Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Great Chain of Being revisited

Western thinking from Plato through The Elizabethan Age conceived of Creation as structured hierarchically in the form of a "Great Chain of Being." The chain ascended from the smallest germ up through the plants and creatures to humankind and ultimately through the spheres of the firmament to reach the throne of God. The extraterrestrial links in the chain were, within Catholicism, detailed in the form of the Orders of Angels.

Few thinkers today would regard such metaphors as more than anachronisms, a primitive conception of the natural (and supernatural) order. But in the context of the star larvae hypothesis, the Chain of Being presents a more complete picture of evolution than does the standard scientific view. What the Chain lacks, and science provides, is the temporal, dynamic dimension—the process.

The Chain of Being is a cross-section of a temporal progression—a developmental sequence that leads from the terrestrial to the extraterrestrial. The Chain was conceived of at a time when Creation was regarded as static (a place for everything, etc.). Once we assign phylogeny (the evolution of species) a subordinate position within an overarching ontogeny (the stellar life cycle) we effectively resurrect the Chain of Being, but in an ecological context. Evolution is the metamorphosis of stages in the life cycle of a genus of organism—the stellar organism. The apparent directionlessness of evolution (Gould, Dawkins) is replaced by a processional sequence that, when viewed in cross section, takes the form of a Great Chain of Being. The historical intuition was essentially right; it just failed to take into account the underlying dynamic process.