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.

Lloyd prudently shies from general conclusions. He believes that ‘much of Greek science consists in the rationalisation of popular belief,’ and he holds that the ‘underlying beliefs’ of the scientists in some cases at least ‘correspond to deep-seated value-judgments and reflect what always remained the dominant ideology in Greece’. Those views are hardly controversial. He also suggests, more boldly (and perhaps less plausibly), that ‘one of the chief weaknesses of ancient science as a whole ... was the lack of any explicit institutional recognition of the scientific endeavour as such.’ But Lloyd’s book is memorable not for its few generalities but for the rich particularity of its detailed studies.

Of all ancient scientists Aristotle was perhaps the most likely to have felt the pull of common belief. His working method involved the scrutiny – and, where possible, the defence – of ta phainomena and ta endoxa, of ‘what appears to be the case’ and ‘reputable opinions’. The opinions he collected were not only those of the experts and the sages: he looked also to the views of hoi polloi and to the wisdom enshrined in popular talk. (He laboured over a collection of proverbs, a task which later generations found unworthy of a philosopher.) Nor did he confine his attention to those opinions which men explicitly avowed. He was alive to the fact that beliefs and attitudes are latent in the conceptual apparatus we unthinkingly employ and in the language we unself-consciously use. He was as concerned to uncover ideology as he was to document folklore.

In his biological works, Aristotle from time to time deploys the notion of ‘dualising’. (‘Dualise’ is A.L. Peck’s ugly translation of the Greek verb epamphoterizein. ‘Equivocate’, the normal rendering of the word in its non-technical occurrences, will do perfectly well in Aristotle’s biology. But Lloyd has chosen to follow Peck, and I shall follow Lloyd.) Sea-anemones, for example, dualise between animals and plants, pigs dualise between the solid-hoofed and the cloven-hoofed, hermit crabs dualise between crustaceans and testaceans, ostriches dualise between birds and quadrupeds. To say that something dualises between X and Y is to say that it possesses some of the salient characteristics of X and some of the salient characteristics of Y. Several creatures do not fit comfortably into the loose groupings about which Aristotle organises his biological researches. Rather than develop a rigorous taxonomy (an enterprise in which he had no practical interest) or force the facts (a device which he properly shunned), Aristotle noted such creatures down as dualisers.

Dualisers have often appeared in philosophical debates. John Locke invoked baboons or ‘drills’, which are dualisers, in order to show that ‘the distinction of Species or Sorts, is not fixedly established by the real Frame, and secret Constitution of Things.’ Epicurus appealed to bats, which are dualisers, in order to disprove the principle of bivalence: some propositions are neither true nor false, ‘for the bat is a bird insofar as it flies and not a bird insofar as it is viviparous and suckles its young.’ Plato refers to the riddle about the eunuch and the bat to illustrate the way in which all perceptible things ‘dualise’ between being and not-being.

Dualisers are popular in folklore. In Homer, the souls of the dead twitter like bats in a cave. Aesop’s fable of the bat and the weasel turns on the dualising nature of the bat. Bats’ hearts keep ants at bay. Bat’s blood will prevent girls’ breasts from prematurely swelling – and it will also depilate the armpits. It is a good sign if pregnant women dream of bats. Tales of that type are legion. (They are of course told about animals of every sort, not just about dualisers: but it may be true, as Lloyd says, that dualisers are unusually prominent in them.)

According to Lloyd, ‘dualising thus provides a remarkable case of an interaction – within Aristotle’s zoology – of traditional beliefs and his own independent theorising’: for ‘he is prepared to countenance cases of intermediates treated as anomalies, and in doing so he may be said to have the tacit support of a powerful, if unformalised, set of popular assumptions.’ But how remarkable is the interaction? Several of the cases in which Aristotle observes a dualising (pigs’ trotters, for example, or the uterus of selachia) have no counterparts in popular belief. Where there is a correspondence (as in the case of bats), Aristotle shows no special interest in the popular stories. The History of Animals is liberally salted with anecdotes, but dualisers supply no disproportionate share.

Aristotle’s natural philosophy is peculiarly hospitable to anomalies. It is a settled part of his thought that in nature, quite generally, things happen ‘for the most part’. Anomaly is natural and to be expected. And it is surely a plain fact that bats do share some features with birds and some with quadrupeds. Aristotle records the fact. We may if we please hypothesise that his attention was drawn to the plight of the bat by its prominent place in popular superstition. But there is no evidence to support the hypothesis, which is not needed in order to explain Aristotle’s interest in the animal. Aristotle’s admission of dualisers is indeed pertinent to his ideas about taxonomy: but I doubt if it testifies to the influence of folklore on science.

Folklore is a matter of old wives’ tales. Ideology, in the current literature, tells many tales about women. Lloyd remarks that ‘the ideology of the inherent superiority of the male and of the priority of the values he stood for was, without a doubt, enormously pervasive.’ Now ‘it is notorious that Aristotle considers the male sex inherently superior to the female.’ Hence we shall expect that Aristotle’s biology was influenced by – and in its turn reinforced – that dominant ideology. Aristotle’s moral and political philosophy allots women a place subordinate to men. Underlying the philosophy is the conviction that ‘the male is related to the female by nature as superior to inferior, ruler to ruled.’ Aristotle thus represents his practical philosophy as grounded in biological fact: modern critics suppose that things were in reality the other way about – that the biological ‘facts’ were determined for Aristotle by his ideological prejudices.

In his biological writings, Aristotle remarks upon numerous differences between males and females – differences in size, in colour, in shape; in behaviour and in character; in the organs and functions associated with reproduction. Some of his observations, especially those concerning animal character, are offensive to his more sensitive readers. He can say, for example, that ‘in the case of Laconian hounds, the females are more gifted than the males,’ or that ‘females are less spirited than males in all species except the bear and the leopard – there the female is thought to be the braver.’ Such remarks should no doubt be expelled from any serious scientific treatise. But they offend because they are vague and impressionistic, not because they exhibit a sexual bias.

Elsewhere, sexual bias has been more confidently diagnosed. Consider the bee. Aristotle held that the ‘leaders’ of the hive were male. His view had a lasting hold on zoologists, and it contributed not a little to political metaphor. But it reflects nothing but ideological prejudice. Had Aristotle lived in a matriarchal society, she would have known that the leaders were female. That is speculation. Against it speaks the fact that Aristotle reached his view about the leader bees after long argument. He begins his account by acknowledging that ‘the reproduction of bees is a great puzzle.’ He then records and rejects a variety of proposed solutions. His own view, which is complex, is supported by a number of theoretical considerations which themselves derive from observations of the behaviour and nature of other animals. Aristotle concludes as follows: ‘as far as we can judge from theory and from what are thought to be the facts of the matter, this seems to be the way in which bees are reproduced. But the facts have not been adequately ascertained, and if they ever are ascertained we must then rely on perception rather than on theories.’ It is merely impudent to dismiss all that as so much rationalisation and to wheel on sexual bias in its place.

Aristotle’s most infamous theory about females is that they are to be defined in terms of an incapacity (they cannot concoct blood into semen); his most infamous claim asserts that ‘the female is, so to speak, a mutilated male.’ How vile, cry the critics. Even Aristotle’s friends are embarrassed. They point out that at least he got his facts right (females do not produce semen), but they deprecate his language: the pejorative term ‘mutilated’ has no place in a scientific treatise and its appearance in Aristotle’s text is a regrettable rhetorical manifestation of latent prejudice. The friends concede too much. Aristotle’s view has a decent empirical basis. ‘In the case of castrated animals, when the generative organ alone is destroyed, pretty well the whole form changes so that they seem to be female or nearly so.’ Mutilated males acquire female characteristics (high voice, soft skin, and so on): hence females are, so to speak, mutilated males. The argument may be less than probative, but it is gratuitous to discount it as a cloak and a pretext for prejudice.

The discovery of ideological bias in ancient texts itself more often manifests prejudice than profundity. Aristotle’s views on sexual reproduction are grudgingly allowed to be semi-liberated – at least he recognised that the female makes a material contribution to the offspring. A common Greek view, which Aristotle rejected, held that the female is a mere receptacle for the male seed. The view, implicit in the familiar metaphors of ploughing and sowing, is clearly expressed in Aeschylus’s Eumenides:

She who is called mother of the child is not its parent, but a nurse of the new-sown growth. The parent is the sire: she, a hostess for her guest, preserves the shoot.

Thus, Lloyd notes, the view ‘occurs already in a context innocent of pretensions to biological investigation (though one heavy with social and political implications)’. No doubt the view was not the result of prolonged biological investigation. Nonetheless, it is a respectable empirical thesis. The facts of sexual reproduction are hidden from casual observation. But we can apparently observe, first, that the male makes a material contribution to the business, and secondly, that the female provides board and lodging for the ‘new-sown growth’. The Aeschylean view derives from the conjunction of those two observations, together with a proper reluctance to posit unobservables. The view was accepted by certain early scientists, Anaxagoras among them, and it was given some theoretical backing. It is false. It was rejected by most later Greek thinkers. But that does not impugn its standing as a reasonable scientific theory.

Lloyd refers allusively to the ‘social and political implications’ of the view. He presumably takes it to imply that matricide is less heinous than patricide, that women do not have full parental rights over their children, that their proper role in the family and in society is a humble one, that they should play no part in the official life of the state, and so on. I cannot for the life of me see why anyone should discern such implications in the theory. The theory does imply, what is true, that male and female roles in reproduction are different from each other. It does not, so far as I can see, suggest that the mother, being the seedbed and nursery, somehow plays a subsidiary or unimportant or passive role in the production of offspring. On the contrary, the protection and nutrition of the embryo are evidently indispensable to its well-being. No farmer supposes that the labourer who broadcasts the seed has a more important part in the agricultural process – and therefore should have a more important part in non-agricultural processes – than the men who weed, water, manure and nurture the young crops. Of course, the Aeschylean view can be twisted to serve an ideological end. But so can any theory. The view itself has no ideological implications. And so it is, I should argue, with many of the other biological views about women which the Greek doctors and scientists honourably propounded. The criticisms of these last few paragraphs do not apply in their full strength to Lloyd. His judgment, even in this slippery region, is usually (and unusually) sure-footed. If he occasionally slides, that only shows that this splendid book has a human author.