Dragon Bone Hill, a site in the western hills outside Beijing, is so named because prehistoric fossils found there were thought to be the remains of dragons. Locals used to grind up the fossils and sell the powders for their imagined curative powers for everything from insomnia to impotence until the Chinese government banned the practice a few decades ago.The clash between science and superstition is one important theme of Amir D. Aczel's biography of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, "The Jesuit and the Skull."A respected paleontologist, Teilhard was a member of the team of scientists who discovered the remains of Peking Man, a promising candidate for the"missing link" in human evolution, at Dragon Bone Hill in 1929.
It was only one episode in an adventurous, tumultuous life that coincided with the wars and revolutions of the early 20th century.
has written on key figures in mathematics and science, is gifted at
explaining complex concepts and introducing the men and women who first
articulated them in fast-paced, story-driven accounts. For example, he
makes good use of the mysterious disappearance of the Peking Man during
the chaotic first days of World War II, an episode reminiscent of "The
Da Vinci Code."
Then too, the Frenchman's
life story is so deeply soaked in conflict and contradiction that it
sometimes reads like an invented one. Tall, dapper, handsome and
aristocratic, Teilhard was a charismatic figure who inevitably
attracted the attention ofthe women around him. But as a Jesuit priest
who had taken a vow of chastity, he refused to enter into the sexual
union that some of them sought. And because his vows included one of
obedience, his most important work, his philosophical writings -- an
effort to embrace both a mystical faith in religion and the hard facts
disclosed by scientific inquiry -- remained unpublished during his
lifetime because the Roman Catholic Church decreed that they were
Teilhard's most vexing
problems revolve around his membership in the Society of Jesus. His
popularity and success in the secular world prompted his superiors to
send this most cosmopolitan of men into exile in the wilds of Asia and
Africa. And because he elected not to break his vow of chastity or
withdraw from his order, the love he shared with a sculptress
eventually withered and died.
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