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Friday, October 13, 2017

The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science

The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science
Armand Marie Leroi 
Bloomsbury

Aristotle is known primarily as a philosopher, but in The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science Armand Marie Leroi shows that he was also a great scientist who has illuminated almost every facet of our science. Aristotle’s main scientific contributions are in the field of biology.

The idea of Aristotle being regarded as a scientist may come as a surprise to some readers because past thinkers like Francis Bacon have portrayed Aristotle as a major obstacle to science. Even modern scholars like Peter Medawar (who is a Nobel Laureate in physiology and medicine) have held Aristotle’s science in scorn. Medawar credits (and celebrates) Bacon for having contributed more than anyone else towards the destruction of Aristotle’s reputation.

But Leroi points out that Bacon had a complex agenda for propagating the idea that Aristotle is intrinsically anti-scientific. Here’s an excerpt:

“[Bacon], wanted to paint the Philosopher in the colors of the quarrelsome scholastics, contrast their intemperate disputations with the new, civil kind of scientific discourse that he envisioned (but that his own writings hardly exemplify) and indict Aristotle for injustice towards the true scientific heroes of antiquity the phisiologoi.”

There was another reason behind Bacon’s aversion to Aristotle and Aristotelianism. His view of the purpose of science and its proper object of study was different from the view held by Aristotle.  Bacon demanded a new, mechanistic natural philosophy underpinned by a unified physics that would explain the movements of both natural and artificial objects.

Bacon saw no value in the complex theories of biology which Aristotle had developed—he preferred a mechanistic model of life. The idea of mechanistic view of life was further developed by Descartes, who, unlike Aristotle, held that animals and plants are merely machines.

In his book, Leroi makes it wonderfully clear that Aristotle has developed the method and the rules which continue to dominate philosophy, politics and natural science till this day. He credits Aristotle with inventing the science of biology. However, Leroi has nothing nice to say about Aristotle’s teacher, Plato. He says,“Plato’s science is barely distinguishable from theology.”

But there is theology in Aristotle too, and Leroi acknowledges it. In the chapter, “Kosmos,” Leroi writes, “I have kept Aristotle’s theos in the shadows. It may even be that I have done so deliberately; that I have been reluctant to reveal the degree to which my hero’s scientific system is riddled with religion. Yet it is.”

Leroi’s standpoint on the aspects of the Aristotelian corpus that he is willing to explore in his book is understandable—he wants to keep the concentrate on Aristotle’s biology and therefore he is keen to avoid Aristotle’s theology. In many respects Aristotle’s writing on biological issues is anachronistic but Leroi provides the historical and cultural context behind what Aristotle is saying.

The focus of Leroi’s book is not so much on Aristotle’s specific biological theories but on his method of exploring the natural world. Aristotle loved the facts that he derived through a direct observation of the natural world. He dissects all kinds of birds and animals to learn about their internal organs. From fish to birds, to hyenas and elephants—Aristotle is interested in everything.  

Much of Aristotle’s science is not descriptive—rather it consists of his answers to hundreds of questions. “Why do fishes have fills and not lungs? Fins but not legs? Why do pigeons have a crop and elephants a trunk? Why do eagles lay so few eggs, fish so many, why are sparrows so salacious? What is it with bees, anyway? And the camel?”

It is clear that Aristotle’s method is different from that of Plato, who believed that transcendental truth can only be discovered when we learn to ignore our natural observations. Aristotle rejects the Platonic idea of transcendental truth. For him, the ultimate truth is what he can observe with through the means of his own senses.

Aristotle developed his biological ideas mainly during the two years that he spent on the lagoon on the island of Lesbos. However, in his works he also uses the evidence that he gathers from other scholars, fishermen and many others. According to Leroi, Aristotle has made 9,000 distinct empirical claims in the Historia animalium.

Leroi offers a fascinating comparison between Aristotle’s method and that of Darwin. He points out that the struggle of existence between different creatures that Aristotle has described is almost Darwinian in its essence. In the chapter, “The Stone Forest,” Leroi spectates why Aristotle did not come up with some kind of a theory of evolution because it is obvious that he is struggling towards such a theory.

According to Leroi, there is a fundamental difference between Aristotle and Darwin. Aristotle’s view of the creatures in the natural world is not evolutionarily; it is static. When he talks about nature making small steps he means it in a static sense—that one can observe fine gradations between forms. Whereas, Darwin asserts that species can dynamically transform in a gradual sense.

The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science is a good appreciation of the Aristotelian tradition. The book offers an interesting and detailed account of Aristotle’s biology. In the first chapter, “At Erato,” Leroi writes: “Ask Aristotle: what, fundamentally, exists? He would not say – as a modern biologist might – ‘go ask a physicist’; he’d point to a cuttlefish and say – that.” It is worth noting that Plato, with his focus on transcendental truth, would never have said something like this.

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