Aristotelian Biology

The ancient Greek philosopher was the first scientist.

By | September 1, 2014

VIKING ADULT, SEPTEMBER 2014In the Aegean Sea there is an island called Lesbos. It has pine-forested mountains, glades of chestnut trees, and valleys filled with blooming rhododendrons. Terrapins and eels navigate the rivers. In the spring and autumn, migrating birds pause there in the thousands as they travel between Africa and Europe.

And there is the Lagoon. Twenty-two kilometers long, 10 wide, Kolpos Kallonis nearly cuts the island in two. The richest body of water in the Aegean, it is famous for its pilchards, which are best eaten raw, washed down with ouzo. I first went to the Lagoon more than 10 years ago, but have returned many times since. I have done so because it was on its shores that my science—biology—was born.

Around 345 BC, Aristotle left Athens, where for 20 years he had studied and taught at Plato’s Academy. He traveled east, across the Aegean, married, and settled on Lesbos for three years. D’Arcy Thompson, the Scottish zoologist and Aristotle scholar, said it was the “honeymoon of his life.” It was there that Aristotle began to study the natural world and so turned himself into not merely the first biologist, but the first scientist. Other philosophers before him had speculated about the causes of the natural world, but he was the first to combine theory with empirical investigation.

Aristotle’s philosophical works, such as Metaphysics, Politics, Poetics, and his logical treatises loom over the history of Western thought like a mountain range. But he devoted nearly a third of his writings—a dozen volumes, thousands of pages—to living things. There is comparative zoology in Historia animalium, functional anatomy in The Parts of Animals, a book on growth, two on animal locomotion, and two on aging and death. There were books on plants, too, but they have been lost.

And then there is his greatest work of all. The Generation of Animals described how animals develop in the egg and womb and outlined a theory of inheritance. It was the best one around until the day, 2,300 years later, when Gregor Mendel published his “Experiments on Plant Hybridization.” Aristotle underpinned his biology with a physical and chemical theory and a scientific method that lies atop metaphysical bedrock. There’s a sense in which his entire philosophy was constructed in order to study living things.

Aristotle’s books are lecture notes for an epic biology course. They’re a hard read: terse and riddled with unfamiliar terms. He talks of the “soul” and you think of some mystical, immaterial substance that survives our mortal frames. But that’s Aquinas’s soul, not Aristotle’s: his soul is pure physiology. It’s the system that keeps us, and every living thing, alive. Taken together, I think that Aristotle’s biology is the greatest scientific edifice ever built by a single man. I’ll allow one challenger. And that is only because Charles Darwin gave us the idea that eluded Aristotle: evolution.

Aristotle’s biology is all but forgotten. It was the principal casualty of the Scientific Revolution. He was the giant who had to be slain so that we could pass through the gates of philosophy to reach the green fields of science that lay beyond. And yet, if, as a biologist, you read him, you realize how familiar it all seems—how so many of our ideas were first his.

But that’s no reason to read him. True, Max Delbrück said that Aristotle deserved a Nobel for having the idea of DNA—but that was just an affectionate joke. No, we should read him not for his science but for his example. He shows us how to transcend the ideas and theories that constrain our thoughts. He went down to the Lagoon’s shore, picked up a snail, and asked, “What’s inside?” It’s such a simple question, but it launched a science vast and beautiful. And that is what Aristotle gives us: the courage to seek and discover new worlds. 

Armand Marie Leroi is a professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College London. Read an excerpt of The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science.

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Avatar of: T S Raman

T S Raman

Posts: 46

August 26, 2014

This is what Bertrand Russell says about Aristotle:

“Aristotle, in spite of his reputation, is full of absurdities. He says that children should be conceived in the Winter, when the wind is in the North, and that if people marry too young the children will be female. He tells us that the blood of females is blacker than that of males; that the pig is the only animal liable to measles; that an elephant suffering from insomnia should have its shoulders rubbed with salt, olive oil, and warm water; that women have fewer teeth than men, and so on. Nevertheless, he is considered by the great majority of philosophers a paragon of wisdom.
“To avoid the various foolish operations to which mankind are prone, no superhuman genius is required. A few simple rules will keep you, not from all error, but from silly error.
“If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone.”
            ... [Bertrand Russell. An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish.]

Avatar of: W. Boernke

W. Boernke

Posts: 18

September 26, 2014

The Scientific Revolution began when Bacon and Newton rejected the Aristotelian thinking of the Scholastics: reasoning from a priori (knowledge not obtained by sense data) definitions to conclusions, and replaced it with reasoning from evidence to conclusions.

Aristotle made the a priori definition that all things have a telos (an end or final purpose).  He then concluded that rocks fall to the earth because their telos is to be near the earth.

Aquinas's famous proof for the existenc of God (the unmoved mover) is a result of Aristotelian thinking.  All effects have causes.  The motion we observe must be caused.  Since there can't be an infinite regress of causes, there must have been some unmoved mover who got all the motion in the universe started.  This unmoved mover is God.  Newton destroyed this nonsense by proposing that an object at rest or in motion will remain that way unless acted on by an outside force.  So, there can be uncaused motion.

We still think like Aristotle (to our detriment).  A few years ago, I attended Grandparents' Day at a local grade school where I sat with my 9-yr.-old grandson while his teacher presented a lesson in elementary physics: forces (a push or a pull) cause motion.  This is good Aristotelian thinking, but ignores Newton.  Forces don't cause motion; forces cause change in motion or acceleration (F = ma).

Avatar of: Drabah


Posts: 1

September 26, 2014

Another absurdity, which Russell apparently missed, is that Aristotle said that if two masses were dropped from the same height, that the heavier one would hit the ground first.  It took about two millenia before anyone challenged that statement.  Had Galileo Galilei not done his gedanken experiment, and then carried out actual experiments and collected empirical evidence, people might still believe this rubbish of Aristotle.  Well, probably not, because sooner or later someone else would have thought of testing it.

Aristotle was a great thinker, but the first scientist?  I think not, for empiricism is at the heart of science and is rarely present in Aristotle's work.

Avatar of: Christopher R. Lee

Christopher R. Lee

Posts: 14

September 27, 2014

Perhaps he did write too much too glibly, and more than anyone at the time could have learned from direct experience and experiment. However, though he was much too old to be a Catholic he seems to have been over-used as a model for the notion that what has been written has been written and must not be contested. This seems to be a common human failing, currently manifested, for example, in political correctness, and in management practices whereby it must never be said that a target is unachievable.

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