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The Great Chain of Being was a religious and philosophical concept common to Renaissance Europe. The Great Chain of Being is an ordered hierarchy of all life in the universe, starting with monocellular organisms and rising up the scale of intelligence and complexity to human beings. The only creatures higher on the Great Chain of Being were supposed to be God and His angels. There were also hierarchies within links on the Great Chain -- for instance, clergymen were supposed to be superior to the common man, for they were closer to God. Kings, too, were said to be closer to God than the common man; it is from this belief that the concept of the "divine right of kings" springs.

Bacon, Galileo and Descartes did much to undermine this philosophy, but it didn't really fall out of popularity until the late 18th century.

One might argure that this concept continues into the 21st century. We frequently speak of more evolved animals, or more advanced civilizations, when we are using ourselves as a benchmark. We frequently assume an animal is more evolved because it has a backbone, or a civilization is more advanced because it can manufacture an internal combustion engine. However, animals and cultures both exist in response to their environment. They are the way they are because time and circumstance has favored that state of existence, and they are not destined to evolve in any particular way. Rather, things will evolve in a random fashion, and that which is adaptive will survive. There is no guarantee that the state of existence of Western humans is more adaptive than any other state of existence. That fact that the average Westerner does not intutively grasp this idea is an indicator that although the significance of the great chain of being in ontological thinking has been reduced, its fundamental concept is still firmly ingrained in the Western psyche, and has not yet been totally been routed by the Darwinian ontological worldview.

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