Man as the Apogee of Creation and the Ladder Metaphor

In “The Evolution of Life on Earth”, an influential article published in Scientific American in 1994, the palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould complements Darwin's theory of natural selection. In his view, rather than the anthropocentric conception of the ecosystem as a hierarchical tree, where man sits on top as the closest to God, life should be better understood as a branching bush, where we are but one of a great variety of species. It is true that the human being has evolved successfully through time, but this does not grant any superiority. Hence, he states that:

We will not smash Freud's pedestal and complete Darwin's revolution until we find, grasp and accept another way of drawing life's history ...these limits may only be socially imposed conceptual locks rather than inherent restrictions of our neurology: new icons might break the locks. Trees –or rather copiously and luxuriantly branching bushes– rather than ladders and sequences hold the key to this conceptual transition. (1994: 91)

Taking Freud’s remark that scientific revolutions knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another, he believes that Darwinian revolution will not be complete until humans abandon former icons of dominance. In “A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis,” Sigmund Freud had already covered the impact of Darwin’s theory on human pretentiousness. To his mind, such narcissistic illusion is shattered mainly by the cosmological blow of Copernicus, the biological one of Darwin and his own psychological smack. Over the course of history, humans have established themselves in a position of supremacy and consequently denied other living entities the privilege of their rank. In the Western mind, it has been supported for centuries by a claim of a divine descent which entitled an immortal soul that opens a gap between man and the rest of the creation. Having to acknowledge that humans have an animal lineage is a notion not many are willing to embrace even today (1955: 135-144).
As noticed, Gould takes his words and aims at untying the bandage over humankind’s eyes. By ladders, he plainly censures the Christian conception of humans being made in God’s image and likeness, and the alleged obligation to climb towards Him. This is best exemplified in The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus (ca. AD 600), where the virtuous man defeats temptation to reach the Creator:

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Source: “Father Hosea’s Concerns” 2007

By sequences, he also condemns the traditional vision of evolutionary history as a sequence of ages dominated by a particular kind of animal. The initial stages would be ruled by simpler life forms, gradually evolving into more complex ones, until the present day, where man would be the unquestionable king. Such a parochial notion of evolution can notably be perceived in Haeckel’s Tree of Life, which sets four layers of animals progressively superimposing on each other until man is found as the apogee of creation sitting on top of the tree:

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Source: Thompson 2007

However, Gould’s point of view is that the human species is an accident through time rather than the fruit of continuous progression. It should not be forgotten that Gould counterparted Darwin’s principles by adding the random factor to the evolution of man, and he cited Darwin himself when he stated that natural selection “has been the main but not exclusive means of modification” (2006: 32). Since the concept appears to be largely misinterpreted, Gould draws a couple of powerful images to redress the delusion. Firstly, through a detailed study of fossils, he proves that there is a far larger occurrence of bacteria in the time gap going from the Precambrian era until today. There is a lot more variety and, therefore, higher chances of survival. This can only mean that simpler forms of life are more successful than more complex ones. Thus, he puts his words into a graphic chart:

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Source: Gould 1994: 86

This is additionally worded into the main idea that “progress does not rule … For reasons of chemistry and physics, life arises next to the “left wall” of its simplest conceivable and preservable complexity” (1994: 86). Without entering into much detail as to whether bacteria, viruses or even prions are better adapted to the environment, it cannot be denied by Gould’s exposition that microbial life is best suited for life on the Earth. The frequency of occurrence in microorganisms, both in the Precambrian era and the present day, grows fast until its peak in the bacterial form for a less steep descent towards man. Actually, the number of microbial species has never ceased to expand. Therefore, he devises a more faithful image of the tree of life:

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Source: Gould 1994: 87

Through this new representation, it is understood that most of the living creatures are simple organisms. The evolutionary experiments do not usually get far, although those that do are very successful. Mammals and obviously the human being belong to one of these elongated branches. Yet, it seems more appropriate to think that we stand amongst and not over the branches. It appears reasonable to assume that our line is not going to extend much further, while there are many more chances that a shorter string evolves fruitfully. It is a brand new conception of life, which comes to question the conventionalism of an “age of invertebrates,” followed by an “age of fishes,” “age of reptiles,” “age of mammals,” until today's “age of man.” With it, Gould definitely shatters the false assumption that the human race rules the world because it is a complex species, and decidedly grants such honour to bacteria:

…to view history as progressive, and to see humans as predictably dominant, has grossly distorted our interpretation of life’s pathway by falsely placing in the center of things a relatively minor phenomenon that arises only as a side consequence of a physically constrained startling point. The most salient feature of life has been the stability of its bacterial mode from the beginning of the fossil record until today and, with little doubt, into all future time so long as the earth endures. This is truly the “age of bacteria” –as it was in the beginning, is now and shall ever be. (1994: 87)

The realization that microbes are the real rulers of this world is not easy for the western citizen, especially because of the silent influence of Christian iconography. To Gould’s mind, the prevailing misunderstanding of the evolution of life on the earth is due to the fact that primates are mainly visual animals, and the human being has always needed pictures to represent reality. The aforementioned images have preserved the Christian principle of man made in God's image and likeness, with the rest of life forms depicted as lower species subdued to him. That is why, in order to better illustrate his words, he provides the two powerful representations –the new icons to break the locks. We should understand life more horizontally than vertically and get rid of former hierarchical pictures, so as to get a more accurate depiction of reality. Only in this manner will we be able to abandon arrogance and understand that the human kind is just an evolutionary accident. Humans have flourished in time because of an innate ability to adapt to the environment. Yet, microorganisms were here eons before us and there seems to be no limitation as to their existence. Certainly, Gould’s words appear to be more relevant than ever if we are to understand our role in nature.
Thus, a couple of questionable truths are eventually revealed false by the palaeontologist. On the one hand, and most importantly, it is wrong to conceive man as the apogee of creation. It is a fallacy contrived in the Genesis, which is still doing a lot of harm to the western mind due to the impending force of Christianism. Indeed, there has been significant questioning of the words written in the Bible and the subsequent wrong assumptions made out of them (Custance 2001, Dawkins 2006). Hence, the scholar demands a more rational understanding of evolution. Humans have not been made in God's image and likeness but they are just a successful experiment in nature, one of the many evolutionary trials that usually go wrong. By a combination of events including sheer luck, they have found themselves apparently ruling over the rest of the living creatures, which has led to certain traditional supremacy ideals maintained along centuries. However, Gould's study proves that bacteria and by extension microorganisms defy such alleged kingdom. It has always been and will continue to be microbial in scope. The anthropocentric conception of life must be reshaped by looking at the tree in a more bidimensional manner while nature is studied through less arrogant glasses. Humans do not stand on top, but rather amongst many branches which extend simultaneously to a longer or shorter extent. By accepting this humble principle, the biohazard threat will be better comprehended and effective means will be found to deal with it.
On the other hand, living creatures cannot possibly be structured hierarchically. In another article significantly entitled “Stephen Jay Gould’s Vision of History,” the historian Louis P. Masur coins the term
ladder metaphor to refer to this pernicious representation of evolution (1997: 116). In his view, we have always regarded the history of the human race as a tale of gradual improvement and, in our personal lives, we love to speak of climbing to the top –of success, to put it plain. Therefore, there could be no other place for humans but on the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder, with other life forms steadily occupying lower steps, as the differences with our species get more notorious. But there is no such simplicity. History is rather a complex process of long stable periods suddenly disrupted by unexpected events, a theory that Eldredge and Gould have established as “punctuated equilibria” (1972: 82-115). There is no such uniform progress and no such ladder.

Works Cited:

Custance, Arthur C. Man in Adam and in Christ. 2nd online edition: 2001 (1975). Retrieved 26 November 2008.

Darwin, Charles.
On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. New York: Dover Publications, 2006 (1859).

Dawkins, R. The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press, 2006.

Eldredge, Niles and Stephen Jay Gould. “Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism.” Schopf, T. ed. Models in Paleobiology. San Francisco: Freeman Cooper 1972. 82-115.

“Father Hosea’s Concerns.” 2007. Retrieved 29 November 2007.

Freud, Sigmund. “A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XVII. London: Hogarth Press, 1955 (1917). 135-144.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “The Evolution of Life on the Earth.” Scientific American. October, 1994. 84-91.

Masur, Louis P. “Stephen Jay Gould’s Vision of History.” McRae, Murdo W. ed. The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writing. Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997 (1993). 113-31.

Thompson, Steve. Home page. University of Florida. 2007. Retrieved 29 November 2007.