Great Chain of Being

The Antiquity of Man, continued….

Copyright, 2010

By Vern Crisler


1. The Principle of Continuity

2.  Transformism

1. The Principle of Continuity

Did the theory of evolution as advocated by Darwin arise in a vacuum?  Did it have precursors?  Was evolutionism “in the air” so to speak, even among churchmen, prior to Darwin’s time?

The answer is yes.  The theory of evolution arose against the background of a philosophical concept known as the Great Chain of Being.[1]  Personally, I don’t think the chain metaphor is entirely useful in describing the idea.  After all, in a chain, each link is a separate entity and only “hooks” to the next link.  A better metaphor might have been something like the “Great Rubber Band of Being.”   This is where a rubber band is stretched out full length to represent continuous being.

The concept itself goes back to Plato.  It appealed to many thinkers over the years, including philosophers and churchmen of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Romantic periods.  I know this is somewhat abbreviated, but the essential principles of the chain (or rubber band) are as follows:

 The Idea of the Good, conceived of as unchanging, ineffable, self-sufficient.

The self-sufficiency of this being raised the question of why there was a creation.  Plato’s answer was that the Good was not envious and therefore had the quality of fecundity or productivity.  It would not deny existence to anything.

Since the Good would not deny existence to anything, it followed that everything that could possibly exist exists.  This was the principle of plenitude or fullness.

Aristotle added to the principle of fullness the principle of continuity.  The fullness of existence consists in a unilinear gradation of being where every difference shades into the next, and so on.  In short, there were no gaps in being.

Granted this is all rather airy, ghostly, and metaphysical, yet the concept was useful to later thinkers in constructing a theodicy — a term used to describe the study of how to justify the ways of God to man.  One of the ways of God that men reflected upon was how an all-powerful God could exist and still allow evil in the world, i.e., the philosophical problem of evil.  This reflection led to a sort of philosophical optimism, that this is the best of all possible worlds.  To be the best required all possible variety to exist, and evil was explained as simply being a necessary component of such variety.  Thus, the ways of God were justified by giving evil a rather exalted place in the scheme of things.

A little thought will show that this “necessity of evil” view was in conflict with the essential teachings of Christianity.  In fact, it was a glaring contradiction.  As over against the philosophy of the scale of being, where evil is regarded as necessary, the Bible taught an “Edenic” philosophy, where evil is a result of the sin of the first man, Adam.  In addition, the future would be purified of evil and the New Jerusalem was to be the goal of earthly, temporal life.

Speaking of Bishop William King, an eighteenth-century expositor of the scale of being idea, Lovejoy says,

“King and his editor….at times betray some uneasy feeling of the incongruity between these premises and certain traditional elements of Christian belief.  It was, for example, a part of that belief that in the earthly paradise before the Fall, and also in the celestial paradise which awaits the elect, most of the evils which these theologians were zealously proving to be ‘necessary,’ because required by the ‘divine goodness,’ were in fact absent….King meets this difficulty but lamely; he is, in fact, driven to suggest that the felicity of our first parents in Eden has probably been somewhat exaggerated….”[2]

It’s too bad this “uneasy feeling” was not productive of intellectual consistency.  It doesn’t take a Sunday School diploma to see that in the biblical view, evil was not natural to the world.  Biblical teaching in fact gave grounds for a truer optimism, in that this-worldly amelioration could be seen as diminishing the effects of the curse rather than as presumptuous tampering with the supposedly best of all possible worlds.

Against the silent, dead infinity of the scale of being, the Bible taught that the living God is both infinite and personal being, who reveals Himself to man in Scripture.  Edenic philosophy was thus at polar opposites from Platonic philosophy, as well as much of the continuity philosophy of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Romantic period.

It was also during the nineteenth-century that the scale of being idea served as the backdrop for the development of the theory of evolution.  It was easy enough to apply the concept of continuity to nature itself, arranging all things — inanimate and animate — into a hierarchy of continuous nature.  This even led some naturalists to reject the concept of species.

The Comte de Buffon regarded it as an “error in metaphysics” to think there was a real definition of species.  As with Aristotle, he saw all of nature as a series of gradations in which the variety of objects shaded into one another.  The idea that a “universal system” of classification could be developed was regarded as vain.  Though Buffon later changed his mind — the inability of some creatures to interbreed provided him with a demarcation criterion for species — others took up the original cause of continuity.

Aside from philosophical and theological problems, the scientific problem with continuity was that nature seemed to show plenty of distinct species and plenty of gaps in being.  For instance, the fact that we have to imagine mermaids or unicorns rather than see them went against continuity theory.

The “gappy” nature of reality was consistent with the Bible’s teaching of a scale of non-being — that all creatures were created after their kind.  Biblical creationism thus held to both a scale of being (same Creator, same design plans), and a scale of non-being (after their kind).  It involved both a principle of continuity and a principle of discontinuity.  That’s why one is not likely to find a radish with a face, or a potato with arms and legs, or a squash with a swishing tail.  The world is full of species, gaps, missing links, demarcations, and discontinuity.

However, advocates of the scale of being responded to the problem of gaps in the chain by claiming the gaps were only apparent, not real.  First, the gaps were the result of the incompleteness of our knowledge (Leibniz).  As many would later ask, would not continuing discoveries serve to fill in the gaps?  After all, P. T. Barnum displayed strange missing links in his exhibitions, did he not?

Or, second, there were many creatures hidden in the depths of the sea, or on the tops of mountains, or in the wastes of deserts (Robinet).  These creatures might escape our best efforts of measurement, yet surely we know they are there because God would not have created less than he could have created.

Or, third, the gaps were the result of cosmic catastrophes that wiped out many different forms of life (Maupertuis).  This theory has a modern ring to it.  Most geologists now believe in mass extinction events in the geological record — a far cry from the days of Lyell when catastrophism was required to sit in the back of the geological bus.

Or, fourth, the gaps were the result of our ignorance of other planetary systems (Bruno, Robinet).  If we could go to those planets, we would see the gaps filled in by many forms that do not now exist on this earth.   There is an infinity of worlds in which all possible creatures in the scale of being could be actualized, and thus no real gaps in being.  This was less a theory about other-worldliness than it was a theory about off-worldliness.

2.  Transformism

The theory of evolution is different from the scale of being concept in that evolution holds to a transformation of being.  Lovejoy says,

“The plenum formarum came to be conceived by some, not as the inventory but as the program of nature, which is being carried out gradually and exceedingly slowly in the cosmic history.”[3]

Nevertheless, transformism was not entirely absent from the scale of being concept.  One problem in some versions was that lower beings could not rise to a higher state without (unhappily) displacing higher beings.  This view could easily lead to a stagnant equilibrium where the status quo was frozen in place, a perfect justification for a class-society, but as Lovejoy says, a morally monstrous one.

Thinkers reacted to this by arguing that the scale of being allowed for progress, that it was not a zero-sum game of winners and losers.  The chain of being could be conceived of, not as a chain keeping beings in slavery, but as a ladder of being that all could climb.

The “nature philosophy” that preceded Darwin saw the philosophy of nature as the “science of the eternal transformation of God into the world” (Schelling).  Hegel would posit a view that history was a process of thesis, antithesis, and finally synthesis, usually of a German sort.  Thus transformism had triumphed among many Enlightenment philosophers.

Further, each being had “emergent” properties and could transcend its current state to attain a higher state.  The growth of a seed provided a useful metaphor.  Accordingly, higher beings contained remnants of their past, and lower beings contained anticipations of their future.  Thus, whatever attribute later forms possessed — such as soul, intelligence, feelings, or whatnot — it was sure to be possessed in some way by earlier forms (cf., Leibniz, Robinet).

This anticipated Haeckel’s silly theory that embryonic development of creatures provided an image of their stages of historical growth as a species.  In other words, an embryonic microcosm was seen as a recapitulation (or a re-living) of its historical macrocosm.  (Of course, many embryologists now deny that embryology, or baby growth, is a recapitulation of phylogeny, i.e., species history.)

In addition, the concept of emergent properties led to élan vital theories of progress, the idea of an internal principle that caused being to be multiplied to the greatest degree possible.  This involved a view that matter was self-organizing.

In answer to our earlier question about whether evolutionism was in the air, so to speak, we have said yes.  In fact, it had already infected metaphysics and theology by way of the chain of being concept.  It was certainly not a great leap to introduce it into natural science.

Evolutionists tend to imitate their scale of being predecessors in seeing only continuity in being, and overlooking discontinuity as a genuine reality.  For instance, just as continuity theorists of a former day were relieved at the discovery of the hydra, seemingly half plant and half animal, so evolutionists claim that any new-found fossil is a missing link.  They breathlessly report any new fossil as confirmation of the theory of evolution simply because they have imbibed the scale of being idea, and its principle of continuity, from birth — or sometime thereafter.

As we will see, the transformist philosophy led to the idea that fossil men represent steps up the chain of being by way of progression over time.  Man himself was seen as part of this grand scale of the progress of being.  It’s why many naturalists thought apes were forest men.  Buffon  (1707-1788) referred to the orangutan as “the first of the apes, or the most imperfect of men; because, except for the intellect, the orang-outang wants nothing that we possess….”[4]  One would think the intellect is a pretty large exception, but as we’ve seen even some modern Darwinists minimize the importance of intellect in distinguishing man from the apes.

James Burnett (1714-1799), in his “Of the Several Steps of the Human Progression from the Brute to the Man,” provided us with the interesting information that the people of Africa do not have “the least doubt” that the orangutan is a man, “which, as they live in the country with him, they should know better than we can do.”  That is certainly a capital proof that only the hyper-critical and the fault-finders would dispute.

In addition, Burnett says the orangutan is a man “both in mind and body,” and “has the sense of what is decent and becoming,” and “has a sense of honour,” and “a sense of justice,” and “a sense of modesty,” and “builds huts,” and “has learned the use of fire,” and to top it all off, “buries his dead.”[5]  It’s also possible that the orangutan votes, for as Burnett say, it is “so far advanced in the political life, as to have a king or governor.”

Karl Christoph Vogt (1817-1895), in his “Origin of Organic Nature,” informs us “in what respects the races of mankind, and especially the Negro, approach the ape-type, without, however, completely reaching it.”  That was nice of him to say, and even nicer when he said earlier that a “gulf” existed between man and ape.[6]  Of course those who are classified as “lower races” may have their own opinions as to where the gulf is.

So great was the pull of continuity theory that it led not only to the above preposterous comparisons of man with apes, but also to the acceptance of outright frauds, of which Piltdown Man is the most notorious.[7]

[1] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1936, 1964).  Much of my discussion is based on Lovejoy’s study.

[2] Lovejoy, p. 221.

[3] Lovejoy, p. 244.

[4] “The Nomenclature of Apes,” Natural History, Vol, 10, pp. 1-36; reprinted in T. D. McCown & Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, eds., Climbing Man’s Family Tree: A Collection of Major Writings on Human Phylogeny, 1699 to 1971, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1972), pp. 61.

[5] Ancient Metaphysics: or the Science of Universals, Bk 1, Ch. 1, pp. 23-34, reprinted in Climbing Man’s Family Tree, p. 74ff.

[6] Lectures on Man: His Place in Creation, and in the History of the Earth, Lecture 16, pp. 443, 462-69, reprinted in Climbing Man’s Family Tree, pp. 123ff.

[7] See the essay, “Piltdown Mystery” on this site for an overview of the hoax.