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Open Access Open Badges Research article

The great chain of being is still here

Emanuele Rigato* and Alessandro Minelli

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, University of Padova, Via Ugo Bassi 58 B, Padova, I 35131, Italy

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Evolution: Education and Outreach 2013, 6:18  doi:10.1186/1936-6434-6-18

Published: 27 June 2013



Professional papers in evolutionary biology continue to host expressions in agreement with the pre-evolutionary metaphor of the scala naturae (the great chain of being), when contrasting ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ representatives of a given branch of the tree of life. How pervasive is the persistence of progressionist, pre-evolutionary language in contemporary papers?


We document here the prevalence of this unexpected linguistic survival in papers published between 2005 and 2010 by 16 top scientific journals, including generalist magazines and specialist journals in evolutionary biology. Out of a total of 67,413 papers, the unexpectedly high figure of 1,287 (1.91%) returned positive hits from our search for scala naturae language.


A quantitative appreciation of the survival of progressionist language in scientific papers is the first step towards its eradication. This will obtain by improving skills in tree thinking as well as by more careful editorial policy.

Scala naturae; Evolutionary trends; Tree thinking; Bibliometric analysis