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A good example of this is the so-called "Great Chain of Being," the predominant system of classification in Europe from about 0 CE to 1600 CE. Over this timespan, the Chain took on various forms and meanings. (1) One such incarnation of the chain is Didacus Valades' depiction, used and accepted in medieval Europe. In this system, organisms and non-living matter are organized in a hierarchy based on their relative perfection to God. (2) Angels fall right under God, and, after them, humans are the next most perfect beings.
Obviously, this system is based more in religion and philosophy than in what we would now call science, but it is nonetheless a window into the organization of the society. In fact, the two fit together nicely; society and this incarnation of the Chain complement and reinforce each other. The feudal governments of medieval Europe were arranged hierarchically as well – the royalty, perceived as the closest humans to heaven, consequently assumed the most powerful roles in the society. The word "pyramid" is often used to describe this feudal regime, with the king occupying the top point of the pyramid and the lowest-ranked lords on the bottom. (3) (4)
It is clear, then, that there was a direct link between biological classification and social organization in the minds of medieval people in Europe. Both were arranged strictly hierarchically with religious importance forming the basis of both. Despite this clear link, though, there is some disparity between the two organizational schemes, primarily because feudalism in Europe was hardly organized entirely on religion. Though it is true that the king occupied his place in the feudal pyramid due to religious beliefs, all non-royal lords occupied their respective places on the pyramid because of their land holdings and military service. (4) So while there was a natural order to the scheme of biological classification, there was very little perceived as "natural" within the feudal framework.
The transition from the Great Chain of Being to the modern system took a few hundred years. A more basic form of the modern system of binomial nomenclature was first utilized in the 16th century by Johann Bauhin and Gaspard Bauhin. The system was popularized by Carolus Linnaeus in the 18th century. (5) Though his system was less overtly religious than the Great Chain of Being, Linnaeus was deeply religious himself and devoted himself to finding the beauty of God's natural order in the world. (6) Linnaeus' system, then, was a middle ground between religiosity and rationality. He did not overtly classify one organism as better than any other, or as closer to God than any other, yet religion remained at the root of his system. Linneaus' work, when combined with Darwin's theory of evolution, was used by some to update the Great Chain of Being, creating a hierarchical system of organisms roughly based on complexity. (7) Obviously, humans were at the top of this hierarchy.
This progression of the classification scheme in some ways mirrors the trend in societal change. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the thinking of society moved away from the primarily religious theory that had been prevalent, and was in the midst of moving toward a more "science"-oriented way of thought that relied more on evidence and less on faith. People did continue to hold deep religious beliefs, but the public's thoughts on societal organization shifted away from the old hierarchical standard. The Renaissance was not a radical shift in social order, but rather signified a change in the way people thought about society. (8) Just as people came to demand more evidence in biological classification, people as a whole were starting to question the organization of society. Neither area of thinking changed immediately during this period; the Renaissance served as a long shift in ideology in both thinking about classification and thinking about society.
In modern times in the West, we use a drastically updated model of Linnaeus' taxonomy. The system has been altered to include the theory of evolution – organization is now based on common ancestry between species, not solely on appearances. (9) Theoretically, this serves to eliminate hierarchy in the system; all organisms are equally advanced in an evolutionary sense, and this system attempts to reflect that.
In modern Western culture, there seems to be a disparity between society's perceptions and our classification scheme. Theoretically, there is no superlative organism according to our updated system of binomial nomenclature; all organisms are equally good at survival at this moment in time, at least in an evolutionary sense. And while there is no prescribed hierarchy to organize our society, Americans seem to associate economic class with personal worth. Our idea of biological classification then does not seem to fit in with our idea of society.
Interestingly, though, there seems to be ambiguity in our society toward both class issues and biological diversity. Though class is not seen as prescribed, our society still puts more human worth in those with money. The same can be said about our current system of classification; although all organisms are evolutionarily "equal," humans still tend to see themselves as the "most advanced" organisms in the world. Certain communities accept this evolutionary equality, just as certain communities believe in and work toward social equality. Neither of these beliefs, though, is by any means the majority belief of our society. Perhaps, then, society is in the midst of a change toward a wider acceptance of people of all classes as it changes toward a wider understanding that humans are not at the top of any evolutionary tree.
From this discussion, it appears as if a society and its chosen system of classification are somehow linked, though perhaps the limiting eye of historical vision makes us see this link clearly in the Middle Ages. Our reality today suggests a much more strained relationship between these two, and the Renaissance is an ambiguous time of gradual social change. From knowledge of modern Western society, people appear to read what they want into a classification scheme – for instance, that humans are the ideal form of life – and so, in this way, our classification system can appeal to a wide variety of people in our society. This begs the question, will our system ever be fully understood and accepted universally, or will it always be this personal?
1) Wikipedia's Article on the "Great Chain of Being"
2) Didacus Valades' "Great Chain of Being", 1579
3) A History of Feudalism in Medieval Europe
4) A Definition of Feudalism , with an emphasis on Medieval Europe
5) Wikipedia's Article on Carolus Linnaeus
6) University of California Museum of Paleontology's Biography of Linnaeus
7) Hierarchical Evolutionary "Tree"
8) Wikipedia's Article on the Renaissance
9) David O'Neill of Palomar College's Principles of Classification
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