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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 8 page 14


The simple-minded bestiaries became irrelevant in subsequent centuries as real information about vast numbers of new plants and animals poured in from European explorations of the planet. A scientific revolution was building steam, along with scientific method. Statements about nature now had to be backed by verifiable physical facts.

On the other hand, fitting all the facts into a big picture still demanded a high-level story.

Thus the men of science — mostly churchmen or minor nobility at that time — cooked up the famous Great Chain of Being, a hierarchical ordering of nature supposed to include all known entities, starting from Absolute God at the top and dropping down thru lesser entities such as angels, stars in the sky, mankind, then animals, birds, fish, and plants. Rocks, being completely stupid, i.e., without spirit or appetite and hence on the brink of non-existence, were at the bottom, the rock bottom.

Each category could split into sub-hierarchies. Human society could be divided into kings, nobles, etc., down to peasants and scallywags.

The lion, traditionally king of the beasts, was at the top of the animal hierarchy, altho some people felt the elephant, largest of the beasts, deserved that honor. After the wild animals came the domesticated animals such as horses, dogs, pigs, chickens. At the bottom was the snake, the accursed creature, never forgiven, whose form Satan had entered long ago.

So the medieval notion that nature had meaning and order continued. Even the prod for moral improvement continued, for the chain was also called the Ladder of Perfection: the more spiritual your nature, the closer to God you stood.

The animals demonstrated Big G’s organizational skills as always, and (a bonus for aristocrats!) they demonstrated the naturalness of hierarchical order. But some people believe that matters took a bad turn for the animals when the Chain of Being officially placed man above them. As far as earthly life went, man was at the apex, and therefore the closest thing to God — the opposite, then, of the earliest animal stories.

Soon (I’m crunching the centuries here), science squeezed the spirit right out of nature. From being the immediate cause of every instant of life everywhere, God became simply the guy who started the ball rolling — after which the various species had to fend for themselves in the morass of the material world.

At this juncture the story of the animals became a story of struggle and death and the Ladder of Perfection was out of its league. By the early 19th century it became clear from the study of fossils and bones that many once-abundant creatures had gone extinct. Charles Darwin followed in mid-century with the theory of “natural selection”: the new paradigm became known as survival of the fittest.

The moral guidance the animals provided to us now was tailored to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism. You have to either adapt to your shifting environment or else perish, just as a poorly-run factory will go bankrupt or a feckless worker will end up in the gutter. That’s what happens if you don’t stay competitive.