Adrienne Mayor

  • The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science by Armand Marie Leroi
    Bloomsbury, 501 pp, £25.00, August 2014, ISBN 978 1 4088 3620 0

Thinkers who pondered the mysteries of nature used to be known as ‘natural philosophers’. For centuries there wasn’t a separate term for those few individuals who practised science (scientia, ‘knowledge’) in the sense of devising experiments and testable explanations and predictions in order to understand experienced reality. In 1833 William Whewell, a professor of mineralogy, created the term ‘scientist’ – by analogy with ‘artist’ – at a meeting of the new British Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify empirical thinkers who used all their senses and actually got their hands dirty in an effort to comprehend nature. ‘Science’ soon came to mean a methodology, a disciplined, systematic way of observing, studying and explaining the world. But in fact the ‘scientific method’ was first practised by Aristotle, whose works on natural history – including his grand treatise on comparative zoology, the History of Animals – are the subject of Armand Marie Leroi’s new book. Aristotle may be most famous for his Physics and Politics, but his most voluminous writings were biological. Leroi celebrates him as the first truly scientific thinker, in a modern sense: the first to observe, describe and attempt to classify biology systematically, in all its grandeur and myriad forms.

After Plato died in 348 bc, Aristotle left Athens for western Anatolia and took to the field, grounding his subsequent biological studies in deductions based on observation. In the Physics, he had maintained that the principles of change were teleological, that all things in nature moved towards achieving perfection of their potentials. The teleology is still there in the History of Animals and the other biological writings, but what’s new is an empirical approach based on data obtained from many sources: not only his own observations and dissections but also the reports of previous writers and information relayed by farmers, fishermen, sailors, hunters and travellers. Despite his interest in the principles of change and his awareness of transformation, mutation and deformity, his acceptance of the ‘fixity of species’ meant that, as Leroi puts it, ‘Aristotle never made the evolutionary leap.’

Aristotle’s blindspot was severely magnified by European Christians in the Middle Ages. The medieval insistence on divine creation and unchanging species eclipsed Aristotle’s innovative biological methodology, leading modern scientists to reject or misunderstand his important contributions. Today’s students of the animal and plant kingdoms, enriched by the wealth of ever accumulating fossil evidence and informed by scientific theories of extinction and evolution, seek to know how each species flourished and then either vanished or evolved over eons to become what they are in their present time and place. Leroi shows that Aristotle may have come close to expressing a principle of evolution in his ‘dynamic language’ about quadrupeds in Parts of Animals and his radical ‘version of natural selection’. But the rocks and earth that contained the evidence of extinct, evolving life forms, being inanimate objects, had no place in Aristotle’s typology of living beings.

In Athens, Aristotle would eventually found the Peripatetic School of Philosophy, in which walking and thinking – meditating while meandering – were intimately entwined. But before that, most of his wandering took place around Kolpos Kalloni, a large inland lagoon connected to the Aegean Sea on the verdant island of Lesbos. Leroi, an evolutionary biologist and ardent admirer of Aristotle, was drawn to retrace his route from Athens to Assos on the Turkish coast, and from there across the narrow strait to Lesbos where the nutrient-rich, calm lagoon harboured an abundance of salt and freshwater fish, eels, shellfish and other sea creatures, its marshy shores home to a chorus of birds, frogs and insects. The life flourishing in this sheltered pool was a boon to Aristotle’s decision to favour observation over Plato’s abstract speculation, and inspired his grand endeavour to catalogue, describe and explain the biological world as he found it.

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