In class, we looked at excerpts of some writings that were disseminated during the 18th century. Upon examining these texts, it appears that a prevailing attitude of the time period was that some human beings are inherently more valuable than others, and this hierarchy was stratified by race and gender.
Dripping with satire, Mary Astell’s “Some Reflections Upon Marriage” (1700) cleverly criticizes the widely-held belief that “every Man is by Nature superior to every Woman” and therefore ought to have dominion. Not only was such a view thought to be the natural order, but it was believed to be one instituted by the supreme power and will of the Creator. In Emile (1784), Rosseau writes that women are “specially made to please man,” not out of the “law of love” but out of the “law of nature,” which God instituted “to do honour to the human species.”
Race, as well, was subject to this natural order. “I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites,” David Hume suggests in his work “Of Natural Characters” (1748). Even Linnaeus’s supposedly scientific classification found in “The System of Nature” (1735) seems to assign value based on the “civility” of a particular group.
Yet, if thinkers of the 18th century were willing to suggest that some humans are naturally superior to others, then it is not that much of stretch to think that similar conclusions would have been formed about the superiority of some organisms relative to others. Such thinking would have potentially influenced the development of evolutionary theory during the subsequent century. Lamarck, known for his view that physical adaptations gradually arise from the use or disuse of anatomical features, writes in his “Philosophie zoologique” that all animals fit inside “an order conspicuously indicated by [their unique] affinities”— affinities that are more or less determined by “progress in the complexity or perfection of organization.”
But what does complexity or perfection even mean? Who defines or deems something as complex or perfect? A good argument can perhaps be made for complexity. Greater specialization of parts or an increased number of parts can be seen as complex. Mammals have more specialized organs for digestion compared to the sponge, which doesn’t even have digestive organs at all. (That being said, from my point of view, the unique manner in which each organism functions is complex and remarkable in itself.) But defining perfection? That is a much more difficult task. Biological traits inherently are neither good nor bad. Furthermore, they can’t really be quantified. I assume that humans would be placed at the pinnacle of the proposed hierarchy. However, birds can fly using their wings. We can’t. I would really like to fly though. Being able to fly is totally a necessary quality of perfection, right?!
We know today that differences in DNA among humans is approximately 0.1 percent. Genetically speaking, people of different ethnicities are more similar than they are different. Yet, in the past, philosophical beliefs—under the guise of science—have been used to divide and categorize members of society. If this idea that some humans are more superior than others was entertained, then it might certainly have led scientists to search for similar hierarchies in the natural world and logically conclude that the development of species must proceed in a single direction— from less complex to more complex. (Purposefully and intentionally directed, of course.) Such an approach is one-sided and fails to consider the distinctive features of each organism and the unique pressures that they face. One can only wonder how much sooner the idea of natural selection would have been discovered and accepted had there not been an insistence on clinging to such views.