Romanticism and the scala naturae

There are certain books that we define as classics and whose reading we consider mandatory. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a little essay in which he explains, not in a honourable way, what turns a book into a classic. Anyway, whatever it is what defines a classic, the second half of my statement seems to be true: there are some books that we have to read, like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Kafka’s The Trial, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Huxley’s Brave New World, Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Vergilius’s Aeneid, Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue and many, many others. Among the so-called classics, I am ashamed — and I admit it — for never having read Cervantes’ Quixote, despite having a beautiful edition in my small library.

I believe that among science books and popular science books there are also works which we could easily define as classics, at least for each branch of science. Needless to say, when it comes to evolutionary biology On the origin of species is a classic, as well as some more recent books on popular science, like Dawkins’ The selfish gene. But there are other books less known to the general public which are regarded as classics or, should I say, “minor classics” by a very small and specific scientific community. Stephen Jay Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny seems to be one of those. I already knew it and its main claims, of course by second hand, until I decided to buy a copy.

One of the pleasant surprises I had reading the first chapter, and that until then I had never thought about, is the relationship between Romanticism and anthropocentrism. Gould makes this relationship quite clear, in fact he shows that this relationship is almost mandatory, particularly regarding the infamous scala naturae. I had already written in a previous post, and I’ll say it again: one of the reasons I have wrote my book, and after that I’ve started to write this blog, is to put my two cents, to leave my humble contribution to remove this medieval hindrance to the development and understanding of evolutionary biology’s theoretical framework, this anachronistic nonsense called scala naturae that is still so common: the notion that there is “superior” and “inferior” organisms, “higher” and “lower” species, “imperfect” and “perfect”, “more evolved” or “less evolved”, and chiefly that there is teleology in evolution and that the man is the pinnacle of evolutionary success and the splendour of nature.

Schelling, one of the most important figures of Naturphilosophie.

Schelling, one of the most important figures of Naturphilosophie.

In Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Gould performs a historical analysis of the famous (and infamous) Haeckel’s principle of recapitulation, in the heart of the naturphilosophie of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In a nutshell, naturphilosophie (or “philosophy of nature”) was a romantic movement of the German idealism, which sought the unification of all natural phenomena and processes through anthropocentric and transcendental beliefs. Therefore, one can think about the naturphilosophie as the embodiment of German Romanticism in the philosophy and sciences.

In Chapter 3, Gould (quoting Von Aesch), summarizes the main aspects of Romantic thought:

  • The establishment of a universal order of metaphysical, not just pragmatic, validity.
  • The determination of a place for man compatible with the faith in a human superiority of more than relative importance.
  • A substantiation of the belief in man’s brotherhood and even identity with all of life and thus with all existence.

Following that, Gould starts an introductory description of the role of German Romanticism in shaping the naturphilosophie, which will culminate in the elaboration of the biogenetic law by Haeckel. But what interested me specially in this part of the book was the relationship between Romanticism and the scala naturae: how romanticism almost necessarily requires and demands that ladderlike conception of the world, and how Romanticism was an element responsible for the deepening of the notion of man as a superior and distinct entity (Etienne Serres even classified the man in his own Kingdom!).

Here I quote two important paragraphs to understand this relation between Romanticism and scala naturae. For those that want to continue the reading, the full book is available on Google Books.

Goethe’s “insistent perception of unity” led the Naturphilosophen to link all objects. Since they thought in developmental terms and saw but a single, progressive direction of motion, this linking took the form of a single, ascending chain. As Herder wrote in his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte (1784—1785): “From stones to crystals, from crystals to metals, from these to plants, from plants to animals, and from animals to man, we see the form of  organization ascend; and with it the powers and propensities of the  creature become more various, until finally they all, so far as possible, unite in the form of man”.

The development of complexity during ontogeny (so evident that preformationists affirmed it, if only as an illusion), and the recognition that there are “higher” and “lower” species are two inescapable phenomena of biology. If there is but a single direction to organic  development, and if all processes are governed by the same laws, then  the stages of ontogeny must parallel the uniserial arrangement of adult forms. If there is but one path of ascent to man, and if a human embryo must begin in Oken’s “initial chaos”, then the stages of human ontogeny must represent the completed forms of lower organisms. As Oken stated in his colorful metaphor, what are the lower animals but a series of human abortions? Or, as Robinet described them, “the apprenticeship of nature in learning to make a man”. One can scarcely hold the basic premises of Naturphilosophie without accepting recapitulation as a consequence.

I can’t help feeling a deep discomfort when I think about how skewed is the scala nature, and how biased is the way the human being sees (historically) himself and the other species. It is worth it to remember, particularly for those that never heard about the scala naturae, that it is not a concept created during Romanticism: it already existed in Ancient Greek, and maybe even before that. However, the scala naturae fitted like a glove for the naturphilosophie Romanticism to establish a glorious position to the man, position that today is seen as absurd and indefensible.

Natural selection versus artificial selection

I like working with clear and precise definitions not for some love of rigid conventions, which I don’t have, nor because I think science is immutable and made of fixed certainties, which is not true. For me, clear and precise definitions provide a basis for thinking and planning a research, for scientific communication and for the development of scientific activity. We all like to talk and exchange ideas with smart people, using logical and consistent reasoning, especially regarding our academic life. However, it is not uncommon for many of these people, by indolence or even overconfidence, to neglect the importance of some definitions and some fundamental principles of the science they work with. Continue reading

Phylogenetics and linguistic diversity

When I was coursing the first semester of Ancient Greek several years ago, I discovered — much to my astonishment — a number of similarities between Greek and Latin which, in my ignorance, I absolutely did not expect to find. I remember that one of these similarities I first noticed was the singular form of the first person pronoun, ego in Latin and ego (ἐγώ) into Greek. Continue reading

Evolutionary biology and the meaning of life

An interesting aspect of evolutionary biology is that it’s related to many of philosophy’s key issues, issues and questions with which philosophers deal since philosophy’s Hellenic dawn. One of these questions, which we could easily rank as the most fundamental of all, is about the meaning of life. This brief post is just an outline of the opinion that I have, but that still I would like to share, about the relationship between evolutionary biology and the meaning of life. Continue reading

Can we quantify genetic and environmental influences on a characteristic?

There are indispensable books, books that we have to have (even if we end up reading only the book flap…). Other books, down below in a list of importance, are books that we plan to buy when a chance comes. However, there are certain books that we did not even know about, and that are discovered by chance when we wander through the books on the shelves of a bookstore —you pull a stool, if there is one around, sit beside the shelves, and start skimming through pages, book after book. These books, which we find fortuitously, bring sometimes approaches that we didn’t know, once we are so accustomed to those few authors of our predilection. I like to browse the shelves at random, when I have some bucks saved at the end of the month, of course… Continue reading

The problem of multilevel selection

In the chapter about selection of my book, I wrote a draft on what would be the unit of selection in the selective process, namely, what biological entity has its frequency increased because of selective processes. This is a rather controversial topic in evolutionary biology, and I quickly decided to drop it, focusing only on the basic explanation of fundamental concepts related to the selection itself, because, from the beginning, I planned to write a fairly brief and short book. But now, here in the blog, I can try to write a line or two about the unit of selection. This post is a first superficial exploration on this subject. Continue reading

Darwin, Lamarck and the ants

The educational reality I can talk about here in this blog is the reality in which I grew up: my experiences as a student and after that my experiences at the other side of the process, as a teacher, from the early 90’s to last year — I don’t give classes anymore. Yes, this is a biased view, but I never meant to generalize it: I bear very clearly in mind that what I know and the pedagogical experiences I have refer to my country and my country only. I don’t know much about biology classes in other countries, and I hope, for their best, that they are not like what I experienced. Continue reading