Monkey See…

  In the May 12, 2008 issue of the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell (author of bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink) has an interesting article about the simultaneous spontaneous generation of scientific insights.  We associate the invention of the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell and evolution with Darwin.  But an Elisha Gray filed a patent for his version of the telephone on the same day as Graham.  The two had never met.  Alfred Russel Wallace developed a theory of evolution without any knowledge of Darwin or the Beagle.  Turns out that the “phenomenon of simultaneous discovery [is] extremely common.”  The other examples he goes on to cite amaze.

  The essay reminded me of French Jesuit Philosopher Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and the monkeys.  In the 1950s scientists on the island of Koshima gave food treats to its simian inhabitants.  Treats were much appreciated, but problematic to eat because dirt would stick to them.   After a while, one monkey figured out how to rinse and clean the potato bits in water and others soon learned by observation.  Incredible thing was that after a critical mass figured out the trick, all of a sudden they all did.  All.  Even those on nearby islands.

    Teilhard believed that all things were on a path of increasing complexity and convergence. First monkeys get on the same wavelength and then cogito ergo sum.  “For the observers of the Future, the greatest event will be the sudden appearance of a collective humane conscience and a human work to make.”

  Although he got sideways with the church, Teilhard believed that the nature of our universe was characterized by orthogenesis.  That evolution and its direction are purposeful.  “Evolution is an ascent toward consciousness…evolution is nothing but matter become conscious of itself.”

  Teilhard wove together all aspects of his vast body of knowledge to describe an ever increasing interconnected universe.  “The powers that we have released, could not possibly be absorbed by the narrow system of individual or national units which the architects of human Earth have hitherto used.  The age of nations has passed.  Now unless we wish to perish we must shake off our old prejudices and build the Earth”.

  “… these perspectives will appear absurd to those who don’t see that life is, from its origins, groping, adventurous, and dangerous.  But these perspectives will grow, like an irresistible idea on the horizon of new generations.” 

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    Interesting to note that Teilhard was, at least in part, launched on his quest for understanding by the horrors of WWI: “…the war was a meeting…with the Absolute.”  (Remember the Razor’s Edge?)

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