The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man

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In December 1929, in a cave near Peking, a group of anthropologists and archaeologists that included a young French Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin uncovered a prehuman skull. The find quickly became known around the world as Peking Man and was acclaimed as the missing link between erect hunting apes and our Cro-Magnon ancestors. It also became a provocative piece of evidence in the roiling debate over creationism versus evolution.

For Teilhard, both a scientist ...

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Overview

In December 1929, in a cave near Peking, a group of anthropologists and archaeologists that included a young French Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin uncovered a prehuman skull. The find quickly became known around the world as Peking Man and was acclaimed as the missing link between erect hunting apes and our Cro-Magnon ancestors. It also became a provocative piece of evidence in the roiling debate over creationism versus evolution.

For Teilhard, both a scientist and a man of God, the discovery also exposed a deeply personal conflict between the new science and his faith. He was commanded by his superiors to deny all scientific evidence that went against biblical teachings, and his writing and lectures were censored by the Vatican. But his curiosity and desire to find connections between scientific and spiritual truth kept him investigating man's origins. His inner struggle and, in turn, his public rebuke by the Catholic Church personified one of the central debates of our time: How to reconcile an individual's commitment to science and his commitment to his faith.

In The Jesuit and the Skull, bestselling author Amir D. Aczel vividly recounts the discovery of Peking Man, its repercussions, and how Teilhard de Chardin's scientific work helped to open the eyes of the world to new theories of humanity's origins that alarmed the traditionalists within the Church. A deft mix of narrative history and a poignant personal story, The Jesuit and the Skull brings fresh insight to a debate that still rages today.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Best-selling science author Aczel (Fermat's Last Theorem) returns with the story of a modern-day Galileo. Paleontologist and Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin spent his life searching for fossils of early man and developing a theology that attempted to resolve any conflict with evolution. Aczel's story focuses on the role Teilhard played in the 1929 discovery of Peking Man, an early ancestor of modern man. Aczel interweaves this remarkable find with Teilhard's close and difficult relationship with sculptor Lucille Swan, the Catholic church's censorship of his writings, and his exile to China. Aczel provides insights into Teilhard's personality by evoking questions about his tireless loyalty: he often sacrificed his career, his personal fulfillment, and work for vows to a church that continually disowned him. Additionally, Aczel supplies a helpful introduction to paleoanthropology and a recent update about the search for the lost Peking Man fossils, which disappeared in China during World War II. Unfortunately, Aczel only hints at Teilhard's unique theology, never providing a full explanation of how he might have resolved the conflict between his science and his faith. Still, recommended for academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/07.]
—Scott Vieira

Kirkus Reviews
A priest/paleontologist's fraught efforts to reconcile the theory of evolution with his faith. Aczel (The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed, 2006, etc.) doesn't bother much with biographical detail in this proficient account of Teilhard de Chardin's role in the international quest for a "missing link" that would demonstrate the evolutionary ties between apes and humans. Ordained in 1911, Chardin did not believe that his devout Catholicism required him to ignore the period's rapid advances in science. He had experienced those advances firsthand as a participant in exciting fossil discoveries in Egypt, in French caves and on digs in China with Rockefeller-funded fossil-hunter Davidson Black. The new field of paleoanthropology was emerging, Aczel shows, driven by discoveries of the fossils of three hominids inhabiting the world at overlapping periods: Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon Man), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) and Homo erectus (Java Man). A spectacular example of erectus was discovered in 1929 by Chardin and the David crew in China's Zhoukoudian caves. There they unearthed the fossil dubbed Peking Man-"as typical a link between man and the apes as one could wish for," the priest wrote exultantly. (This vital find, along with many other fossils, vanished in 1941 during the Japanese occupation of China.) Chardin extensively considered the relationship of science and religion in his books, which attempted to prove that "God works through evolutionary processes to propel humanity ever forward." His ideas continually got him into trouble with his Jesuit superiors, who essentially exiled him to America. Aczel manipulatesan enormous amount of material in an orderly fashion, and his admiration for Chardin's humanity is evident. No-frills intellectual history for the lay reader.
From the Publisher
"By making the discovery of evolution and its verifying evidence into a fun story, both author and narrator lighten education with entertainment." —-AudioFile
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594489563
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/4/2007
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Barrett Whitener has won half a dozen coveted AudioFile Earphones Awards for his audiobook narration.
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