One can easily find any number of books on Darwinism in which the authors argue that modern science does not support the ancient and medieval conceptions of the universe as hierarchical. Oftentimes, scientific writers cite Arthur O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea as a resource for the hisotry of the hierarchy of being. All of this gets endlessly repeated without variation or insight. And it does get wearisome. Some science authors write as if they are only vaguely familiar with the work by Lovejoy they are citing. And I see no reason to believe, except in a very few instances, that modern science writers are familiar with and understand the classic writings of Plato and Aristotle on the subject of being. Now that I have voiced this particular complaint, I will move on to briefly discuss my concerns regarding Darwinist arguments against the hierarchy of being.
First, I will tersely describe the hierarchy of being. At the lowest level is prime matter, which is pure potentiality. Next is informed matter, the elements or inanimate matter, that which we commonly think of as matter. Above non-living matter, are the plants, which in addition to being composed of elements from the earth, possess life, with the powers of nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Above vegetative life are the animals, which possess everything listed above regarding plant life, but in addition possess the powers of appetite, locomotion, sense knowledge, and emotions. Finally, at the top of the food chain, so to speak, is man, who possesses everything an animal possesses. In addition, man has the unique power of reason or rational thought and free will. Man's nature is also composite: he is a spiritual soul intimately united to a physical body. Man is an integral part of natural world, yet he also transcends the natural world. Above man are the pure spirits with no admixture of matter in their being; and next is God, the Creator of all things, who is pure actuality.
Some beings in nature do not fit neatly into one category or another. Aristotle, for instance, recognized creatures that possess characteristics distinctive of both plants and animals. Intermediate forms such as these do not invalidate or contradict the hierarchical classification of being. This is important to realize when considering how the evolution of species relates to the hierarchial classification.
One can find in history various descriptions of the chain of being that attempt to include almost everything in existence and even grade beings according to their usefulness to man. Such representations are more fanciful than philosophical and are of no relevance to the present discussion. However, such hierarchies do provide useful and interesting insights into a particular culture’s way of thinking about the world.
The Darwinian adamantly objects to any hierarchy of being because it is teleological. The Darwinist believes that evolution does not have an ultimate goal or purpose. Consequently, Darwinism is essentially materialistic, as the emiment evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson correctly noted in 1949. This extreme, materialistic Darwinian view is what I will be addressing. There are non-Darwinian interpretations of evolution, but I will be discussing Darwinism only in this post.
Here is clear explanation of the typical Darwinian view regarding purpose in nature:
“The image of a Ladder of Nature or Great Chain of Being suggests that evolution has a goal or an overall direction, often thought to be humans. But we know this isn’t the case. There is no intent, or ultimate aim, in replication, variation, selection, nor any other mechanism of evolution. Although there have been progressive improvements in various evolutionary lines, and we do not recognize the evolution of complexity over time, perhaps the image of a bush works better as an analogy for the big picture of evolution. Unlike a ladder or a chain, a bush can branch off in many directions—up, down, left, right and anywhere in between—and new branches can sprout off of older branches without implying that those farther from the trunk are more perfect or better adapted to their environments than those to the trunk.”
This is what Smith and Sullivan call “The Big Picture”, in The Top 10 Myths of Evolution. Even though the bush analogy may be quite suitable for the purposes of science, I will submit that it is far from being the “The Big Picture”. Smith and Sullivan, like all extreme Darwinists, deny the existence of teleology in nature: “But scientists, for all of their searching haven’t discovered any evidence of teleology in evolution. There appears to be no inherent drive that propels the evolution of species “upward” toward the ultimate goal of humans or any other species.” (p. 45)
The problem here is a fundamental epistemological error and the failure to recognize the proper role and limits of the natural sciences. Teleology is a metaphysical concept. Purpose or teleology is not within the competence of the particular sciences to investigate or address. Science can neither prove nor disprove teleology in nature. When science denies purpose in nature it is encroaching on first philosophy, metaphysics. A scientist who claims that science disproves teleology should be summarily discounted as making assertions that are non-scientific.
It makes about as much sense for a scientist to deny teleology as it does for a Soviet cosmonaut to deny the existence of God. It was reported that Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first man in space, said he "flew into space, but I did not see God there." (The story is probably apocryphal. Nikita Khrushchev seems to have fabricated it as propaganda against religion. Yet it will suffice here as an illustration of my point.) It should be obvious that metaphysical questions about the existence of God are not within the scope and competence of Soviet cosmonaut training. The evolutionists can no more disprove purpose in nature than the Soviet cosmonaut can disprove the existence of God.
Is Evolution Progressive?
If we gauge the success of evolutionary processes by the criterion of adaptability, then complexity is not necessarily progressive. Still, who will deny that there has been a general trend toward complexity? If a certain simple species “A” is better adapted to its environment than a more complex one “B”, then by the criterion of adaptability and survival, evolution has been more successful in the line of species “A”. However, does this mean that we should be judge evolution by the standard of adaptation and survival alone? If cockroaches can better adapt to their environment than Homo sapiens, does this mean we would have a better existence as cockroaches instead?
Natural selection is both determined and random. That there is randomness in nature is a poor argument against teleology because randomness and purpose are not always mutually exclusive. Darwin's theory of natural selection was treated by scientists with considerable objection ever since the publication of the Origin of Species, since it seemed to deny purpose and design in nature. However, I do not see natural selection and teleology as mutally exclusive concepts. At this point, I believe natural selection is an excellent theory.
Also, Darwinists like to cite the fact that 99.99 percent of all evolutionary lines that have ever existed are now extinct as support for the idea that evolution is purposeless. Is that just a scientist's cold, calculating, and jaded outlook on life? To such a scientist I must have a very illogical interpretation of natural history. I can only marvel at the fact that in spite of astronomical odds against the possibility of beings evolving who can ask whether there is purpose in evolution, we have in fact arrived. We are here, but the Darwinist would say it was by only chance, because there were so many "what if" situations that might have prevented our appearance. But "what if" man was destined to appear despite all of the possible negative "what if" situations in nature? Perhaps the very fact that Homo sapiens appeared despite the innumerable potential obstacles in nature means something significant, something that is beyond the realm of scientific understanding?
A creature that can reason about evolution undoubtably enjoys a much higher order of existence than the cockroach. Man possess something of being that is much greater than the mere ability to survive and adapt. This is the common sense and ancient wisdom, which recognizes the hierarchy of being. The issues of “higher” and “lower” and the “hierarchy of being” will not go away just because extreme Darwinists wish it so.
The Middles Ages correctly recognized the hierarchy of being. Modern science correctly recognizes many things about the evolution of life. The vision of nature possessed by the genius of the Middle Ages ought not to be discounted by the extreme Darwinists. The Darwinists may be the first to claim that evolution is not necessarily progressive, yet he reveals his own prejudice and internal contradiction by assuming the present time is neccessarily more advanced than past ages. The typical Darwinist is a narrow, illiberally educated person sporting an illiberal view of life. C.S. Lewis once said "Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period." The Darwinist would do well to heed C.S. Lewis, and learn the truths from the old books as a corrective to his false metaphysical views about nature.