Taxonomy and the scala naturae

Some time ago, I took to examining staples of Leibniz’s work at closer range.  Whilst I am greatly interested in analytic philosophy, logic, and other disciplines that contain (and have been shaped by) his ideas, I haven’t done too much in the way of reading his French works.

In going through several databases, I somehow stumbled upon La lettre de M. de Leibnitz, alleguée par M. Koenig (alternatively: Lettre prétendue de M. de Leibnitz, à M. Hermann  dont M. Koenig a cité le fragment).

All the different classes of beings which taken together make up the universe are, in the ideas of God who knows distinctly their essential gradations, only so many ordinates of a single curve so closely united that it would be impossible to place others between any two of them, since that would imply disorder and imperfection. Thus men are linked with the animals, these with the plants and these with the fossils, which in turn merge with those bodies which our senses and our imagination represent to us as the absolutely inanimate. And, since the law of continuity [i.e., “Natura non facit saltum”] requires that when the essential attributes of one being approximate those of another all the properties of the one must likewise gradually approximate those of the other, it is necessary that all the orders of natural beings form but a single chain, in which the various classes, like so many rings, are so closely linked one to another that it is impossible for the senses or the imagination to determine precisely the point at which one ends and the nextbegins.

The terminology used within this fragment is highly reminiscent of that found in Darwin’s writings – primarily, we see the use of “gradations” and mentions of chain imagery (e.g., “chain”, “linked”, “rings”).  Post-reading, the following question came to mind:

Is it possible that modern taxonomy drew noteworthy inspiration from the idea of the scala naturae?

After some brief browsing, it became evident that this intuition has some merit.  Indeed, in retrospect, the connection is relatively readily derived: an elementary knowledge of modern biology should lead to the realization that evolution, like the scala, is not saltatory, but gradual and continuous.  Understandably, the two are far from identical – “post-Cuvier-and-advanced-botany” taxonomy cannot in any way be perceived as a linear hierarchy – but their occasional similarities are clear.

An additional tidbit for thought:  Taxonomy has, at times, been called one of the world’s oldest professions.  Why, given the amount of work that was done in plant classification prior to Linnaeus, was the concept of the scala not more quickly abandoned?  Additionally, how does the scala manifest itself in the symbolism that has grown around birds?

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2 Responses to Taxonomy and the scala naturae

  1. lulzsec says:

    In the second sentence, the usage of the word “whilst” was inappropriate. It should have been “while”. Appalling.

    • Sophia says:

      Hi there!

      I really don’t think you’re correct where modern usage is concerned, and especially modern BrE. “Whilst” and “while” are considered interchangeable (well, obviously, not in the tran. verb or noun sense of “while”, but as conjunctions). Some people have differing usage preferences, but both are now considered tolerable.

      Thanks, though!

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