Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Famous book for sale

The problem, if I don't manage to sell this book—which I bought out in Australia in 1961, shortly before leaving for Europe—is that I might end up tearing it apart in a fit of rage… which would be a pity, in a way. You see, I'm convinced that there are many people, out there in the wide world, who would love to own an old copy of the English translation of this celebrated essay by the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I myself, at the age of 20, was convinced a priori that this would surely be one of the greatest works of scientific literature I had ever met up with, because of the planetary reputation of this paleontologist who had attempted to blend together Darwin's theory of evolution and a belief in the existence of a divine creator. But then I made an attempt to actually read the book, and I was rather discouraged. In fact, huge sections of The Phenomenon of Man are no more than strings of words (including weird French neologisms such as hominisation) thrown together in an unexpected manner, forming heaps of unintelligible garbage. Interspersed with all this muck, there are small sections of technical stuff about various hominoid fossils, designed to trick you into imagining that the entire thing is a work of science. Appalling…

In France, during the first half of the 20th century, the prestige of Abbé Breuil [1877-1961] had accustomed people to imagining that a good dose of Catholic faith was a fine attribute for researchers in paleontology. Soon after meeting up with my future wife, I was intrigued to learn that Christine's maternal grandmother—an intelligent and artistic woman from Provence, whom I admired immensely—was a profound disciple of Teilhard de Chardin. But that merely proves something we knew already: that the Holy Spirit works in devious ways…

Today, with the Internet, Teilhard de Chardin would never have been able to get away with the production of such a mess. In any case, prospective readers would have learned already, in 1953, that Teilhard de Chardin had been one of the "experts" duped by the biggest science hoax ever: the discovery in England of the so-called Piltdown Man. Apparently the Jesuit priest had been tricked into believing that a filed-down canine tooth, found at the Piltdown site, was a genuine attribute of the creature. Today, not even a school student in biology, equipped with a microscope and a minimum of instruction, would be pardoned for making such a gigantic blunder. Incidentally, another alleged expert in paleontology who fell for the Piltdown hoax was my compatriot Grafton Elliot Smith, whom I presented recently in an article entitled Prehistoric encounters [display].

I've been rereading A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins, a collection of essays published in 2003.

One of his reviews celebrates the literary style of the British Nobel laureate in medicine Peter Medawar, who penned a vitriolic attack of the notorious book of Teilhard de Chardin. Medawar's short critique, which is brilliant stuff, can be downloaded from the web. Click the portrait to access it.

Getting back to Teilhard, a thing that annoys me greatly is the condescending way in which he set out to tell his readers what had happened "since the days of Darwin and Lamarck", as if these two men were to be grouped together, and then discarded as out-of-date. At another spot, he speaks of "the heroic times of Lamarck and Darwin". Today, on the contrary, the work of Darwin is more alive than ever. What is totally archaic, on the other hand, is the tasteless and indigestible soup of the Jesuit priest who once tried [if I may mix metaphors] to pull the paleontological wool over our eyes.

My copy of the book should not be particularly expensive. That will depend, of course, on the volume of demands.

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