Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Origins of Racial Hierarchicalization: The Great Chain of Being and Scientific Racism

The great chain of being is not a desiccated, fossilized idea, a mere subject of scholarly study whose influence has vanished totally from the world. It appears at first glance metaphysical and irrelevant to the natural sciences and indeed to any view of physical reality that would purport to call itself “modern.” Its basic assumptions, however, are echoed whenever one speaks of more “highly-evolved” or “lower” life forms, whenever one imagines evolution as a progression, ever-upwards, from the primordial ooze to forms of increasing complexity and advancement.

An assumption of hierarchy has ramifications extending far beyond questions of metaphysics and pre-scientific conceptualizations of life. The conscious belief that varying degrees of superiority and inferiority can comprise a simple linear scale seems almost by common sense to be necessary to defining notions of barbarism and primitiveness and to evaluating cultures and ethnic groups relative to one other. That very idea underpinned the efforts of race theorists to not only categorize humanity, but to then rank those categories. But from where does this presupposition of hierarchy originate? Is the willingness to seek out constituent subunits within the human species and to order them based on supposed “advancement” a natural product of advances in European science, or is that drive a product of older, more deeply-rooted intellectual trends? To what degree was late 18th and early 19th century German scientific racism, as exemplified by the theories of Kant and Blumenbach, novel or at least derived from roughly contemporaneous thought, and what does it owe to earlier ways of thinking about organisms' relationship to one another, in particular the great chain of being?

This paper attempts to address this question through an examination of the argument introduced by Lovejoy in his The Great Chain of Being and supported implicitly by Stephen Jay Gould that the great chain of being, through its longstanding influence on Western thought, led to the conclusion that there existed various races of man that could be ranked hierarchically based on their measurable degrees of superiority and inferiority. To evaluate this argument, however, it is first necessary to define what is meant by “the great chain of being.”

The great chain of being, as a philosophical concept, is expansive and nebulous. In its most general sense, it refers to a view of existence as consisting of levels, defined by a given value (be it varying degrees of reality, consciousness, etc.), arranged hierarchically in a continuum stretching from lowly, non-conscious matter to a supreme, all-pervading ultimate entity, be it “spirit,” the “super-conscious,” or a deity1. As applied to the biological sciences, the great chain of being was a system of “teleological taxonomy” derived largely from the philosophy of Aristotle, a means of organizing life to reflect an apparent ultimate purpose. In the minds of those who applied it, “as the chain of life-forms proceeded from the simplest organisms to more complex ones[,] it also reflected a spiritual hierarchy.2” Though its members were all equally part of the divine plan or the order of nature, it is not unimaginable why the chain, which for a period of its history had God at one end and rocks and detritus at the other, would contain some links that were, so to speak, more equal than others.

Put in more complex terms, the great chain of being is based on three suppositions of classical philosophy: plenitude, continuity, and unilinear gradation3. Platonic philosophy originated the first idea because, as summarized by Bynum, it envisioned the universe as being perfect and therefore as containing everything that can possibly exist4. The groundwork for the idea of continuity, meanwhile, was laid by Aristotle; though he did not formulate the idea that all life occupied a single linear continuum, his observations, for instance, of “zoophytes” (his vague term for plant-like marine animals) and of seals and bats (intermediates between terrestrial and aquatic animals and terrestrial and flying animals, respectively) all but led directly to that conclusion. Lastly, Aristotle expanded on Plato's “vague tendency” to rank entities based on excellence, ignoring his own admission that there existed multiple standards by which to classify organisms. By suggesting a system that ordered extant beings based on their degree of “perfection,” Aristotle established the idea of gradation, the aforementioned notion of the inequality of the chain’s links and of the serial hierarchy they occupy5.

Evidence against the great chain of being's ubiquity in 18th and 19th century thought, however, exists in works by prominent biologists of the era. In the 1700s, according to Lovejoy, “for most men of science...the theorems implicit in the conception of the Chain of Being continued to constitute essential presuppositions in the framing of scientific hypotheses6,” and as an organizational scheme, says Shorto, the great chain of being “was still largely in effect in the early nineteenth century7.” However, it is evident that it was far from ubiquitous, as counterexamples will show. For instance, Johann Gottfried Herder contradicted several of the idea's central tenets in his works, claiming, for instance, that a spiritual and “nation[al]” unity among humans existed in place of the graduations laid out in the great chain of being. “[D]ivision into races,” in Herder's view, “becomes pointless” in light of humans' harmonious relationship with the environments they inhabit and their fundamental oneness; race was, at most, a descriptor of human expansion, of the influence of geography, and of how humans diversified to adapt to different environments, a set of superficial traits with little underlying importance8. He believed, furthermore, “that each culture contains its own unique incommensurable truth or worth” and “could not be subordinated or elevated as superior or inferior to another9.” Though Shorto claims that the great chain of being was still prevalent in the thought of Herder’s time10, the noteworthy absence of the core assumptions of hierarchy from his ideas hints that this may not have been the case.

By contrast, men such as Kant and Blumenbach constructed a notion of race based on physiology that conformed to the great chain of being’s suppositions to a greater degree. Their view rejected Herder's idea that apparent racial differences belied a fundamental sameness (Herder avoided the term “race” because of its zoological connotations and because it implied “a difference of descent,” which to him did not exist) and was grounded in racial categories defined by physiological differences. To Kant, race was real insofar as it was self-evident to anyone who could conceive of a common cause for traits not inherent to humanity and yet shared by a group of people. In his thought, it constituted a legitimate means of subdividing humanity and of spreading those subdivisions across a spectrum of relative superiority11. One senses a particular hostility from Kant towards Herder's relativism when the former writes that “as [Herder] sees it, all cultural advances are simply the further transmission and casual exploitation of an original tradition12”; the very idea was likely offensive to a thinker who sought to “establish an inherent human rational capacity” as a barometer for “progress from the 'primitive' to the 'civilized13.'”

Kant and Blumenbach's systems both employed skin color, coupled with a vague reference to geography, as the trait that distinguished race; Kant's had four subdivisions, Blumenbach's five. Both began with the conclusion that the Caucasian race, which consisted of present-day white Europeans, or, at the very least, close relatives of the modern northern European race, were humanity's original form. In Blumenbach's theory, white served, to use Voegelin's terms, as the “primitive” or “neutral” color; the remaining four races were derived from Caucasians through increases in pigmentation brought on by “deviation” or “extreme developments of the basic form.” Kant differed slightly, believing instead that the “basic form” was no longer extant; northern Europeans, inhabitants of the same temperate zone that housed this original race, were the least changed from it, and though they themselves were not the progenitors of the lesser races, they still remained “the tallest and most beautiful people on dry land.” Kant here presents principles similar to Lamarck's views on evolution, stating that “it is certain that a great number of generations has been needed for [non-white skin colors] to become part of the species and hereditary.” The remaining races, according to Kant, had been altered more drastically by the effects of hotter climates after having migrated into different environments14, 15.

Lovejoy, as previously stated, saw specific examples of the great chain of being's enormous influence on eighteenth century biology. Among these, interestingly enough, was the attack on a concept seemingly analogous to that of race, that of natural species. One of Aristotle's many ideas, the notion of natural species refers to the envisioning of different types of plants and animals as fixed, eternal, and defined as wholly separate by the laws of nature; a hippopotamus was not a hippopotamus merely because it had traits people associated with hippopotami, but because hippopotami were a distinct sort of organism as defined natural laws. It constituted, in effect, an obstacle to the extension of the idea of continuity to its logical conclusion. Ironically, it was one of the few holdovers of Aristotelian thought to survive unscathed the Renaissance backlash against Scholasticism and was generally accepted from the 16th to the 18th century, largely because it seemed obvious. However, a revival in 18th century philosophy of the prominence of continuity, an already well-developed idea with a substantial pedigree, combined with the fact that tacit belief in natural species was unrelated to the complex taxonomic organizational systems in vogue at the time (that were, for the most part, self-admittedly artificial), led to a brief period in the later 1700s when “there was a rejection of the concept of species by some of the greatest naturalists of that age16.

The long-term result was a breakdown of species-oriented thinking. However, even among biologists who did not wholly abandon belief in natural species, the now-invigorated idea of continuity held sway, encouraging a filling-in of gaps between separate species through the discovery of intermediate forms. It is interesting to note that while Shorto posited that 18th century biology felt deeply its want of an equivalent to Newtonian physics or a periodic table of the elements, Lovejoy describes the effect of this revival on zoology, botany, and microscopy as “somewhat similar to that which the table of the elements and their atomic weights [had] upon chemical research [in the early 1900s].” Continuity created a hope (made more fervent by the discovery of organisms like the seemingly plant-like members of the animal genus Hydra) that the divide between plant and inanimate matter and between animal and human would soon be bridged17.

The latter, in particular, had particular relevance for the development of scientific racism. In the 1670s, an English doctor proposed that “the savage [be assigned a place] as a permanently distinct and inferior species of humanity”; his paper was not published due to the position's theological dubiousness18. Just prior to the beginning of the 1700s, an English naturalist publicized his observations of a juvenile chimpanzee, presenting it as the missing link (all the while exaggerating its human-like traits)19. These were harbingers of a larger trend; the search for biological intermediates, explains Lovejoy, was extended in pursuit of a bridge between humans and other primates:

[T]he program of discovering the hitherto unobserved links in the chain played a part of especial importance in the beginnings of the science of anthropology. The close similarity in skeletal structure between the apes and man had early been made familiar; yet...Leibniz and Locke had asserted a greater degree of continuity than could yet be actually exhibited at this important point. It therefore became the task of science at least to increase the rapprochement of man and ape. “In the first phase of this quest,” as a German historian...has pointed out, “this missing link was sought at the lower limits of humanity itself. It was held to be not impossible that among the more remote peoples semi-human beings might be found...This preoccupation with the question of man's relation to the anthropoids gave an especial “philosophical” interest to the rather numerous discriptions of the Hottentots by late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century voyagers. They were probably the “lowest” savage races thus far known20...

Early anthropology, notes Shorto, was rife—virtually impregnated—with the assumption of inherent racial superiority21. That “philosophical interest” manifested itself in events like the exhibition (and eventual scientific examination) of Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” and other supposed borderline humans. To 18th and 19th century Europe, the Khoi-San peoples (the “Hottentots” and “Bushmen”) exemplified the lowest, most animal-like extremity of humanity, and period accounts emphasize their alleged barbarous, degenerate nature and simian behavior and mannerisms; it was as though they had discovered the Australopithicus of their time. From Baartman's dissection, one scientist drew the conclusion that the Khoi-San formed part of a continuous series of African peoples characterized by the diminishing size of their females' genitalia22; even in questions of biological minutiae, continuity, it seems, offered examples of its influence. It stands out alongside gradation, Bynum observes, in the musings of those who reflected on what, to them, seemed to be the chasm separating a Khoi-San and a European philosopher and the all but nonexistent crack separating a Khoi-San and an ape23.

Like Lovejoy, Shorto attests to the widespread presence the chain had in early modern Europe, and like Lovejoy, Shorto comes to describe its eventual ignominious end: ultimately, the great chain of being faced abandonment, having become increasingly displaced by the concept of evolution24, 25. An influx of data, growing steadily to overwhelming proportions, posed problems for scientists of the 18th century. Shorto refers to the example of botany: looking at a botanical treatise from 1542 and Augustin Pyramus de Candolle's 1824 catalogue, one sees a hundredfold increase, from five hundred to fifty thousand, in the number of known distinct plant species. “Descartes and other natural explorers of his day,” comments Shorto, “believed that nature was a puzzle that just the right sequence of discoveries would unravel...[T]hey were na├»ve in their appreciation of the puzzle's complexity26.”

At a time when new paradigms were being created in the other sciences (the establishment of the metric system, the discovery and isolation of a growing number of distinct elements, and the emergence of atomic theory among them), biology, though faced with a similar increase in the amount of data at hand, suffered from an unfulfilled, underlying desire for some new foundational scheme of organization, some method of correlating all that was known about life.“Biologists,” Shorto says, “craved the sort of base principles that Newton had developed for physics.” The usefulness of the great chain of being, according to Russell, lay in its relevance to the Christian, and, in particular, the medieval Scholastic view of nature as proceeding from God. As priorities shifted from the theological to the empirical, however, biologists, faced with a veritable mountain of species to classify, were left with a case of “physics envy27.” The direct result of crisis in systems, Shorto contends, was the (eventual) wholesale rejection of the great chain of being and its Aristotelian underpinnings in their practical function as a system of classification28.

Fredrickson, by contrast, agrees with the overarching idea of Lovejoy's thesis, but disagrees with genealogy and chronology he establishes for scientific racism; for him, the seminal moment came not with the attack on natural species in the 18th century but with the emergence of doubts during the Renaissance of the Biblical account of a single creation of the human race and thus the foundation of polygeneticism. The advancement of the idea of multiple creations to account for the various races coincided with “efforts to find a niche for the savage below civilized human beings on...the 'great chain of being'” of man. According to Fredrickson, that idea reemerged in the 19th century, on the tail end of Lovejoy's proposed minor paradigm shift in biology. Lastly, instead of attributing the search for human-ape intermediates to the renewed prominence of continuity in philosophy, Fredrickson argues that the field had already been prepared by medieval belief in subhuman “wild-men29.”

What Shorto does not explore, however, is the possibility of an intellectual afterlife of sorts for the great chain of being. This feature of Shorto and Lovejoy's analyses seems the easiest to lay aside. Shorto states that the formulators of race theory in the 19th century, in placing non-Caucasian races between them and apes, “weren't out to prove that whites were superior for the simple reason that they assumed it from the start. It was so obvious to them it didn't need proving30.” Shorto, one assumes, found no reason to link the widespread assumptions supporting scientific racism with the great chain of being, which, given the degree of similarity between the two, seems like a major oversight. While prejudices can be pervasive in a society, when they appear so prominently in the works of philosophers and naturalists, they almost demand explanation, cause, and context; Shorto simply does not offer any for the culturally-ingrained racism he describes.

Fredrickson's explanation is interesting, because while he does not dismiss outright the influence of the great chain of being, he does relegate it to the sidelines. The placement of “the savage” below the white man in new, borderline heretical theological propositions occurred concurrently with but not because of the application of the great chain of being to the same ends. Unfortunately, this argument can only be seen at face value. Fredrickson offers what, on the whole, is simultaneously a more comprehensive and less complete image than Lovejoy. He does not discuss the origins of the new religious attitudes he describes at length, and the change they affected on European thought is glossed over. Therefore, it is difficult to compare his assertions with the (to say the least) thorough discussion provided by Lovejoy. The relative degree of support polygeneticism and the great chain of being enjoyed, for instance, cannot be gauged; one merely has Fredrickson's (implicitly given) word that one had greater significance than the other.

However, Fredrickson succeeds in contributing something to the analysis of Lovejoy's thesis by also describes an idea that competed with the great chain of being. In an odd inversion of Kant, the notion of the “noble savage” gives an honored position to “primitive” cultures denigrated by scientific racism. Those cultures, pure and virtuous through the supposed absence of the corrupting influences of civilization, were described by some as “living in a natural innocence equivalent to that of Eden before the fall [sic].” The eventual rejection of this view by the popular mind, according to Fredrickson, was caused not by any concerted ideological counterattack by supporters of the savages-as-lesser-humans viewpoint, but by political and social upheavals that renewed belief in innate human sinfulness and blunter, more pragmatic means of achieving a harmonious society31.

There are two means by which the measurement of the influence the great chain of being had on scientific racism in the late 1700s and early 1800s will be attempted. First, indirectly, through one's sense that the idea had wide currency at the time, and secondly, by the presence of its features in racial thinking.

The second yields strong evidence in favor of Lovejoy's assertions. In the racial theories of Kant and Blumenbach, one discerns clearly the component ideas of the great chain of being. Continuity was assumed to some degree, allowing for races of man that, though variously superior and inferior, remain nevertheless related with one another. Gradation is inherent in the concept of superiority in and of itself, and is thus naturally present in the notion of a hierarchy of races. Plenitude is not obviously present, not so much because it was rejected but because it was irrelevant; Kant and Blumenbach's theories aimed to describe humans as they existed, not humans in all the forms in which they could exist.

The core idea, however, did not persist through the centuries unchanged. Aristotle's conception of natural species, though rejected, had an important aspect that was not explicitly tossed out in the 18th century: the organisms that inhabited the earth were, in their physiology, eternal and unchanging32. According to that view, if there were many races of humans, they would have had to have existed, separate and individual, since the beginning. Kant and Blumenbach's theories, however, posited a single originator race whose gradual differentiation created the others33.

This deviation would not seem as significant if it were not for the first means of evaluation. According to Lovejoy, the great chain of being has served as “the dominant official philosophy of the larger part of civilized mankind throughout most of its history34.” Wilber could be accused of hyperpole when he speaks of the “perennial philsophy,” which had at its heart the great chain of being:

[I]t shows up across cultures and across the ages with essentially similar features—this worldview has, indeed, formed the core of not only the world's great wisdom traditions, from Christianity to Buddhism to Taoism, but also of the greatest philosophers, scientists, and psychologists of both East and West, North and South. So overwhelmingly widespread is the perennial philosophy...that it is either the single greatest intellectual error ever to appear in humankind's history—an error so colossally widespread as to literally stagger the mind—or it is the single most accurate reflection of reality yet to appear35.

All of these statements advance a particular image of the great chain of being, one of an idea that was deeply-rooted, fundamental, and omnipresent, and one that appears implausible. While none present pose the argument that the great chain of being was not a widely-had assumption in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, none have proven its overwhelming dominance. Tacit rejections of its central premises, as mentioned above, did exist. Herder was by no means ignored, and the ideal of the noble savage, despite its eventual failure, survived in some form into Rousseau's time. Though influential, it did not have a monopoly on thought.

One thus concludes that while the great chain of being was a contributing factor to the demarcation and ranking of races, it was in no way the contributing factor. It did not enjoy the ubiquity necessary to prevent the emergence of alternative notions antithetical to its core principles, and it was one of these principles that eventually superceded it, first in taxonomy, and then, eventually, as a basis for judgments about race. These notions, as it has been plausibly stated, had a hand in shaping the scientific racism, and the great chain of being, astonishingly long-lived and a paradigm in and of itself, must retire to its place as one influence among many.


1Wilber, “The Great Chain of Being,” 53.

2Shorto, Descartes' Bones, 140-41.

3Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 50-59.

4Bynum, “The Great Chain of Being After Forty Years,” 4.

5Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 55-57.

6Ibid., 227.

7Shorto, Descartes' Bones, 140-41.

8Voegelin, The History of the Race Idea, 70-72.

9Eze, Race and the Enlightenment, 65.

10 Shorto, Descartes' Bones, 140-41.

11 Voegelin, The History of the Race Idea, 70-77.

12Kant, “Review of Herder's Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, Part Two (1785),” 69.

13Eze, Race and the Enlightenment,. 65.

14Kant, “Physical Geography,” 61.

15Voegelin, The History of the Race Idea, 76-77

16Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 227-31.

17Ibid., 231-233.

18Fredrickson, “Settlement and Subjugation: 1600-1840,” 11.

19 Gould, “To Show an Ape,” 269-75.

20Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 233-34.

21Shorto, Descartes' Bones, 183-87.

22Gould, “The Hottentot Venus,” 294-99.

23Bynum, “The Great Chain of Being After Forty Years,” 5.

24Shorto, Descartes' Bones, 140-44, 181-83.

25Kuntz, “Small is Beautiful,” 362.

26Shorto, Descartes' Bones, 130.

27Ibid., 140-41.

28Ibid., 140-41.

29Fredrickson, “Settlement and Subjugation: 1600-1840,” 9-11.

30Shorto, Descartes' Bones, 187.

31Fredrickson, “Settlement and Subjugation: 1600-1840,” 11-12.

32Shorto, Descartes' Bones, 142-43.

33Voegelin, The History of the Race Idea, 76-78.

34Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 26.

35Wilber, “The Great Chain of Being,” 53.


Works Cited

Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Harvard University Press: Cambridge: 1957), 26, 50-59, 227-31, 233-34.

Emmanuel Chudwudi Eze, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Blackwell Publishers: Cambridge: 1997), 65.

Eric Voegelin, The History of the Race Idea, from Ray to Carus (Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1998), 67, 70-78.

George M. Fredrickson, “Settlement and Subjugation: 1600-1840,” in White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History, by George M. Fredrickson (Oxford University Press: New York: 1981), 9-12.

Immanuel Kant, “Physical Geography,” in Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, ed. Emmanuel Chudwudi Eze (Blackwell Publishers: Cambridge: 1997), 61.

Immanuel Kant, “Review of Herder's Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, Part Two (1785),” in Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, ed. Emmanuel Chudwudi Eze (Blackwell Publishers: Cambridge: 1997), 69.

Ken Wilber, “The Great Chain of Being,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 33 (Summer 1993), 52-65. Available at, accessed 23 April 2011, 53.

Paul Grimley Kuntz, “Small is Beautiful,” in Jacob's Ladder and the Tree of Life: Concepts of Hierarchy and the Great Chain of Being, ed. Marion Leathers Kuntz and Paul Grimley Kuntz (Peter Lang: New York, 1987), 362.

Russell Shorto, Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason (Vintage Books: New York, 2008), 130, 140-44, 181-187.

Stephen Jay Gould, “The Hottentot Venus,” in The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould (W. W. Norton & Co.: New York, 1985), 294-99.

Stephen Jay Gould, “To Show an Ape,” in The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould (W. W. Norton & Co.: New York, 1985), 269-75.

William F. Bynum, “The Great Chain of Being After Forty Years: An Appraisal,” History of Science 8 (1975). Available at, accessed 23 April 2011, 4-5.

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