Book Review: The Jesuit and the Skull by Amir D. Aczel

After reading The Demon-Haunted World, I was hoping to find a book that was a bit more fast-paced before moving onto something else academic. I started reading a book that I had had on my shelves for a few months: The Peking Man is Missing by Claire Taschdjian. The Peking Man is a group of fossils that has gone through several names but is now classified as Homo erectus. This might not sound thrilling, but Peking Man’s story is unusually chaotic in that the fossils went missing from their place in China during World War II, and what happened to them is a mystery to this day. Taschdjian’s book really grabbed my attention when I first saw it, and I had been saving it for when I wanted a particularly exciting read. Taschdjian was one of the last people known to have seen the Peking Man fossils before they went missing, and her book is her idea of what may have happened to them, written in the form of a novel.

You probably noticed from the title of this post that that’s not actually the book I’m reviewing. It turns out that The Peking Man is Missing was not the book for me; I didn’t think it was very well written. When checking the reviews, most others seemed to have felt the same way but liked the book because of its tie into the real-world Peking Man mystery. As an avid nonfiction reader, I wondered why these people didn’t just read a book about the history of the search for Peking Man if they wanted to know its story? That way, no one would have wonder which characters or events were fictional and which were real.

Enter The Jesuit and the Skull. Like The Peking Man is Missing, Amir D. Aczel’s biography of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin had been begging me to read it for months. This book, I knew, would be the perfect combination of the real-life facts surrounding the Peking Man mystery and the story-based structure of a biography.

The Tielhard Project

Here’s why: Pierre Tielhard de Chardin fascinates me. I had seen his name come up throughout my time learning about the history of paleoanthropology, but I only vaguely knew that he was religious. The Jesuit and the Skull explains the relationship between religion and science in Tielhard’s life. The description on the back of the book reads,

“Tielhard, both a scientist and a man of God, was thrown into deep personal conflict between the new science and his ancient faith. Branded a heretic by the Catholic Church, and his findings banned by the Vatican, Tielhard and his struggle are at the heard of The Jesuit and the Skull, which takes readers across continents and cultures in a fascinating exploration of one of the twentieth century’s most important discoveries, and the world’s most provocative piece of evidence in the roiling debate between creationism and evolution.”

This book checked off all the boxes of what I like to read about. It has paleoanthropology and the story of a discovery, as well as a piece of the history of the debate between evolution and creationism. I did enjoy it, but I was certainly not on the edge of my seat as I had so strongly hoped I would be with whichever book I ended up reading. That was because I don’t think Tielhard’s story was told in as succinct a way as it would have had to be in order to be exciting.

To my surprise, despite the book’s subtitle, Tielhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man, we didn’t even meet Tielhard until page 71. The first five chapters are a moderately in-depth look at the history of our understanding of evolution, from Darwin’s predecessors to the discoveries and analysis of Neanderthal sites to Eugene Dubois’s discovery of Java Man.

I know that it is important to set the stage for a story, but this must be the fourth book I have read that begins by telling the full history of evolutionary science, paleoanthropology, or both. And for what? Tielhard’s story could have stood as straight as Homo erectus without the mini-biographies of Darwin and Dubois preceding it. Even more confusing was the chapter later on (in-between episodes of Tielhard’s story) about all the history of the Scopes trial. I know Aczel did not write this book specifically for me, but it was hard to get invested the details of the Scopes trial when I have a book all about that story that I can read whenever I choose to.

Throughout reading Tielhard’s (at times overly-detailed) life story, I was, predictably enough, critiquing his life choices. The author and Tielhard both agree that religion and science are closely compatible. As the reader, I could feel Tielhard’s frustration that the church didn’t see Nature and science as proclaiming the glory of God the way he did. But the Jesuits were far too strict to be able to allow evolution to exist, and they denied any of Tielhard’s writing that did not follow their doctrine exactly. As time went on and Tielhard got more famous as a scientist, the church restricted him more and more from publishing books or delivering lectures.

I personally am quick to leave behind anything that does not stand up to scrutiny or allow me to see the world as it really is, and creationism is one of the greatest examples of this. I truly did not know why Tielhard let the church hold him back for his entire life. It was fine that he believed in God and saw a profound connection between spirituality, God, and Nature, but believing in God does not mean being a member of a church that doesn’t believe in you or your life’s work. He could have left and been free to believe what he wanted about God and science, or joined a church (or even an entirely different religion) that was not hostile towards evolution.

The Tielhard Project

Well, I suppose there’s not really anything I can do about that now. Tielhard was a grown man who could have made his own choices—about religion as well as about love. While the book, for some reason, never really touched on Peking Man going missing or any role Tielhard played in the search for the fossils (aside from a chapter on it at the very end, after Tielhard had died), I did get an interesting peek into Tielhard’s love life. Tielhard had a more-than-friends-but-not-quite-lovers relationship with a woman named Lucille Swan, whose desire for Tielhard was made clear in various letters, but Tielhard never obliged due to a vow of celibacy with the church. It makes me sad to think that he could have lived a life free to learn and love but that he let the Vatican control what he could do.

No matter what, I would say overall that I enjoyed The Jesuit and the Skull, even if it started slowly. I was reading it through the painstaking week of waiting for election results, so it was almost calming to have a book to return to that was at times, frankly, boring. The overall tension between Tielhard’s passion for both science and religion made the book interesting, but I also felt that one could get the idea just by reading the back cover.

Have you read The Jesuit and the Skull, or any of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin’s own works? What would you have done if you were in Tielhard’s position? I would love to know in the comments!

One thought on “Book Review: The Jesuit and the Skull by Amir D. Aczel

  • I once read, “Figures who have one foot in the scientific and the other in the religious domain risk losing their foothold in both.”* The author of this tome was talking about Emanuel Swedenborg but the sentence could also apply to Teilhard de Chardin as well. What Teilhard tried to do was to bring about his kind of religion to the world which was “comparable” to science. But this religion is not even religion in a proper sense but a form of philosophy that adopted many aspects of the secularization. Teilhardism or Theistic Evolution sees a god as just one of the process of evolution and where a man is just a part of this process between a one cell organism and a god. (Everything is in the process of progress to evolve into higher being.) For this to work one needs a transition phase hence his work on paleontology. Speaking of his work on paleontology Teilhard’s involvement in the Piltdown man was not brought it up (or although it might have been mentioned in the book but you thought it was irrelevant). You may also have missed the point about the scopes trial by the book as the trial may had an impact on the thinking of a person “who has one foot in scientific and the other in religious domain.” The trial was also relevant to Teilhard because the trial could have brought up the evidences relating the evolution based upon the Piltdown man. But, alas, the whole trial ended up being about the biblical literalist [of the uneducated mass] vs. rational science [of the costal professional class] (which was and still is supported by liberal elites, but I digress). Of course in the end the Piltdown man was proven to be a hoax and this will cast doubt on Teilhard’s involvement in the Peking man and its disappearance. As for why Teilhard did not leave the church, he thought he could possibly change their minds or maybe it just meant to be so because one must realize that Jesuit was formed by the Counter-Reformation and the aim of the Counter-Reformation was (and still is) to halt the spread of anti-Catholicism. But, maybe the spread of secularism was ok as long as it’s under the Papal tutelage. (The liberation theology is also prompted by many Jesuits). I mean look at the head of the church today (who by the way is a Jesuit). Of course Teilhard’s work was deemed heretical by the church yet like many other “controversies “ of the church (paedophile priests, IOR etc…) it was just swept under the rug. So you see, Teilhard sees himself as bringing the “Better Christianity” through science i.e. evolutionism to the world but in actuality it was nothing more than secularization of religion.
    * NAR & WC by WH.

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