The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science
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The remarkable but neglected story of Aristotle’s founding role in the scientific study of nature
Both a travelogue and a study of the origins of science, The Lagoon shows how an ancient thinker still has much to teach us today. Aristotle’s philosophy looms large over the history of Western thought, but the subject he most loved was biology. He wrote vast treatises on animals, dissecting them, classifying them, recording how they lived, fed, and bred. He founded a science. It can even be said that he founded science itself.
In this luminous book, acclaimed biologist Armand Marie Leroi recovers Aristotle’s science. He explores Aristotle’s observations, his deep ideas, his inspired guesses—and the things he got wildly wrong. Leroi visits the Aegean island where Aristotle plumbed the secrets of the living world in all its beauty. Modern science still bears the stamp of its founder. The Lagoon reveals that Aristotle was not only the first biologist, but also one of the greatest.
That, says Aristotle, is to reverse the true direction of causality: we have hands because we are the most intelligent of animals (for only a highly intelligent creature would be able to use them). Moreover, we can have hands because, uniquely, we stand upright. So why do we stand upright? We do so because we grow that way. All animals are dwarfish, not only in stature, but in intellect, compared to us. And we grow that way because we are the hottest of all animals – which, along with our pure
the continuum of kinds is infinitely divisible, nor that kinds overlap so that the boundaries of one cannot be distinguished from the other, but only that they form a graduated series that progresses in small but discrete steps; see GRANGER (1985) contra LOVEJOY (1936). LXXXVIII Aristotelian themes in Darwin and vice versa. For the history of Natura non facit saltum and its use by Darwin see FISHBURN (2004). ‘Ever since Darwin’ was the title of Stephen Jay Gould’s 1977 anthology of essays from
question: just how good is his biology as a whole? Never mind the theory – how many of his simple, descriptive claims are true? This question, one that will occur to any working scientist opening a volume of Aristotle’s biological works and seeing the empirical claims roll by page after page, has never been answered. It’s not for want of trying. Over the centuries, many commentators have attempted to assess the truth of Aristotle’s assertions. They have all been defeated by the immensity of the
seeds or grasp mites – and so have small, hollow beaks. Some birds are powerful fliers so that they can migrate to distant lands. This is exactly where functional explanation in evolutionary biology begins. ‘Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.’ People who quote Darwin on the finches of the
sun heats the soil to produce a hot, wet, air-rich vapour that forms clouds that, with the arrival of winter, cool and transform back into the cold, wet, water-rich substance we call rain: ‘We must think of this as a river, flowing up and down in a circle, and made partly of air and partly of water.’ By a similar cause the winds blow too – ‘even the wind has a sort of lifespan’. Aristotle explains these processes in Meteorology. Much of it is about cycles. It’s an argument against entropy; a