Great Chain of Being

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The Great Chain of Being was an idea put forth by Augustine of Hippo as the hierarchy of all matter and life, and can be seen as a very poor system of taxonomy and matter classification. Historian A.O. Lovejoy traced the origins of the idea back to the ancient Greek philosophers.

Three principles were considered to be part of the Great Chain. The principle of plenitude, which posits that the universe contains all possible forms of existence, could be traced back to Plato. The principles of continuity and gradation could be traced back to Aristotle. The former held that existence formed a continuous line and the latter that this line constituted a ranking of the "natural order" from lowest (or simplest) to highest (or most complex).[1]

Early protoscientific and pseudoscientific conceptions of evolutionary theory drew on the notion of the Great Chain. It was particularly found within the works of scientific racism of the 18th-19th centuries.[2] Jean-Baptiste Lamarck put forth a modified version of the Great Chain in which categories were not fixed but organisms could progress to higher forms through evolutionary progress.[3]

The Chain[edit]

  1. Goat God
  2. Angels (further subdivided by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite]]
  3. Humans
  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"

See also[edit]


  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