AT THE PRE-HOMINIZED
LEVELS OF LIFE
by Brian COWAN
A Dodo Bird (extinct)
COMPETITION PROMINENT BEFORE HOMINIZATION
Teilhard tells us that before hominization (i. e. before the birth of thought), 'living creatures' here on earth, on occasion, presented themselves as driven 'to mututal destruction' by 'the necessity which impelled them to supplant one another in order to survive.' (1) In the eyes of the French paleontologist, nature, before the arrival of humankind, not infrequently, manifested a hostile, even war-like face to the world. Charles Darwin's notion that, in general, only the fittest creatures and species survived in the struggle for life was not one that the Auvergnian Jesuit was ready to reject outright in regard to pre-human life on our planet.
A GRADUAL SHIFT TO COOPERATION SUBSEQUENT TO HOMINIZATION
The eons of life, on our globe prior the critical point of hominization, constituted, for Teilhard, an era of 'the out-spreading and unfolding of [life] forms' (2), and this out-spreading or diverging was sometimes destructive due to some life forms competitively destroying others, driving them into extinction. With the advent of hominization, though, the trend began to change. As he puts it, with the coming of hominization 'the unfolding of forms gradually gives way to a process of in-folding' (3) a process of convergence and unification. 'The previous economy of nature undergoes a radical change' (4), a change involving a shift away from competition and towards cooperation. Lets consider this shift a little more closely.
Unlike diverging branches, Teilhard tells us, 'converging branches do not survive by eliminating each other; they have to unite, and everything that formerly made for war now makes for peace, and the zoological laws of conservation and survival must wear an opposite sign if they are to be applied to man.' (5) For the Jesuit thinker, cooperation and peace, not competition and war, are becoming, more and more, the order of the day, now that hominization has taken place, now that humankind has arrived on the scene. As he puts it, 'the earth is more likely to stop turning than is mankind, as a whole, likely to stop organizing and unifying itself.' (6)
PRE-HOMINIZED LIFE NOT DEVOID OF COOPERATIVE ASPECTS
Without doubt, there is considerable truth in the assertion that pre-hominized life-forms, not infrequently, in the struggle for survival, did supplant one another. The tens of thousands of extinct species disclosed by the fossil records in the rocks appears to bear mute testimony to the accuracy of this statement. It does seem to be the case that some species just could not compete with other species who, for whatever reason, invaded their habitats and simply crowded them out and into extinction. Among the animal groups which died out, became extinct, might be mentioned the theromorphs, the chalicotheridae, the woolly rhinoceros, two of the four American bison species and the dodo bird.
The dodo bird [see illustration], a creature which had lost its ability to fly, was discovered by European explorers on the island of Mauritius in the Indian ocean around the year 1600. By about 1680 the bird was extinct. The Europeans hunted the creature and destroyed forested areas which served as its food source. Also, animals newly arrived from Europe, such as cats, rats and pigs, set about destroying the dodo bird nests. Unable to adapt to all of these changes which stood in competition to its traditional way of life, the dodo bird population simply died out. So, we would not wish to deny, it seems to me, that terrestrial evolution has seen, over the eons, living species, which were better adapted to appropriating scarce resources, supplanting other species less well adapted to such appropriation. The fittest species, that is to say the ones best able to adapt to the competitive struggle for resources won out and displaced (sometimes into extinction) the less fit, less adapted species. Often times, to all appearances, nature did tend to select for survival those living species best suited and best able to prevail in the competitive struggle for continued existence.
But was competition the only factor at work in the advancement of pre-hominized life? No, cooperation also had a very important role to play. And Teilhard would concur here. He makes, for example, the following interesting statement: 'The mole is a digging instrument and the horse a running instrument: the porpoise is a swimming instrument and the bird a flying instrument.' (8) Now in order for the mole to dig, for the horse to run, for the porpoise to swim and for the bird to fly, the muscles, bones, tissues, nerve pathways, organs, cells and other components going into the make up of each of these animals have to cooperate closely with one another. In a sense, each of these instrument-animals is a cooperative commonwealth composed of billions of living cells all supporting one another so that activities like digging, running, swimming and flying can occur. Without such cooperative, cellular commonwealths there would be no moles to dig, no horses to run, no porpoises to swim and no birds to fly.
The mole, the horse, the porpoise and the bird, like all animals, each constitutes an internally cooperative living entity which manifest from within an integrated force of organic development. Extrapolating, perhaps, from his observations of individual organisms in the animal kingdom, Teilhard regards terrestrial life holistically as 'a vast living telluric entity'. (9) In his view, this huge, unified, vital telluric entity manifests 'a common force of organic development, whose seat is the world as a whole'. (10)
All the constituent elements in, say, a newly born mole, cooperate with one another, from infancy to the peak of adult maturity, to gradually transform the creature into an ever more efficient vital digging instrument. Similarly, from Père Teilhard's perspective, do all of the constituent elements of terrestrial life by way of its "common force of organic development" cooperate, one with another, to bring that life, over time, to ever higher levels of consciousness. Does he not tell us that 'from top to bottom of the series of beings, everything is in motion, everything is raising itself, organizing itself in a single direction, which is that of the greatest consciousness'? (11) Now a self- organizing entity which points all of the auto-arranged ingredients within that organization in the same direction, the direction, in this instance, of enhanced awareness, does appear to betoken cooperation among those ingredients, the very sort of cooperation one would expect to see in a living organism. And it seems pretty clear that, in some sense, the Auvergnian paleontologist does view all of telluric life as forming a single unified vitality, one living organism. In this connection he opines that 'taken in its totality, the living substance spread over the earth -- from the very first stages of its evolution -- traces the lineaments of one single gigantic organism.' (12)
As just noted, from Teilhard's perspective, life as a whole on our planet manifests a cooperation internal to itself by way of self-organization, auto-arrangement, self-regulation. In his view, terrestrial life, up to the present, has manifested considerable self-regulation through an immense duration of time and across the large geographic extension of our globe. In this regard he writes:
'If we observe biological evolution in its broad outlines, we see to our surprise that each new blossoming of superior forms reduces the pressure of the sap in the lower branches. There seems to be a certain constancy, a certain invariance in the total quantity of energy carried by terrestrial life. Does not this unity of growth between the various realms of the organic world show that there is some actual physical unity informing the whole?' (13)
If I have understood the Jesuit scientist correctly here what he seems to be saying is that the emergence of a superior life-form tends to attract to itself a more or less invariant quantity of radial energy which gets drawn away from earlier, and now inferior, life-forms. By radial energy, I mean, of course, a forcefulness that is growth directed, that is forwardly oriented. >From Teilhard's standpoint it would appear to be the case that the inferior life forms, acting cooperatively with the superior life form, without protest, allow a good deal of the available radial energy to slip away from them so that this energy can concentrate on activating the superior life-form. This transfer of radial energy form one focal point to another, from the Teilhardian perspective, would seem to be a transfer that is undertaken to promote the advancement of the vast living telluric entity as a whole.
In the previous paragraph I have used the terms "superior" and "inferior". Let me try to clarify my usage of these terms. By "superior" and "inferior", in the present context, I mean, respectively, "more conscious" and "less conscious". And this notion of degrees of consciousness, it seems to me, ties in nicely with the idea of radial energy, that is to say energy that is growth directed, forwardly oriented. Radial energy, in the Teilhardian context, is energy that facilitates the growth of awareness, that helps push consciousness forward. Speaking of this form of energy or dynamism, the French Jesuit tells us that the 'radial energy' of an element (or component) of the cosmos is the energy 'which draws it [i. e. the element] towards ... greater complexity and centricity -- in other words forwards.' (14) Material complexity, centricity and consciousness are, of course, all proportionately related, in the view of Teilhard. In any material substance, the more you find of any one of the three, the more you find of the other two. In this regard he writes:
The more complex a being is, ... the more is it centred upon itself and therefore the more conscious does it become. In other words, the higher the degree of complexity in a living creature, the higher its consciousness; and vice versa. (15)
As the foregoing passage suggests, the Jesuit thinker sometimes uses the terms "centricity" and "consciousness" more or less synonymously. So when he talks of radial energy drawing the components of the cosmos towards "greater complexity and centricity", I take him to mean that the said energy is drawing such components to greater complexity and consciousness. Within the Teilhardian frame of reference, to say that A is more centred than B is, quite often, just another way of saying that A is more conscious than B.
Does Teilhard offer an example of a cooperative process whereby a superior life-form siphons away, so to speak, radial energy from inferior life-forms with the consequence that such siphoning away "reduces the pressure of the sap in the lower branches", the branches comprised of the inferior life forms? I think he does when he discusses the emergence of the primate phylum from its mammalian matrix. We will proceed to take a closer look at this emergence shortly, but first a few preliminary words will be said about a phenomenon which the Auvergnian paleontologist calls "cerebralization".
Teilhard uses the term 'cerebralization' (16) pretty well interchangeably with the word 'cerebration' (17). For simplicity's sake I'll restrict myself to the term "cerebralization". The French Jesuit defines cerebralization as 'a persistent and clearly defined thrust of animal forms toward species with more sensitive and elaborate nervous systems.' (18) Further, integral to, and accompanying the ever more elaborate nervous systems, are ever more sophisticated brains. As Teilhard puts it: ' ... among living creatures, the brain is continually perfecting itself with time, so much so that a given quality of brain appears essentially linked with a given phase of duration.' (19) Also, in his opinion, organically linked to, and in tandem with ongoingly more complex nervous systems and ongoingly more perfected brains there occurs 'a continually heightening, a rising tide of consciousness which visibly manifests itself on our planet in the course of ages'. (20)
So, cerebralization signifies a process begun hundreds of millions of years ago on our planet and involving the emergence of continually improved nervous systems and brains; and accompanying cerebralization is, of course, an ever growing level of consciousness. Somewhat metaphorically and poetically, the Auvergnian paleontologist refers to the ongoing augmentation of terrestrial awareness as a '"psychic" temperature' that 'is continually rising' on our globe. (21) In a similar poetic vein, he remarks
' ... that the "psychic tint" of the earth, studied at a great distance by some celestial observer, ... would be seen, in the course of eons of geological time, to become gradually heightened in intensity until it reaches the peculiarly moving moment of climax when, in a spread of more active radiation covering Africa and southern Asia, a series of sparks begins to glow, foreshadowing the incandescence which is "hominization". (22)
The mammals first appeared on the evolutionary scene about 190 million years ago. As age followed age, in the course of their development, Teilhard tells us, 'the internal travail' in the direction of cerebralization became 'distracted, limited, and finally arrested by accessory differentiations' (23), with one exception. And this one exception occurred in the phylum of the primates where 'evolution went straight to work on the brain neglecting everything else' with the consequence that the primates 'represent a phylum of pure and direct cerebralization'. (24) As just noted, in the opinion of the French paleontologist, among the pre-primate mammals the radial energy activating cerebralization's drive to enhanced consciousness got side-tracked, to some degree by "accessory differentiations". These accessory items included such accoutrements as sturdy hooves, specialised teeth and snouts, elaborate claws, efficient fins (in the case of the whales and dolphins, for example). lengthy horns, complicated antlers and so on and so forth. But as regards the primates (which emerged among the mammals some 60 million years or so ago) no such side-tracking took place. No, within the primate phylum, evolution's radial energy dedicated itself primarily and unremittingly to the enhancement of the nervous system and the brain.
As Teilhard sees it, then, the radial dynamism of life, in the instance of the primates, put as much force at it could muster into cerebralization and refused to let itself get distracted by way of constructing various accessory differentiations such a tusks, snouts, hooves, horns or antlers. Among the primates, cerebralization, was more focussed, so to speak, than it had been among the earlier mammals.
Apropos of the primates and the pre-primate mammals, vis-a-vis the "vast living telluric entity", the "single gigantic organism", Teilhard seems to be saying something along the lines of the following. With the emergence of the primate phylum, life's radial energy pulled away, to a significant degree, from the pre-primate mammals, and re-focussed itself, as strongly as it could, on the evolutionary advancement of the primates. To be sure, the term "evolutionary advancement" here, includes in its purport "enhancement of consciousness".
To all appearances, and quite unconsciously, the pre-primate mammals cooperated in this transfer of radial energy from themselves to the primates, putting up no resistance of any sort to the said transfer. For their part, the primates, again without any awareness of such, cooperated too as regards the re-focussing of the vital telluric entity's radial energy. Thus the primates did not attempt on their own, as it were, to develop accessory differentiations such as webbed feet, wings or extended necks. Because, in the instance of the primate phylum, evolution concentrated on cerebralization, we can, I believe, legitimately say that, here on earth, prior to the arrival of humanity, this phylum was the leading shoot of life on our planet.
COMPETITION AND COOPERATION HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO EVOLUTION
Based on the considerations so far referred to in this submission, I believe we are safe in saying that Teilhard regarded both competition and cooperation as factors contributing to the evolutionary ascent of terrestrial consciousness up to the critical point of hominization. By way of success in competition for available resources, individuals and species which were better adapted to their environment were able to supplant less well adapted individuals and species. Without doubt the successful competitors would tend to be the more intelligent ones and the unsuccessful competitors, the less intelligent ones. But also important in the growth of consciousness was cooperation. Thus by harmoniously uniting themselves into organic commonwealths (in the case of a mole, for example), groupings of billions of cells, working collaboratively together, could achieve a level of awareness that permitted the said commonwealth to function as an efficient vital instrument (a digging instrument, in the instance of the mole, for example). And by not resisting the re-focussing of radial dynamism away from one zoological group to another (from the pre-primate mammals to the primates, for example), the energy-relinquishing group, amicably, so to speak, allowed that radial energy to go to work where it could most effectively push the living telluric entity upwards into higher zones of consciousness.
ADDITIONAL EVIDENCE OF COOPERATION DISCOVERED IN RECENT YEARS
Since Teilhard's passing in 1955, evolutionary biologists have come up with evidence in support of the thesis that cooperation is more prevalent in pre-hominized life than used to be thought. I'd now like to present a little of this evidence as it is outlined in a book that I am presently reading. The book in question is entitled 'The Conscious Universe, Parts and Wholes in Physical Reality' and it is authored by Menas Kafatos and Robert Nadeau. I will consider four sets of data presented by the authors, data which appears to attest to cooperation among:
- Single-celled creatures,
- Animals within a single species,
- Diverse species of herbivore mammals,
- Diverse species of birds.
Let's proceed to see what Kafatos and Nadeau have to say regarding cooperation in these four domains.
1. Cooperation Among Single-Celled Creatures (25):
Relying on research carried out by biologists, Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, Kafatos and Nadeau report that bacteria, even bacteria of different strains or species, routinely share bits of genetic material, genes among themselves. By utilizing genes from other bacterial species, a given strain of bacteria can perform functions (for example, rapidly acquiring the ability to resist a certain antibiotic drug) which, if it were to rely entirely on its own DNA, it could not carry out. All the bacteria in the world, it would seem, have access to a single gene pool and so can use the adaptive mechanisms of the entire bacterial domain. This ability to share DNA, even across species lines in the bacterial phylum, certainly betokens considerable cooperation within that phylum.
2. Cooperation Among Animals within a Single Species (26):
Kafatos and Nadeau remark that, according to Charles Darwin, what checks population growth in an animal species (the elephant species, for example) consists of four factors external to the species, namely: predation, starvation, severity of climate and disease. But more recent studies have shown that an additional factor controlling for population growth also comes into play, a factor that is internal to the animal species and which has a cooperative aspect to it.
Citing the findings of biologist, Richard Laws, who studied more than 3,000 elephants in Kenya and Tanzania between 1966 and 1968, the authors point to a population control determinant which is additional to the four mentioned by Darwin. As regards elephants, this determinant is one that arises, so to speak, out of elephant life itself as opposed to being imposed from outside of that life. And what is this determinant? According to Richard Laws, it consists of an internal control mechanism operating within elephant herds, a mechanism which delays the onset of maturity in females (and so decreases the birth rate) whenever overcrowding occurs.
Perhaps not even fully aware of what they are doing, female elephants cooperate with their herd as a whole to help prevent the distress that would fall to all members of the herd should the population numbers of the herd increase beyond a level consistent with what the herd's habitat can support in terms of food, water, adequate moving-around space and the like.
Kafatos and Nadeau go on to state that a linkage between the age of initial production of progeny and overcrowding, similar to that prevailing among the elephants, has been discovered in quite a number of animal species. In this connection, they mention white-tailed deer, elk, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, ibex, wildebeest, Himalayan tarh, hippopotamus, lion, grizzly bear, harp seal, southern elephant seal, spotted porpoise, stripped dolphin, blue whale, sperm whale and other small animals.
3. Cooperation Among Diverse Species of Herbivore Mammals (27):
The authors report that, within a given ecosystem, diverse animal species are sometimes able to avoid competition with one another, to operate in a harmonious and cooperative way with one another to the mutual benefit of all the species involved. Biologist, Paul Colvinvaux, Kafatos and Nadeau tell us, has studied the grazing-feeding behaviours of the zebra, the wildebeest and Thompson's gazelle on the African savanna. All three species graze on the same savanna, but such grazing on their part does not lead to mutual conflict. Why? Well, the reason lies in the fact that each species, while dining at the same table, as it were, partakes of different dishes on that table. The zebras eat the long grasses. The wildebeests nourish themselves on side-shoot grasses. And the Thompson's gazelles consume ground hugging plants as well as any stray leftovers remaining behind subsequent to the feeding activities of the zebras and the wildebeests.
4. Cooperation Among Diverse Species of Birds (28):
Here the authors, again based on the writings of Paul Colvinvaux, report a situation similar to that obtaining among the three species of herbivore mammals which we have just considered. On the same shore of a lake in Central Africa dwell three species of yellow weaver birds. All three species depend upon that shore for their food supply. But the three types of birds are not in conflict with one another over food. And, again the reason for this is that while all dine at the same table, so to speak, they all choose from different menus. One species likes hard black seeds. Another prefers soft green seeds. The third species feeds entirely on insects.
I think that Teilhard would have been delighted to learn of all these additional instances of cooperation in nature at the level of pre-hominized life. Perhaps he would have seem them as dim prefigurations of the cooperative convergence which he envisaged for humanity's future.
(1) 'Faith in Peace', in 'The Future of Man' (Harper & Row, 1969), p. 156.
(2) 'Faith in Peace', in 'Future', p. 156.
(3) 'Faith in Peace', in 'Future', p. 156.
(4) 'Faith in Peace', in 'Future', p. 156.
(5) 'Faith in Peace', in 'Future', p. 156.
(6) 'Faith in Peace', in 'Future', p. 157.
(8) 'Hominization', in 'The Vision of the Past' (Collins, 1966), pp. 56-57.
(9) 'The Transformist Paradox', in 'Vision', p. 100.
(10) 'The Transformist Paradox', in 'Vision', p. 100.
(11) 'Hominization', in 'Vision', p. 72.
(12) 'The Phenomenon of Man' (Fountain Books, 1977), p. 124.
(13) 'The Transformist Paradox', in 'Vision', p. 99.
(14) 'Phenomenon', p. 70.
(15) 'Life and the Planets', in 'Future' p. 116.
(16) 'Some Reflections on Progress', in 'Future', p. 68.
(17) 'From the Pre-Human to the Ultra-Human et. al.', in 'Future', p. 306.
(18) 'Some Reflections on Progress', in 'Future', p. 68.
(19) 'Phenomenon', p. 161.
(20) 'Some Reflections on Progress', in 'Future', p. 68.
(21) 'From the Pre-Human to the Ultra-Human et. al.', in 'Future', p. 305.
(22) 'From the Pre-Human to the Ultra-Human et. al.', in 'Future', pp. 306-307.
(23) 'Phenomenon', p. 176.
(24) 'Phenomenon', p. 176.
(25) Kafatos, Menas, and Nadeau, Robert, 'The Conscious Universe, Parts and Wholes in Physical Reality' (Springer Books, New York, 2000), pp. 94-95.
(26) 'Conscious Universe', pp. 99-101.
(27) 'Conscious Universe', pp. 101-102.
(28) 'Conscious Universe', p. 102.
Posted at 15 Feb 2003