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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - biography


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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (May 1, 1881 to April 10, 1955) was a Jesuit palaeontologist and philosopher involved in popularising the concept of the noosphere, coined the term Omega Point, and was present at the discovery of Peking Man.

Early Years

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in Orcines, close to Clermont-Ferrand, in France. He was the fourth child of a large family. His father, an amateur naturalist, collected stones, insects and plants, and promoted the observation of nature in the household. Teilhard's spirituality was awakened by his mother. When he was 11, he went to the Jesuit college of Mongré, in Villefranche-sur-Saône, until completing baccalaureates of philosophy and mathematics. Then, in 1899, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence beginning a philosophical, theological and spiritual career.

As of the summer 1901, the Waldeck-Rousseau laws, which submitted congregational associations' properties to state control, forced the Jesuits into exile. Then, they opened their houses in the United Kingdom. The young Jesuit students had to continue their studies in Jersey. In the meantime, Teilhard earned a licentiate of literature in Caen in 1902.

Jesuit Training

From 1905 to 1908, he taught physics and chemistry in Cairo, Egypt, at the Jesuit college of the Holy Family. He wrote " is the dazzling of the East foreseen and drunk greedily"... in its lights, its vegetation, its fauna and its deserts." (Letters from Egypt (1905-1908) - Editions Aubier)

Teilhard studied theology in Hastings, in Sussex (United Kingdom), from 1908 to 1912. There, he made the synthesis of his scientific, philosophical and theological knowledge in the light of Evolution. The reading of l'Evolution Créatrice (the creative Evolution) of Henri Bergson was, he said, the "...catalyst of a fire which devoured already its heart and its spirit." His views on evolution and religion particularly inspired the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who wrote the essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. Teilhard was ordained a priest on August 24, 1911, aged 30.


From 1912 to 1914, Teilhard worked in the palaeontology laboratory of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, in Paris, studying the mammals of the middle Tertiary sector and thereafter in Europe. Professor Marcellin Boulle, specialist in Neandertal studies, gradually guided him towards human palaeontology. At the Institute of human palaeontology, he became a friend of Henri Breuil and took part with him, in 1913, in excavations in the prehistoric painted caves in the northwest of Spain, at the Cave of Castillo.

War Service

Mobilised in December 1914, Teilhard served in World War I as a stretcher-bearer in the 8th regiment of Moroccan riflemen. For his valour, he received several citations including the Médaille Militaire and the Legion of Honor.

Throughout these years of war he developed his reflections in his diaries and in letters to his cousin, Marguerite Teillard-Chambon, who later edited them into a book: Genèse d'une pensée (Genesis of a thought). He confessed later: "...the war was a meeting "... with the Absolute." In 1916, he wrote his first essay: La Vie Cosmique (Cosmic life), where his scientific and philosophical thought was revealed just as his mystical life. He pronounced his solemn wish to become a Jesuit in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, on May 26, 1918, during a leave. In August 1919, in Jersey, he would write Puissance spirituelle de la Matière (the spiritual Power of Matter). The complete essays written between 1916 and 1919 are published under the following titles:

Teilhard followed at the Sorbonne three unit degrees of natural science: geology, botany and zoology. His thesis treated of the mammals of the French lower Eocene and their stratigraphy. After 1920, he lectured in geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris, then became an assistant professor after being granted a science Doctorate in 1922.


image from Teilhard de Chardin in China

In 1923 he traveled to China with Father Emile Licent, who was in charge in Tien Tsin for a significant laboratory collaborating with the Natural history museum in Paris and the Marcellin Boule laboratory. Licent carried out considerable basic work in connection with missionaries who accumulated observations of a scientific nature in their spare time.

Teilhard wrote several essays, including La Messe sur le Monde (the Mass on the World), in the Ordos Desert. In the following year he continued lecturing at the Catholic Institute and participated in a cycle of conferences for the students of the Engineers' Schools. Two theological essays on "original sin" sent to a theologian, on his request, on a purely personal basis, were wrongly understood.

The Church hierarchy required him to give up his lecturing at the Catholic Institute and to continue his geological research in China.

Teilhard travelled again to China in April 1926. He would remain there more or less twenty years, with many voyages throughout the world. He settled until 1932 in Tientsin with Emile Licent then in Beijing. From 1926 to 1935, Teilhard made five geological research expeditions in China. They enabled him to establish a first general geological map of China.

In 1926-1927 after a missed campaign in Gansu he travelled in the Sang-Kan-Ho valley near Kalgan (Zhangjiakou) and made a tour in Eastern Mongolia. He wrote Le Milieu Divin (the divine Medium. Teilhard prepared the first pages of his main work Le Phénomène humain (The Phenomenon of Man).

As an Advisor to the Chinese national geological service, he supervised the geology and the paleontology of the excavations of Choukoutien (Zhoukoudian) near Beijing. In December 1929 he took part in the discovery of Sinanthropus pekinensis, or Peking Man. He resided in Manchuria with Emile Licent, then stayed in Western Shansi (Shanxi) and northern Shensi (Shaanxi) with the Chinese paleontologist C. C. Young and with Davidson Black, Chairman of the Geological Survey of China.

After a tour in Manchuria in the area of Great Khingan with Chinese geologists, Teilhard joined the team of American Expedition Center-Asia in the Gobi organised in June and July, by the American Museum of Natural History with Roy Chapman Andrews.

Henri Breuil and Teilhard discovered that the Peking Man, the nearest relative of Pithecanthropus from Java, was a "faber" (worker of stones and controller of fire). He wrote L'Esprit de la Terre (the Spirit of the Earth).

Teilhard took part as a scientist in the famous "Yellow Cruise" in Central Asia. He joined in the northwest of Beijing in Kalgan the China group who joined the second part of the team, the Pamir group, in Aksu. He remained with his colleagues for several months in Urumqi, capital of Sinkiang. The following year the Sino-Japanese War began.

Teilhard undertook several explorations in the south of China. He traveled in the valleys of Yangtze River and Szechuan (Sichuan) in 1934, then, the following year, in Kwang-If and Guangdong. The relationship with Marcellin Boule was disrupted; the Museum cut its financing on the grounds that Teilhard worked more for the Chinese Geological Service than for the Museum.

During all these years, Teilhard strongly contributed to the constitution of an international network of research in human Paleontology related to the whole Eastern and south Eastern zone of the Asian continent. He would be particularly associated in this task with two Anglo-Saxon friends, the English/Canadian Davidson Black and the Scot George B. Barbour. Many times he would visit France or the United States, only to leave these countries to go on further expeditions.

From 1927-1928 Teilhard stayed in France, based in Paris. He journeyed to Leuven, Belgium, to Cantal, and to Ariège, France. Between several articles in reviews, he met new people such as Paul Valery and Bruno de Solages, who were to help him in issues with the Roman Catholic Church.

Answering an invitation from Henry de Monfreid, Teilhard undertook a journey of two months in Obock in Harrar and in Somalia with his colleague Pierre Lamarre, geologist, before embarking in Djibouti to return to Tientsin.

"Monfreid and I, we did not have anything any more European", joked Teilhard. "Once we dropped anchor, at night, along the basaltic cliffs where the incense grew. The men were going by dugout to fish odd fishes within the corals. One day, Hissas sold us a kid goat with camel milk. The crew took this opportunity "to dedicate" the ship. The old reheated Negro who served Monfreid in his whole adventures dyed with blood the rudder, the mast, the front part of the ship, then, later in the night, it was the song of the Qur'an in the medium of thick incense smoke."

World travels

From 1930-1931 Teilhard stayed in France and in the United States. During a conference in Paris, Teilhard stated: "For the observers of the Future, the greatest event will be the sudden appearance of a collective humane conscience and a human work to make."

From 1932-1933 he began to meet people to clarify issues with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, regarding Le Milieu Divin and L'Esprit de la Terre. He met Helmut von Terra, a German geologist in the International Geology Congress in Washington, DC. A few months later Davidson Black died.

Teilhard participated in the 1935 Yale-Cambridge expedition in northern and central India with the geologist Helmut von Terra and Patterson, who verified their assumptions on Indian paleolithic civilisations in Kashmir and the Salt Range Valley.

He then made a short stay in Java, on the invitation of Professor Ralph von Koenigsvald to the site of Java man. A second cranium, more complete, was discovered. This Dutch paleontologist had found (in 1933) a tooth in a Chinese apothecary shop in 1934 that he believed belonged to a giant tall ape that lived around half a million years ago.

In 1937 Teilhard wrote Le Phénomène spirituel (the spiritual Phenomenon) on board the boat the Empress of Japan, where he met the Rajah of Sarawak). The ship conveyed him to the United States. He received the Mendel medal granted by Villanova University during the Congress of Philadelphia in recognition of his works on human palaeontology. He made a speech about evolution, origins and the destiny of Man. The New York Times dated March 19, 1937 presented Teilhard as the Jesuit who held that the man descended from monkeys. Some days later, he was to be granted Doctor honoris causa of the Catholic University of Boston. When coming to the meeting, he was told that the distinction had been cancelled.

He then stayed in France, where he was immobilized by malaria. During his return voyage in Beijing he wrote L'Energie spirituelle de la Souffrance (Spiritual Energy of the Suffering) (Complete Works, tome VII).

Teilhard de Chardin was one of the last proponents of orthogenesis, the idea that evolution occurs in a directional, goal driven way. To Teilhard, evolution unfolded from cell to organism to planet to solar system and whole-universe (see Gaia Theory).

Teilhard de Chardin has been cited as the inspiration for Father Lankester Merrin, the character played by Max Von Sydow in the motion picture The Exorcist.

Novelist Morris West clearly based the character David Telemond in The Shoes of the Fisherman on Teilhard.


Claude Cuenot, Teilhard de Chardin, Editions du Rocher

Edith de la Heronnière, Teilhard de Chardin, Editions Pygmalion)


Le Phénomène Humain (1955) (Link to Amazon com The Phenomenon of Man) (1975)

Letters From a Traveler (1956; English translation 1962)

Le Groupe Zoologique Humain (1956) (Man's Place in Nature (1973))

'Le Milieu Divin (1957) (Link to Amazon com The Divine Milieu (1968))

L'Avenir de l'Homme (1959) (The Future of Man (1964))

Web links Links Web links

Links favourable to Teilhard

external link Teilhard de Chardin Homepage

external link Is Noogenesis Progressing?

external link The Human Phenomenon

external link Human Evolution Research Institute

external link Cyberspace and the Dream of Teilhard de Chardin

Links unfavourable to Teilhard

external link Teilhard, Darwin, And The Cosmic Christ

external link Warning Regarding the Writings of Father Teilhard de Chardin

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text from the Wikipedia linkWikipedia article, "Pierre Teilhard de Chardin", 21 Jun 2005, used under the GNU Free Documentation License
page uploaded 24 June 2005, last modified 26 July 2009