The priest and paleontologist was present at the beginning, more or less. When the hoaxed Piltdown “fossils” were discovered in 1912 and the “Peking Man” (Homo erectus) site at Zhoukoudian was excavated in the 1940s, the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was there. What he was doing has always remained something of a mystery.
While Teilhard’s presence is usually noted in the standard histories of these sites, it is often in passing. He lurks on the periphery, a fact which may have inspired Stephen Jay Gould’s suggestion that Teilhard was complicit in the Piltdown fraud. Despite these limited treatments, it has always been obvious that (whatever else he might have been) Teilhard was a fascinating and complex person.
Knowing this, I was excited to recently come across The Jesuit & The Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man (2007). The author, Amir Aczel, is a former statistician turned popular science writer who brought Fermat’s Last Theorem to a worldwide audience. Whereas Fermat’s Last Theorem was an inspired piece of writing, similar inspiration is lacking in Jesuit & The Skull.
Teilhard’s life and intellect are the stuff of legend; rendering them so flat and lifeless must be a challenge. Aczel does not show us that Teilhard was remarkable or even extraordinary, he commits the cardinal sin of telling us. We are required to accept Aczel’s conclusions about Teilhard as matters of faith. Teilhard never comes to life in this disjointed travelogue.
While Teilhard’s mystical tendencies are well known, we are told only that he perceived evolution as a teleological and progressive force that would ultimately lead to the “Omega Point.” Although this is demonstrably wrong, Aczel seems to think Teilhard was reconciling religion and science. He wasn’t.
If you are looking for insights into Teilhard’s scientific work, mystical philosophy, or conflicted life, you won’t find them here.