Scientists emerge from the submersible Bathyscaphe Archimède after a 1973 dive in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the Rift Valley.
People often ask me to name my favorite interviews — the people who have made the deepest impression. That is an impossible question for me to answer, as I learn and am affected on different levels by every conversation I have. But I will go on the record now to say that this show (audio above) with Xavier Le Pichon is special and has left me extraordinarily surprised, delighted, and refreshed.
His is not a famous name beyond geological circles. But he is certainly one of the wise people, and big thinkers, in our world today. He lives in an intentional community he helped create to provide retreat for families caring for a loved one with mental illness.
Before that, Xavier Le Pichon pioneered the field of plate tectonics. He has continued to work all these years as a geophysicist even as he also became a spiritual thinker and writer in France. He delightedly walks that line I’m always seeking in life and conversation — that humbling, creative alchemy that happens where theology meets human experience, where religious thought encounters real life and changes it and is changed by it.
Xavier Le Pichon’s deep Catholic faith has always been compatible with the notion of evolution. He finds evolution not merely theologically acceptable but scientifically and spiritually “ingenious.” Though, well into the 20th century, his own field of geology had retained a “fixist” view of the map of the world. There was no knowledge of tectonic plates, in constant motion, that had across time configured and reconfigured the Earth’s crust and entire continents. Xavier Le Pichon became a pioneer in deep ocean exploration that first revealed all of this. He was a key figure at one of those historical moments where science not only overturns its own assumptions but changes the way all of us see the world.
And yet, as he tells it in our show “Fragility and the Evolution of Our Humanity,” he nearly quit science a few years after he published his groundbreaking research findings in the late 1960s. In a moment of personal crisis, he realized that his vision had been narrowed by his focus on science and success. He traveled to Calcutta and spent a period of weeks volunteering with Mother Teresa and the Brothers of Charity. In an essay in English, “Ecce Homo,” he describes how an encounter with a dying child transformed his life forever. The story of how he then gave his life over to facing human suffering, while continuing his scientific career, is itself remarkable. I am also left with so much to ponder from the lessons Xavier Le Pichon has drawn from that choice ever since — by the synergy he has found between what spiritual community and geophysics teach him about the way the world works.
From his studies of the Earth he knows that fractures, flaws, and weaknesses are as much a part of the vitality of living systems as strength and perfection. They are what allow systems to evolve, to regenerate, and to avoid cataclysmic revolutions. Simultaneously, he is fascinated by the fragility that marks human life at its beginning, its end, and at places in between. Taking this seriously, honoring it, as he well knows, would challenge our success and outcome driven, perfectionistic “Occidental” view of the world as much as the theory of plate tectonics challenged the field of geology.
And yet Xavier Le Pichon has turned his attention to history, philosophy, and the life sciences in recent years — looking at what Neanderthal skeletal remains reveal about human compassion, and looking at the remarkable historical moment around the sixth century BCE when many pivotal spiritual figures — Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius — first appeared simultaneously across the Earth. And, he has concluded that it is precisely our capacity to care and orient our collective life around the weak and suffering among us that has made us human as well as humane. This capacity, he proposes, has defined the evolution of what we call our “humanity” as much as any other physiological or cultural trait we possess.
I hope that you will be as enriched by this conversation as I am. I am excited to put it out in the world.