A brilliant study of Aristotle as biologist
The philosophical classics of Aristotle loom large over the history of Western thought, but the subject he most loved was biology. He wrote vast volumes about animals. He described them, classified them, told us where and how they live and how they develop in the womb or in the egg. He founded a science. It can even be said that he founded science itself.
In The Lagoon, acclaimed biologist Armand Marie Leroi recovers Aristotle’s science. He revisits Aristotle’s writings and the places where he worked. He goes to the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos to see the creatures that Aristotle saw, where he saw them. He explores Aristotle’s observations, his deep ideas, his inspired guesses—and the things he got wildly wrong. He shows how Aristotle’s science is deeply intertwined with his philosophical system and reveals that he was not only the first biologist, but also one of the greatest.
The Lagoon is both a travelogue and a study of the origins of science. And it shows how a philosopher who lived almost two millennia ago still has so much to teach us today.
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Armand Marie Leroi is a professor of evolutionary development biology at Imperial College London. He is the author of Mutants: On the Form, Variety and Errors of the
Human Body, which has been published in eleven languages and won The Guardian’s First Book Award in 2003. He is one of the UK’s most prominent science media figures.
Among the isles of Greece there is a certain island, insula nobilis et amoena, which Aristotle knew well. It lies on the Asian side, between the Troad and the Mysian coast, and far into its bosom, by the little town of Pyrrha, runs a broad and sheltered lagoon.
D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson,
On Aristotle as a biologist (1913)
THERE IS A bookshop in old Athens. It is the loveliest I know. It lies in an alley near the Agora, next to a shop that sells canaries and quails from cages strung on the façade. Wide louvres admit shafts of light that fall upon Japanese woodblock prints propped on a painter’s easel. Beyond, in the gloom, there are crates of lithographs and piles of topographical maps. Terracotta tiles and plaster busts of ancient philosophers and playwrights do duty as bookends. The scent is of warm, old paper and Turkish tobacco. The stillness is disturbed only by the muted trills of the songbirds next door.
I have returned so often, and the scene is so constant, that it is hard to remember when, exactly, I first walked into George Papadatos’ bookshop. But I do recall that it was the drachma’s last spring, when Greece was still poor and cheap and you landed at Ellinikon where the clacking flight boards listed Istanbul, Damascus, Beirut and Belgrade and you still felt as if you’d travelled east. George – lank grey hair, a bookman’s paunch – sat at his desk reading an old French political tract. Years ago, he told me, he had taught at Toronto – ‘But in Greece, they still had poets.’ He returned and named his store for the lyric muse.
Scanning his shelves, I saw Andrew Lang’s Odyssey and three volumes of Jowett’s Plato. They were the sort of books that might have belonged to an Englishman, a schoolmaster perhaps, who had retired to Athens, lived on his pension, and died there with some epigram of Callimachus on his lips. Whoever he was, he also left, in a row of Clarendon blue, the complete Works of Aristotle Translated into English, edited by J. S. Smith and W. D. Ross and published between 1910 and 1952. Ancient philosophy had never held much interest for me; I am a scientist. But I was idling and in no hurry to leave the calm of the shop. Besides, the title of the fourth volume in the series had caught my eye: Historia animalium.* I opened it and read about shells.
Again, in regard to the shells themselves, the testaceans present differences when compared to one another. Some are smooth-shelled, like the solen, the mussel and some clams, viz. those that are nicknamed ‘milk-shells’, while others are rough-shelled, such as the pool-oyster or edible oyster, the pinna and certain species of cockles, and the trumpet shells; and of these some are ribbed, such as the scallop and a certain kind of clam or cockle, and some are devoid of ribs, as the pinna and another species of clam.
The shell, for me it is always the shell, had sat in the sunlight of a bathroom windowsill, buried in sedimentary layers of my father’s shaving talc, seemingly for ever. My parents must have picked it up somewhere along the Italian littoral, though whether in Venice, Naples, Sorrento or Capri neither could recall. A summer souvenir, then, of when they were still young and newly married; but indifferent to such associations I coveted the thing for itself: the chocolate flames of its helical whorls, the deep orange of its mouth, the milk of its unreachable interior.
I can describe it so exactly for, although this was so many years ago, I have it before me now. It is a perfect specimen of Charonia variegata (Lamarck), the shell of Minoan frescos and Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The trumpet of Aegean fishermen, weathered shells with a hole punched through the apex can still be found in Monastiraki stalls. Aristotle knew it as the kēryx, which means ‘herald’.
It was the first of many: shells, apparently infinitely various, yet possessed of a deep formal order of shapes and colours and textures that could be endlessly rearranged in shoeboxes until finally, seeing that the mania would not cease, my father had a cabinet built to house them all. A drawer for the luminous cowries, another for the thrillingly venomous cones, one for the filigree-sculptured murexes, others for the olives, marginellas, whelks, conchs, tuns, littorines, nerites, turbans and limpets, several for the bivalves and two, my pride, for the African land snails, gigantic creatures that no more resemble a common garden snail than an elephant does a rabbit. What pure delight. My mother’s heroic contribution was to type the catalogue and so become Conseil to my Aronnax, an expert in the Latinate hierarchy of Molluscan taxonomy, though her knowledge was entirely theoretical for she could scarcely tell one species from another.
At eighteen, convinced that my contribution to science would be vast malacological monographs that would be the last word for a hundred years (at least) on the Achatinidae of the African forests or, perhaps – for my attention tended to wander – the Buccindae of the Boreal Pacific, I went to learn marine biology at a research station perched on the edge of a small Canadian inlet. There, a marine ecologist, an awesome Blackbeard-like figure whose violent impatience was checked only by kindness to match, showed me how to peel away the layers of a gastropod’s tissues, more fragile than rice-paper, with forceps honed to a needle point and so reveal the severe functional logic that lies within. Another, a professorial cowboy-aesthete – the combination seems incongruous yet he was utterly of a piece – taught me how to think about evolution, which is to say about almost everything. I heard a legend speak, a scientist who had Laozi’s gaunt cheeks and wispy beard and who, blind from childhood, had discovered the one part of the empirical world that need not be seen and still can be known – shell form, of course – and had told its tales by touch alone. There was also a girl. She had wind-reddened skin and black hair and could pilot a RIB powered by twin Johnson 60s through two-metre surf and not flinch.
All this is, as I said, long ago. I did not, as it happens, ever write those taxonomic monographs. Science always sets you on entirely unpredictable paths and, by the time I walked into George Papadatos’ bookshop, I had long put my shells away. Still, it all came back to me when I read Aristotle on shells and when, reading further, I came across his description of the internal anatomy of the creatures that make them:
The stomach follows close upon the mouth and, by the way, this organ in the snail resembles a bird’s crop. Underneath come two white formations, mastoid or papillary in form; and similar formations are found in the cuttlefish also, only that they are of a firmer consistency [in snails] than in the cuttlefish. After the stomach comes the oesophagus, simple and long, extending to the poppy or quasi-liver, which is in the innermost recesses of the shell. All these statements may be verified in the case of the purple murex and the kēryx by observation within the whorl of the shell. What comes next . . .
You may wonder that such blunt words can carry beauty, but for me they did. It was not mere nostalgia, though certainly that played its part. No, it was that I understood, understood against all expectation and probability, what he meant. He had evidently walked down to the shore, picked up a snail, asked ‘what’s inside?’; had looked, and had found what I found when, twenty-three centuries later, I repeated the exercise. We scientists are no more given to rootling in history’s byways than we are to metaphysical speculation. We are, by nature, a forward-looking lot. But this was too wonderful to be ignored.
THE DISTRICT KNOWN as the Lyceum lay just beyond Athens’ stone walls. A sanctuary dedicated to Apollo Lykeios – Apollo of the Wolves – it contained, among other things, a military training ground, a racetrack, a collection of shrines and a park. The topography is uncertain. Strabo is vague, Pausanias is worse, and, besides, one wrote twenty years, the other two centuries after Sulla, a Roman general, had razed the place to the ground. Sulla also chopped down the ancient plane trees that lined its winding paths and built siege engines from their wood. Cicero, visiting in 97 BC, found only a waste. His visit was an homage to Aristotle who, more than two hundred years before, had rented a few buildings and set up his school there. It was said that Aristotle used to walk the Lyceum’s shady paths and that, as he did so, he talked.
He talked about the proper constitution of the city: the dangers of tyranny – and of democracy too. And of how Tragedy purifies through pity and fear. He analysed the meaning of the Good, to agathon, and spoke of how humans should spend their lives. He set his students logical puzzles and then demanded that they reconsider the nature of fundamental reality. He spoke in terse syllogisms and then illustrated his meaning with endless lists of things. He began his lectures with the most abstract principles and followed their consequences for hours till yet another part of the world lay before them dissected and explained. He examined his predecessors’ thought – the names of Empedocles, Democritus, Socrates and Plato were forever on his lips – sometimes with grudging recognition, often with scorn. He reduced the chaos of the world to order, for Aristotle was, if nothing else, a systems man.
His students would have regarded him with awe and, perhaps, a little fear. Some of his sayings suggest an acid tongue: ‘The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.’ ‘Educated men are as superior to uneducated as the living are to the dead.’ Of a rival philosopher he said: ‘It would be a shame for me to keep quiet if Xenocrates is still talking.’ There is a description too, and it isn’t an attractive one. It’s of a dandy who wore lots of rings, dressed rather too well and fussed about with his hair. Asked why people seek beauty in others he replied: ‘That’s a question only a blind man would ask.’ It is said that he had thin legs and small eyes.
This may be mere gossip: the Athenian schools were forever feuding and the biographers are unreliable. But we know what Aristotle talked about, for we have his lecture notes. Among them are the works – Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, Sophistical Refutations, the Metaphysics, the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, Politics – that loom over the history of Western thought like a mountain range. Sometimes clear and didactic, often opaque and enigmatic, riddled with gaps and rife with redundancies, they are the books that have made Aristotle’s name immortal. That we have them at all is mostly due to Sulla, who looted the library of a Piraeus bibliophile and took them back to Rome. But these philosophical texts are only a part – and not even the most important part – of what Aristotle wrote. Among the books that Sulla stole were at least nine that were all about animals.
Aristotle was an intellectual omnivore, a glutton for information and ideas. But the subject he loved most was biology. In his works the ‘study of nature’ springs to life for he turns to describing and explaining the plants and animals that, in all their variety, fill our world.* To be sure, some philosophers and physicians had dabbled in biology before him, but Aristotle gave much of his life to it. He was the first to do so. He mapped the territory. He invented the science. You could argue that invented science itself.
At the Lyceum he taught a great course in natural science. In the introduction to one of his books there is a sketch of the curriculum: first, an abstract account of nature, then the motion of the stars, then chemistry, meteorology and geology in quick order, and then, the bulk of it, an account of living things – the creatures that he knew, among them, us. His zoological works are the notes for this part of the course. There was one book on what we call comparative zoology, another on functional anatomy, two on how animals move, one on how they breathe, two on why they die, one on the systems that keep them alive. There was a series of lectures on how creatures develop in the womb and grow into adults, reproduce and begin the process again – for there’s a book on that too. There were also some books about plants, but we don’t know what they contained. They are lost along with about two-thirds of his works.
The books that we have are a naturalist’s joy. Many of the creatures that he writes about live in or near the sea. He describes the anatomies of sea urchins, ascidians and snails. He looks at marsh birds and considers their bills, legs and feet. Dolphins fascinate him for they breathe air and suckle their young yet look like fish. He mentions more than a hundred different kinds of fishes – and tells of what they look like, what they eat, how they breed, the sounds they make and the patterns of their migrations. His favourite animal was that weirdly intelligent invertebrate, the cuttlefish. The dandy must have plundered fish markets and hung around wharves talking to fishermen.
But most of Aristotle’s science isn’t descriptive at all: it’s answers to questions, hundreds of them. Why do fishes have gills and not lungs? Fins but not legs? Why do pigeons have a crop and elephants a trunk? Why do eagles lay so few eggs, fish so many, why are sparrows so salacious? What is it with bees, anyway? And the camel? Why do humans, uniquely, walk upright? How do we see – smell – hear – touch? What is the influence of the environment on growth? Why do children sometimes look like their parents, and sometimes not? What is the purpose of testicles, menstruation, vaginal fluids, orgasms? What is the cause of monstrous births? What is the real difference between male and female? How do living things stay alive? Why do they reproduce? Why do they die? This is not a tentative foray into a new field: it’s a complete science.
Perhaps too complete, for sometimes it seems that Aristotle has an explanation for everything. Diogenes Laertius, the gossiping biographer who recorded Aristotle’s looks (five centuries after his death), said, ‘In the sphere of natural science he surpassed all other philosophers in the investigation of causes, so that even the most insignificant phenomena were explained by him.’ His explanations penetrate his philosophy. There is a sense in which his philosophy is biology – in which he devised his ontology and epistemology just to explain how animals work. Ask Aristotle: what, fundamentally, exists? He would not say – as a modern biologist might – ‘go ask a physicist’; he’d point to a cuttlefish and say – that.
The science that Aristotle began has grown great, but his descendants have all but forgotten him. Throw a stone in some boroughs of London, Paris, New York or San Francisco and you’ll be sure to hit a...
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Book Description Viking. 1 Cloth(s), 2014. hard. Book Condition: New. Although Aristotle's philosophical classics loom large over the history of Western thought, the subject that he loved most was biology; he wrote vast treatises on animals, dissecting and classifying them, recording how they lived, fed, and bred. In this luminous book, biologist Armand Marie Leroi—winner of the Guardian's First Book Award for Mutants: On the Form, Variety and Errors of the Human Body—recovers Aristotle's founding vision of science, delving deeply into the Greek's observations, his inspired guesses—and the things that he got wrong. Leroi also visits the Aegean island where Aristotle plumbed the secrets of nature, and shows how Aristotle's science is deeply intertwined with his philosophical system."Leroi takes us through Aristotle's work, finding hints of modern thinking everywhere. [This book] bubbles with enthusiasm for its subject, making an absolutely gripping read out of what might have seemed the most unlikely material."—The Times (London) 501. Bookseller Inventory # 71433
Book Description Viking Books 2014-09-25, 2014. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Hardcover. Publisher overstock, may contain remainder mark on edge. Bookseller Inventory # 9780670026746B
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