Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
Prophet of Eugenics & Race-Realism
On April 10, 1955 — Easter Sunday — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin collapsed and died of a heart attack in a friend’s Manhattan apartment. He was 74 and had done nothing more strenuous that day than take a stroll through Central Park. At this time Teilhard was known mainly as a paleontologist and geologist, albeit one who also produced some odd and controversial theological writings.
In the decades since his death, however, the controversies surrounding Teilhard have reshaped themselves. Now he’s usually described as a French Jesuit who wrote some speculative theology incorporating human evolution, while also promoting some dangerous — rather verboten –scientific theories. He believed in eugenics. He persistently wrote about the natural inequality of the races. Unfriendly writers today describe him as a racist, a Nazi apologist, a transhumanist, and a believer in sterilization of the unfit.
The reason for this redefinition is very simple: Different eras come with different political biases. When Teilhard was doing scientific expeditions in China and elsewhere in the 1920s, race differences were a perfectly acceptable field of investigation. No scientist — surely no anthropologist or paleontologist — could blot his copybook by discussing them. Such discussion went with the territory.
But that was then. Nowadays the anti-Teilhard crowd get the vapors over a little anodyne remark he put in a letter in 1929, around the time he was helping to excavate the various skeletal remains that became collectively known as Peking Man:
Do the yellows [«les jaunes» i.e., the Chinese] have the same human value as the whites? Licent [a fellow paleontologist] and many missionaries say that their present inferiority is due to their long history of Paganism. I’m afraid that this is only a “declaration of pastors.” Instead, the cause seems to be the natural racial foundation . . . Christian love overcomes all inequalities, but it does not deny them.
By “declaration of pastors” he meant sweet-nothing mutterings of missionaries: empty words, groundless explanations. Teilhard the Man of Science wasn’t having any of it. As he saw it, it was almost certainly due to race, genetics, and evolution.
In 1951, when he was living in New York and working for the Wenner-Gren Foundation (because the Jesuits had exiled him from France and then wouldn’t let him accept an appointment at Columbia University), Teilhard was raging against the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 1950 UNESCO had issued an utterly vapid declaration, “FALLACIES OF RACISM EXPOSED: UNESCO Publishes Declaration by World’s Scientists.”
In his letter [to UNESCO] Teilhard argued against “the scientific uselessness as well as the practical danger” of this document, noting that “it’s not a question of “equality,” but of “complementarity in convergence” . . . which does not exclude the momentary prominence of certain of its branches over others.” Such a public argument points to a deeply held and seriously considered belief in inequality among humans.
Then, in 1953, we find Teilhard similarly taking on the Roman Curia’s poltroonishness:
Why is it that in Rome, along with a “Biblical Commission” there is no “Scientific Commission” charged with pointing out to authorities the points on which one can be sure Humanity will take a stand tomorrow — points, I repeat, such as: 1) the question of eugenics (aimed at the optimum rather than the maximum in reproduction, and joined to a gradual separation of sexuality from reproduction); and 2) the absolute right (which must, of course, be regulated in its ‘timing’ and in its conditions!) to try everything right to the end — even in the matter of human biology.
There’s another controversy that followed Teilhard for most of his career: the suspicion that he was a paleontological fraudster. He was present at the digs for two of the most famous hominid fossils of the twentieth century: Piltdown Man (c. 1912) near Uckfield, Sussex in England; and Peking Man (1929-1930) in China.
The Piltdown find was always suspect, although tentatively accepted by authorities at the Natural History Museum and the Geological Society of London. Piltdown Man was conclusively declared a hoax in 1953. It was fabricated out of a Cro-Magnon skull and an orangutan jawbone by Teilhard’s friend and neighbor, Charles Dawson. Dawson was a lawyer and amateur paleontologist, apparently overeager to find some “missing-link” pre-human fossils in his very own corner of England.
Doubts about Peking Man are more elusive. Teilhard was with a large group of scientists from research foundations, and a skull he found was identified as a specimen of Homo erectus, from about 500,000 years ago. Eventually there were other skulls, and 200 bones in all. The collection never made it out of China, however, and was lost in the early 1940s.
Ergo, we have no Peking Man bones to examine. Some people doubt they ever existed, and it was just Teilhard doing another Piltdown hoax. A current theory is that the box of bones is buried under a Peking — that is, “Beijing” — parking lot.
Marie-Joseph Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born the fourth of eleven children on May 1, 1881 at his family’s country house in the Auvergne, just outside Clermont-Ferrand, in the dead center of France. (“Chateau de Sarcenat, par Oreines, Puy-de-Dôme” is the address he later provided for the family manse.) During the winter they lived with relatives in a townhouse in Clermont-Ferrand, land of volcanos and Michelin tires, where in 1095 Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, and where, in the late 1960s, Marcel Ophuls collected wartime stories from locals for The Sorrow and the Pity.
The family’s complicated double-barreled surname (pronounced, more or less: TAY-yahr duh shar-DAHN) is the legacy of two lines of ennobled ancestors. His father’s family had lived in the area at least since medieval times. His mother, though, was from Picardy; she was the great-grandniece of François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire.
At 12 young Pierre was sent off to boarding school in Villefranche-sur-Saone, north of Lyons, after which received his baccalauréat in mathematics, before going on to the Jesuit novitiate in Aix-en-Provence.
The Jesuits were expelled from France in 1901-1902. In the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, France was going through another of its radical-Left, anti-Catholic fits. Teilhard would have to complete his seminary education on the island of Jersey, just off the coast of Brittany, and then in Hastings, Sussex, where he was ordained in 1911.
From 1905 to 1908 he taught physics and chemistry at a Jesuit school in Cairo. He also went fossil-hunting and discovered an unknown ancient species of shark, which was later named for him (Teilhardia). Back in England, he finished seminary, crossed paths with Piltdown Man, then went to Paris to study at the Museum of Natural History. In the Great War he was a stretcher-bearer. Then, more studies at the Sorbonne, and finally the Chair of Geology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, where he infused his lectures with discussion of evolutionary thought.
Off to China
Presumably Teilhard would have stayed in France most of his life, apart from occasional expeditions, but the Jesuits were discomfited by all his talk of evolution. Simple minds might possibly imagine that all this evolution talk somehow fitted into Christian Doctrine; that seems to have been the concern. And for the Jesuits, this was not the time to stir up trouble with the Curia, which had once completely dissolved and banned their order for 40 years (1773-1814). For that matter, as mentioned previously the Jesuits had been expelled from France two decades before and had only been allowed to return in 1914, for the sake of morale and the so-called “Union sacrée” during the Great War.
Teilhard attracted too much attention and speculated too openly. He needed to cultivate a lower profile. The easiest solution to this was to send him far, far away. And so he went to China, and spent most of the next 23 years there, joining another Jesuit paleontologist named Fr. Licent, who kept a fossil museum in Tientsin. One reads that Teilhard didn’t really like the Chinese, didn’t like the poor — I assume that means poor Chinese — and in all that time he never bothered to learn the language. This last part beggars belief; surely he picked up a little kitchen Chinese here and there?
Racist eugenic practices! Nazi experiments!
A recently minted Ph.D. in theology at University of Notre Dame, one John P. Slattery, has carved out a kind of academic specialty in his takedowns of Teilhard. These began with a lurid attack on him in the Philosophy and Theology journal in 2017. Slattery writes in the article’s abstract:
[F]rom the 1920s until his death in 1955, Teilhard de Chardin unequivocally supported racist eugenic practices, praised the possibilities of the Nazi experiments, and looked down upon those who he deemed “imperfect” humans. These ideas explicitly lay the groundwork for Teilhard’s famous cosmological theology, a link which has been largely ignored in Teilhardian research until now.
Quite an aggressive opening sortie there. Racism! Eugenics! Nazi experiments! Imperfect humans! Slattery kept these salvos up for another few years through online debates and articles. One in particular quotes offending passages at length, from Teilhard letters and biographies. I will quote one more passage here, beginning with Slattery’s commentary:
Besides their obvious objectionable nature, Teilhard’s views withstand two troubling tests: first, he defends them boldly in the face of his respected Christian colleagues who disagree; second, he persists in such views despite the shocking revelations of what took place in the concentration camps and death camps of Nazi Germany. One of Teilhard’s early biographers recounts a 1947 public debate with Gabriel Marcel, the famous French Catholic existentialist, where Teilhard persists in arguing for forced eugenical practices:
“Once in a debate with Gabriel Marcel on the subject of ‘Science and Rationality,’ [Teilhard] shocked his opponent by refusing to permit even the appalling evidence of the experiments of the doctors of Dachau to modify his faith in the inevitability of human progress. ‘Man,” [Teilhard] asserted, ‘to become full man, must have tried everything’ . . . He added that since the human species was still so young . . . the persistence of such evil was to be expected. ‘Prometheus!’ Marcel had cried . . .’No,’ replied Teilhard, ‘only man as God has made him.’” (From Mary Lukas and Ellen Lukas, Teilhard (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977: pp. 237-8.)
I don’t know what the doctors of Dachau are supposed to have done. But Teilhard’s response is admirable: The human species is young, so the persistence of evil is to be expected. This makes sense within the schema of Teilhard’s cosmogony: the Universe, or Creation, is continually evolving, continually perfecting itself.
Anti-Dysgenics = Transhumanism?
Not as emotional as Slattery, but much more far-fetched, is the anti-Teilhard diatribe that appeared in the “Strategic Culture Foundation” blog. In a 2021 essay, a writer named Matthew Ehret describes Teilhard as a “racist” and a founder of “transhumanism.”
If the latter term had a father, it wasn’t Teilhard but his friend Julian Huxley, and Huxley certainly did not intend it in the deviant sense with which the word is bandied about today. It meant improvement of the race and avoidance of dysgenics. Teilhard is quoted discussing it in 1951:
So far we have certainly allowed our race to develop at random, and we have given too little thought to the question of what medical and moral factors must replace the crude forces of natural selection should we suppress them. In the course of the coming centuries it is indispensable that a nobly human form of eugenics, on a standard worthy of our personalities, should be discovered and developed. Eugenics applied to individuals leads to eugenics applied to society.
Well, that looks quite reasonable. What’s not reasonable is the way Ehret makes hash of the salient facts of Teilhard’s life. He astoundingly claims that Teilhard himself concocted the “Piltdown Man” hoax in 1912 in England, and then pulled a similar hoax with “Peking Man,” which he calls Piltdown Man 2.0. Then, switching tracks, he implies Teilhard is to blame for such degeneracies as “Liberation Theology” and the current Pope’s absurd declarations:
When he died in 1955, Chardin’s works were still largely banned as heresy by the Vatican. His work continued to spread as a sort of Soviet-era samizdat recruiting ever more converts to his particular “new and improved Christianity.”
Who is Chardin? If you mean Teilhard, his writings were never “banned” by “the Vatican” or ever even placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. As a Jesuit priest, he was required to have approval from superiors before publishing (a particularly sticky problem with the Jesuits, as they often had friction with the Curia). Yes, Teilhard was prohibited from publishing some of them, just as he was prohibited from teaching — in Paris, in New York, and elsewhere — because that’s what can happen when you become a soldier in the Society of Jesus. Or the Trappists, for that matter. Maybe the Carmelites. Never mind the specific, arbitrary reasons.
Ehret’s basic facts are all wrong, to the point where I suspect he’s just ginning us up with a fun conspiracy theory. He claims Teilhard was on “holiday” from schoolteaching in Cairo when he conjured up Piltdown Man in Sussex in 1912. In reality Sussex is where Teilhard lived; he hadn’t been to Cairo in four years. He’d been in England or Jersey for most of the previous decade, ever since being expelled from France.
And of course Teilhard did not concoct Piltdown Man or promote it to the Geological Society, or the Natural History Museum in South Kensington; that presenter was his friend Charles Dawson. As for Peking Man, several research institutes and foundations participated in those excavations in the 1920s and ‘30s. Teilhard was just one of maybe a dozen prominent scientists who had a hand in them.
The matter of Stephen Jay Gould
I suspect Ehret has fallen prey to the pixie dust scattered by Stephen Jay Gould many years ago, claiming that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was the Piltdown Hoax’s prime instigator, with Dawson merely his sideman. Prof. Gould wrote several essays, with follow-up commentary on the matter, that are collected in his books The Panda’s Thumb (1980) and Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (1983), arguing that Teilhard was at the very least complicit in the Piltdown Hoax’s perpetration.
Stephen Jay Gould (son of Leonard S. Gold and Eleanor Rosenberg) was a first-generation Jewish-American, a paleontologist and historian of science who worked at both the American Museum of Natural History, by the west side of Central Park in New York City, and Harvard University, where he spent most of his career as Professor of Geology. With this background he had a particular interest in the story of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who had also been affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History when Gould was a kid. Perhaps the adult Gould had a personal agenda against someone who was known to advocate eugenics and the study of racial differences. Regardless, the Teilhard issue became an obsession with him for many years.
Gould’s main argument for Teilhard’s guilt is that he didn’t talk or write much about Piltdown Man once the hoax was suspect. Gould gives evidence that Teilhard even rewrote an autobiographical essay, deleting a reference to his early association with Eoanthropus dawsons (Piltdown Man). Rather than empathizing with a potentially embarrassing association, Gould’s peculiar mindset insists that Teilhard was just afraid of getting caught.
I doubt many people today — excepting perhaps Matthew Ehret — still buy Gould’s confusing argument in favor of Teilhard’s guilt. Since his death in 2002, Gould himself has turned out to be a most unreliable narrator. He based an entire book, The Mismeasure of Man, on false data, accusing a nineteenth-century physical anthropologist of “racism.” As so often happens, the person who’s quick to accuse others of bias turns out to be heavily biased himself.
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 “The Wenner-Gren Foundation is a private operating foundation dedicated to providing leadership in support of anthropology and anthropologists worldwide,” says a current website. It was founded in 1941 by Axel Wenner-Gren, the Swedish Electrolux tycoon, philanthropist, and longtime friend of both Hermann Goering and King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor. When the Duke was exiled to the Bahamas as Governor between 1940 and 1945, Mr. Wenner-Gren was a steady friend, with his Southern Cross yacht anchored nearby. This immediately attracted the scrutiny of British intelligence, as both the Duke and Wenner-Gren were regarded as Nazi sympathizers. Source: the hyper-sensationalistic Traitor King by Andrew Lownie, 2021. Needless to say, none of this Andrew Lownie scandal-mongering reflects on the Wenner-Gren Foundation, but it’s curious that the anti-Teilhard crowd haven’t yet homed in on this piquant connection.
 Despite this lamebrain document, UNESCO cannot have been all bad. After all, its co-founder and first director-general was Teilhard’s good friend, Julian Huxley. He was gone well before 1950, however. It appears Huxley was given the heave-ho for public relations reasons, inasmuch as he openly supported birth control and eugenics. (Wikipedia.)
 John P. Slattery in Religion Dispatches, “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored.”
 Teilhard letter, quoted in Slattery, ibid.
 The loss and various theories are described in The Jesuit and the Skull, by Amir C. Aczel (Riverhead Books, 2007).
 Robert Speaight, The Life of Teilhard de Chardin, 1967.
 Miscellaneous tie-in to George Orwell: Around the time Teilhard was in seminary in Hastings, little Eric Blair was starting primary school in Henley-on-Thames, 80 miles to the northwest, being taught by French Ursuline nuns. The Ursulines were in England for the same reason Teilhard was: They’d been thrown out of France.
 Simple and not-so-simple minds sometimes imagine that Teilhard’s difficulties with the Jesuits and the Holy See recurred because he was thought to be propounding heresy. Amir C. Aczel, in his otherwise enjoyable The Jesuit and the Skull (2007), keeps repeating this misapprehension. The real issue was politics and public relations, as well as maintenance of discipline.
 John P. Slattery, “Dangerous Tendencies of Cosmic Theology: The Untold Legacy of Teilhard de Chardin,” Philosophy and Theology, Vol. 29, Issue 1, 2017.
 John P. Slattery in Religion Dispatches, “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored.”
 Ehret, ibid.
 Ehret, ibid.
 Stephen Jay Gould’s confused and convoluted screeds on this subject remind me of those partisan writers of 30 or 40 years ago who kept cranking out books arguing, against all common sense, that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy and acted alone. A brief dip into “The Piltdown Conspiracy” and “A Reply to Critics,” at the beginning of Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, will reveal an academic controversialist desperately spinning his wheels.
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