Ever since Darwin, there has been a tension between the theory of biological transformation (stochastic tinkering) and the concept of progress. Two Italian biologists have scanned 67,413 scientific articles published between 2005 and 2010 in 16 top science journals. They were looking for examples of progressionist, pre-evolutionary language because they suspected that evolutionary biology has retained some cultural baggage implying a direction to evolutionary transformation. According to their thinking, the Great Chain of Being concept, historically known as the scala naturae, has a persistent unacknowledged influence over the minds of many in the research community. This concept assigns a place to every entity in the natural world, whether animate or inanimate, "from the lowest steps of the ladder occupied by fire, air and water, up to the highest steps hosting monkeys, apes and humans".
"Despite the explosion of tree-like diagrams in the recent biological literature, evolution is indeed often perceived as a linear, progressive process rather than as a story of unceasing branching and diversification ultimately resulting in a tree. This misleading progressionism is scientifically undefensible (e.g., Dawkins 1992; O'Hara 1992, 1997; Gould 1994, 1996; Nee 2005; Gregory 2008; Omland et al. 2008; Casane and Laurenti 2013)."
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana. (Source here)
The concept appears to be rooted in philosophies developed by Aristotle and Plato, picked up and repackaged by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century, and developed by other natural philosophers as a way of making sense of the extraordinary diversity in the world. After Darwin, many tried to link evolutionary theory with the Great Chain of Being. This is seen in the way evolutionary trees were presented (as linear pathways rather than structureless bushes); in portraying organisms as "higher" and "lower" in the evolutionary spectrum; in the free use of the term "missing link"; and representing a trend to complexity as something inherently significant. Social Darwinists developed the concept in terms of cultural progress, with innately fit groups of humans possessing superior attitudes and modes of behaviour.
"From an educational perspective, Werth (2012) has recently remarked that students referring to "higher" and "lower" life forms retain an Aristotelian view of the great chain of being, a wrong view of evolution to be corrected by training them in the theory and practice of cladistics. Correct reading of the tree of life is indeed less common than we should expect. Besides the persistence of the progressionist language ('lower' vs. 'higher') discussed below, based on data extracted by the recent literature, let us briefly consider the widespread use of 'basal', as applied (illegitimately) to a branch of the tree of life, or to a terminal taxon, rather than (legitimately, in a comparative context) to a node. Krell and Cranston (2004) have forcefully argued that this use, simply, does not make sense, as both branches originating from a node are of equal age and (in some sense at least) have undergone equivalent evolutionary change. Parallel to what we argue in this paper of labeling taxa as 'lower' or 'higher', "Considering clades or taxa as 'basal' is not only sloppy wording, but shows misunderstanding of the tree and may have severe semantic and argumentative implications" (Krell and Cranston 2004, p. 280). In front of a rooted cladogram, many authors ask: "Which of the species is the oldest? Which is youngest? Which is most ancestral? Most derived? Most primitive? Most advanced? Most simple? Most complex? The answer is that a phylogeny provides no information about any of these questions! While this answer may seem inconvenient to researchers looking to phylogenies to provide that information, these are the incorrect questions to be asking" (Omland et al. 2008, p. 856)."
Since the scholarly papers were selected based on their being described as biological, it can be expected that most of them are concerned with empirical science rather than providing evolutionary perspectives. Nevertheless, the two authors found 1,287 papers that used scala naturae language in a way that gave them cause for concern.
"Articles with scala naturae language were particularly frequent in Molecular Biology and Evolution (6.14%), BioEssays (5.6%) and Annual Review of Ecology Evolution and Systematics (4.82%). The fact that two of these three journals are in an area of evolutionary biology shows that the use of pre-evolutionary language can survive even in the most renowned professional journals."
There is a dearth of analytical discussion in this paper. A possible role of Lysenkoism is considered to have influenced Russian authors, although the cognitive connections are not clarified. Progressivism may be more "entrenched" in Western cultures, but the lower percentages from Indian, Korean and Turkish authors do not lead to a discussion of how cultural factors might explain the data. The conclusion is this: "the great chain of being is still with us, 153 years after Darwin (1859) published The Origin of Species". The justification for announcing the findings in this way is that an "appreciation of the extent to which progressionist language survives in scientific papers is the first, necessary step towards its eradication." The route to eradication is said to be "a robust training in tree thinking".
There has been a long tradition of saying 'more education needed' to sort out unwanted cultural legacies. However, the track record of those who follow this tradition is not good. Somehow, the perceived problems do not go away. In this case, there is a need to probe a bit deeper and analyse the worldviews associated with progressivist thinking. This is particularly important as the authors are all educated to higher degree level and represent the cream of the evolutionary biology community. With this problem, we are not talking about student term papers, but research articles in high-impact journals!
The theme of progress in the minds of the intelligentsia has been tackled by Professor John Gray in several books, the most recent being The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013). An insightful review of Gray's contribution is by Robert W. Merry in The National Interest. Gray traces the concept of progress partly to Socrates and much more to Christian thinking about redemption.
"But the modern world retained a powerful philosophical outlook from the classical world - the Socratic faith in reason, the idea that truth will make us free; or, as Gray puts it, the "myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world."
[. . .]
"But the power of the progress idea stems in part from the fact that it derives from a fundamental Christian doctrine - the idea of providence, of redemption. Gray notes in The Silence of Animals that no other civilization conceived any such phenomenon as the end of time, a concept given to the world by Jesus and St. Paul. Classical thinking, as well as the thinking of the ancient Egyptians and later of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Shintoism and early Judaism, saw humanity as reflecting the rest of the natural world - essentially unchanging but subject to cycles of improvement and deterioration, rather like the seasons."
With the waning of these influences (we now live in a post-Christian culture), intellectuals have sought to retain the concept of progress by associating it with various good causes such as education, evolution, capitalism and empire building. The problem they encounter, however, is that they have no rationale for their substitute for redemption. By abandoning the sovereign God who is working out his purposes in history, the concept of progress becomes an exercise in wishful thinking.
"[T]he idea of progress is merely a secular religion, and not a particularly meaningful one at that. "Today," writes Gray in Straw Dogs, "liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world's religions.""
The Social Darwinists warmed to progressivist thinking and explored ways of predicting and engineering the evolution of humanity. The Eugenics Movement has had a field day. But the progressivist leanings of liberal humanism affects all aspects of their thinking - and this is why there is a link with the Great Chain of Being concept. Whilst these cultural trends explain the data gathered by Rigato and Minelli, there are concerns about developments within liberal humanism. We have the emergence of visionary thinkers, who are crusaders for their progressivist goals. They wage a war on any who stand in their way and are not interested in dialogue - only in conquest.
"After centuries of intellectual effort aimed at developing the idea of progress as an ongoing chain of improvement with no perceived end into the future, this new breed of "Progress as Power" thinkers began to declare their own visions as the final end point of this long progression. Gray calls these intellectuals "ichthyophils," which he defines as "devoted to their species as they think it ought to be, not as it actually is or as it truly wants to be." He elaborates: "Ichthyophils come in many varieties - the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorizing humankind in order to remake it on a new model; the neo-conservative, waging perpetual war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be." He includes also "the Romantics, who believe human individuality is everywhere repressed.""
Liberal humanists have achieved leadership in the world of science, and have succeeded in making their vision of the future dominant in the media. We are seeing also the politicisation of science, not only in areas like global warming, transhumanism and GMO technologies, but also in educational policy. These visionaries make it clear that if we do not follow their advice, the world is doomed to experience unimaginable disasters. The main concern in this blog is the integrity of science and the protection of education from ideological straitjackets. In both cases, dangers are with us from secular humanists promoting their agendas in the name of science. We need freedom within science to discuss these issues and we need freedom in education to recognise cultural issues within science and to follow evidence wherever it leads - even if that takes us beyond the naturalism of the humanists.
The great chain of being is still here
Emanuele Rigato and Alessandro Minelli
Evolution: Education and Outreach, 28 June 2013, 6:18 doi:10.1186/1936-6434-6-18
Abstract. Background: Professional papers in evolutionary biology continue to host expressions in agreement with the pre-evolutionary metaphor of the scala naturae (the great chain of being), when contrasting 'lower' to 'higher' representatives of a given branch of the tree of life. How pervasive is the persistence of progressionist, pre-evolutionary language in contemporary papers?
Results: We document here the prevalence of this unexpected linguistic survival in papers published between 2005 and 2010 by 16 top scientific journals, including generalist magazines and specialist journals in evolutionary biology. Out of a total of 67,413 papers, the unexpectedly high figure of 1,287 (1.91%) returned positive hits from our search for scala naturae language.
Conclusions: A quantitative appreciation of the survival of progressionist language in scientific papers is the first step towards its eradication. This will obtain by improving skills in tree thinking as well as by more careful editorial policy.
Merry, R.W. The Fallacy of Human Freedom, The National Interest | July-August 2013
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