With some conservative religious leaders proclaiming evolution incompatible with Christianity, the time seems to be right for a biography of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and scientist. Amir D. Aczel takes up the challenge in The Jesuit & the Skull (Riverhead; $24.95). Exiled to China by the Jesuit order for his controversial writings on evolution, Chardin was a member of the team that discovered a Homo erectus skull in 1929 at Zhoukoudian Cave. The fossil, called Peking Man, helped shape current ideas about the evolution of modern man even after the skull disappeared during World War II.
Chardin, as portrayed by Aczel, doesn't leap off the page. He is clear in his purpose as a scientist, and resolute in his faith as a Jesuit, but lacks the foibles of a human being. Chardin's philosophy, which harmonizes evolutionary science with Christian teachings, is largely absent. Still, Aczel is a master explainer. The way he clarifies scientific concepts and the historic context of each fossil discovery, was enough to keep me turning pages. Despite some faults, The Jesuit & the Skull succeeds in revealing a person for whom the evolution-creation debate wasn't a manufactured controversy designed to attract religious followers or galvanize a political base, but an attempt to reconcile faith with reason and better understand humanity's place in the universe.
© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America