“The human is matter at its most incendiary stage.”
~Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955)
Where is technology taking us? Are we heading towards greatness, or just hyper-connected collapse? This challenge was foreseen a century ago by Teilhard de Chardin.
A world-renowned paleontologist, he helped verify fossil evidence of human evolution. A Jesuit priest and philosopher, he penned forbidden ideas that seemed mystical at the time but are now coming true — that humanity would develop capacities for collective, global intelligence, that a meaningful vision of the Earth and the universe would have to include “the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter.”
The coming stage of evolution, he said, won’t be driven by physical adaptation but by human consciousness, creativity, and spirit. It’s up to us. Krista Tippett visits with Teilhard de Chardin’s biographer Ursula King, and we experience his ideas energizing New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson.
Plate tectonics. Intentional community. Human frailty as an essential quality of our evolution. This interview with French geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon will move you in ways you didn’t think possible. He’s got a way of bringing his science into his personal life that’s instructive for us all.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This striking (and haunting) image of an early twentieth-century resort foundation surfaced while I was searching for a photo of the San Andreas Fault. Apparently, the waters of the Salton Sea, a freshwater lake that had once been the tip of the Gulf of California, turned a hill into an island, Mullet Island. And, then I read this line from the caption:
“Scientists have discovered that human-created changes effecting the Salton Sea appear to be the reason why California’s massive Big One earthquake is more than 100 years overdue and building up for the greatest disaster ever to hit Los Angeles and Southern California. Researchers found that strands of the San Andreas Fault under the 45-mile long rift lake have have generated at least five 7.0 or larger quakes about every 180 years. This ended in the early 20th century when authorities stopped massive amounts of Colorado River water from periodically flooding the into this sub-sea level desert basin.
Such floods used to regularly trigger major quakes and relieve building seismic pressure, but the last big earthquake on the southern San Andreas was about 325 years ago. Dangerous new fault branches that could trigger a 7.8 quake have recently been discovered under the Salton Sea.
Do I stand in awe, or hold my hand over my heart and parrot Fred Sanford, “I’m coming, Elizabeth!”
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
This story from BBC News about NASA’s missing moon rocks is absolutely tragic. Accidents do happen but people losing and selling so many of these fragments seems to place so little value on the herculean feat of the human race making it to the moon.
“Each ‘goodwill moon rock’ was encased in a lucite ball and mounted on a wooden plaque with the recipient nations’ flag attached.”
Plugged In to the Outer Cape
by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor
Sand dunes at Wellfleet. (photo: Joshua Bousel/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
“If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”
—Sherry Turkle, from “Alive Enough? Reflections on Our Technology”
The founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self made this remark in the context of describing the awe she feels when she walks among the magnificent dunes near Provincetown, Massachusetts. I know well those sand dunes and the extensive tidal mudflats that mark the tip of the Cape.
Dr. Turkle thinks of these places as sacred spaces, and I agree. I take my earth science students there to witness the work of wind, water, and sand. And, for a week or two each summer, I go with my children so we can experience the flow of the tides. These are indeed remarkable places in the landscape ripe with possibilities for self-realization.
I take my geology students to the dunes and mudflats of the Outer Cape so that they can experience the vast time scales and spaces of earth system processes.
A satellite view of Cape Cod. (photo courtesy of NASA)
The Cape itself, as some readers may know, owes its existence to the great ice sheets that extended as far south as Long Island during the late Pleistocene more than 10,000 years ago. The mud of the tidal flats and the sand of the dunes are the glacial debris, reworked and sorted by the wind and water long after the ice sheet retreated north.
Other reminders of the presence of the massive ice cover in the region are cliffs above the dune fields — the edge of the glacial moraine (a pile of boulders pushed along as the ice pushed south) — and freshwater ponds of neighboring Truro and Wellfleet (“kettle holes” formed when stadium-sized chunks of ice broke off the glacier, became engulfed by glacial sediment, and then melted). All of these features stretch for miles and remind me and all my geologically time-traveling companions that 18,000 years ago — a seemingly long time — this portion of the Earth was covered by a one mile-thick sheet of ice.
Wellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary. (photo: Susan Cole Kelly/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Encountering this landscape cultivates in me, and I hope in my students, what Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” For me, this is a soothing feeling of awe and connection. Walking in the dunes or across these mudflats puts me in touch with deep time — for the particles that compose them may themselves be millions of years old, silt and sand moved there merely thousands of years before.
Although we walk among them today, the particles have been through many cycles of existence. Formerly they were part of a mountainous land mass; subsequently they were eroded, transported, and deposited at least once. Each grain has an individual history. Collectively they tell a story that encompasses swaths of time that hold all of humanity. I find this reality comforting.
The sands of Provincetown’s dunes. (photo: Leonarda DaSilva/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Dr. Turkle worries helpfully about the inner effects of digital objects. Though she acknowledges the benefits of digital connection, Dr. Turkle laments what people lose as they take to the dunes and mudflats with their earphones in and handheld electronic devices on and open. To her mind, people lose the ability to feel at peace in their own company. I agree, but also would like to suggest that by unplugging from the electronic world in such sacred spaces we increase our capacity to encounter entities larger than ourselves — vast time scales, and past and ongoing earth processes. Thus we enhance our ability to connect with the earth system of which we are a powerful part, and this experience lessens loneliness.
Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. She’s also the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. She blogs at Shambhala SunSpace and Earth Dharma.
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The Convergence of Understanding Plate Tectonics and Human Experience
by Krista Tippett, host
People often ask me to name my favorite interviews — the people who have made the deepest impression. That is an impossible question for me to answer, as I learn and am affected on different levels by every conversation I have. But I will go on the record now to say that this show (audio above) with Xavier Le Pichon is special and has left me extraordinarily surprised, delighted, and refreshed.
His is not a famous name beyond geological circles. But he is certainly one of the wise people, and big thinkers, in our world today. He lives in an intentional community he helped create to provide retreat for families caring for a loved one with mental illness.
Before that, Xavier Le Pichon pioneered the field of plate tectonics. He has continued to work all these years as a geophysicist even as he also became a spiritual thinker and writer in France. He delightedly walks that line I’m always seeking in life and conversation — that humbling, creative alchemy that happens where theology meets human experience, where religious thought encounters real life and changes it and is changed by it.
Xavier Le Pichon’s deep Catholic faith has always been compatible with the notion of evolution. He finds evolution not merely theologically acceptable but scientifically and spiritually “ingenious.” Though, well into the 20th century, his own field of geology had retained a “fixist” view of the map of the world. There was no knowledge of tectonic plates, in constant motion, that had across time configured and reconfigured the Earth’s crust and entire continents. Xavier Le Pichon became a pioneer in deep ocean exploration that first revealed all of this. He was a key figure at one of those historical moments where science not only overturns its own assumptions but changes the way all of us see the world.
And yet, as he tells it in our show “Fragility and the Evolution of Our Humanity,” he nearly quit science a few years after he published his groundbreaking research findings in the late 1960s. In a moment of personal crisis, he realized that his vision had been narrowed by his focus on science and success. He traveled to Calcutta and spent a period of weeks volunteering with Mother Teresa and the Brothers of Charity. In an essay in English, “Ecce Homo,” he describes how an encounter with a dying child transformed his life forever. The story of how he then gave his life over to facing human suffering, while continuing his scientific career, is itself remarkable. I am also left with so much to ponder from the lessons Xavier Le Pichon has drawn from that choice ever since — by the synergy he has found between what spiritual community and geophysics teach him about the way the world works.
From his studies of the Earth he knows that fractures, flaws, and weaknesses are as much a part of the vitality of living systems as strength and perfection. They are what allow systems to evolve, to regenerate, and to avoid cataclysmic revolutions. Simultaneously, he is fascinated by the fragility that marks human life at its beginning, its end, and at places in between. Taking this seriously, honoring it, as he well knows, would challenge our success and outcome driven, perfectionistic “Occidental” view of the world as much as the theory of plate tectonics challenged the field of geology.
And yet Xavier Le Pichon has turned his attention to history, philosophy, and the life sciences in recent years — looking at what Neanderthal skeletal remains reveal about human compassion, and looking at the remarkable historical moment around the sixth century BCE when many pivotal spiritual figures — Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius — first appeared simultaneously across the Earth. And, he has concluded that it is precisely our capacity to care and orient our collective life around the weak and suffering among us that has made us human as well as humane. This capacity, he proposes, has defined the evolution of what we call our “humanity” as much as any other physiological or cultural trait we possess.
I hope that you will be as enriched by this conversation as I am. I am excited to put it out in the world.