Aristotle and Women

Jonathan Barnes

  • Science, Folklore and Ideology by G.E.R. Lloyd
    Cambridge, 260 pp, £25.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 521 25314 4

Science is practised amid folklore and ideology, and it is foolishly romantic to imagine that the scientist conducts his professional affairs on a high plateau of reason untainted by the miasmous exhalations of ordinary life. It is equally foolish to suppose that science is and can be nothing more than a cunning defence of the ‘dominant ideology’ of the society within whose bounds it happens to be pursued. But it is plausible – even platitudinous – to think that the scientist may be influenced, in unconscious acquiescence or conscious reaction, by the unscientific ideas prevalent in his society. That platitude generates a host of particular questions for the historian of science. How far was this astronomer influenced by the astrological beliefs of his contemporaries? How far was that botanist moved by the accumulated wisdom of country folk? How far did this biologist escape from the anthropocentric prejudices of his society? If we are interested in Kepler or in Newton, it will matter that the one was a devotee of astrology, the other of alchemy. But those dispiriting facts impinge upon the history of science only to the extent that Kepler’s astrology disoriented his star-map or Newton’s alchemy upset his calculations. The general form of the questions, in short, is this: how far did items of folklore or of ideology affect science?

Such questions will be more pressing in the life sciences than in the physical sciences. For folklore and ideology have relatively little to say about physics or chemistry, relatively much to say about biology or psychology. Again, they will be more pressing in the early years of a science than in its maturity. For once a science has acquired a tradition of its own – a recognised assembly of concepts, a standard methodology, a framework of doctrine, an institutionalised structure – it will no doubt be less liable to external influence. Thus a historian of science with an interest in these questions might properly turn with especial eagerness to the early history – that is to say, to the Greek history – of biology, botany and medicine. That is what Geoffrey Lloyd does in his Science, Folklore and Ideology. The enterprise, as Lloyd acknowledges, is not without its difficulties. But he plausibly maintains that the Classical scholar is in a peculiarly favourable position with regard to these matters. For, unlike most anthropologists, the student of Greek culture is ‘confronted with the existence, side by side, of a complex of popular and religious beliefs and assumptions on the one hand, and of what may – if with due caution – be called scientific investigations on the other’.

Lloyd’s book, which can be read as a long appendix to his recent masterpiece on Magic, Reason and Experience, is modestly described as a series of case-studies. The studies range over seven centuries, from Hippocrates to Julius Soranus; they concern the development of zoological taxonomy, the early history of gynaecology, theories of sexual generation, the growth of botany, of pharmacology, of anatomical terminology. Each study is a marvel of erudition. Some of the material, notably that on Aristotle, will be fairly familiar to many of Lloyd’s readers, but much of it – I think especially of the sections on Pliny, on Rufus, on Soranus – is refreshingly new. The scholarly judgments are sober, but the book has drive and vigour. Anyone with an interest in the history of science will find it intelligible – and absorbing.

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