Book: The Lagoon


A new book re-examines Aristotle's contribution to our understanding of the natural world.


NON FICTION
The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science
by Armand Marie Leroi
Bloomsbury Circus (2014)
RRP $29.95

Charles Darwin had read no Aristotleuntil 1882 when William Ogle, a physician and classicist, sent him a copy of The Parts of Animals he had translated. Ogle thereby declared himself the “formal introducer of the father of naturalists to his great modern successor”.

Darwin was delighted. “I had a high notion of Aristotle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion of what a wonderful man he was.”

The work that so impressed the naturalist was written around 350 BCE. The world had never seen anything like it in its ambition to study animal anatomy and physiology systematically, carefully cataloguing and seeking to explain the organs, tissues and circulatory systems.

As the Galapagos were to Darwin, so the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean was to Aristotle – specifically the lagoon that dominates the island and gives this elegant book its title.

Aristotle arrived there in 345 BCE in his mid-30s, with a young wife and a commitment to Plato’s ideals of searching for truth. But he also had an instinctive mistrust of the older philosopher’s metaphysical views of the world. Instead he turned to the physical, determined to order and understand the natural world through observation.

His study centred around the lagoon, which then teemed with life. As Leroi writes, “the subject he loved most was biology”. But as Leroi takes us on a journey through Aristotle’s voluminous scientific writings, we see it was far from the only discipline he loved.

Aristotle describes the internal anatomy of 110 animals, but in the course of his work also explains the structure of the human heart, how rainclouds form, the habits of swallows as they arrive on Lesbos from Africa – although we must take with a grain of salt his assertion that if you poke the eye out of a nesting bird it will regenerate.

But then, as biologist Leroi explains, “Aristotle rarely shies away from a bold explanation”, sometimes getting things wildly wrong. His cosmology and physics, in particular, left much to be desired, being as wrong as they could be in almost every important detail.

'His ideas flow like a subterranean river through the history of our science.'

His errors appear to arise mostly from his determination not only to dissect, observe and draw the world around him, but to explain it.

In so doing, says Leroi, he set the path for science as we know it – happy to disprove hypotheses as they outlived their usefulness, rather than deal with absolutes. “His ideas flow like a subterranean river through the history of our science.”

But that is not to say all of Aristotle’s views, opinions and explanations have been helpful to science or society.

His mistrust of the experimental method detracts from Leroi’s claim that he “invented science”, while his pronouncements on women’s subservience and the moral justification for slavery gave important intellectual comfort to bigots and abusers for centuries.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle depicted here as a young man in his study surrounded by the natural and cultural objects that stimulated his curiosity. – Universal History Archive / Getty Images

And then there is his notion of “spontaneous generation” – the idea that some organisms can spring to life from “rotting earth and vegetation” – that hardly helped our understanding of life.

He appears to have arrived at his conclusion after observing discarded earthenware on the sea floor, which, when retrieved years later, had collected living oysters. Since oysters cannot move, he reasoned, they must have arisen from the mud.

Flawed logic, but an idea held on to by biologists for centuries until finally laid to rest forever by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century.

Leroi’s prose is leisurely and grand without being grandiose. He is at his best when describing how modern understandings of evolutionary biology fit into the Aristotelian world view and evoking the world of the eastern Mediterranean in ancient – and modern – times. It’s a lovely book to dip into and pore over.

As Leroi allows Aristotle himself to conclude, “All men, by nature, desire to know”. It is a claim he makes for the beauty and worth of science.

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