Nov 24 2010

The Great Chain of Being

Published by at 11:21 am
Under Medical History | Phenotypic Plasticity

The Book of Genesis has an interesting take on genetics and the environment:

“And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chestnut tree; and piled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. And he set the rods that he had piled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink. And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not unto Laban’s cattle. And it came to pass, whensoever the stronger cattle did conceive, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods. But when the cattle were feeble, he put them not in: so the feebler were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s.”

-Genesis 30-37

A common notion in ancient times was that characteristics of one’s offspring were influenced by what one was viewing at the moment of conception. Thus Jacob conceives of a variety of patterns that he constructs of branches and places these at the bottom of a water trough such that his flock would see these at just the moment before they copulate. The result of his actions then goes on to determine the stripes (ringstrakes) of the offspring.

Questionable genetics? No doubt. However evolutionary biologists do know that visual stressors, such as signs of predatory activity, can modify phenotypic expression in offspring. And it is also known that farmers since Babylonian times have understood the basics of animal and plant pedigree; the ancient Egyptians practiced cross-pollination in order to improve the quality and quantity of a crop.

'The Great Chain of Being' (1617) by Robert Fludd

A hierarchical structure to all matter and life, and believed to have been decreed by God, formed the structure of most classical Christian and Western medieval classification thought. This was known as the Great Chain of Being, a set of values that detail a strict stepwise structure of all matter and life. Attributed originally to the Plato, it was nonetheless unformed until codified by the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus (c. 204–270).

The Chain had two important characteristics. First, that the various ranks in the chain were fixed. There was no mobility from one rank to the next. Forgetting one’s position on the chain was a great sin, for it led people to behave either like the lower life forms (the animals) or to be “uppity” and aspire to a place above their station. Second, the hierarchy was complete and closed. All forms of life had been created in the beginning, and there was no room for new life to appear. The differences between distinct positions on the scale were not major, for every creature bore many resemblances to the life forms above and below. This was the origin of the famous saying (much quoted by Darwin): natura non facit saltum (“nature does not make leaps”).

In the Great Chain, hierarchy of existence is depicted as:

  • God as Spirit
  • Spiritual Being(s)
  • Human Beings
  • The Animal Kingdom
  • The Plant Kingdom
  • The Material (Inert) World

The Great Chain of Being is one of the longest lasting and most influential metaphors in the history of ideas, and its impact on natural science has been called “the greatest synthetic scheme in pre-Darwinian biology.” (1)

  1. Lovejoy O. The Great Chain of Being. Harper New York (1960)

Portions excerpted from Fundamentals of Generative Medicine copyright 2010, Drum Hill Publishing, USA.

One response so far

One Response to “The Great Chain of Being”

  1. janet (jayneeo) says:

    Hey, Dr. D! I appreciate your blog showing the Great Chain of Being! It gives us pause to remember the special place we inhabit in that chain. What buddhists call “the precious human life”. I heard (read) a story that says humans occupy the best place in the chain of being for attaining enlightenment. Angels have intelligence but no suffering. Animals have suffering but no intelligence. Humans have both intelligence and suffering.
    Just sayin’….

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