The Great Chain of Being
Systematics From Ladder to Tree

The Great Chain of Being: From Ladder to Tree

Phylogeny and Systematics
   Systematics — History of ideas
      The Great Chain of Being
      Linnaean taxonomy
      The Tree of Life
      Evolutionary systematics
      Molecular phylogeny
      Stratigraphy and phylogeny

The Great Chain of Being
   Aristotle's scala naturae
   The "Great Chain of Being"
   From Ladder to Tree

Great Chain of Being, according to Charles Bonnet

There were several factors that brought about the end of the Great Chain of Being or Ladder of Being worldview.

The first was the rise of experimental method, the age of reason, and the secular worldview. Newton for example showed that the same principle of gravitation applied to the celestial bodies - previously believed to be immutable and transcendent - as to the terrestrial, or sublunary realms. Newton's unification of celestial and terrestrial mechanics was as groundshaking a revolution in his day as Darwin's discovery of biological evolution and the demolishment of the fundamentalists' idea of special creation, was in the 19th century. The world was no longer the embodiment of mythological cosmology and theology, but subject to natural laws and amenable to rational explanation throughout.

Next, evolution. With the age of enlightenment there was a shift from a religious and metaphysical, emanation and crewation-based worldview to a progressive and proto-evolutionary one. Lamarck's evolutionary theory was actually a "Temporalisation of the Great Chain of Being" [see Frederick Gregory, J.-B. Lamarck and the philosophy of nature in France), although these ideas had to contend with German Idealism and nature philosophy, which retained the idea of archetypes (Goethe) and the transcendental evolutionism of spirit acting in history (Hegel). by the mid 19th to early 20th century ideas of sociological evolution were standard. A temporal evolving sequence of physical, social, and psychological being on the one hand and the transcendental evolution of spirit on the other converged in in the Theosophy of Blavatsky, the cosmic evolutionism of Aurobindo, Teilhard, and others, and more recently the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber, with its strictly linear, ladder-like series of evolutionary stages of consciousness.

Here philosophy moves towards a universal evolutionary worldview. Such a metaphysical cosmology need not conflict with science, Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin each replaced the four kingdoms with four evolutionary, stages: matter/geosphere, life/biosphere (which includes all five kingdoms and three domains), mind/noosphere (incorporating the socio-cultural human world), and a future spiritual state of attainmant and collective consumation, which Aurobindo terms the Supramental and Teilhard the Omega Point. Their insights, while not scientific in the empirical hypothesis testing sense, are not incompatible with modern cosmology and tie in with transhumanism and other intriguing and weigh out ideas. MAK130319

A third factor is that the linear or ladder model simply became unable to cope with the weight of knowledge. The extreme development of Great Chain of Being/Ladder of Nature thinking came with Swiss naturalist and spiritual philosopher Charles Bonnet (1720—1793), who in his 1745 Traité d'insectologie traced the scale of nature in such detail that it became an absurdity. Hydra became a link between plants and animals, snails and slugs between molluscs and serpents, the ostrich, bat, and flying fox links between birds and mammals. However he also applied the Great Chain of Being to proto-evolutionary theories of ascent — he believed that catastrophes such as Noah's flood brought about evolutionary change, and that after the next disaster, men would become angels, mammals would gain intelligence, and so on (Wikipedia). It became clear that nature could not be portrayed in a single dimension. The great German naturalist, Peter Simon Pallas (1741—1811), in his Elenchus Zoophytorum (1766) showed that no linear scale can represent the mutual relations of organised beings; the branching tree, he said, is the appropriate metaphor. (see John S. Wilkins, The first use of a taxonomic tree). By the beginning of the 19th century, branching diagrams were used by the French botanist Augustin Augier in 1801, the French evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who produced the first branching tree of animals in his Philosophie Zoologique (1809) based on the Great Chain of Being, and the American geologist Edward Hitchcock (1763—1864), who in 1840 published in his Elementary Geology, the first Tree of Life based on paleontology. From here it was only a short step to Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, and the classic evolutionary tree of life. MAK111018.

Diagram, right, the Great Chain of Being, as published in 1745 by Charles Bonnet Charles Bonnet, via John S. Wilkins. For another image of this diagram, along with an early tree-like scheme by Jean Lamarck published 1809 is shown here

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