Human beings are not descended from the apes. Zoology in upper school

By Martin Schwarz, March 2013

If in class 9 the focus is on the high degree of specialisation in the animal and the developmentally open-ended human being, it is on the inner organs in class 10, cytology in class 11 and the whole animal realm in class 12. Martin Schwarz, biology teacher in Kirchheim-Teck provides an insight into the special features of the Waldorf curriculum.

Everyone knows the picture: the ape walking on all fours slowly turns erect in the course of evolution into the human being walking on two legs. Memorably and convincingly its clearly shows the basic paradigm of modern biology: we have descended from the apes – or more generally – from the animals. We are nothing other than a specialised type of animal. But we do not have to believe that human beings have descended from the apes. That evolution might have occurred quite differently and that biological phenomena can be interpreted in a completely different way may not be an issue in Goethean zoology but it cannot be discussed exhaustively in a class 9. But we can present a picture sequence:

Fig. 1:

Friedrich A. Kipp: Die Evolution des Menschen, 1980

It presents the development of an orang-utan skull from infancy through childhood to the adult male. We can see that the ape develops from a very human-like state to a clearly animal state. But before looking at these skulls, the pupils work on the meaning of the concepts “human” and “animal” by means of the following considerations. They look at the human skull and describe what they see.

Fig. 2:

Friedrich. A. Kipp: Op. cit.

The human being at the centre – class 9

The vertical facial bones with the vertical forehead, the small nasal bone and the chin are in a proportional relationship with the spherical cranial vault. The foramen magnum is positioned such at the base of the skull that the skull is more or less balanced on the spine. Then we observe the jaw and teeth. All the different types of teeth are developed regularly and, above all, without the slightest gap in the parabolic maxillary and mandibular arches. If we now compare this with the skulls of characteristic animals, it becomes apparent that their skulls are all carried ahead of the spine, that all the facial bones are elongated and horizontal, that the cranial vault is only very small and that the most powerful bone is the jaw. A comparison of the skulls from a horse, a marmot and a lion shows that in hoofed animals the molars, in rodents the incisors and in carnivores the canines are particularly developed, and all of them have large gaps in their sets of teeth.

Other parts of the skeleton can be looked at in a similar way and we reach the conclusion that every animal species is far superior to humans in one particular respect, but that for that reason the animal is very specialised, that it is built precisely for the way IT IS. Body structure and behaviour are indissolubly linked. The animal lives exclusively as dictated by its species and the intelligence with which it does so is immense, but it is also tied to the body and instinctual. That becomes impressively clear when we learn how beavers build their dams. Even when isolated from its conspecifics, the animal develops into an example of its species. Beavers display dam building behaviour when they hear running water even if they have never seen a conspecific or, indeed, water.

In order to develop, human beings require a loved reference person whom they can copy. Without the latter they regress. The fate of two “feral children”, two girls who were brought up by wolves, is very touching to read. When the girls were found they behaved completely as wolves, from the active periods through body posture to the use of their sense of smell and the sounds they made. Thus human beings can develop in any direction. Their development is not predetermined, they can develop in all kinds of directions. In this way the ideal of freedom obtains its biological basis and the human skeleton can be seen as an image of that freedom. Their upright posture means that the arms and hands are no longer required for locomotion. Humans can use them to act, to carry out what they have decided to do, what they have determined in their thinking to be the goal of their volition. In exchange they do not have the security of standing on four legs but constantly have to balance themselves – also an image for their task as human beings.

In class 9, then, animals are looked at in their differentiation from human beings, in their uniqueness, their beauty, their perfection. But precisely for that reason every animal is also a captive of its state and specialised in living out its specific animal nature. Human beings and the higher animals are homologous down to the last bone but human beings are the least specialised. They form something like the universal pattern. The basic blueprint or the type in a Goethean sense comes to expression in its purest, most universal form in human beings. Human beings thus become the central creature in the animal kingdom. The question about evolution thereby gains a completely different basis, although of course still requiring an answer.

The inner organs – class 10

As we mainly study the human inner organs in class 10, there are only a few zoological reference points. In comparing the physiological functions of humans with those of the animals, we once again encounter the specialisation of the animals and the universality of humans; after all, the digestive system of the cow, for example, is designed for very specific food. In looking at body temperature and the cold and warm blooded animals, we can get an inkling that evolution does not necessarily mean adaptation but rather the enhancement of autonomy; the cold blooded animals, for example, are completely dependent on the correct surrounding temperature in their activity. When it is too cold they can become completely immobile.

Cytology – class 11

Zoology is not dealt with in class 11 either but cytology is introduced. For an understanding of animals we thus of course get to the cellular basis of fertilisation and we can see from the different development of the plant and animal germ cells that in animals an inner space of inwardness for the soul entity is formed. If, put simply, the plant germ cell grows through stringing cells together, the animal constricts cells and forms cavities, thus creating the individual organs. So both animals and humans distinguish themselves from plants in that they form interior cavities as the biological basis for soul processes.

Animal circle instead of tree chart – class 12

In class 12 we then have zoology as a subject in biology lessons. Contrary to our habitual way of thinking, and at the suggestion of Rudolf Steiner, the animal kingdom is in many instances not, or not primarily represented as a tree chart but as an ordered whole, literally a circle (see diagram).

Frits H. Julius, Das Tier zwischen Mensch und Kosmos, 1970.

Einzeller = Unicellular organisms | Hohltiere = Coelenterates | Stachelhäuter = Echinoderms | Manteltiere = Tunicates | Weichtiere = Molluscs | Würmer = Worms | Gliederfüßler = Arthropods | Fische = Fishes | Amphibien = Amphibians | Reptilien = Reptiles | Vögel = Birds | Säugetiere = Mammals | Die sieben… = The seven groups of lower animals |Die fünf… = The five groups of higher animal

Even if a trained biologist might find it difficult to accept such a representation, it is ideal for gaining an overview of the animal kingdom with its incredible variety of forms of organisation. What greater lack of clarity in the tree diagrams. When dealing with the individual groups of animals, Goethe’s concept of the type is there in the background and the individual animal can be taken as a special realisation of the universal type. Here we have what we might call stages of realisation which lead from one group to the next. If we compare the coelenterates with the echinoderms, for example, it becomes clear that the echinoderms are much more complex in their organisation with differentiated organs while the coelenterates are really only formed from two layers of cells. On the other hand they are not just more complex but in a sense precisely the opposite of the coelenterates. No group of animals can change its body form to such an extent, has such a variety of body sizes in the various species as the coelenterates. Many jellyfish and, particularly, polyps are very, very small, some of them only a few millimetres in size, other jellyfish have a diameter of more than two metres and tentacles 20 to 30 metres in length. One characteristic is the colour and translucence of the various species. And the echinoderms? Hardly any other group has such a rigid body shape, hardly any other group has so little variety with regard to size and only among the starfish do we occasionally find shining colours. Muted browns and greys predominate

Contrasts are realised from one group to the next. Here it is the complexity of the organ systems which increases above all and leads to ever greater autonomy. The blood circulation of the vertebrates is only separated completely into pulmonary and systemic circulation in the birds and mammals. But that is the prerequisite for body heat which is independent of the surrounding temperature; only because of this are birds and mammals so little restricted in their periods of activity. With the concept of the type and metamorphosis, Goethean biology offers the possibility of experiencing in the thinking the reality of the type which forms the animal. In this way we can experience ourselves as a part of nature ensouled in this way and thereby understand, above all, its intrinsic value. It can also form the basis of a relationship with nature characterised by empathy and respect. Most people feel the importance of the animal world and actually everyone marvels at its beauty and perfection. Zoology as set out here explains these things and the intensely experienced contradiction in society today between the rationally justified exploitation of animals and the emotionally experienced respect for them is resolved.