1. Aristotle on Lesbos 346-343BC

When the Athenian philospoher Plato died in 347 BC his student, Aristotle, left Athens and moved to the Aegean island of Assos. With the help of other philosophers he established a new school on the nearby island of Lesbos, where he lived for two more years.

Aristotle - copy from a 322BC bronze

Aristotle – copy from a 322BC bronze

Greek_ColonizationMost historians of science agree that it was during this period that Aristotle began his intensive study of biology. Three books in particular, the History of Animals, Parts of Animals, and the Generation of Animals, contain descriptions of the fish, birds, insects and mammals that he found around two lagoons on Lesbos. He also considered the ecological features of the island habitats and of the marine conditions. Then, around 342BC Aristotle and Pythias moved to Pella (the ancient capital of Macedon) at the invitation of king Phillip II, for their son Alexander’s education.

a modern lagoon on an Aegean island

a modern lagoon on an Aegean island

Aristotle also created a classification of animals as “live-bearing and egg-bearing” and which went on to include invertebrates and vertebrates. He thought that all these creatures were arranged on a scale of perfection starting with plants and going up to man, the so-called Great Chain of Being.

A link between humans and nature was made explicit during this time, when the Greek thinkers were establishing European culture. Heraclitus (534-475BC) was from Ephesus and talked about the importance of reason to work out the meaning of nature, what he called logos. So when he moved nearby to Assos, 130 years after Heraclitus’ death, Aristotle was especially aware of the more reasoned ways of thinking. He spoke of the link between Promethean technology and Orphic art as essential to the Greek life style of the times. They liked having two very different ways of understanding nature, realizing that the comparisons maintained a healthy debate, even helping to retain the secrets of life.

These ancient Greeks believed that nature loved to hide, and to help teach that mystery they created the veiled beauty of Artemis, known as Isis in Egypt. This led them on to think about the subject of nature’s origin, the appearance and growth of living species. It caused them to build Artemis a special temple at Ephesus and aimed for another destination after her death.

So beneath Artemis’s veil there was all this hidden science of nature: the structure of all species, their development, what caused them to move and their environment to change. There were also a lot of poems about these myths spoken by the gods, exorcising both their value and meanings from Artemis’s spirit. It became hidden by the poet and not by nature, for nature has no need to reveal herself, happy in the secrecy of the veil.

Heraclitus thought that if we treated nature as a separate entity, something to resist and to treat warily as a likely enemy, then humans would fight nature and expect to be most powerful. On the other hand, if we relax to feel part of nature, then gradually we would understand our place in nature. Art was part of our creative spirit, so it was already in nature as well, keeping nature and humans together.

This was the dialectic between these technological and aesthetic interpretations of nature, non-ending dialogue between the two equal partners, one hard the other soft, both being necessary for the other and both sitting happily in the bigger veiled image of nature.

Although Aristotle’s zoological work is not as well known as his logical and philosophical books, it was a vast encyclopaedia of natural history and was surpassed only in the 18th century. There is a famous saying by Darwin, who was much impressed the first time he read Aristotle’s zoological work: “I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.”

Aristotle’s scientific work was translated into English by the biologist and Greek scholar, d’Arcy Thompson.

D'Arcy Thompson, the eccentric Irish biology professor of DundeeHe also lectured at Oxford in 1913 On Aristotle as a Biologist with a prooemion on Herbert Spencer.


all chapters/posts copyright Michael Boulter 2013