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Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's TreeThe Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order$

J. Archibald

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780231164122

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231164122.001.0001

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Blaming Aristotle

Blaming Aristotle

(p.1) Chapter One Blaming Aristotle
Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree

J. David Archibald

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how Aristotle influenced both our perceptions and misperceptions of the history of life on Earth and the presumption that humans are the highest of animals. Aristotle's views come to us in his ten books titled Researches About Animals, more commonly known from the Latin translation Historia Animalium (The History of Animals). His classification of life accorded with the then accepted views of the four basic elements of nature (air, fire, water, earth). Aristotle also used scales and ladders that form a continuum to explain the succession without gaps from inanimate objects through plants and then to animals, thus natura non facit saltus (nature makes no leaps). The French anatomist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier rejected the idea of the existence of a scala naturae possessing gaps, and that evolution occurred. This chapter considers how the ramifying view of life and its representation took root throughout the nineteenth century under the aegis of both evolution and creationism within the expanding fields of biological sciences.

Keywords:   history of life, Aristotle, nature, scales, ladders, Georges Cuvier, scala naturae, evolution, creationism, biological sciences

Our perceptions as well as our misperceptions of the history of life on this planet arise in large measure from the representations of evolutionary history, both verbal and visual. One need not be a biologist to understand the meaning of “lower” and “higher” animals. Images abound showing the march of primate evolution from a lowly, monkey-like ancestor to the pinnacle of humanness—Homo sapiens. We do, of course, deem ourselves as the highest animals—in the Western tradition, just below the angels. But what do we mean with these seemingly innocuous adjectives? What makes us presume that we are the highest of animals: are we closer to God, are we more complex, are we more highly evolved?

Natura Non Facit Saltus

We can blame Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.). Aristotle’s views come to us in his ten books titled Researches About Animals, more commonly known from the Latin translation Historia Animalium (The History of Animals). His classification of life accorded with the then accepted views of the four basic elements of nature (air, fire, water, earth). Aristotle defined groups often in apposition, such as “bloodless” animals and “blooded” animals, which basically correlate today with what we call invertebrates and vertebrates. These two groups were then further subdivided into what he called observable “forms” (eidê), larger groups, or “kinds” (genê). The Latin words species and genera only loosely correspond to what we today mean by species and genera. Although the relative hierarchy of species as subsets of genera still pertains, Aristotle used these terms for much larger sets of animals (Mayr 1985; Gagarin 2009).

(p.2) Of particular interest here, Aristotle also provided the first surviving attempts in the Western world to arrange inanimate and animate objects in some ordered sense based on their level of complexity. Even if images of his system ever existed, none survives, yet his brief description suffices to make it quite clear what he intended:

Nature proceeds little by little from things lifeless to animal life in such a way that it is impossible to determine the exact line of demarcation, nor on which side thereof an intermediate form should lie. Thus, next after lifeless things in the upward scale comes the plant, and of plants one will differ from another as to its amount of apparent vitality; and, in a word, the whole genus of plants, whilst it is devoid of life as compared with an animal, is endowed with life as compared with other corporeal entities. Indeed, as we just remarked, there is observed in plants a continuous scale of ascent towards the animal. (Aristotle 2007:8.1)

Certainly species across groups share characters; thus Aristotle sees the scale or ladder as forming a continuum, a succession without gaps from inanimate objects through plants and then to animals, thus natura non facit saltus (nature makes no leaps). Boundaries between groups do occur; we simply cannot discern them because of the continuous nature of characters shared by the various groups (Balme, in Aristotle 1991). Aristotle provides us with an explicit statement concerning the scala naturae, but he does not propose an evolutionary basis for this continuity. Aristotle did not support claims of earlier ideas of evolution made by other Greeks; such claims using Aristotelian scala naturae come much later. Rather, for Aristotle all was cyclic, with no beginning and no end.

Aristotle greatly influenced later writers on the same topic. Some four hundred years later, the Roman Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, 23–79 c.e.) organized his thirty-seven-volume Naturalis Historia (Natural History) along the lines of Aristotlean scala naturae. Although the name would imply a work concerned with what now we call natural history, Pliny produced a far broader work that included various aspects of Roman culture. We do not know if Aristiotle would have approved, but unfortunately, as with Aristotle, if Pliny produced any stairs of nature they do not survive.

Pliny shared his Stoic philosophy (that misfortune and virtue are sufficient for happiness) with the Roman consul and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.), specifically that purpose and design exist in nature, including humans’ place within it. These views carried forward as Christianity came to political and social power in Europe. It must be said that these views, while monolithic, were not universal. Not all Romans of similar antiquity shared Pliny’s Stoic approach. The first-century b.c.e. Epicurean Roman philosopher Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, ca. 99–ca. 55 b.c.e.) accepted that there are gods but that they have no interest in humans, that the universe has no creator and was not created for humans, and that nature ceaselessly experiments (Greenblatt 2011). Troublemakers always nip at the heels of authority. Nevertheless, the Stoic philosophies and Aristotelian scala (p.3) naturae held sway for the next millennium and a half but not in the way Aristotle first articulated it.

Extending the Ladder to Heaven

In late Christian Rome and into the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s scale (ladder, stairs) expanded beyond the earthly realm into heavenly matters, with some rather interesting results. In this incarnation, the phrase the “great chain of being” is often applied (Lovejoy 1942). Paul Carus (1900) presents us with a rather comical extreme that he titles “Satanic Temptations and the Ladder of Life,” which comes from the encyclopedic illuminated manuscript Hortus deliciarum (Garden of Delights, ca. 1161–1185) by Herrad von Landsberg (1130–1195), a twelfth-century abbess or mother superior at the Hohenburg (now Mont Sainte-Odile) Abbey in French Alsace. The book was written for the edification of novices. The version of the ladder shown in figure 1.1 includes descriptions in Latin of what transpires in the figure (Green et al. 1979). Her ladder includes only the portion of the great chain of being that deals with human frailties and the steps to heaven, so strictly speaking it is not an Aristotelian ladder. The text indicates rungs to heaven: purity, contempt of the world, humility, obedience, patience, faith, and love of a pure heart. In the upper left of the figure angels battle demons to protect the novices from the temptations of city life, precious garments, money, the couch of laziness, the joy of gardening, and possibly worst of all, the allure of worldly comforts that militaristic abbots might wield against an unwary novice (Carus 1900).

Like Herrad von Landsberg, the sixteenth-century Franciscan friar Diego Valadés (1533–1582) wrote a large tome for his fellow brethren, but unlike Herrad’s Hortus deliciarum, which was to help novices, Valadés’s Rhetorica Christiana ad concionandi et orandi usum (1579) addressed missionaries on how to educate and convert Native Americans. Valadés was the son of a Tlaxcaltecan Indian woman and a Spaniard who had arrived in Mexico with Cortez. Valadés became a Franciscan friar, spending time as a missionary in his native Mexico before going to Rome, where he wrote the Rhetorica with the intention not only of helping missionaries convert Native Americans but also of helping these missionaries better understand Native American peoples (Alejos-Grau 1994; Fane 1997). For example, three mundane figures show the Latin alphabet, using various familiar objects to illustrate the letters. As far as is known, Valadés created all the illustrations used in his volume.

The most often reproduced figure from Rhetorica is more ethereal (figure 1.2); it clearly shows the great chain of being, although often identified as representing creation (Alejos-Grau 1994). A scroll surrounding the top of the figure reads (in faulty Latin), “Ego sum principium et finis et preter me non est deus que [sic] omnes dii gentium demonia” (I am the beginning and the end and beyond me there is no god, and all the gods of the nations are demons). Just below the scroll is the Trinity—God on his throne, the Holy Spirit as a dove, and Jesus Christ, with Mary on their right. Surrounding these figures, six archangels waft burning incense toward the Holy Family. A chain descends from God’s right hand, (p.4)

Blaming Aristotle

Figure 1.1 “Satanic Temptations and the Ladder of Life” (so named by Carus 1899), from Herrad von Landsberg’s Hortus deliciarum (ca. 1161–1185).

figuratively if not literally anchoring the image as it passes downward through the center of the illustration, terminating in hell at the head of Satan. Surrounding Satan, various souls undergo forms of torture. Immediately above hell, an anchor-like scroll festoons the image, across which is written “F Didicus Valadés fecit (Friar Diego Valadés made this). In a rather tree-like fashion, arms protrude from either side of the chain.

The base of the drawing above hell shows five circles representing the creation of the stars, the separation between land and water, and that between chaos and (p.5)

Blaming Aristotle

Figure 1.2 Diego Valadés’s great chain of being, from Rhetorica Christiana ad concionandi et orandi usum (1579).

the world. The second from the right holds a bishop, possibly Saint Augustine, and a child trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity (Alejos-Grau 1994). Above this, the creation of life-forms commences with various plants, followed next upward by two side arms bearing a menagerie of real land mammals (bear, deer, goat, camel, elephant) mingled with mythic animals (unicorn, dragon). Sea creatures—including bivalves, fish, turtles, and a whale—populate the next higher arms. Above this, the level shows various birds walking and flitting about. Interestingly, Valadés illustrates animals and plants from the five known continents, (p.6) including for the first time some indigenous American animals and plants, such as the quetzal, turkey, llama, cactus, maize, cocoa, and pineapple. Above the birds, we finally reach humans, whose dress indicates peoples from around the world, including Native America. Valadés’s intent shows the Americas as being as old as the rest of the world and the Native Americans as part of this unity and universality of humankind, as descendants of Adam and Eve, who appear in the middle of this level with Eve arising from Adam’s side (Alejos-Grau 1994). At the penultimate level, below God, we find haloed and winged angels. We cannot forget the poor fallen angels being cast from heaven on the right, who increasingly appear less angelic as they fall, noticeably replacing their angel wings with bat-like and then fairy-like wings.

The image intends to show an upward progression from plants; through animals, humans, and angels; and then finally to heaven. The levels progress, but do not evolve, toward perfection. One problem: mammals rest lower than the fishes, a very un-Aristotelian portrayal of the ladder of life. Also, the tree-like appearance of the image is possibly illusory, if for no other reason than Valadés has two other, more tree-like figures in Rhetorica, the first titled the “Ecclesiastical Temporal Hierarchy” (figure 1.3A) and the second the “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy” (figure 1.3B).

Blaming Aristotle

Figure 1.3 Valadés’s (A) “Ecclesiastical Temporal Hierarchy” and (B) “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy,” from Rhetorica Christiana ad concionandi et orandi usum (1579).

(p.7) Notably, both images are subtended by the image of hell, as in Valadés’s great chain of being or creation story, certainly placed there as warning, but again not Aristotelian. The meaning of each image is well described by its title. The temporal tree is surmounted by the emperor flanked by kings on each side, with lesser leaders on lower branches. The ecclesiastical hierarchy has at its head the pope, labeled “Pontifex,” the Latin title for the pre-Christian chief religious official in ancient Rome. At his feet on bended knee are the emperor and the king, clearly placing the temporal hierarchy as subservient to the church. On lower branches are arrayed various other church functionaries. Valadés almost certainly chose the chain of being for his representation of all creation because that was the accepted view at the time. The reason for the use of more tree-like structures for the two hierarchies is less clear. One cannot discount the possibility of simple artistic license, because recall that Valadés was the illustrator of Rhetorica. As Carmen Alejos-Grau (1994) notes, the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas portended that the natives should undergo a completely new type of a civilian government and new Christian faith. These trees, as she refers to them, were to this end.

A Return to Aristotle, but with a Twist

Although one of the better known, Valadés’s Rhetorica Christiana (1579) was neither the first nor the last religious work to use the imagery of the great chain of being. Some 166 years later, in 1745, the Swiss philosopher and naturalist Charles Bonnet (1720–1793) created a great chain of being for the natural world in the first volume of his two-volume work on insects, Traité d’insectologie (Treatise on Insects, 1745) (Anderson 1976). The end of the preface of the first volume includes a large, narrow, foldout diagram shown in figure 1.4 in two parts, with the upper part on the right. Bonnet titles his diagram “Idée d’une échelle des êtres naturels” (Idea of a Scale of Natural Beings). Loosely translated from the French, he writes:

This reflection has made me think, perhaps foolhardily, to draw up a ladder of natural beings, that we find at the end of this Preface. I produce it only as a trial, but suitable for conceiving of the ideas of the system of the World & the Infinite Wisdom which has formed & combined the different parts. Let us pay attention to this beautiful splendor. Let us look at the innumerable multitude of organized and unorganized bodies; to place one above the other, depending on the degree of perfection or excellence that is in each. If the sequence does not appear to us everywhere equally continuous; it is because our knowledge is still very confined: the more it increases, the more steps or degrees we will discover. … And if, as I think, all these scales, whose number is almost infinite, not only in form that combines all the possible orders of perfection, it must be admitted that one cannot conceive of anything greater or more exalted. … There is thus a connection between all parts of this universe. The system generally consists of the assembly of individual systems, which are like the different wheels of a machine. An insect, a plant is a particular system, a small wheel that in fact moves the greater. (xxviii–xxxi)


Blaming Aristotle

Figure 1.4 Charles Bonnet’s “Idea of a Scale of Natural Beings,” from Traité dinsectologie (1745). The left half is the lower part and the right half is the upper part of Bonnet’s figure.

(The English translations were added by the author.)

In a footnote to this passage, Bonnet (1745) writes, “If the greatest poets of our century, a Pope, a Voltaire, a Racine, wished to practice on a worthy subject, and give us the Temple of Nature, I think their work not only might be extremely useful but generally pleasing” (xxix). Almost sixty years later, the English polymath and physician (and grandfather of Charles Darwin) Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) accommodated Bonnet by writing his long poem Temple of Nature, published in 1803, a year following his death. In his works, Darwin elaborates on clearly evolutionary ideas, although the word “evolution” was not used. Arguably, Bonnet did not hold Darwin’s view of the Temple of Nature in which more complex life arose from simpler life.

(p.9) It can be argued, however, that Bonnet accepted a kind of evolution but meant it in its original scientific sense of unrolling, a preformationist idea in which each succeeding generation was preformed in the sperm or egg and simply grew or unrolled (evolved). The similar idea of Bonnet’s termed emboîtement, meaning “interlocking” or “nesting,” argues that the germ cells of one generation contained the germ cells from which all successive generations arose. Bonnet’s theory posited that the earth was episodically racked by catastrophes, the Noachian flood being just the latest. Although creatures died in these catastrophes, their germ lines survived to be part of a new creation. With each catastrophe, the newly created forms were higher in the scale of natural beings. This idea of a catastrophic end followed by a resurrection of sorts was a secularized version of clearly religious ideas. For Bonnet, the continuity of steps in his scale of natural beings formed a rational basis for his ideas of progressive change (O. W. Holmes 2006).

Bonnet’s scale of natural beings accords well with the Aristotelian idea of a scale of nature without referring to religion. At the bottom of Bonnet’s diagram, the four basic elements of nature noted by the ancient Greeks appear—fire, air, water, and earth (see figure 1.4, left column). Next upward follows what Bonnet perceived as less well-organized, nonliving substances such as sulfur, and then better organized, nonliving substances such as crystals. Probably because the skeletons of corals are rock and are sessile, Bonnet regards them as a transition from nonliving to living nature. These are followed upward by various fungi that in the eighteenth century qualified as plants, and then come what we today recognize as plants. When Bonnet reaches animals (right column), some fanciful transitions and juxtapositions occur moving upward. Shellfish are followed by snails, which are followed by slugs. In this sequence, shells disappear as bodies elongate. Continuing the trends, but leaving some levels out, we transition through snakes, water snakes, crawling fish, fish, flying fish, aquatic birds, birds, and so on. With what we would regard as tortured logic, he traverses ever upward through flying fish, various bird grades, bats, and flying (read “gliding”) squirrels, and takes us back to terra firma with quadrupedal mammals. Even though illogical to us, the only true oddity in this part of the sequence is the flightless ostrich. Of course, man tops the ladder.

Bonnet creates a finely graded level of organization, although today it appears quite peculiar to us. Nowhere in Bonnet do we see the ladder stretching ever upward through temporal and ecclesiastical hierarchies as in Valadés’s chain of being. Bonnet in no manner rejected such exalted hierarchies; rather he strived to examine the natural world much as his European contemporaries and arguably as Aristotle had done over two thousand years earlier. Bonnet has, however, also added his views of evolutionary change to explain Aristotle’s ladder—catastrophe and death, rebirth, and successive progression and perfection after each catastrophe. For better or worse, Aristotle’s scale of nature took on new meaning.

The closest Bonnet comes to Valadés’s great chain of being occurs in a much later stairway-like engraving, reportedly by the Danish engraver Johan Frederik Clemens (1749–1831), who did various vignettes for Bonnet (figure 1.5). Unlike Bonnet’s earlier scala naturae, which Bonnet specifically describes and which occurs in all formats of his work, the stairway-like engraving occurs in only one work and (p.10)

Blaming Aristotle

Figure 1.5 Stairway of nature, probably by Johan Frederik Clemens, from Bonnet’s Oeuvres d’histoire naturelle et de philosophie, vol. 4, part 1, Contemplation de la nature (1781).

in only one format. It appears near the beginning of the fourth volume of the quarto format of his Oeuvres dhistoire naturelle et de philosophie: Contemplation de la nature (Works of Natural History and of Philosophy: Contemplation of Nature, 1781). The first edition of Contemplation (1764) lacks the stairway-like engraving, as does the smaller octavo edition of Bonnet’s (1781) works. This suggests artistic license on the part of Clemens (or whomever the artist was) in that in the larger quarto format he found greater space to express visual ideas, as he did elsewhere in the same work.

Although Bonnet does not directly address this figure, the artist likely took inspiration from statements by Bonnet (1781), such as just below the figure: “I am looking for relationships which make this huge chain a single All: I stop to consider some of the links, and am struck by the power of these traits, and the wisdom and magnitude of what I discover. … To make the eternal Universe eternal, is to admit an infinite succession of finite beings” (1–2). These words are the same in the text of the first volume of Contemplation (1764) and in the smaller edition of Bonnet’s (1781) works, but again the figure is not present in these other formats. In the figure, a man stands at the top of the stairway with his head in the clouds, certainly an allusion to his place in both the physical and spiritual worlds (see figure 1.5). Arrayed down the stairs are a monkey, a lion, a dog; then birds, fish, and insects; and finally plants and crystals. Everything is surrounded by clouds such that, intended or not, this engraving from 1781 invokes a more metaphysical aspect not seen in the ladder-like figure of 1745.

For Bonnet, the ladder, scale, or chain presented infinite, all-encompassing grades but known only imperfectly to human understanding (Hopwood, Schaffer, and Secord 2010). For Bonnet, the totality of nature forms a hierarchical continuum (Heilbron 1990). Bonnet provided visualization of his “scale of natural (p.11) beings,” but he was by no means the only naturalist in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to contemplate such a scale or to toy with some form of evolution; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844) represent some of the most prominent of such scientists. Yet none provided us with visualizations of the “scale of natural beings,” although as we will see in chapter 3, Lamarck was the first to provide an evolutionarily based tree or what we now call a phylogeny.

Dismantling Ladders and Smashing the Glass Jars

The great French anatomist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) would have none of it. He rejected the idea of the existence of a scala naturae possessing gaps, and he rejected that evolution had occurred; yet he could not be strictly called a creationist (Taquet 2006, 2009). The essence of these ideas can be found in a few short passages in Memoirs of Baron Cuvier (1833) by Mrs. R. Lee (Sarah Bowdich Lee, 1791–1856), published just one year after Cuvier’s death. Lee translates long passages from Cuvier’s (1825) article “Nature” in the Dictionnaire des sciences naturelles. Through her extended translations of parts of his work, we gain a clear picture of his antipathy to these ideas.

About Cuvier’s “Nature” article, Lee (1833) notes that “it contains the clearest and most satisfactory refutation of the reigning controversies that has ever been published in a separate form” (139). Cuvier agrees that laws of motion presiding over organization exist but that “a great many writers … have suffer[ed] themselves to be drawn unconsciously towards doctrines which have no other foundation. Such are the doctrines of the ‘Scale of Nature,’ the ‘Unity of composition,’ and others similar to these, which have all been imagined in consequence of the belief in a Nature distinct from the Creator” (142–43). Later, Cuvier waxes even more strongly:

that the forms of these beings necessarily constitute a series or a chain, so that the eye may gradually pass from one to the other, without finding any gap, any hiatus; in short, the existence of a continued and regular scale in the forms of beings, from the stone to the man … this is what is not true, whatever eloquence may have been used in tracing the imaginary picture. The philosophers who have supported this system of a scale of beings, at each interruption which is pointed out to them, pretend, that if a step is wanting, it is hidden in some corner of the globe, where a fortunate traveller may one day discover it. Nevertheless, all regions, all seas, have been explored; the number of species collected increases every day; there are, perhaps, a hundred-fold more than when these paradoxical opinions began to be established, and none of the spaces are filled up; all the interruptions remain; there is nothing intermediate between birds and other classes; there is nothing between vertebrated animals and those which have no vertebrae. (144–45)

(p.12) Next Cuvier takes on the idea of evolution:

Nevertheless, to the hypothesis of a continued scale in the forms of beings, other philosophers have added that in which all beings are modifications of one only; or, that they have been produced successively, and by the development, of one first germ; and it is on this that an identity of composition for all has been engrafted. … This system (as it now exists) seizes hold of some partial resemblances, without having any regard to differences; it sees in the worm the embryo of the vertebrated animal; in the vertebrated animal with cold blood, the embryo of the animal with warm blood; it thus makes one class spring from the other. … We, however, conceive nature to be simply a production of the Almighty, regulated by wisdom, the laws of which can only be discovered by observation; but we think that these laws can only relate to the preservation and harmony of the whole; but we do not perceive any necessity for a scale of beings, nor for a unity of composition, and we do not believe even in the possibility of a successive appearance of different forms; for it appears to us that, from the beginning, diversity has been necessary to that harmony, and that preservation, the only ends which our reason can perceive in the arrangement of the world. (147, 150–51)

It would seem that Cuvier rejected evolution, but in fact he possessed more nuanced views (Taquet 2006, 2009). Cuvier was born into a Lutheran family in what is now eastern France. Early in his life, he sat for exams for theological study at Tübingen but was not accepted, a fortunate failure because of the later impact he had on the nascent sciences of anatomy, paleontology, systematics, and geology. The death of all four of his children may well have colored his worldview, but he appears to have believed in supernatural design yet was familiar with critiques against design put forth by Kant, Buffon, and d’Holbach (Taquet 2009). Cuvier was clearly hostile to the materialism that he saw in evolutionary theorizing of the time, especially that of his one-time mentor Lamarck; but this does not mean he felt that species were directly created by a god but rather he remained quite neutral on proximate and ultimate causes regarding the origin of new species (Rudwick 1998).

Nonetheless, as the quotes from Lee (1833) demonstrate, Cuvier rejected the scale of being. But what did he propose as a substitute? Proceeding from his earlier anatomical studies, Cuvier deduced that animal life formed a series of four embranchements (branches) that he proposed in a short paper in 1812, but later expanded in his four-volume work colloquially known as Le Règne animal (The Animal Kingdom, 1817). In his 1812 paper he writes:

Considering the animal kingdom in this new perspective, and having regard to animals themselves, not their size, their usefulness, in varying degrees of knowledge which we, nor the other incidental circumstances, I have found that there are four principal forms, four general plans, after which all animals appear to have been modeled, and whose subsequent divisions, a few names which naturalists have furnished, are only slight modifications based on the development or the addition of a few parts, but do not change the essence of the plan. (77)

(p.13) The new perspective of which he writes concerns treating all vertebrates as one branch that is equivalent to three other branches of invertebrates, which were traditionally lumped together. In addition to Vertebrata, Cuvier recognized Articulata (segmented worms and arthropods), Mollusca (mollusks plus other soft, bilaterally symmetrical invertebrates), and Radiata (corals and relatives, and echinoderms). Only one of these branches, as Cuvier envisioned them, is today regarded as a natural, evolutionary group: the vertebrates. All the others include mixtures of unrelated forms. Cuvier interpreted each branch as having a fundamentally different body plan from the others.

Life could no longer be viewed as a solid existence without gaps or a ladder with infinite rungs; Cuvier had dismantled it. As dramatically expressed by Michel Foucault (1970), in an iconoclastic gesture Cuvier had smashed the metaphorical glass jars of gapless continuity portrayed in the gardens and museums of the time, replacing them with his four embranchements that no longer obscured anatomy and function of plants and animals (Hopwood, Schaffer, and Secord 2010). To my knowledge, Cuvier never produced a tree-like diagram showing these four branches, but his choice of the word embranchement strongly invokes an image of a branching form such as a tree. Later writers—such as the American geologist Edward Hitchcock (1793–1864), the Canadian naturalist Anna Maria Redfield (1800–1888, née Treadwell), and the Swiss American paleontologist and protégé of Cuvier, Louis Agassiz (1807–1873)—accepted Cuvier’s views of the branching form of life but more explicitly interpreted this branching as a result of creation by a supernatural force over geological time (see chapter 4). Other followers, such as the English paleontologist Richard Owen (1804–1892), carried on Cuvier’s tradition in comparative anatomy but as with Cuvier did not clearly reject or advocate an evolutionary basis for the origin of species.

Others such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the French naturalist and evolutionist and a mentor of the younger Cuvier but later adversary, advocated a scala naturae or single-series view of the history of life earlier in his career. According to R. W. Burkhardt (1980), by 1802 Lamarck indicated that animal species could not be arranged linearly but rather formed “lateral bifurcations,” and further that by 1815 Lamarck viewed a single line of increasing complexity as untenable. By at least 1809, Lamarck allowed, if not strongly supported, ramifying histories of life (Archibald 2009).

Even as the relations between Cuvier and Lamarck soured, both men, whether by mutual influence or not, abandoned Aristotle’s view of the scala naturae in favor of a more tree-like branching of life—for Lamarck evolution was the cause, whereas for Cuvier the reasons were more nuanced. With the profound influence of such scientists, the scala naturae would seem doomed, and in large measure it was, but the scala naturae or great chain of being simply would not and will not die. It kept recurring in the nineteenth, early twentieth, and even twenty-first centuries.

Scala Naturae: Metaphorical Imagery That Will Not Die

Throughout the nineteenth century, the ramifying view of life and its representation took root under the aegis of both evolution and creationism within the (p.14) expanding fields of biological sciences, but the great chain of being never really went away, notably in some philosophical circles (for example, Grindon 1863), in the public’s eyes, or even in the work of some scientists. For example, the Scottish geologist Hugh Miller (1802–1856) produced what we would call fossil range charts in Testimony of the Rocks (1857), but with several twists (Archibald 2009). There are three such diagrams—one for plants, one for animals, and one specifically for fishes. Geologic time is shown, but rather than the traditional upward march of time, Miller’s geologic time goes from oldest at the top to youngest at the bottom. His fossil range charts present us with simple, straight lines for each major group, yet surprisingly he calls each of the three diagrams a genealogy. For us, the only way in which such diagrams could be construed as a genealogy is if we restrict the term to each line representing the history of a particular group rather than any sense of connection of the groups. From Miller’s description of these multiple simple lines, it becomes clear he has some sort of multiple scala naturae in mind: “The chain of animal being on its first appearance is, if I may so express myself, a threefold chain;—a fact nicely correspondent with the further fact, that we cannot in the present creation range serially, as either higher or lower in the scale, at least two of these divisions” (45–46). Miller’s rather odd representations become clearer when his antievolutionist views are noted.

Unlike the obvious intent of scientists such as Miller, others inadvertently fanned the resurgence of the scala naturae and the idea of progression in nature. One of the most infamous examples appears as the frontispiece for Thomas Henry Huxley’s (1825–1895) book Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), drawn after work by the natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807–1894). In the popiconic illustration, we see from left to right a gibbon, an orangutan, a chimpanzee, a gorilla, and a human (figure 1.6A). Except for the slight forward tilt of the three central figures, all stand in an essentially upright posture natural only to the bipedal human. Huxley likely did not intend to suggest a progressive succession from gibbons through to man, but to place humans within the context of other primates.

The choice of presenting the other apes in a nearly bipedal human posture undoubtedly evoked this idea of relationship if not progression. Nevertheless, the result is the impression of progression from the “lower” apes through to “higher” humans. This message echoes in a passage in the chapter “On the Relationships of Man to the Lower Animals.” Huxley (1863) writes that because differences in embryos of humans, apes, and dogs diverge only quite late in development and that

startling as the last assertion may appear to be, it is demonstrably true, and it alone appears to me sufficient to place beyond all doubt the structural unity of man with the rest of the animal world, and more particularly and closely with the apes. Thus, identical in the physical processes by which he originates—identical in the early stages of his formation—identical in the mode of his nutrition before and after birth, with the animals which lie immediately below him in the scale—Man, if his adult and perfect structure be compared with theirs, exhibits, as might expected, a marvellous likeness of organization. He resembles them as they resemble one another—he differs from them as they differ from one another. (83)


Blaming Aristotle

Figure 1.6 (A) Frontispiece of skeletons from Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863); (B) Othniel Marsh’s “Genealogy of the Horse,” from “Polydactyl Horses, Recent and Extinct” (1879).

Huxley’s words unquestionably emphasize the unity of humans, apes, and other animals, but whether intended or not, the phrase that I italicized in this passage indicates he views that there exists a scale in nature with humans at its apex.

The implications of the frontispiece illustration and passage from Huxley’s text were not lost on his critics, some of whom were quite severe in their response. The eighth duke of Argyll (George Douglas Campbell, 1823–1900) stated, “On the frontispiece of this work he exhibits in series the skeletons of the Anthropoid Apes (p.16) and of Man. It is a grim and a grotesque procession” (Campbell 1867:284; quoted in Desmond 1994). As is clear from his other statements in the same work, Argyll knew full well that Huxley explicitly only wished to show the similarity between apes and humans. But unlike Huxley, who wanted to place humans in the same order of mammals as other primates, Argyll argued that the gulf was so great between apes and humans that not only should humans be placed in a separate order of mammals but humans should be in their own class, akin to the other land vertebrate classes—Amphibia, Reptilia, and Aves.

This difference of view as to humans’ place in nature paled in comparison with the scientific row Huxley engaged in with the English anatomist Richard Owen, who wished to place humans in a separate order from other primates based on small differences between humans and apes in a part of the brain, which Huxley soon showed was a misrepresentation of the anatomy. Nonetheless, it was characterizations such as that by Argyll that permeated the public psyche as well as some scientific circles as to where humans fit in nature. If Huxley presented any other sort of progression to the exclusion of humans, the response would have been negligible, but of course Huxley was trying to show where we rested in nature’s scheme. While no great chain of being, this illustration had a clear impact on the perception of human evolution that erroneously continues to this day.

Next to humans, horses provide some of the richest history and lore surrounding the rise of evolutionary thought (MacFadden 1992). Huxley became involved with this as well, most famously because of a visit in 1876 with the American paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (1831–1899) at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Marsh is reported to have produced boxes of fossil horse bones and teeth dating from the middle Eocene to the Recent. This seeming linkage of equid species from the Eocene Orohippus (the earlier “Eohippus” was not yet known) to Equus greatly impressed Huxley as a marvelous proof of evolution. Huxley drew a sketch for Marsh with a fanciful “Eohomo” riding a still conjectural “Eohippus” that survives at Yale. Marsh provided Huxley with a quasi–scala naturae diagram showing subsequent evolutionary steps of the feet and teeth ascending from Orohippus to Equus (Desmond 1997), which Huxley (1877) soon used in a lecture in New York City. Marsh did not publish this scale of horse evolution diagram until 1879 (see figure 1.6B). Unlike Huxley’s earlier frontispiece of apes and man, Marsh’s diagram unmistakably shows a ladder-like evolution of horses—a great chain of horse evolution. As discussed by Bruce MacFadden (1992) in his book on horse evolution, not all paleontologists followed Marsh’s lead for a straight ascent of horses through time. Soon after the turn of the century, more tree-like branching diagrams began to appear, some of which will be explored in a later chapter.

With On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin (1809–1882) made evolutionary ideas acceptable to the scientific community, if not quite so among the public, but his theory of natural selection rested on shakier grounds among scientists. By the turn of the twentieth century, evolution by means of natural selection was a theory in crisis for several reasons. One of note was the discovery of Gregor Mendel’s work and the birth of genetics, which sought to displace natural selection as the cause of evolution as well as the source of genetic variation. Another reason relates to the resurgence of Lamarckian ideas of evolution along with other (p.17) proposed evolutionary mechanisms under various names such as orthoselection, orthogenesis, and aristogenesis.

George Gaylord Simpson (1902–1984), perhaps the greatest evolutionary paleobiologist of the twentieth century, did not support these various orthogenetic hypotheses. In 1944, he wrote, “Most theories of this school, however, involve an element of predestination, of a goal, a perfecting principle, whether as a vitalistic urge, or a metaphysical necessity, or a frankly theological explanation of evolution according to which it is under divine or otherwise spiritual guidance” (152). At one end of the stronger theological spectrum for orthogenesis sits the French priestpaleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), whereas at the other end we find the American paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857–1935). (Osborn 1933, 1934) claimed that his version, aristogenesis, lacked any metaphysical, predeterministic, or perfecting principles, but as Simpson (1944) pointed out, this is a matter of definition because Osborn noted that aristogenesis “is definite in the direction of future adaptation” (152) and the word means “to bring into being the best of it kind” (152). Whatever the intention, Osborn’s and others’ similar ideas resulted in the portrayal of evolutionary modifications as occurring along a single line of change, hence the resemblance of the older scala naturae or great chain of being. Osborn’s many illustrations along with his text strongly enforce this relationship between imagery and ideas.

Figure 1.7 presents a few iconographic images over Osborn’s career, but it must be emphasized that he was far from being alone in his views; further, while the images discussed here epitomize his ideas on aristogenesis, he and those who worked for him produced many branching tree-like diagrams as well. This said, his orthogenetic imagery still reverberates. His 1929 monograph on titanotheres (relatives of horses, tapirs, and rhinos) is replete with progressive evolutionary images such as that in figure 1.7A, showing the frontal and side head views with ever larger and more complex nose horns illustrating, as he writes, “the progressive stages of development.”

Certainly the most iconographic images of orthogenesis, second only to that of human evolution, or perhaps a fish emerging from the sea, are those showing the 55-million-year straight march in horse evolution from “Eohippus” to Equus discussed earlier (Osborn 1905; see figure 1.7B). Our perceptions do change; it is the nature of scientific theories. The American Museum of Natural History in New York, which Osborn once directed, has one of the largest collections of fossil horses in the world. Its exhibits document well what we thought we knew and what we think we now know about horse evolution. In the front part of the museum’s display, horse evolution shows “a steady progression along a single pathway—until recently a widely held view of evolution. Here the horse is seen to evolve in a neat, predictable line, gradually getting larger, with fewer toes and longer teeth.” But behind this, the exhibit also presents a more current scientific view of horse evolution showing it “to be a more complex, branching history.”

Figure 1.7C comes from Osborn’s (1936, 1942) monumental two volumes on proboscideans. It combines a more tree or starburst pattern but still for the most part shows the steady march in each lineage of elephantoids. In figure 1.7D, from a paper published by Osborn in 1933, the lower (grinding) molars of mastodons (p.18)

Blaming Aristotle

Figure 1.7 Henry Osborn’s (A) “Progressive Stages of Development” of titanotheres, from The Titanotheres of Ancient Wyoming, Dakota, and Nebraska (1929); (B) “The Evolution of the Horse,” from “Origin and History of the Horse” (1905); (C) “Adaptive Radiation from Genus Elephas,” from Proboscidea (1936); and (D) “Aristogenic and Allometric Origin of Species” for mastodon molars, from “Aristogenesis, the Observed Order of Biomechanical Evolution” (1933).

([A] courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey; [C] and [D] courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History)

(p.19) ascend in an Aristotelian fashion, from small and simple at the bottom to large and complex at the top. The diagram even provides measures of Osborn’s imagined aristogenes.

Steve Gould’s Bane

The scala naturae continues to the present day in any number of guises. While not inhabiting any serious works intending to elucidate evolutionary relationships, it is alive and well in advertising and satirical humor, usually portraying a progressive march of fish coming out onto land, or a march of ape-like creatures to humans. Although these scala naturae are intended to hawk a product or skewer an adversary, underlying them all is our inability to jettison this as the iconography of evolution.

I am not certain when and where the current usage of the fish-to-mammal progressive march arose, but for the images of smaller apes to humans, I am quite certain that we can pinpoint the most recent source, if not necessarily the origin. The source of the ape-to-human transition originates in the popular book Early Man (Howell 1965). The illustration in question encompasses parts of five foldout pages, each page measuring 8 by 11½ inches (20 by 29 cm) (figure 1.8A). It is quite impressive, but I was taken aback because I knew both the author and the illustrator: the author, the American anthropologist F. Clark Howell (1925–2007), served on my doctoral examination committee at the University of California, Berkeley, and the artist, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, Russian-born American nature artist Rudolf Zallinger (1919–1995), I knew from my time on the faculty of Yale University. The illustration, “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” shows fifteen species or varieties stretching back some 22 million years. The first sentence in the caption asks, “What were the stages of man’s long march from apelike ancestors to sapiens?” (Howell 1965:41). I am quite certain that Howell would not have argued that human evolution was literally the straight line of ascent depicted in Zallinger’s nearly fifty-year-old illustration, but I am equally certain that many, if not most, people did and do perceive human evolution to be this inevitable progressive march forward to humankind.

This kind of representation fuels profound misunderstandings by the general public of how evolution operates. It was a favorite topic of the American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002). He criticized the view showing the history of life as a great chain of being progressing from simpler to ever more complex organisms. Rather, Gould argued that evolution is a process of diversification in which no progress can be detected. While the issue of progress in evolutionary change remains a more controversial topic, few biologists would disagree that the history of life has been one of diversification. Combining a somewhat lighthearted approach with a serious intent, (Gould 1989, 1991, 1993) often wrote and lectured about our misperceptions of evolution as a straight-line, progressive process using Zallinger-inspired images in advertisements and political satire. The images in figure 1.8B–E are four of my favorite examples, with no further commentary required. (p.20)

Blaming Aristotle

Figure 1.8 (A) Rudolph Zallinger, “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man (1965); (B) “Somewhere, Something Went Terribly Wrong”; (C) Bill Day, “Nobel Scientists Discover the Missing Link,” Detroit Free Press; (D) untitled cartoon; (E) Larry Johnson, untitled drawing, Boston Globe; (F) Matthew Bonnan, “The Family Tree—Not Family Tree and Evolution—Not Evolution” (2010).

([A] reproduced with permission of the Zallinger family; [B] and [D] unattributed Web source; [C], [E], and [F] used with permission of the artists)

(p.21) In figure 1.8F, an equally self-explanatory cartoon goes a long way to replacing Aristotle’s ancient scala naturae with a much more current metaphor of how biologists perceive of modification with descent. This more accurate representation is often referred to as a tree of life, a metaphor that is even more culturally ubiquitous than the ladder of life. Yet the pedigree of the ladder metaphor is quite easily traced in Western culture, but not so that of the tree. The tree image can be easily identified in ancient Western sources whence our ideas of a biological evolution arose, but how the tree morphed from religious to biological symbolism is harder to trace.