569: The Jesuit and the Skull by Amir Aczel

by Gerard

569.97: Aczel, Amir. The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. 244 pp. ISBN 978-1-954489-56-3.

The Dewey class for the sciences (500s) has a nice progression to it. It starts with general works on sciences (510s) then the basis for science, which is mathematics (510s). Then you get physics and chemistry and geology. After that you get all the life sciences. The 560s contains works on paleontology and paleozoology, the last section of which is devoted to works on mammal fossils. Since humans are mammals and we have discovered fossilized remains of past humans, those works are classed in 569.

Amir Aczel’s Jesuit and the Skull recounts the life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the fourth son of the ennobled French Teilhard family. His first round of schooling was as a Jesuit theologian, and he eventually became an ordained Jesuit priest. After earning a baccalaureate in philosophy and mathematics, he went on to teach physics and chemistry, and eventually became part of a paleontology lab. This became his life’s work.

Teilhard traveled between France and China becoming more and more of a fixture in the world of paleontology, helping with digs in France, England, Spain, and all throughout China. He helped with the excavations at the Peking Man site in Zhoukoudian, whose skull was first unearthed in 1928. These specimens helped answer (and ask) many questions about the evolutionary gap between the apes and early hominids.

What made Teilhard’s work special were his many attempts to philosophically synthesize the concrete knowledge he gained about evolution with the classical point of view of contemporary Christians and Jesuits. His subsequent writings sought to bridge both the scientific and religious gaps. He honestly felt the two worlds could overlap and co-exist without self-destructing. For these unorthodox views, he was constantly harassed by superiors in his order and could not publish any works that sought to reconcile evolution and religion. Luckily, through his world travels he met and became friends with enough people that his works eventually found a publisher (albeit posthumously). His works have gone on to influence generations of anthropologist and philosophers.

Aczel’s book is very well-written. You can tell that there aren’t many stones unturned. As a layperson, I felt sad for Teilhard and the restrictions he encountered, but you get a sense that he was very much at peace with his life. There are some who decry Aczel’s works as being superficial and too populist, but this book seemed to straddle the lines between science, history, and philosophy very well.