Great Chain of Being

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The Great Chain of Being was an idea put forth by Augustine of Hippo as a hierarchy of all matter and life; one can see it as a very poor system of taxonomy and matter classification.[note 1] Historian A.O. Lovejoy traced the origins of the idea back to the ancient Greek philosophers.

Three principles shaped the Great Chain:[1]

  • The principle of plenitude, traceable to Plato, posits that the universe contains all possible forms of existence.
  • The principle of continuity, traceable to Aristotle, holds that existence forms a continuous line.
  • The principle of gradation, also traceable to Aristotle , states that this continuous line constitutes a ranking of the "natural order" from lowest (or simplest) to highest (or most complex).

Early protoscientific and pseudoscientific conceptions of evolutionary theory drew on the notion of the Great Chain. Notably, it appeared in works on scientific racism of the 18th-19th centuries.[2] Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) proposed a modified version of the Great Chain in which categories were not fixed but where organisms could progress to higher forms through evolutionary development.[3]

The Chain[edit]

  1. Goat God
  2. Angels (further subdivided by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite[4])
  3. Humans (further subdivided by racists)
  4. Lions and elephants
  5. Wild mammals
  6. "Useful" domestic mammals
  7. Other "tame" domestic animals
  8. Eagles
  9. Birds of prey
  10. Carrion birds
  11. Worm eating birds
  12. Seed eating birds
  13. Whales
  14. Sharks
  15. Fish
  16. Reptiles
  17. Amphibians
  18. Insects
  19. Sessile creatures
  20. Plants (also subdivided, with trees on top)
  21. Gemstones (also subdivided, with diamonds on top)
  22. Metals (also subdivided, with gold on top)
  23. Minerals (also subdivided, with marble at the top)
  24. "Minute particles"


  • The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution (2013) Henry Gee ISBN 9780226271200

See also[edit]


  1. For comparison: See the Wikipedia article on Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.


  1. William F. Bynum. The Great Chain of Being After Forty Years: An Appraisal. Hist. Sci., vol. 13, 1975
  2. Jonathan Marks. The Great Chain of Being, in Encyclopedia of Racism
  3. A History of Evolution Pt. 1: Ancient Greece to Lamarck, Replicated Typo
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.