Darwin and the Holocaust - what's the real story?

I won't comment on the execrable link made by that execrable TV show. Some things aren't worth the effort. But those whose minds aren't made up may still have a sneaking suspicion that somehow evolutionary theory was responsible for some part of the Holocaust. After all, that sneaking suspicion is what the unDiscovery Institute wants to implant.

So, what's the real story?

There are several ways in which evolution might have made it possible for the sort of racial eugenics that rationalised (not motivated - the German tradition of anti-Semitism goes back as far as Luther, and to the middle ages) the Nazis' actions.

One is that it might have underpinned the idea that Jews and Slavs and Gypsies were subhuman or less evolved subspecies. Let's not forget that the Nazis hated the Russians and Slavs as much as the Jews, and saw the Gypsies as, ironically, non-Aryan (ironically, because they came from India originally and have a much better claim to being Aryan than the Germans). Call this the subhuman thesis.

Another is that evolution might have provided the genetic breeding ideas that the Nazis relied upon. Call this the eugenics thesis.

A third is that evolution, with its survival of the fittest doctrine, might have underpinned the idea that some nations were fitter than others, and therefore should be allowed to do what they want. Call this the national selection thesis.

A fourth is that ideas that were tied in with evolution might have contributed to the nationalism of Germany, and to a lesser extent, Japan. Call this the cotraveller thesis.

Let's look at these ideas and see what we can find. This post will address the first claim and move into the second.

The subhuman thesis relies on there being a scale from 0 to 1 according to which different "races" can be assessed as being fully human. According to Darwinian theory, there is no such scale. Instead that idea comes from the pre-Darwinian biology that developed out of the medieval notion of the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain had steps from simple being to fully rational being that relied on Aristotle's notion that living things exhibit one or more of several "souls". In the late Renassiance version, there were the souls of "simply existing", to "living", to "sensible" (able to respond to stimuli in modern terms) to "rational", as in the following figure from the 16th century. This was a moral chain, too: on the right hand side are the moral states equivalent to the organic states on the left:

In the 18th century, this was transformed to a scale of organic beings, as here in the figure redrawn from Charles Bonnet in the 1760s:

Bonnet was not an evolutionist - indeed, the idea wasn't even widely discussed (only Pierre Maupertuis had proposed anything like it before this). This was the way God had made the world. The Great Chain was reflected in the racial classification of Johann Blumenbach, which became the widely accepted basis for racial classification thereafter, although Buffon showed considerably more discrimination in his description of the races, denying the existence of a single "negro" race, as did the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper.

Blumenbach's five races, based on skull morphology, with the Caucasian "race" in the centre.

Immediately, people began to identify these races with more advanced and noble levels in the human race, and by the early 19th century, these sorts of figures were common. This one is by Charles White, from 1799:

See the other images at that site. It is clear that the tradition of racial ranking predates evolutionary theory by a considerable margin. Towards the end of the 19th century a school of anthropology formalised this racial classification, drawing in part on evolutionary ideas, but they were the ideas of pre-Darwinian evolution, not that based on natural selection.

Did natural selection get used to justify these racial classifications? Yes, it did. There were some execrable writings that used NS to try to justify the claim that this or that "race" (which was often as not a national ethnic group rather than a biological race) was better adapted or more highly "evolved" (a term that means nothing biologically). I have in my shelves two books that illustrate this.

One book is Social Evolution by Benjamin Kidd (1895), in which he talks about "savage races", as Darwin had in the Descent of Man (1872). Here it is not clear that Kidd thinks these races are biological realities, though - he talks about selection being not between races as such but between "peoples" or "socities". Prior to a clear distinction between social and political entities on the one hand, and biological entities on the other, which did not appear until some time later, people often shifted between asserting the superiority of a society and the superiority of the underlying biological differences, without realising they had equivocated. Kidd talks about "the Anglo-Saxon" exterminating the "less developed peoples" more efficiently than any before. He (repugnantly, to us) thinks this is progress, but it isn't clear that he means by this that the biological differences are the cause of this "progress", but rather the cultural differences. Of course, this is also put down to the "temperament" of these "races" or societies, a tradition that goes back many centuries. In the period of imperialism, it was common to think that a "race" was "childlike" because of the lack of sophistication of their culture. Some thought that this was inevitable, and they would be exterminated by competition, while others thought this was merely a matter of education and assimilation into the (superior) European society.

The same year, though, Darwinism and Race Progress was published by a physiologist, John B. Haycraft. This is a truly awful book - he thought, it seems, that races were like individual organisms, with a period of growth, maturity and decay, and that they had "muscle, blood and brain". He does make a distinction between "the innate and organic" and the "political power and influence", which is almost like a biology/culture division. But he thinks there are naturally superior "types", particularly the Scandanavian, and oddly, the Jew. He thinks that the Spanish are undergoing "racial degeneration" via interbreeding with "lower races". His solution is for "the clever man and woman to earn a better livelihood, marry early and have large families, while the stupid ones should produce fewer children, a condition which at present is far from being the rule" (p22).

Why should he say this, if natural selection is the guarantee of progress he thinks it is? It is not natural selection to breed the clever and inhibit breeding of the stupid this way. In fact, it is very clearly artificial selection, or, as it was known for the thousand years before him, animal husbandry.

And this is where the crucial point is - this sort of eugenics never was based on variation and inadvertent selection of advantageous variants, but on the deliberate breeding of the varieties one wants to encourage in the breeding stock, whether it be a kind of bull or a kind of warrior. It is the very antithesis of natural selection. And it is the very same argument put by the Spartans, whose breeding programs were indeed aimed at better warriors, and by Plato in his Republic. So far from being an outcome of Darwinian ideas, or even evolutionary ones, this is the default view of how to improve the tribe, the city state, the class, the culture or the nation.

It is true that the modern form of eugenics was begun by the work of Darwin's cousin, which is no slur on Darwin (I'm very sure my own cousins would be aghast at me), but Galton's work is at best partly related to Darwin's. He says in the section on the "Comparative Worth of Different Races" in hisHereditary Genius,

Every long-established race has necessarily its peculiar fitness for the conditions under which it has lived, owing to the sure operation of Darwin's law of natural selection. However, I am not much concerned, for the present, with the greater part of those aptitudes, but only with such as are available in some form or another of high civilisation. [Emphasis mine]

Note: he is not saying that races are ill adapted or less evolved, but he is concerned only about those things that relate to culture. In short, he is decidely not basing this on evolution or natural selection. The rest of that chapter is the usual Eurocentric mishmash of "travellers' tales" and cultural question begging, and of course, Europeans, specifically the Anglo-Saxon, come out best. He concludes:

The explanation I offer... is neither more nor less than that the development of our nature, whether under Darwin's law of natural selection, or through the effects of changed ancestral habits has not kept pace with the development of our moral civilisation." [Emphasis mine]

Pretty clearly Galton depends not at all for his argument on natural selection, but on anything that could cause what he is really interested in - "types of intelligence".

That eugenics always appealed, after Darwin, to evolutionary considerations is no more surprising than that it appealed before Darwin to the principles of animal breeding, or the theories of inheritance in the "blood" ("blood will tell", "of good stock", and the usual cliches of the aristocratic form of eugenics practised from the middle ages until today). In fact, eugenics, if it is connected to any science at all, is the precursor to genetics, not evolution. The work of R. A. Fisher, Karl Pearson, and the other geneticists who promoted eugenics of the "positive" kind (as in positively encourage the fit, rather than negatively cull the weak), relied very litte if at all on evolution, and typically, like Galton, insisted that evolution could not be trusted to purify the race or maintain the standing of the "superior races", and needed to be controlled by artifical selection.

These posts take a long while to write and research so I'll probably return to the eugenics thesis next time, in about a week.


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The classic explication of and analysis of the concept of the 'Great Chain of Being' was by Arthur O. Lovejoy, a professor of Philosopy at Johns Hopkins University. With his book "The Great Chain of Being, A Study of the History of An Idea" -- coming from a series of lectures given in 1932-33 -- he literally invented the discipline of 'the History of Ideas.' This is a stunning, wonderful and important book -- and a tribute to the author that more than 70 years after the orginal lectures were given, this is still in print.

By Bill Krog (not verified) on 28 Aug 2006 #permalink

Just to point out -- Biblical creation has neither a chain of being nor evolution. For Biblical creationists all men were descended from Adam. So there was either man or not-man. There were no almost-men.


The Chain of Being was derived from Genesis, in the order God creates life. In the first version, God creates grass, then herb-yielding plants, then fruit trees, then fish, then fowl, then whales, then land creatures, cattle, and finally Man. That's the chain of being.

By Scott de B. (not verified) on 28 Aug 2006 #permalink

We are truly living in an Orwellian world when Christians blame Darwin for anti-Semitism.

Hatred of Jews stems directly from Church Doctrine. Who killed Christ? Who spurned his teaching when after all he himself was a Jew preaching to and dieing for Jews? After the early Church leaders, themselves Jews, failed to convert the stubborn Hebrews they turned to the Gentile slaves of the Roman Empire, where the Christian message of salvation had resonance. From then on the Jews were marked as a target for hatred, murder and extermination as the example of those who reject Jesus as Son of God.

Of all of crimes committed by Hitler, the killing Jews was the most rooted in Christianity, fulfilling the doom decreed by the early Church fathers and their descendants. What chutzpa!

The Chain of Being be damned, this documentary is a tissue of lies as scary as Hitler reborn.

The argument that Darwin is somehow responsible for the Holocaust, is, as Wilkins ably shows, simply ahistorical. The key ideas - hierarchy, eugenics, a German desire to colonize Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism, etc. - predate Darwin. Thus "Darwinism" can not be thought of as either a necessary or a sufficient condition for the Holocaust. Holding Darwin responsible for the Nazis is like holding Jesus responsible for the Republicans. The extent to which either group claims inspiration from one source or another is merely window-dressing for preconceived notions that they would justify with whatever tools might be available.

Just to point out -- Biblical creation has neither a chain of being nor evolution. For Biblical creationists all men were descended from Adam. So there was either man or not-man. There were no almost-men.

Oh really?

The original chain of being was proposed by Aristotle, but he wasn't that dogmatic about it. The medieval version did have some biblical elements in it, but basically it's Aristotle as interpreted by those commentators.

I fully endorse the comment by Bill on Lovejoy. I love that book. Also see Forerunners of Darwin edited by Glass, Temkin and Straus (1959).

Great take-down Wilkins! Thanks for explaining the story.

By Paguroidea (not verified) on 28 Aug 2006 #permalink

What upi are overlooking is that Darwin PRAISES and RECOMMEDS the work of Francis Galton in THE DESCENT OF MAN, the same book in which Darwin speaks of the "savage" races being eliminated by the "superior", of the intellectual inferiority of women, of of vaccination weakening the race...and other gems.

To borrow from Oppenheimer, in this case the scientists...here, the evolutionists...had blood on their hands.

Your slavish praise of the racist, sexist, Victorian elitist...prouduct of his time as he was...is imply DENIAL.

Or just LYING.

Your slavish praise of the racist, sexist, Victorian elitist...prouduct of his time as he was...is imply DENIAL.

Or just LYING.

Nobody is in denial here. Measured by our modern yardsticks Darwin held some very unfortunate views, but so what. It's not his moral authority that he is generally cited for, it is for his scientific ideas.

Besides, repugnant though his views might have been, they were better that the vast majority of people who lived during his lifetime. By your standards admiring anyone born before, oh, say 1900 for any reason whatsoever means you're in denial or a liar. That just doesn't seem reasonable to me.

Darwin says this about Galton. In chapter 2 he says:

I have elsewhere so fully discussed the subject of Inheritance, that I need here add hardly anything. A greater number of facts have been collected with respect to the transmission of the most trifling, as well as of the most important characters in man, than in any of the lower animals; though the facts are copious enough with respect to the latter. So in regard to mental qualities, their transmission is manifest in our dogs, horses, and other domestic animals. Besides special tastes and habits, general intelligence, courage, bad and good temper, &c., are certainly transmitted. With man we see similar facts in almost every family; and we now know, through the admirable labours of Mr. Galton, that genius which implies a wonderfully complex combination of high faculties, tends to be inherited; and, on the other hand, it is too certain that insanity and deteriorated mental powers likewise run in families.

Here he is dealing with inheritance in families not races.

In chapter 4, he says

All animals living in a body, which defend themselves or attack their enemies in concert, must indeed be in some degree faithful to one another; and those that follow a leader must be in some degree obedient. When the baboons in Abyssinia1 plunder a garden, they silently follow their leader; and if an imprudent young animal makes a noise, he receives a slap from the others to teach him silence and obedience. Mr. Galton who has had excellent opportunities for observing the half-wild cattle in S. Africa, says, that they cannot endure even a momentary separation from the herd.

Not praising him for the relation of cattle to humans, I gather.

In chapter 5 he says of the effects of selection in civilised nations:

Natural Selection as affecting Civilised Nations.�I have hitherto only considered the advancement of man from a semi-human condition to that of the modern savage. But some remarks on the action of natural selection on civilised nations may be worth adding. This subject has been ably discussed by Mr. W. R. Greg, and previously by Mr. Wallace and Mr. Galton. Most of my remarks are taken from these three authors. With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man itself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

but he continues:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

So, no help there for the claim that Darwin is propagating eugenics. He thinks it is noble to be in sympathy with the weak, and to help them.

Now his truly objectionable use of Galton is not about races as such, but about the sexes. In chapter 19 he says

Difference in the Mental Powers of the two Sexes.�With respect to differences of this nature between man and woman, it is probable that sexual selection has played a highly important part. I am aware that some writers doubt whether there is any such inherent difference; but this is at least probable from the analogy of the lower animals which present other secondary sexual characters. No one disputes that the bull differs in disposition from the cow, the wild-boar from the sow, the stallion from the mare, and, as is well known to the keepers of menageries, the males of the larger apes from the females. Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness; and this holds good even with savages, as shewn by a well-known passage in Mungo Park's Travels, and by statements made by many other travellers. Woman, owing to her maternal instincts, displays these qualities towards her infants in an eminent degree; therefore it is likely that she would often extend them towards her fellow-creatures. Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. These latter qualities seem to be his natural and unfortunate birthright. It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman�whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on 'Hereditary Genius,' that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.

Note that while denigrating women's cognitive capacities here, he still maintains that "savage races" are of lower capacity due to a cultural condition. They are what you have when you lack civilisation. But he, and Galton, were men of Victorian England, and so it was assumed that women were inferior. [Note that feminists do not claim that patriarchy is caused by Darwinism, though.]

Finally, in the conclusion in chapter 21 he says

The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children; for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage. On the other hand, as Mr. Galton has remarked, if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society. Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring. Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of man's nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, religion, &c., than through natural selection; though to this latter agency may be safely attributed the social instincts, which afforded the basis for the development of the moral sense.

Read this carefully - he says

1. that marriage which leads to starving children is imprudent.

2. that evolutionary advance is due to struggle and competition, which we already knew from the Origin and that it is more or less inevitable

3. that other factors than selection are important - moral qualities are as important if not moreso

4. that selection is why we have moral sensibilities.

None of these are derived from Galton as such, and in fact Darwin already had thought through the marriage question from Malthus' Essay, and was widely known in that era.

So I don't think Darwin "PRAISES and RECOMMEDS the work of Francis Galton in THE DESCENT OF MAN" - he uses Galton's results in a way that was common to the entire period (and the inferiority of women can be found in Luther, Swift and many other older authors than Darwin).

Sophist --

Just to point out, (a) such interpretations go against all good hermeneutical principles (just for starters, the "mark of Cain" was actually a blessing, and the "curse of Ham" didn't apply to Ham, not to mention the fact that being cursed does not give anyone permission to treat you poorly -- God often punished those who implemented curses just as much as those who were being cursed), and (b) even so, none of them hold them to be "sub-human". One does not cease to be human for being cursed.

Jonathan Bartlett--

Well, thats how you interpret things---but you weren't talking about you, were you? No, you were speaking for "Biblical creationists", and it seems pretty clear that lots of people who would self-apply that lable believed (and perhaps still believe) exactly the things you said they did not. Whether or not you agree with their hermeneutics is entirely irrelevent.

What upi are overlooking is that Darwin PRAISES and RECOMMEDS the work of Francis Galton in THE DESCENT OF MAN, the same book in which Darwin speaks of the "savage" races being eliminated by the "superior", of the intellectual inferiority of women, of of vaccination weakening the race...and other gems.

Even if Darwin did hold ideas that we now find repugnant, that still doesn't explain PYGMIES + DWARVES.

Sorry, what I meant to say was that it doesn't invalidate any of his scientific findings, nor any of the later science based on them. If Charles Manson says the sun is shining, that doesn't automatically mean it's raining.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

Interesting. Darwin says here that altruism has evolved -- has been selected for. I used to think this was a much more recent discovery.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 29 Aug 2006 #permalink

I have posted this link in other discussion groups and I hope I have not already done so somewhere else on this blog. Please excuse me if I am repeating myself.

These are some comments from Stephen J. Gould on Darwin.

"If we wish meekness and love to triumph over pride and violence (as Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi), then we must repudiate Darwins vision of natures way as Tolstoy stated in a final plea to his errant children.

This charge against Darwin is unfair for two reasons. First, nature (no matter how cruel in human terms) provides no basis for our moral values. (Evolution might, at most, help to explain why we have moral feelings, but nature can never decide for us whether any particular action is right or wrong.)

Second, Darwins struggle for existence is an abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody battle. Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts. In a famous passage, Darwin explained his concept of evolutionary struggle (Origin of Species, 1859, pp. 62-63):

I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live.

But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought.... As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence."


"This apparent discordance between natures way and any hope for human social decency has defined the major subject for debate about ethics and evolution ever since Darwin. Huxleys solution has won many supporters nature is nasty and no guide to morality except, perhaps, as an indicator of what to avoid in human society.

My own preference lies with a different solution based on taking Darwins metaphorical view of struggle seriously (admittedly in the face of Darwins own preference for gladiatorial examples) nature is sometimes nasty, sometimes nice (really neither, since the human terms are so inappropriate). By presenting examples of all behaviors (under the metaphorical rubric of struggle), nature favors none and offers no guidelines. The facts of nature cannot provide moral guidance in any case.

But a third solution has been advocated by some thinkers who do wish to find a basis for morality in nature and evolution. Since few can detect much moral comfort in the gladiatorial interpretation, this third position must reformulate the way of nature.

Darwins words about the metaphorical character of struggle offer a promising starting point. One might argue that the gladiatorial examples have been over-sold and misrepresented as predominant. Perhaps cooperation and mutual aid are the more common results of struggle for existence. Perhaps communion rather than combat leads to greater reproductive success in most circumstances."

Since you mentioned Google Books...

While searching for something totally unrelated to the topic of racism (old references to robots), I found this little title:

Bible Defence of Slavery by Josiah Priest, 1852

Which gives a pretty good taste of the sort of religious (Mormon at least) justifications for racism and slavery.

(It showed up in my robot search because it contains the word "automaton". Apparently the harlots of ancient Egypt capered lewdly with obscene robotic likenesses of their pagan gods. And now you know.)

Thomas Aquinas imported Aristotle's scheme of "The Great Chain Of Being" into Christianity, but, as you'd expect, some ecclesiastics argued vehemently against this injection of allegedly `pagan' ideas.

Aristotle does not come off as a particularly nice guy when discussing other cultures. He described most non-Hellenes as "born slaves" and "no better than animals." The criterion used by most Greeks in placing people at the top of the Great Chain of Being was whether they could speak ancient Greek. By that criterion, essentially all of our finest scientific minds would today be judged as "born slaves" and "animals."

Is it really true that Aquinas introduced the GCoB? Albertus Magnus wrote an extensive Animalia based on Aristotle before Aquinas, and the CGoB was implicit in the work of Pliny, which was available throughout the early Middle Ages.

That said, the explosion of GCoB thinking seems to be the 15th century, with Lull and others. So maybe it doesn't matter.

Aristotle suffers the same defects that all ages do - of thinking that their culture is the gold standard. Darwin did it too.

By John S. Wilkins (not verified) on 30 Mar 2008 #permalink