Dragon Bone Hill, a site in the western hills outside Beijing, is so named because prehistoric fossils found there were thought to be the remains of dragons. Locals used to grind up the fossils and sell the powders for their imagined curative powers for everything from insomnia to impotence until the Chinese government banned the practice a few decades ago.
The clash between science and superstition is one important theme of Amir D. Aczel's biography of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, "The Jesuit and the Skull." A respected paleontologist, Teilhard was a member of the team of scientists who discovered the remains of Peking Man, a promising candidate for the "missing link" in human evolution, at Dragon Bone Hill in 1929. It was only one episode in an adventurous, tumultuous life that coincided with the wars and revolutions of the early 20th century.
Aczel, who has written on key figures in mathematics and science, is gifted at explaining complex concepts and introducing the men and women who first articulated them in fast-paced, story-driven accounts. For example, he makes good use of the mysterious disappearance of the Peking Man during the chaotic first days of World War II, an episode reminiscent of "The Da Vinci Code."
Then too, the Frenchman's life story is so deeply soaked in conflict and contradiction that it sometimes reads like an invented one. Tall, dapper, handsome and aristocratic, Teilhard was a charismatic figure who inevitably attracted the attention of the women around him. But as a Jesuit priest who had taken a vow of chastity, he refused to enter into the sexual union that some of them sought. And because his vows included one of obedience, his most important work, his philosophical writings -- an effort to embrace both a mystical faith in religion and the hard facts disclosed by scientific inquiry -- remained unpublished during his lifetime because the Roman Catholic Church decreed that they were heretical.
Teilhard's most vexing problems revolve around his membership in the Society of Jesus. His popularity and success in the secular world prompted his superiors to send this most cosmopolitan of men into exile in the wilds of Asia and Africa. And because he elected not to break his vow of chastity or withdraw from his order, the love he shared with a sculptress eventually withered and died.
"I am forced to choose," he wrote to a priest friend, "between two opposing ideas; the one, the rather 'brutal' thought that nothing in life really matters except God; the other, an ever-sharpening awareness of how heavy-handed, narrow-minded, and weak is the modern Church."
Yet Teilhard, who kept images of Christ and Galileo beside his bed throughout his life, wanted to reconcile the mysticism of religion with the rationality of science, especially with regard to evolution. "[T]he ideas of evolution became so powerful that they convinced him that everything in the universe [was] in constant flux, ever evolving as decreed by God," explains Aczel. "The goal was a point where everything would converge to form the body of Christ. This was Teilhard's Omega Point."
Teilhard also was willing to abase himself to his superiors in a desperate effort to prevent his work from being placed on the list of banned writings called "the Index."
A certain elegant irony lies just beneath the surface of Aczel's superb story. Teilhard took pleasure in scientific trips to Spain and France to view cave paintings -- the first stirrings of religious imagination that are regarded as a line of demarcation between prehistoric hominids, essentially apes that walked upright, and the early human beings we must recognize as our direct ancestors.
Tens of thousands of years later, the worst features of organized religion distorted and delimited the life and work of this visionary whom the inheritors of the Inquisition saw as a dangerous heretic. Only after Teilhard's death were his most important works printed, and only because he put the manuscripts beyond church control by bequeathing them to one of the women who had befriended him. On Easter Sunday in 1955, he died of a heart attack in New York. Later that year, "The Phenomenon of Man," the first of his many books, at last was published, despite every effort of the church to prevent it. *