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.


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