-osphere.
MR. REVKIN: Sure [laugh].
MS. TIPPETT: And I’m just wondering did you start making this kind of observation you’re making and then discover this word for describing it, or did the word itself help clarify what you were seeing and thinking?
MR. REVKIN: I guess the first time I mentioned it in print was back in 2002 when we did a special report for the Science Times section that I came up with about managing planet earth. And the lead piece had just — it seemed so obvious to me after having spent all this time, you know, the first 20 years of my writing about sustainability issues, climate and biodiversity. Then came this aha moment more recently where I started writing more about the behavioral sciences and how we recognize environmental problems, what kinds of risks we were bad at recognizing.
And I got into this whole body of empirical work, you know, good solid science that showed that, if you’re not paying attention to the mind part, you could spend your life whether as a journalist or a scientist articulating a problem and not have anyone actually engage with that problem. One of the other tough realities with issues like climate change is that it violates all the norms of the kinds of things that we actually do pay attention to, which are usually near and now. You’re only going to have attraction when you have a true sense of a global community, you know, when you really do integrate that the atmosphere is a shared treasure.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, in a very present and visceral sense of that.
MR. REVKIN: Yeah, and so you’re not going to have that unless you have planetary mind. So that’s why I pay attention to this stuff.
[Music: “Lisbon” by Arms and Sleepers]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — today exploring the present unfolding of the ideas of the 20th-century Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Andrew Revkin both picks up and creates echoes of Teilhard’s ideas as a journalist and blogger.
MS. TIPPETT: Here’s some language from you again, that whatever term you use — and you were referring back to the noosphere idea. “It’s clear that the world is quickly being knitted by new ways to share observations and shape ideas that are bound to have impact on the quality of the human journey.” That is kind of spiritual language. I mean, do you use the word spirituality?
MR. REVKIN: Well, sure. Well, you know, and this gets back to another ugly reality of issues like climate change, which is they’re always cast as scientific. But when you actually examine rigorously the decision process, you realize it quickly moves from the realm of science into the realm of values. In other words, how much is too much? How much warming is too much?
It’s not a science question. There are all these trade-offs. Well, you know, it’s going to cost poor people more money to have energies if we shift away from fossil fuels, so how do we weigh the benefits there versus the benefits of slowing sea level rise or, you know, reducing the risk of crop failure? None of those are really scientific questions. They get into the realm of economics and very quickly into the realm of values.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And, I mean, I suppose we can get pretty tangled up when we’re speaking in the realm of fact, but when you start talking about values, it becomes very fraught in another way.
MR. REVKIN: Yeah. Well, this is a different word I’ve proposed. You know, this era has been increasingly called the anthropocene, sort of the era of the human-managed planet. I wrote a piece a year or so ago. In fact, I thought about writing a book about this, but I just haven’t had time — is that we need to have a little of what I call anthropophilia if we’re going to have a smooth ride in anthropocene, which means we have to get more comfortable with our differences.
Within any population, you’re going to have people who will have different judgments about the same body of science. And only by having a connectedness so that such that when you go onto the Web, you’re not staying in your own little bubble, whether it’s a green bubble or a Libertarian bubble [laugh], but willing to reach out to understand other peoples’ views. Then that’s also part of the noosphere, sort of finding places where you can get people who have maybe fundamentally different views of a certain energy choice, but might have the same view on energy efficiency. Then you say, oh, there’s the place we can work. And that’s all part of this too, I think.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and, I mean, again, that’s where I feel like when I read Teilhard de Chardin 100 years ago, I feel like there was something so prescient. To me, the way you just talked is a reflection of him saying something like it’s important that we focus on the interior as well as the exterior of things, on mind as well as matter. You know, he said, “The true physics is that which will, one day, achieve the inclusion of man in his wholeness in a coherent picture of the world.”
MR. REVKIN: Yeah. All I can say is yeah [laugh].
MS. TIPPETT: So, but I see you using terms like, as we’ve said, it’s not inevitable that this technology drives towards this kind of coherence, but you talk about language like engagement and intentionality. And you’re talking about our relationship with our technology and all these things that are becoming possible?
MR. REVKIN: Sure. I teach a course at Pace University that I launched last year —this is the second year — in blogging. And it’s really not a course just in blogging; it’s a course in how to get the most out of the Internet, how to get the most out of all this connectivity. This is all about intentionality. In fact, it’s not a course — the course is called Blogging a Better Planet, but I don’t define better planet.
I ask them to take their own passions and find some little — in other words, there might be a student who’s interested in fashion or another in music, which is the case this year. Another one in travel. And I say find the component of the thing that excites you that also fits in this frame of smoothing our journey.
So if you don’t have intentionality, you could go out there and just sell widgets. The Internet is really good at selling widgets. And as I say, you know, the Internet helped the 9/11 organizers learn where to find their flight schools and stuff. So it can work in terrible ways as well. But I see the upside swamping the downside, especially if young people early on are trained — not trained, but learn on their own how this can work for betterment.
This is a fun thing: When I give my talks these days. I show this little video clip that my younger son — he and I a few years ago went rowing in an area in suburban Florida near where my parents live. There was a little kind of a mangrove patch in the middle of suburbia, and we went rowing up in there and he had the video camera and shot a little documentary — at the age of nine — of heron babies.
JACK REVKIN [CLIP OF DOCUMENTARY]: This is a close-up in the mangroves. See if we can spot any animals.
MR. REVKIN: You know, it was an incredibly valuable experience for him to have, but by recording it and then posting it on YouTube, he had a durable experience.
JACK REVKIN [CLIP OF DOCUMENTARY]: Those are the babies. Oh, yes, there they are! There they are! Move back, move back! That’s a baby Tricolored Heron. They are cute.
MR. REVKIN: And the sharing of that information, which is a primordial thing — remember, human beings, whether it’s around the campfire or at the bedside, you know, we just love to say what we experience. So for him, he has a richer way to handle that experience of having come upon and sort of discovered these hatchling herons by having had the hybrid experience of sharing that through the Internet. I think it’s much more durable for him as a result.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and that’s interesting too. It’s an example of how we don’t just share knowledge, that we can share experience in a new way.
MR. REVKIN: Yeah, and that’s why noosphere is not perfect because it kind of implies this is all about knowledge.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s mental, yeah.
MR. REVKIN: And it’s not.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, a criticism I hear, skeptical people in the 20th century certainly felt that Teilhard de Chardin was too much of an optimist, that his vision was too hopeful, that it presupposed too much goodness [laugh] on the part of human beings. I think it’s so interesting to hear the way you talk about the fact that the way this technology is shaping up and our use of it, it actually doesn’t just come down to our goodness, right? You’re talking about the technology as these structures and networks as they form become kind of self-correcting because there’s this mass of human mind involved?
MR. REVKIN: I share his optimism overall. I think our potential for good as a species has always dominated the potential for bad in the end and this just amplifies those same tendencies. None of the issues that we face on the internet are unique to the internet. They’re all …
MS. TIPPETT: What do you mean by that?
MR. REVKIN: Well, they’re all part of who we are. In a crowded room, the loudest, angriest people, whatever their ideology, tend to get the most airtime. So one thing I try to do on my blog is try to build tools to foster some input from the quieter people.
Another metaphor that comes to mind is it’s as if we’ve been plunked at the wheel of a speeding car, but we haven’t taken driver’s training and there isn’t even a driver’s manual for the car. We’re rounding a corner and the weather is foggy and we’re accelerating [laugh]. So in a moment like that, you can either be hopeful or woeful, but it almost doesn’t matter in the end.
You know, we’re test-driving a new system here. Turbulence is normal, experiments in communication will fail as much or more than they will succeed, but I think our overall nature, to my mind — and it’s an act of faith on my part as it was on his part …
MS. TIPPETT: On Teilhard’s part.
MR. REVKIN: Yeah. We’ll swamp the down side.
[Music: “Send and Receive” by Tycho]
MS. TIPPETT: Andrew Revkin. Here in closing, some lines from Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man: “In these confused and restless zones in which present blends with future in a world of upheaval, we stand face to face with all the grandeur, the unprecedented grandeur, of The Phenomenon of Man What has made us so different from our forebears, so ambitious too, and so worried, is not merely that we have discovered and mastered other forces of nature. It is that we have become conscious of the movement which is carrying us along.”
[Music: “Send and Receive” by Tycho]
MS. TIPPETT: You can find our recommendations on writing by Teilhard de Chardin and books about his life and theology by Ursula King at onbeing.org. And we’ve collected some of Andrew Revkin’s Teilhard de Chardin-related musings from the dot earth blog — everything from his take on the knowosphere; to that image he likes of how our global tumult resembles the teenage brain and an interview he did with Pete Seeger on science and spirit. Andrew Revkin has recently released a CD of his own music called “A Very Fine Line.”
You can listen again or share this show on Teilhard de Chardin through our website onbeing.org. And follow everything we do through our weekly email newsletter. Just click the newsletter link on any page at onbeing.org.
[Music: “Country Road X” by Dosh]
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mikel Elcessor, Mariah Helgeson, Mary Sue Hannan, and Joshua Rae.
[Music: “Lemonade” by CocoRosie]
MS. TIPPETT: The two sisters known as the band CocoRosie seek comfort in the mysterious. Part of the freaky folk genre, their music is both light and dark, full of wonder and absurdity.
SIERRA CASADY: In general, light and dark are something to balance one another in life, and as children we have not yet decided and differentiated which things are light and dark so there is this murky experience of what’s happening, we haven’t decided what is good and bad yet.
This is one of our most popular posts of the new year — hear more at onbeing.org.