The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science

Paperback | December 8, 2015

byArmand Marie Leroi

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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.

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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 ...

Armand Marie Leroi is a professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College London. He is also a broadcaster and the author of Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, which has been translated into nine languages and won the Guardian First Book Award. He lives in London.

other books by Armand Marie Leroi

Mutants: On Genetic Variety And The Human Body
Mutants: On Genetic Variety And The Human Body

Paperback|Jan 25 2005

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:512 pages, 8.42 × 5.49 × 1.1 inPublished:December 8, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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THE LAGOONBY THE SAME AUTHORMutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human BodyTHE LAGOONLESBOS (MYTILENE)Among the isles of Greece there is a certain island, insula nobilis et amoena, which Aristotle knew well. It lies on the Asian side, between the Troad and the Mysian coast, and far into its bosom, by the little town of Pyrrha, runs a broad and sheltered lagoon.D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson,On Aristotle as a biologist (1913)ATERATO KĒRYX – ATLANTIC TRUMPET – CHARONIA VARIEGATAITHERE IS A bookshop in old Athens. It is the loveliest I know. It lies in an alley near the Agora, next to a shop that sells canaries and quails from cages strung on the façade. Wide louvres admit shafts of light that fall upon Japanese woodblock prints propped on a painter’s easel. Beyond, in the gloom, there are crates of lithographs and piles of topographical maps. Terracotta tiles and plaster busts of ancient philosophers and playwrights do duty as bookends. The scent is of warm, old paper and Turkish tobacco. The stillness is disturbed only by the muted trills of the songbirds next door.I have returned so often, and the scene is so constant, that it is hard to remember when, exactly, I first walked into George Papadatos’ bookshop. But I do recall that it was the drachma’s last spring, when Greece was still poor and cheap and you landed at Ellinikon where the clacking flight boards listed Istanbul, Damascus, Beirut and Belgrade and you still felt as if you’d travelled east. George – lank grey hair, a bookman’s paunch – sat at his desk reading an old French political tract. Years ago, he told me, he had taught at Toronto – ‘But in Greece, they still had poets.’ He returned and named his store for the lyric muse.Scanning his shelves, I saw Andrew Lang’s Odyssey and three volumes of Jowett’s Plato. They were the sort of books that might have belonged to an Englishman, a schoolmaster perhaps, who had retired to Athens, lived on his pension, and died there with some epigram of Callimachus on his lips. Whoever he was, he also left, in a row of Clarendon blue, the complete Works of Aristotle Translated into English, edited by J. S. Smith and W. D. Ross and published between 1910 and 1952. Ancient philosophy had never held much interest for me; I am a scientist. But I was idling and in no hurry to leave the calm of the shop. Besides, the title of the fourth volume in the series had caught my eye: Historia animalium.* I opened it and read about shells.Again, in regard to the shells themselves, the testaceans present differences when compared to one another. Some are smooth-shelled, like the solen, the mussel and some clams, viz. those that are nicknamed ‘milk-shells’, while others are rough-shelled, such as the pool-oyster or edible oyster, the pinna and certain species of cockles, and the trumpet shells; and of these some are ribbed, such as the scallop and a certain kind of clam or cockle, and some are devoid of ribs, as the pinna and another species of clam.The shell, for me it is always the shell, had sat in the sunlight of a bathroom windowsill, buried in sedimentary layers of my father’s shaving talc, seemingly for ever. My parents must have picked it up somewhere along the Italian littoral, though whether in Venice, Naples, Sorrento or Capri neither could recall. A summer souvenir, then, of when they were still young and newly married; but indifferent to such associations I coveted the thing for itself: the chocolate flames of its helical whorls, the deep orange of its mouth, the milk of its unreachable interior.I can describe it so exactly for, although this was so many years ago, I have it before me now. It is a perfect specimen of Charonia variegata (Lamarck), the shell of Minoan frescos and Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The trumpet of Aegean fishermen, weathered shells with a hole punched through the apex can still be found in Monastiraki stalls. Aristotle knew it as the kēryx, which means ‘herald’.It was the first of many: shells, apparently infinitely various, yet possessed of a deep formal order of shapes and colours and textures that could be endlessly rearranged in shoeboxes until finally, seeing that the mania would not cease, my father had a cabinet built to house them all. A drawer for the luminous cowries, another for the thrillingly venomous cones, one for the filigree-sculptured murexes, others for the olives, marginellas, whelks, conchs, tuns, littorines, nerites, turbans and limpets, several for the bivalves and two, my pride, for the African land snails, gigantic creatures that no more resemble a common garden snail than an elephant does a rabbit. What pure delight. My mother’s heroic contribution was to type the catalogue and so become Conseil to my Aronnax, an expert in the Latinate hierarchy of Molluscan taxonomy, though her knowledge was entirely theoretical for she could scarcely tell one species from another.At eighteen, convinced that my contribution to science would be vast malacological monographs that would be the last word for a hundred years (at least) on the Achatinidae of the African forests or, perhaps – for my attention tended to wander – the Buccindae of the Boreal Pacific, I went to learn marine biology at a research station perched on the edge of a small Canadian inlet. There, a marine ecologist, an awesome Blackbeard-like figure whose violent impatience was checked only by kindness to match, showed me how to peel away the layers of a gastropod’s tissues, more fragile than rice-paper, with forceps honed to a needle point and so reveal the severe functional logic that lies within. Another, a professorial cowboy-aesthete – the combination seems incongruous yet he was utterly of a piece – taught me how to think about evolution, which is to say about almost everything. I heard a legend speak, a scientist who had Laozi’s gaunt cheeks and wispy beard and who, blind from childhood, had discovered the one part of the empirical world that need not be seen and still can be known – shell form, of course – and had told its tales by touch alone. There was also a girl. She had wind-reddened skin and black hair and could pilot a RIB powered by twin Johnson 60s through two-metre surf and not flinch.All this is, as I said, long ago. I did not, as it happens, ever write those taxonomic monographs. Science always sets you on entirely unpredictable paths and, by the time I walked into George Papadatos’ bookshop, I had long put my shells away. Still, it all came back to me when I read Aristotle on shells and when, reading further, I came across his description of the internal anatomy of the creatures that make them:The stomach follows close upon the mouth and, by the way, this organ in the snail resembles a bird’s crop. Underneath come two white formations, mastoid or papillary in form; and similar formations are found in the cuttlefish also, only that they are of a firmer consistency [in snails] than in the cuttlefish. After the stomach comes the oesophagus, simple and long, extending to the poppy or quasi-liver, which is in the innermost recesses of the shell. All these statements may be verified in the case of the purple murex and the kēryx by observation within the whorl of the shell. What comes next . . .You may wonder that such blunt words can carry beauty, but for me they did. It was not mere nostalgia, though certainly that played its part. No, it was that I understood, understood against all expectation and probability, what he meant. He had evidently walked down to the shore, picked up a snail, asked ‘what’s inside?’; had looked, and had found what I found when, twenty-three centuries later, I repeated the exercise. We scientists are no more given to rootling in history’s byways than we are to metaphysical speculation. We are, by nature, a forward-looking lot. But this was too wonderful to be ignored.IITHE DISTRICT KNOWN as the Lyceum lay just beyond Athens’ stone walls. A sanctuary dedicated to Apollo Lykeios – Apollo of the Wolves – it contained, among other things, a military training ground, a racetrack, a collection of shrines and a park. The topography is uncertain. Strabo is vague, Pausanias is worse, and, besides, one wrote twenty years, the other two centuries after Sulla, a Roman general, had razed the place to the ground. Sulla also chopped down the ancient plane trees that lined its winding paths and built siege engines from their wood. Cicero, visiting in 97 BC, found only a waste. His visit was an homage to Aristotle who, more than two hundred years before, had rented a few buildings and set up his school there. It was said that Aristotle used to walk the Lyceum’s shady paths and that, as he did so, he talked.He talked about the proper constitution of the city: the dangers of tyranny – and of democracy too. And of how Tragedy purifies through pity and fear. He analysed the meaning of the Good, to agathon, and spoke of how humans should spend their lives. He set his students logical puzzles and then demanded that they reconsider the nature of fundamental reality. He spoke in terse syllogisms and then illustrated his meaning with endless lists of things. He began his lectures with the most abstract principles and followed their consequences for hours till yet another part of the world lay before them dissected and explained. He examined his predecessors’ thought – the names of Empedocles, Democritus, Socrates and Plato were forever on his lips – sometimes with grudging recognition, often with scorn. He reduced the chaos of the world to order, for Aristotle was, if nothing else, a systems man.His students would have regarded him with awe and, perhaps, a little fear. Some of his sayings suggest an acid tongue: ‘The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.’ ‘Educated men are as superior to uneducated as the living are to the dead.’ Of a rival philosopher he said: ‘It would be a shame for me to keep quiet if Xenocrates is still talking.’ There is a description too, and it isn’t an attractive one. It’s of a dandy who wore lots of rings, dressed rather too well and fussed about with his hair. Asked why people seek beauty in others he replied: ‘That’s a question only a blind man would ask.’ It is said that he had thin legs and small eyes.This may be mere gossip: the Athenian schools were forever feuding and the biographers are unreliable. But we know what Aristotle talked about, for we have his lecture notes. Among them are the works – Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, Sophistical Refutations, the Metaphysics, the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, Politics – that loom over the history of Western thought like a mountain range. Sometimes clear and didactic, often opaque and enigmatic, riddled with gaps and rife with redundancies, they are the books that have made Aristotle’s name immortal. That we have them at all is mostly due to Sulla, who looted the library of a Piraeus bibliophile and took them back to Rome. But these philosophical texts are only a part – and not even the most important part – of what Aristotle wrote. Among the books that Sulla stole were at least nine that were all about animals.Aristotle was an intellectual omnivore, a glutton for information and ideas. But the subject he loved most was biology. In his works the ‘study of nature’ springs to life for he turns to describing and explaining the plants and animals that, in all their variety, fill our world.* To be sure, some philosophers and physicians had dabbled in biology before him, but Aristotle gave much of his life to it. He was the first to do so. He mapped the territory. He invented the science. You could argue that invented science itself.At the Lyceum he taught a great course in natural science. In the introduction to one of his books there is a sketch of the curriculum: first, an abstract account of nature, then the motion of the stars, then chemistry, meteorology and geology in quick order, and then, the bulk of it, an account of living things – the creatures that he knew, among them, us. His zoological works are the notes for this part of the course. There was one book on what we call comparative zoology, another on functional anatomy, two on how animals move, one on how they breathe, two on why they die, one on the systems that keep them alive. There was a series of lectures on how creatures develop in the womb and grow into adults, reproduce and begin the process again – for there’s a book on that too. There were also some books about plants, but we don’t know what they contained. They are lost along with about two-thirds of his works.The books that we have are a naturalist’s joy. Many of the creatures that he writes about live in or near the sea. He describes the anatomies of sea urchins, ascidians and snails. He looks at marsh birds and considers their bills, legs and feet. Dolphins fascinate him for they breathe air and suckle their young yet look like fish. He mentions more than a hundred different kinds of fishes – and tells of what they look like, what they eat, how they breed, the sounds they make and the patterns of their migrations. His favourite animal was that weirdly intelligent invertebrate, the cuttlefish. The dandy must have plundered fish markets and hung around wharves talking to fishermen.But most of Aristotle’s science isn’t descriptive at all: it’s answers to questions, hundreds of them. Why do fishes have gills 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? Why do humans, uniquely, walk upright? How do we see – smell – hear – touch? What is the influence of the environment on growth? Why do children sometimes look like their parents, and sometimes not? What is the purpose of testicles, menstruation, vaginal fluids, orgasms? What is the cause of monstrous births? What is the real difference between male and female? How do living things stay alive? Why do they reproduce? Why do they die? This is not a tentative foray into a new field: it’s a complete science.Perhaps too complete, for sometimes it seems that Aristotle has an explanation for everything. Diogenes Laertius, the gossiping biographer who recorded Aristotle’s looks (five centuries after his death), said, ‘In the sphere of natural science he surpassed all other philosophers in the investigation of causes, so that even the most insignificant phenomena were explained by him.’ His explanations penetrate his philosophy. There is a sense in which his philosophy is biology – in which he devised his ontology and epistemology just to explain how animals work. 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.The science that Aristotle began has grown great, but his descendants have all but forgotten him. Throw a stone in some boroughs of London, Paris, New York or San Francisco and you’ll be sure to hit a molecular biologist on the head. But, having felled your biologist, ask her – what did Aristotle do? You will be met with – at best – a puzzled frown. Yet Gesner, Aldrovandi, Vesalius, Fabricius, Redi, Leeuwenhoek, Harvey, Ray, Linnaeus, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire père et fils and Cuvier – to name just a few of many – read him. They absorbed the very structure of his thought. And so his thought became our thought, even when we do not know it. His ideas flow like a subterranean river through the history of our science, surfacing now and then as a spring, with ideas that are apparently new but are, in fact, very old.*This book is an exploration of the source: the beautiful scientific works that Aristotle wrote, and taught, at the Lyceum. Beautiful, but enigmatic too, for the very terms of his thought are so remote from us that they are hard to understand. He requires translation: not merely into English, but into the language of modern science. That, of course, is a perilous enterprise: the risk of mistranslating him, of attributing to him ideas that he could not possibly have had, is always there.The perils are particularly great when the translator is a scientist. As a breed we make poor historians. We frankly lack the historical temper, the Rankean imperative to understand the past in its own right. Preoccupied with our own theories, we are inclined to see them in whatever we read. The French historian of science Georges Canguilhem put it like this: ‘Agreeing to look for, to find, and celebrate precursors is the clearest symptom of a lack of talent for epistemological criticism.’ The ad hominem tone of the epigram may cause us to doubt its veracity. It also ignores the fact, obvious to any scientist, if not to all historians, that science is cumulative, that we do have predecessors and that we should like to know who they were and what they knew. Still, there’s a discomfiting shard of truth there.All this should be borne in mind as you read this book. But let me also venture a defence, a scientist’s apologia if you will. Aristotle’s great subject was the living world in all its beauty. It seems possible, then, that something might be gained from reading him as a fellow biologist. After all, our theories are linked to his not only by descent but also by the fact that they seek to explain the same phenomena. It may then truly be that they aren’t so different from ours.In the twentieth century, a generation of great scholars began to examine Aristotle’s biological works not as natural history but as natural philosophy. David Balme (London), Allan Gotthelf (New Jersey), Wolfgang Kullmann (Freiburg), James Lennox (Pittsburgh), Geoffrey Lloyd (Cambridge) and Pierre Pellegrin (Paris) gave us a new, thrilling Aristotle. Their discoveries appear on every page of this book (though each of them will disagree, or would have disagreed, with much of it, not least because they have so often disagreed with each other). And so I make no great claims to originality here. However, I like to think that a scientist may, just occasionally, see in Aristotle’s writings something that the philologists and philosophers have missed.For sometimes he speaks directly to any biologist’s heart, as when he tells us why we should study living things. We must imagine him in the marble colonnades of the Lyceum, addressing a group of truculent students. He gestures towards a mound of ink-stained cuttlefish decomposing in the Attic sun. Pick one, he says, cut, open, look.‘. . .?’Exasperated, he tries to make them understand:So we should not, like children, react with disgust to the investigation of less elevated animals. There is something awesome in all natural things. Some strangers, so the story goes, wanted to meet Heraclitus. They approached him but saw he was warming himself by the stove. ‘Don’t worry!’ he said. ‘Come on in! There are gods here too.’ One should, similarly, approach research on animals of whatever type without hesitation. For inherent in each of them there is something natural and beautiful. Nothing is accidental in the works of nature: everything is, absolutely, for the sake of something else. The purpose for which each has come together, or come into being, deserves its place among what is beautiful.Scholars call this ‘The Invitation to Biology’.SĒPIA – CUTTLEFISH – SEPIA OFFICINALISTHEISLAND KISTHOS – ROCK ROSE – CISTUS SP.IIITHERE IS A mystery here. How did Aristotle think to do biology? How, after all, do you invent a science?The story was first told by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Or at least he gave it its chronological and geographical bones. Late in life, Thompson became famous for On Growth and Form, the eccentric, beautiful book that he wrote about why creatures have the shapes they do. But in 1910 Thompson was a dilettantish failure. Brilliant at Cambridge, he was only twenty-four when he was called to the Chair of Zoology at University College Dundee. Ceaselessly active, he taught, gave working-men’s lectures, wrote letters to the Dundee Courier, stocked a zoology museum (a platypus was a particular triumph), travelled to the Bering Sea to investigate the seal fishery and submitted philological notes to The Classical Review – but published little scientific research. When he was twenty-eight his old Cambridge tutor warned him to do some science before it was too late. When he was thirty-eight another Cambridge friend wrote: ‘Let me now suggest to you that you should now shew up some more scientific work.’ Thompson agonized and in 1895 published A Glossary of Greek Birds, a work in which he collated and identified all the birds mentioned in the ancient Greek and Egyptian texts. His colleagues weren’t impressed. So in 1910 Thompson published a translation of Aristotle’s Historia animalium.In Thompson’s hands Aristotle’s worried prose acquires a subdued grandeur: ‘All viviparous quadrupeds, then, are furnished with an oesophagus and a windpipe, situated as in man; the same statement is applicable to oviparous quadrupeds and birds, only that the latter present diversities in the shapes of these organs.’ Or: ‘In the case of oviparous fishes the process of coition is less open to observation.’ Or: ‘In many places the climate will account for peculiarities; thus in Illyria, Thrace and Epirus the ass is small . . .’Thompson applied his zoology to identifying the creatures that Aristotle described. In Arabia, Aristotle says, there is a mouse that is much larger than our field mouse ‘with its hind-legs a span long and its front legs the length of the first finger-joint’. ‘This’, Thompson footnotes, ‘is the jerboa, Dipus aegyptiacus or allied species’ – which instantly illuminates. At times his annotations threaten to overwhelm the text: is probably the modern genus Rhinobatos, the Squatinoraia of Willughby and other older writers, including R. columnae, and other species common in the Greek markets. is probably the angelfish Rhina squatina (Squatina laevis, Cuv.) which is itself somewhat intermediate between a shark and a skate.’ (Years later Thompson would publish a companion to A Glossary of Greek Birds called A Glossary of Greek Fishes.) As Thompson says, and one detects a note of despair, ‘To annotate, illustrate, and criticize Aristotle’s knowledge of natural history is a task without an end . . .’The most important lines in Thompson’s Historia animalium are in the Prefatory Note. They arrive with so little fanfare that they are easy to miss:I think it can be shown that Aristotle’s natural history studies were carried on, or mainly carried on, in his middle age, between his two periods of residence in Athens; that the calm land-locked lagoon at Pyrrha was one of his favourite hunting grounds . . .Pyrrha, Thompson said, was on the Aegean island of Lesbos.*IVTO THE WEST, LESBOS has the stark clarity of the Cyclades. The landscape is a composition in red, ochre and black. The colours come from volcanic tuffs, eroded pyroclasts and basalts produced by volcanic eruptions 20 million years ago. The plant cover, little though there is of it, is the thorny xerophytic flora of the Aegean phrygana amid which a few skeletal sheep try to graze between stone walls that march across the mountains slopes in geometrical grids. To the east, however, the island is lush and green. The slopes of Mount Olymbos, a massif made of schists, quartzites and marbles, are covered in oak (Quercus ithaburiensis macrolepis and Q. pubescens) and, at the highest altitudes, dense stands of sweet chestnut and resinous Turkish pine. Terrapins and eels swim in rivers and storks nest in the chimneys of abandoned ouzo factories. In spring, the valleys are washed yellow by the rare Asian Rhododendron luteum and the olive groves of the plains are carpeted in poppies. Poised between the European and Asian continental landmasses, the island draws its flora from both and is exceptionally rich. In 1899 the Greek botanist Palaiologos C. Cantartzis described sixty new endemic species in his La végétation de l’île de Lesbos (Mytilène) (Université de Paris, Sorbonne). Nearly all are invalid, but even his more conservative successors count 1,400 plant species, among them seventy-five orchids.Kolpos Kalloni divides these two worlds. Sheltered from open sea by a narrow, winding strait, it is twenty-two kilometres long and ten wide and cuts the island nearly in two. It is often called a lagoon, but it is really an inland sea of the type that oceanographers call a bahira. It is one of the richest bodies of water in the Eastern Aegean. Nutrients flow down the rivers that run from its surrounding hills and feed the phytoplankton that, in the early spring, turn its waters green. The eelgrass beds of its shallows are a nursery for bream and bass and paddle-legged crabs. The gentle slopes of its muddy bed are interrupted only by ancient oyster reefs – but mention Kalloni to a Greek and he will speak of its pilchards that are best eaten salted and washed down with Plomari ouzo.The salt comes from the works at the northern end of the Lagoon. There a maze of channels carries brine of ever-increasing concentration from pan to pan. The saturated solutions deposit large crystals on branches and stones that glisten beneath swards of marsh samphire and sea lavender. At the innermost pans the salt becomes a harsh, deserted skin that is then broken and heaped into immense white pyramids. Rusting machinery is scattered about but is hardly ever seen at work, salt collection being a restful industry. The ecology of the saltpans is very simple. Halophilic algae are eaten by brine shrimp and brine-fly larvae that, in turn, are sieved and probed by flocks of greater flamingos, black-winged stilts and a miscellany of sandpipers and plovers. Only one fish, the toothcarp, Aphanius fasciatus, can live in the bitter, hot brine and it is eaten by the black storks and glossy ibis that wade through the channels and several species of tern that wheel down from the sky. In the spring and autumn, the saltpans, and the marshes that surround them, are a resting place for thousands of migrant birds en route between Africa and the north.VARISTOTLE IS NO geographer or travel-writer, but a curiously large number of passages in his work refer to Kalloni, which he knew as Pyrrha, after a town on its eastern shore. It is precisely the frequency of these passages that caused D’Arcy Thompson to suggest that this is where Aristotle did so much of his biological work. Many of them can be found in his great treatise on comparative zoology, Historia animalium. They tell of the animals that inhabit the Lagoon. A collation of these passages into a biological Baedeker would read something like this:The fishes of Lesbos breed in the Lagoon at Pyrrha. Some of the fishes – mostly the egg-laying ones – are best eaten in early summer; others – the grey mullet and the cartilaginous fishes – are best in autumn. In winter the Lagoon is colder than the open sea so most of its fish, but not the giant goby, swim out of the lagoon only to return in the summer. The white goby is not a marine fish but is also found there. The absence of fish in winter means that edible sea urchins of the strait have more food – which is why they are then particularly rich in eggs and good to eat, although small. There are oysters in the Lagoon. (Some people from Chios came over to Lesbos and tried to transplant them to the waters surrounding their own island.) Once there were also many scallops, but dredging and drought have exterminated them. Fishermen also say that starfish are a particular nuisance near the entrance to the Lagoon. Although the Lagoon contains much life, a number of species are not found: parrotfish, shad, spiny dogfish. None of the other brightly coloured fish are found there either; nor are the spiny lobster, common octopus or musky octopus. The murex snails of Lectum, a mainland cape facing Lesbos, are particularly big.KŌBIOS – GOBY – GOBIUS COBITISWritten this way, Aristotle’s remarks about the Lagoon and its creatures make a portrait of the Lagoon as it was twenty-three centuries ago, perhaps the oldest of any natural place that we have.* Little remains now of the ancient town of Pyrrha – Strabo says it was destroyed (by an earthquake in the third century BC) – but the biology still rings true. The Lagoon remains rich in oysters, though today they are exported to Northern Europe by the ton. Until recently there were scallops too. Indeed, a fisherman complained to us that there used to be scallops in the entrance to the Lagoon but that, twenty years ago, dredging had rendered them all but extinct. It seems, then, that the scallop population of Kalloni has been waxing and waning for at least twenty-three centuries, and that the locals have been complaining about it all the while. The fishermen also confirm that fish migrate annually in and out of the Lagoon to breed, and that it contains no parrotfish, shad or spiny lobsters or spiny dogfish. There have been some changes to the Lagoon’s fauna since Aristotle’s day. If there were no octopi then, there certainly are now – I have eaten several myself. And, for all their flamboyance, Aristotle does not mention the flamingos – but that is because they arrived at the Lagoon only a few decades ago.VIBUT ALL GREEKS were interested in fish. Even as Aristotle lectured on fish and suchlike in the Lyceum, in Sicily one Archestratus was composing a book about them in verse. It was all about when and where to catch them, and then how to cook them. If you go to the land of Ambracia (Western Greece), Archestratus urges, buy the ‘boarfish’ (catfish) even if it costs its weight in gold! But get your scallops from Lesbos, your moray eels from the straits of Italy and your tuna from Byzantium (slice, sprinkle with salt, brush with oil, bake simply and eat while hot). He titled his book The Life of Luxury. For the Greeks fish were about conspicuous consumption: less objects of philosophy than objects of desire.So what makes a man stop eating his fish and start dissecting it instead?VIIIT’S NOT THAT there wasn’t any science – or at least natural philosophy – before Aristotle, for there was an abundance of it. By the time he was born, schools of philosophers deeply concerned with understanding the nature of the physical world had waxed and waned along the Anatolian and Italian littoral. The Greeks called them physiologoi, literally ‘those who give an account of nature’. Many were bold theoreticians. They loved systems that explained, in sweeping terms, the origin of the world, its mathematical order, the stuff of which it is made and the reasons why it contains so many different things. Others were empiricists who tried to measure the heavens or else the intervals of musical scales. Their writings have some of the ingredients of modern science – though we rarely get any sense that they challenged their theories with the observations that they made. Their explanations tended to appeal to natural rather than divine forces.A comparison of two near contemporaries illustrates the shift in thought. For the mythographer Hesiod (fl. 650 BC) earthquakes are the consequence of Zeus’ wrath; for the first of the natural philosophers, Thales of Miletus (fl. 575 BC), they are the result of the earth’s precarious location, adrift on an expanse of water occasionally roiled by waves. The difference could not be more clear-cut: on the one hand an explanation that invokes supernatural beings of fathomless antiquity; on the other an explanation that depends on purely physical forces – and never mind if it’s wrong.Yet the comparison is not quite what it seems. For one, we can’t be sure if that was really Thales’ theory.* No texts by him have survived; for all we know he didn’t write any. Seneca the Younger reports the earthquake theory in his Questions on Nature. Since he wrote about 500 years after Thales’ death and is perfectly vague about his sources we may wonder whether Seneca, or we, have any idea what Thales actually thought about earthquakes or anything else – though he is widely credited with having predicted an eclipse in 585 BC. The same is true for much of the rest of early – ‘Pre-Socratic’ – Greek thought. The entire corpus has come down to us in fragments buried with the texts of later thinkers who, as often as not, must be suspected of having done with their quotations what they pleased, or even of making them up. Scholars call these texts ‘doxographical’ and they are their delight and despair.To be sure, enough fragments can be culled and reconstituted to fill thick books. And those fragments do speak of a new philosophic spirit abroad in fifth-century Greece. But distinctions apparently clear to us now, between science and non-science, philosophy and myth, were less so two millennia and more ago. In the Metaphysics Aristotle, himself a rich source of fragments, reviews what earlier thinkers have said about the ‘original causes’ of the world. He attributes to Thales the theory that everything comes from water. This is a perfectly reasonable, if vague, idea that deserves to be discussed in its own right; Aristotle does so – and doesn’t like it. And, he goes on, some think that Thales’ view is quite a lot like that held by the ‘men in the distant past (well before the current generation) who first gave an account of the gods’.We are suddenly brought up short. Yes, the myths may be ancient history but evidently not so ancient that they do not deserve an airing in a highly technical discussion about the foundational material of the world. And then, just a few paragraphs later, having left Thales to stew with the ancients, Aristotle decides to analyse a bit of Hesiod – ‘Of all things that came to be, the first were Chaos, and broad-bosomed Earth and Love most eminent of the immortals’ – to see if any scientific sense can be made of it. Hesiod may be a mythographer, but for Aristotle he’s still worth a passing glance.And that is the problem with making naturalism the hallmark of Pre-Socratic thought. The physiologoi do not always ‘leave the gods out’; the Divine can usually be found lurking somewhere in their cosmologies. When they asked, What is the origin of the world?, some gave answers that were as creationist as a Christian’s; others appealed to more remote forces such as Love itself; yet others again were ardent materialists and thought the world just self-assembled. From Hesiod to Democritus, the Creator advances, retreats or sometimes just curls up and contemplates himself.Perhaps, then, what marks the physiologoi as early scientists is not so much the use of naturalistic explanations for the mysteries that the world presents, as rational ones. They believed that wisdom did not merely have to be received, but that ideas were worth debating and, if need be, discarding. They argued with each other and those who came before them; they were ambitious for their ideas. Here is Heraclitus (fl. 500 BC) evaluating some of his predecessors: ‘great learning does not teach sense: for otherwise it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus’. Nasty – and unmistakably the sound of an intellectual at work.Most of the physiologoi weren’t much interested in biology. Empedocles (c. 492–432 BC) was an exception. A Sicilian of noble birth, he was an orator, poet, politician, healer and charismatic seer. In the opening lines of his religious poem Purifications, he presents himself as an immortal god and describes how, when he enters a city, thousands flock to him requesting cures and oracles – requests which he satisfied, on at least on one occasion, by raising the dead. Jesus with an ego, then, or Zarathustra with attitude, but he was also an immensely influential natural philosopher who wrote On Nature, several thousand lines of verse containing, among other things, a cosmogony, a zoogony, a mechanistic, if implausible, theory of respiration and a four-element chemistry that Aristotle would adopt as his own.Empedocles’ biology reflected the medical lore and practice of his day. So, too, did his appetite for magic and mysticism. Yet even as he pranced around Sicily performing miraculous cures to adoring crowds, on the other side of the Mediterranean Hippocrates (fl. 450 BC?) was going to school. In the plateia of Kos town there is a plane, ancient and gnarled, that is – so the label claims – the very tree under which the adult Hippocrates once sat dispensing cures and wisdom. It can’t be the same tree, but then the medical writings that are attributed to Hippocrates probably aren’t his either. Parts of the Corpus Hippocraticum, a medley of some sixty works, are old enough to have been written by him or his pupils, but others date from around the first century AD.Most of them are sober, professional texts that give naturalistic explanations for disease. Some are simple case studies, but others are more intellectually ambitious. The author of Fleshes says he wants to ‘explain how man and the other animals are formed, that is, come about, what the soul is, what health and sickness are, what is bad and good in man, and what causes death’. Profound or banal, they’re very different from Empedocles’ effusions. Here’s ‘Hippocrates’ on curing acute diseases:Often, in such cases, you will find ‘oxymel’, as a drink, extremely useful. It helps bring up sputum and promotes breathing. It is best employed under the following conditions. When strongly acidic, it is particularly effective in cases where there is difficulty in bringing up sputum. By lubricating the sputum, it facilitates expectoration thus clearing the windpipe as if with a feather. This is soothing to the lung and brings relief. And if, in combination, it achieves these effects, it must do much good.And here’s Empedocles’ approach:Any remedies there may be, defences against harm and age / you alone will know them; I will make sure you know them all. / You’ll put a stop to the winds, their tireless might pouncing / upon the land, their whirling breath, a withering force upon the crops. / Equally, if you so choose, you’ll bring on whirlings equally strong . . . / Even from Hades you will bring up men, men whose might has withered with time.Aristotle would call Empedocles’ style ‘lisping’.It may seem that all Aristotle needed to do to become a scientist was to broker a marriage between the questing, querulous physiologoi and the dourly empirical medics. Which is what he did. That he managed it, however, is a tribute to the power of his mind.VIIILITTLE ABOUT ARISTOTLE’S life is certain. The ancient sources, a dozen or so of them, were written centuries after his death and often contradict each other. Muddled in transmission, riddled with gossip and warped by the politics of rival philosophical schools, they have been churned over by centuries of scholars seeking the man behind the works. The results are meagre; the agreed facts could be written on a page.He was born in 384 BC in Stagira, a coastal town not far from modern Thessalonika. His father, Nicomachus, was an Asclepiad – part priest, part physician. No common quack, he was physician royal to Amyntas III of Macedon. This is less impressive than it sounds. Macedon was a semi-barbaric backwoods state with a court to match. At the age of seventeen Aristotle was sent to Plato’s Academy in Athens. He remained there, as student and teacher, for nearly twenty years.By the time the teenaged Aristotle arrived at Athens to sit at Plato’s feet, the tradition of natural philosophy, no more than two centuries old, was dead. Literally so: Democritus of Abdera, the last and greatest of the physiologoi, had died just a few years earlier. Years later, Aristotle would see in Democritus a formidable adversary, a foil against which to test the mettle of his own system. Democritus, Aristotle says, made advances. ‘But [even] at this time men gave up inquiring into nature, and philosophers diverted their attention to political science and to practical goodness.’ He was talking about Socrates.Socrates (469–399 BC) was a stonemason with a taste for speculative thought. As a young man, he loved natural philosophy. At least that is what Plato makes him say in The Phaedo. He puzzled over the origin of life, the physical basis of thought and the motions of the heavens. His efforts were for naught. He followed, or tried to follow, the arguments of the physiologoi, now this one, now that, but he only wound up confused. Did 1 + 1 = 2? By the time he was done, he could no longer say for sure. He was, he concluded, ‘uniquely unfitted for this sort of inquiry’. Besides, it seemed to him, the physiologoi never gave the right kind of answers – or even asked the right kind of questions. When they explained why the earth is flat or round or whatever shape they supposed it to be, they should have explained why it is best that it be so. But they never did. Instead, they appealed to ‘natures’ – and those are not true causal explanations at all. (‘Fancy being unable to distinguish between the cause of a thing and the condition without which it could not be a cause!’)Disillusioned by the physiologoi’s singular lack of interest in discussing why the universe was good, Socrates turned away from the study of the natural world. Xenophon picks up the tale:Unlike most others Socrates did not discuss the nature of the universe, and investigate the state of what intellectuals call the cosmos or the features necessary to bring celestial phenomena into existence. Instead he argued that those who speculated about such things were wasting their time. The first question he would ask was whether this sort of speculation was based on a conviction that they already had a thorough understanding of human affairs. Did they really think it was appropriate to focus their investigations on the divine at the expense of the human?The physiologoi, with their welter of mutually inconsistent theories, were like ‘madmen’. They were social parasites too:He raised a further point about these people. Those who study human affairs, he said, think that their subjects will be productive for themselves and other potential beneficiaries. Do those researching celestial phenomena really believe that discovering the features necessary for things to come into existence will allow them to produce, on demand, winds, waters, seasons and any others they might add to the list? Or do they, in fact, have no such expectation but are quite satisfied with discovering how things of this sort come about?Scientists disagree, therefore they are foolish; who are they to play God?; what good is their work to me? – all this is the authentic voice of anti-science through the ages; it is its first breath. Ethics are so much more useful. ‘Socrates called philosophy down from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, good and evil.’ That was Cicero’s judgement – and he meant it as praise.IXSURROUNDED BY A wall, the Academy had a gymnasium, a sacred olive grove and a garden. Its foundation stones can be seen in a Piraeus park, but the wire, wilting trees and litter make it hard to reconstruct the place. Plato, who had bought the property, founded his school there around 387 BC. Diogenes Laertius lists some of Plato’s pupils: Speusippus of Athens, Xenocrates of Chalcedon, Dion of Syracuse and a dozen more from around the Hellenic world including two women. It was less a modern college than a philosophical club. Students didn’t pay fees. That in itself made it a very different kind of enterprise from the schools run by the sophists and rhetoricians who were in the business of teaching Athens’ youths how to speak nicely, get ahead and win in court.When Aristotle arrived Plato himself was packing his bags for a two-year trip to Sicily. He probably left his nephew, Speusippus, in charge. Fortyish and famously bad-tempered, he is said to have thrown, in a fit of pique, his favourite dog down a well. Yet he may have taken the youngster under his wing; there are traces of his thought in Aristotle’s. Even so, if Plato’s dialogues, the doxography of the Academicians and Aristotle’s recollection are reliable guides to the scope of the talk in the Academy’s garden, then natural philosophy was off the curriculum. Or, if it was there at all, it was so in a peculiar form.Socrates’ interest in moral theology had become Plato’s. Of course, it is hard to separate the two since Socrates wrote nothing, Plato wrote much, and much that Plato wrote is voiced by ‘Socrates’. Yet while Plato’s Socrates is not as crudely anti-scientific as Xenophon’s, Plato’s mature philosophy is no less inimical to science than Socrates’ jibes; far more so because he wrote so beautifully and because his works have survived complete.The Republic, Plato’s most famous dialogue, gives his views on the aims and methods of natural philosophy. Glaucon and Socrates are discussing the education of Philosopher Kings. Should the young study astronomy? Yes, says Glaucon, it’s useful for all sorts of things: agriculture, navigation and war. Socrates gently disabuses him of this ‘vulgar’ utilitarianism. Well, then, replies Glaucon, perhaps they should study astronomy because it ‘compels the soul to look upwards’. This, he hopes, is the sort of answer that Socrates is looking for, but, once again, he is disabused. Glaucon is being much too literal-minded: the only study that turns the soul’s gaze upwards, says Socrates, is that which deals with ‘being and the invisible’ – by which he means the true reality that lies behind the superficial appearance of things. Studying the stars, he continues, help us to do this, but not very much. The actual movements of the stars are only an imperfect representation of the invisible realities; you might as well search for geometrical figures in a picture. And these realities can ‘be apprehended only by reason and thought, but not by sight, or [Glaucon] do you think otherwise?’Glaucon doesn’t think otherwise. He capitulates entirely to Socrates’ – Plato’s – anti-empiricism. And, a few pages later, when the talk turns to the study of harmony, the two men join in jeering at those physiologoi ‘who vex and torture the strings’ of their instruments, ‘laying their ears alongside, as if trying to catch a voice from next door’ in an effort to understand the rules of harmony and the limits of musical perception. These ‘worthies’ (the musical physiologoi) ‘do not ascend to generalized problems and do not consider which numbers are inherently concordant and which not and why in each case’.* They fiddle about with harps when they should be working out a general, formal theory for the musical order that they dimly perceive; a theory that would account for the beautiful and the good that we hear in music; a theory that would unify the harmonies of music with the movement of the stars. ‘A superhuman task’, comments Glaucon – which may seem to us an understatement.Plato should have left it there. Had he done so then we could at least credit him with becoming modesty. He didn’t. Late in life he wrote a work that purports to describe and explain the natural world – all of it. For all its ambition, it is a quarter as long as The Republic. The brevity is telling.XPLATO’s TIMAEUS RECOUNTS the creation of the cosmos and all that it contains: time, the elements, the planets and stars, humans and animals. Although short, it aspires to be encyclopaedic, covering ontology, astronomy, chemistry, sensory physiology, psychiatry, pleasure, pain, human anatomy and physiology – with an aside on why the liver is the source of prophecies – and the origin of disease and sexual desire. All this makes it look like a work of natural philosophy.If so, then it is a very strange one. Devoid of scholarly citation, empirical evidence or even much reasoned argument, The Timaeus is a drawing-room monologue that delivers, with bland assurance, one implausible assertion after another. Deeply religious, it aims to reveal why a divine workman, the Dēmiourgos, constructed the world. It is also a work of political propaganda that shows what the ideal city of The Republic would actually look like. Indeed, it’s not even clear that Plato intended The Timaeus as a contribution to natural philosophy. He claims to want to give an account of the visible world; however, he begins by cautioning us that he will deliver only an eikōs mythos – a plausible tale. In part this is because he’s really after an account of the world that lies beyond the senses; and any account of this flawed, but visible, world will bear an uncertain correspondence to that perfect, but invisible, one. But it is also because he’s not terribly interested in giving a rational account of even this world.Plato gives the game away with his account of the origin of the animals. Once, he says, there existed men who were to varying degrees depraved or just foolish. They were transformed into the various animals – creepy-crawlies, shellfish and the like – according to their diverse vices. Birds ‘sprang by a change of form from the harmless but light-witted men who paid attention to the things in heaven but in their simplicity supposed that the surest evidence in these matters is that of the eye’. He’s talking about astronomers.Did Plato really believe that birds were reincarnated natural philosophers? Or did he simply seize the chance to crack a poor joke? Let us be charitable and assume the latter, for the former is too bizarre even by the elastic standards of fourth-century zoology. But that joke betrays the true nature of The Timaeus: it is not a work of natural philosophy at all, but a poem, a myth, a ponderous jeu d’esprit that revels in its own ambiguity.The assessment may seem harsh. Plato shared the Pythagoreans’ fascination with geometry, and The Timaeus contains one of the first attempts to use mathematics to describe the natural world. ‘Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here’ is said to have been inscribed on the lintel of the Academy’s entrance; the same phrase is written above the swipecard-sealed doors of any Department of Physics, even if you can’t see it. Then, too, if Plato’s science is barely distinguishable from theology so, to judge by the pronouncements of some physicists, is modern science: ‘If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.’ Plato? No, Hawking.The comparison doesn’t save Plato. Here is an example of his style of mathematical modelling: ‘The second species of solid is formed out of the same triangles, which unite as eight equilateral triangles and form one solid angle out of four plane angles, and out of six such angles the second body is completed. And the third body is made up of one hundred and twenty triangular elements, forming . . . [etc.]’ That’s a passage about the elements, one written by a man evidently deeply in thrall to the mystery of Number.Nor may we simply excuse Plato as being the product of his age. To be sure, the physiologoi also had a taste for grand theorizing free of the constraints of empirical evidence. But they, at least, meant what they said. They do not snigger or dodge behind the shelter of myth. Moreover, just a few years after Plato had composed The Timaeus, one of his own students would commence a relentless, reasoned assault on the citadel of reality, this reality, that in modern print runs to more than a thousand pages: an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, analysis of what his predecessors thought about the causes and structure of the natural world, why those predecessors (more often than not) are wrong, what he thinks they are and the empirical evidence for thinking so. Aristotle would turn his back on his teacher’s idealism and see the world, our world, for what it is: a thing that is beautiful and so worth studying in its own right. He would approach it with the humility and seriousness that it deserves. He would observe it with care and be unafraid to dirty his hands doing so. He would become the first true scientist. That he made of himself this after having been taught by one of the most persuasive intellects of all time – that is the mystery of Aristotle. All he ever said by way of explanation is: ‘piety requires us to honour truth above our friends’.XIIN 348 OR 347 BC Aristotle suddenly left Athens. There are at least two accounts that attempt to explain why.In the first he leaves out of pique. For twenty years he’s worked in Plato’s Academy. His colleagues call him ‘The Reader’, but he’s original too. Perhaps too original. Plato, with a hint of asperity, called him ‘The Foal’ – he meant that Aristotle kicked his teachers as a foal kicks its dam. Aelian, writing centuries later, tells a story that isn’t particularly to Aristotle’s credit and hints of power-struggles at the Academy. One day the elderly Plato, doddery and no longer that sharp, is wandering in the Academy’s gardens when he comes across Aristotle and his gang who give him a philosophical mugging. Plato retreats indoors and Aristotle’s posse occupies the garden for months. Speusippus is useless against the usurpers, but Xenocrates, another loyalist, finally gets them to move on. Who knows if this is true; but it is certain that when Plato died the top job didn’t go to Aristotle but rather to Speusippus and that, coincidentally or not, this is when Aristotle heads east.In another version, politics rather than pique causes Aristotle to flee. Aristotle has close connections to the Macedonian court. Amyntas’ son, Philip II, is flexing his military muscles in the Greek hinterland. He’s just razed Olynthus, an ally of Athens, to the ground and sold its citizenry – along with a garrison of Athens’ soldiers – into slavery. In Athens, Demosthenes is rousing the citizenry to new heights of xenophobia; Aristotle gets out while he can.The ancient sources do agree that when Aristotle left Athens, he went east: across the Aegean to the Asian Minor littoral, the edge of the Hellenic world, where micro-states swam precariously in the currents of Athenian, Macedonian and Persian power. Among these was Assos, a city-state on the southern coast of the Troad peninsula. Assos and its sister polis Atarneus were ruled by Hermias, a local strongman. Little is known about him except that he was born in obscurity, held power briefly and died horribly. He is said to have started life as the slave of a banker, the incumbent Tyrant of Assos, who, recognizing his talents, freed him and finally made him his heir. He is said to have been educated at Plato’s Academy. He is said to have been a eunuch. Much of this may be gossip designed to boost or blacken his reputation – the ancient sources are rarely impartial. Whatever his origins, it seems that he was something of an intellectual for when he became Tyrant in 351 he invited several Academicians to his court, Aristotle among them.In The Republic Plato speaks of how, in the ideal state, political power would be tempered by the wisdom of philosophy. In pursuit of this ideal, Plato had travelled to Sicily to play the sage to the dissolute Dionysos II of Syracuse, a project that had nearly cost him his life. Perhaps, then, Hermias was another try by the Academicians at the manufacture of a Philosopher King; a late biographical fragment suggests that the three years Aristotle spent in Assos did much to soften the rigour of the Tyrant’s rule. If so, then this project ended badly too. Hermias was sympathetic to Macedon. In 341, threatened by Macedonian expansionism, Athens told Philip to pull his troops out of the Troad. He did. Hermias was left dangling and the Persians, Athens’ temporary allies, trapped, tortured and killed him. Aristotle felt the loss keenly. Years later he erected a statue to him at Delphi which bore the inscription:His treatment was outrageous, flouting all respect for divine justice. His killer? The king of the bow-bearing Persians. It was no public contest, no fight to the death by a spear that brought him low. Just the dishonesty of a man he chose to trust.It also said that each day he would chant a paean for his murdered friend – perhaps the hymn that Diogenes Laertius records in his Lives of the Philosophers. The sentiment may seem extravagant, but it is also known that Aristotle married a girl called Pythia who was Hermias’ niece or perhaps even his daughter. He was thirty-eight or thirty-nine years old; his bride was probably very young. (In the Politics Aristotle says that the best age for a man to marry is thirty-seven; the best age for a woman, eighteen.) ‘A spray of myrtle and beauty of rose / were happiness in her hands, and her hair / fell as darkness on her back and shoulders . . .’: so Archilochus on another girl, from another place and another time, but I fancy she was like that.A GREEK GIRLXIITHE RUINS OF ancient Assos are set upon an extinct volcano that rises steeply from the plain and shore below. A temple to Athena with five standing Doric columns crowns the Acropolis; the foundations of the stoa, bouleuterion, gymnasium, agora and a theatre lie below on the sea-facing slope. In his Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce (1809) Choiseul-Gouffier wrote, ‘Few cities are blessed with a situation as happy and spectacular as that of Assos . . .’ and gave a delightful, if wildly inaccurate, reconstruction of what it looked like in its prime. William Martin Leake said it was the most perfect idea of a Greek city.Walk up the slopes of the citadel at dusk, through the Turkish village, jump the fence that surrounds the ancient ruins, and you can still see how beautiful Assos must have been. You cannot, however, see what Choiseul-Gouffier and Leake saw. In 1864 the Turkish government demolished much of the still-intact ancient city and used the stone to build the docks of Istanbul’s Arsenal. By then the French had taken, as a gift of the Sublime Porte, the temple reliefs and put them in the Louvre. This was just as well. In 1881 an American team, excavating what was left, had to cope with villagers carting off newly dug up walls and stoning a marble centaur that the French had missed.The temple at Assos was about 180 years old in Aristotle’s day, but the theatre is Hellenistic. The view from the citadel cannot have changed much. The massively immovable eastern wall still stands. The surrounding hills are covered with native scrub and the valleys with oaks – the tourist resorts are further down the coast and there aren’t even many olive groves. Nothing disturbs you bar a Turkish F-16 arrowing above, testing the fragile airspace frontiers, and the occasional bleat of a goat. But it is the island that compels your attention. Lesbos lies directly before you, astonishingly close, in mounting layers of grey and blue. You feel you could swim there and the urge to do so is almost irresistible, though the Strait of Mytilene is, at its narrowest, nine kilometres wide. You cannot see Lesbos and not want to go. It promises discovery.ASSOS, RESTORED.LESBOS FROM THE CITADEL OF ASSOS, AUGUST 2012XIIIIN 345, WHILE HERMIAS still ruled, Aristotle took his bride to live on Lesbos. Thompson, a romantic, called the two years that Aristotle spent on the island ‘the honeymoon of his life’. Perhaps it was; but, in truth, nothing is known about what, exactly, he did there for he left us no diaries or notebooks and the ancient biographers are silent. Yet, if D’Arcy Thompson is right, it was on Lesbos that Aristotle began the great work of charting, and understanding, the world of living things.It may have been a conversation; a chance comment that prompted an excited reply. And then more talk, and yet more, until a vision of the whole enormous, daunting, thrilling thing emerged. It’s an appealing thought – that biology began so. And it’s not an implausible one. For when Aristotle went to Lesbos it seems that he had at least one other philosopher to talk to: a man who would become one of his closest friends and who would inherit his intellectual wealth.Tyrtamos was born in Eresos, a town on the south-west coast of Lesbos. The valleys around Eresos (modern Erresos) were green with vineyards; the town was famous for its wine. Today those same valleys are dry and uncultivated, yet the remains of ancient terraces can still be seen. We do not know when and how Tyrtamos and Aristotle met. It’s possible that the younger man – he was thirteen years Aristotle’s junior – was one of Aristotle’s pupils at the Academy who had followed him to Assos. If so then Tyrtamos was now introducing his master to his native land. Or perhaps Tyrtamos was never in Athens at all and only met Aristotle in Lesbos – a fluent young local, out to impress and catch an eminent visitor’s ear. We’re not even sure what his name was: Strabo has it ‘Tyrtamos’, Diogenes Laertius, ‘Tyrtanios’. Actually, the spelling doesn’t matter since Tyrtamos/Tyrtanios is quite forgotten. Aristotle renamed the youth Theophrastus which means ‘Divine Speech’. He would become Aristotle’s closest collaborator. Socrates–Plato–Aristotle–Theophrastus: we have met the next link in a golden chain.‘Divine Speech’ is an odd name for a man whose writings, for all their importance, are as dry as the summer soil. One of his surviving books is Characters, an encyclopaedia of people you’d want to avoid – the Boor, the Penurious Man, the Chatty Man and so on interminably. It’s as dull as it sounds. Theophrastus also wrote books on logic, metaphysics, politics, ethics and rhetoric – the whole Aristotelian gamut in fact – but they haven’t survived. His botany, however, has. It is superb.Theophrastus wrote two botanical works. One, Enquiries into Plants, is descriptive. In it Theophrastus identified the parts of plants and used them to classify plants into groups – trees, shrubs, sub-shrubs, herbs – groups that persisted to the Renaissance. The other, Explanations of Plants, is about how plants grow. It examines the effects of environment on their growth, discusses the cultivation of trees and crops and investigates the diseases of plants and why they die. Together, these works are to the study of plants what Aristotle’s works are to the study of animals – the founding documents of their science.*It is a charming conceit to think of the two philosophers strolling in an olive grove, not too far from the Lagoon, dividing up the natural world between them; agreeing, as any two scientists might, to collaborate rather than compete: ‘You do the plants, I’ll do the animals – and together we’ll lay the foundations of biology.’ Charming, but too simple. Theophrastus wrote books about animals and Aristotle wrote at least one about plants; but in both cases they have been lost. That botanists look to one as the founder of their science and zoologists the other is, it seems, largely due to the vicissitudes of history – which texts the monks chose to save. Yet it cannot be a coincidence that Aristotle took to studying animals in the native land of the other great biologist of antiquity. Their research programmes and lives are deeply intertwined. Theophrastus succeeded Aristotle as the head of the Lyceum and inherited his most valued possession: his library.Yet they are very different thinkers. Where Aristotle rarely shies from a bold explanation, Theophrastus is cautiously empirical; where Aristotle is synoptic, Theophrastus prefers to worry at difficulties. Given this, it’s often supposed that Aristotle dominated the collaboration, and certainly he must have been hard to resist. Even so, placing them both on Lesbos does make one wonder which of them first had the idea to study living things. Who persuaded whom?XIVTO GET TO LESBOS take the evening ferry from Piraeus. If you are young or poor or hardy, travel deck class – thirty euros will take you across the Aegean. You will have to find a place among the gypsy families encamped in the stairwells, the soldiers returning to their island garrisons who occupy the bar, or else the farmers returning to their olive groves who have taken over the lounge. Or you may want to take a cabin – it’s a twelve-hour trip.Athens falls away and you’re in the blue. At three in the morning the ship docks at Chios. She’s as large as the harbour is small and so, turbines thrashing, she rotates on her own 135-metre axis to get in. Under flood-lights white-uniformed Port Police shrill their whistles and wave their arms to choreograph the container trucks and the frankly uncontrollable foot passengers. Yet it’s all implausibly efficient. Thirty minutes later she sounds her horn over the sleeping town, rotates again and faces the Aegean once more.Dawn silhouettes the Turkish coast black against red. Lesbos appears in the growing light, first pine-clad Mount Olymbos and then the rocky Southern Shore. Cape Malea is rounded: Lesbos lies to port, Assos off the starboard bow and, soon, Mytilene is before you, the cathedral’s marble dome stark white in the morning sun.I have a Mytilenean ritual. As the ship docks, I call Giorgos K. to meet me at a harbour café. A mathematical ecologist at the local university, he is my oldest and dearest friend on the island. The arc of our conversation is always the same: first science, then women – progress and difficulties with both. He has a wayward sensuality, all too generous charm and does not, his friends agree, deserve his beautiful wife. We could mark the years by those talks.I mention him now because it was he who first took me to Kalloni. We drove north out of Mytilene, skirted the Gulf of Gera, Kalloni’s grey little sister, and then cut south-west through the pine-covered lower slopes of Olymbos, emerging at Achladeri where the Lagoon unfolds before you surprisingly vast. There is an excellent fish taverna there, olive groves and, it is said, a few remains of the ancient town of Pyrrha that once stretched down the coast to some neighbouring villages, but I’ve never found them.Archaeology, however, doesn’t make the argument: the book and the island do. Of all the places in the Eastern Aegean where Aristotle lived, Lesbos is the loveliest. Here, as nowhere else, on this bleak, baked coast the natural world is richly present and seductive; and in Lesbos nowhere more so than by Kalloni. To go down to the quay of one of the villages that dot the shores of Kalloni on a spring morning is to see Historia animalium spring to life. You can see Aristotelian fishes – perkē, skorpaina, sparos and kephalos – gasping in the back of the buyers’ pick-up trucks.* Those are the names that Aristotle used and, for these fish at least, they’ll still work if you want to buy some to grill. You can also buy a bucket of cuttlefish and, following his text, dissect them. You can lean over the side of a quay, reach down and bring up sea squirts, sea anemones, sea cucumbers, limpets and crabs – all of which he describes. The decks of the fishing boats are littered with the shells and egg cases of the murex snails that infest the bottom of the Lagoon and whose reproductive habits puzzled him so. You can walk along the marshes by the saltpans and see the grebes, ducks, ibises, herons and stilts whose anatomies and habits fascinated him so. You can see European bee-eaters, loveliest of the spring migrants, with their turquoise, gold, ochre and green plumage, nesting in the sand banks, just as he says they do. This is how Thompson put it: ‘He will be a lucky naturalist who shall go some day and spend a quiet summer by that calm lagoon, find there all the natural wealth, * and have around his feet the creatures that Aristotle knew and loved.’ I have done so. He is right.THEKNOWNWORLD CHAMAILEŌN – CHAMELEON – CHAMAELEO CHAMAELEON CHAMAELEONXVTO ASSERT THAT ARISTOTLE was a scientist is to suppose that we can recognize one. Sociologists and philosophers have long tried to get the creature in their sights, with indifferent results, for so diverse are their activities and preoccupations that it is hard to find a definition that will embrace them all yet exclude astrologers. Scientists, who are much less exercised about definitions, simply recognize their kin but, if pressed, might offer something like ‘A scientist is someone who seeks, by systematic investigation, to understand experienced reality.’ This definition, a generous one, allows room for theoretical physicists and coleopterists and some sociologists too; and, though we may quibble about the edges, it narrows the field of human activity considerably, excluding gardeners and physicians (no systematic investigation), literary critics and philosophers (no experienced reality), as well as homeopaths and creation-‘scientists’ who fail on both counts. It includes Aristotle, whose investigations were nothing if not systematic and who was deeply committed to understanding experienced reality. To be sure, Aristotle never called himself a ‘scientist’, but he did have a term for ‘natural science’ – physikē epistēmē, literally the ‘study of nature’. And he called himself not merely a physiologos – ‘one who gives an account of nature’ – but a physikos – ‘one who understands nature’.XVIIN THE COLLECTION OF treatises now called the Metaphysics, Aristotle investigates fundamental reality. His ideas are not easy to understand: exegesis of its fourteen books has kept scholars busy for hundreds of years and will certainly do so for hundreds more. Happily we do not have to follow them to appreciate the luminous quality of its opening words:All men, by nature, desire to know. An indication of this is the delight that we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and, above all others, the sense of sight . . . The reason is that this, most of all the senses, acquaints us with, and brings to light, many differences between things.Aristotle does not mean ‘know’ just in the sense of ‘understand’; he also means ‘perceive’. Thus in the first instance we should read his words as the claim that men take pleasure in the exercise of their senses, and the reason why they do so is because it allows them to perceive all the different things of which the world is composed. This is merely an opening gambit. For Aristotle goes on to argue that ‘knowing’ in the sense of ‘perceiving’ is the foundation of ‘knowing’ in the sense of ‘understanding’ – indeed, is a requirement for wisdom. The reason, then, that this statement comes at the very start of the Metaphysics is plain. Aristotle is raising his battle standard and declaring war on the Academy’s idealism. His project is not Plato’s, for it concerns this world – and he wants us to know it.To get from perception to wisdom, Aristotle gives us a hierarchy of understanding. When we perceive something, he says, we acquire a memory of it. And many memories of a given kind of thing allow us to generalize about it. Memories of Socrates and Plato, say, allow us to generalize about ‘men’. This is Aristotle opening another front contra Plato who held that we are born with all the knowledge that we have – indeed all the knowledge that we could have, that is, all the knowledge in the world. It’s just that, unfortunately, we have forgotten it; our task, then, is to retrieve that knowledge. Such an epistemology is, of course, a call to empirical quietism. If we already know everything, then we need not actually investigate the world; perhaps if we talk about it enough it will all come back to us. It is no accident that Plato wrote dialogues.But talk, for Aristotle, is cheap. Even experience, although necessary for art and science, is not enough. Aristotle explains why it isn’t by imagining a not very bright, but practically minded, physician, the sort of physician who supposes that since a remedy worked on one man it will probably work on another as well, but who doesn’t understand or care why it works at all. Brute empiricism of that sort is useful, says Aristotle, but really not that admirable. In fact, he’s very severe on mere empiricism and compares labourers undertaking tasks learnt by rote to ‘lifeless things’: they do what they do merely because that is what they do.* Master-workmen who understand the whys of their craft are ‘more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser’ than such machine-men. (Politics 1253b31: ‘A slave is a living tool . . .’)The man who can teach is superior to a man who cannot because he understands. This is a very natural view for someone who spent his life doing just that. He can also invent things and, Aristotle continues, inventors are admirable. But – and you can see where this is going – some inventors are more admirable than others. Inventors that produce useful things are inferior to those who produce inventions ‘directed to entertainment’. This sounds perverse, but he simply means that the production of pure knowledge is better than the production of useful knowledge. Here, as throughout this argument, he extends invidious distinctions in the forms of understanding to the men who have them. And so he falls into the frank snobbery – extinct now, but extant within our lifetimes – of the pure scientist towards the engineer and the engineer towards the gardener. It is an attitude that sits ill with our own egalitarian instincts, but I would ask the irritated reader to recall that Aristotle is launching a new kind of philosophy: one that is neither concerned with the search for absolute values nor predicated on a perfect world beyond the senses. His philosophy will embrace dirt, blood, flesh, growth, copulation, reproduction, death and decay – the daily experience of the farmer and the fishmonger. He has to persuade his listeners, the elite of a highly stratified society, that the knowledge that comes from contemplating such things is of a high order and that those who pursue it are too.XVIIARISTOTLE’S SCIENTIFIC METHOD is all of a piece with his epistemology. We have to begin, he says, with the phainomena –whence comes our ‘phenomena’, but perhaps the best translation is ‘appearances’, for he means by this not only what he sees with his own eyes, but also what other people have seen, and their opinions about it. He favours reports from ‘wise’ and ‘reputable’ people. He’s conscious that one man can’t see everything; sometimes you just have to trust what other people tell you (the Greeks inherited huge astronomical catalogues from Babylon and Egypt).Whatever its source, such data generally consist of many observations of a broad class of objects, say, animals – zōia. Once assembled, it has to be ordered into smaller classes: birds, fish, animals with horns, animals without blood and so on. Aristotle’s appetite for data is insatiable and his zeal for ordering it tireless. He hoovers up observations about animals, plants, rocks, winds, geographies, cities, constitutions, personalities, plays, poems – the list is partial – processes them, and returns them ordered now one way, now another way, in book after book. For all that, he thinks that this initial inductive phase of research isn’t really science, but just the empirical rock upon which scientific reasoning stands.Aristotle assembles his animal data in Historia animalium. A random passage gives a sense of the style:Some animals are live bearing, some egg laying, some larva bearing. Live-bearing animals include humans, horses, seals and any other animals with fur; and, among the water-animals, cetaceans – such as dolphins – and the so-called ‘selachians’. Some [blooded water animals], e.g. dolphins and whales, do not have gills but do have blowholes. Dolphins’ blowholes are located on the back, whales’ on the brow. Animals with visible gills include selachians such as smooth dogfish and rays.The world that Aristotle knew was bound by the Straits of Gibraltar to the west, the Oxus to the east, the Libyan desert to the south and the Eurasian plains to the north. Within it lived more than 500 different kinds of animal, or at least that is about how many he names. Everything about them interests him. He speaks of the reproduction of lice, the mating habits of herons, the sexual incontinence of girls, the stomachs of snails, the sensitivity of sponges, the flippers of seals, the sounds of cicadas, the destructiveness of starfish, the dumbness of the deaf, the flatulence of elephants and the structure of the human heart; his book contains 130,000 words and around 9,000 empirical claims.The animal world is a vast subject and Aristotle started from scratch. Some medical writings aside, there is no evidence that anyone wrote a zoological treatise before he did. So where did he get all these facts from? The answer appears to be: from just about anywhere that he could.Some of them came from books. Aristotle is coy about his sources, but it’s possible to identify a few of them from glancing allusions. Given the stated scientific nature of his enterprise, a few of the works that he does name are rather odd. Homer crops up occasionally; and he quotes a verse by Aeschylus on the plumage of hoopoes – but that’s the Reader at work. The surprise is what is missing. Not that much anatomy seems to come from the Hippocratic treatises, and yet Aristotle’s father was a doctor. Here one suspects him of failing to give his predecessors credit. Plato is never cited as a source of factual information – no loss there – though his speculations pervade Aristotle’s theory. The physiologoi contribute few facts; they, too, are mostly sparring partners in theory. We learn, Aristotle once said, ‘by pressing on those in front, and not waiting for those behind’.There is a suspicion that some of Aristotle’s data on mammalian anatomy came from hieroscopic texts – books about prophecy by entrails. He pays an unreasonable amount of attention to the gall bladder, an otherwise insignificant organ that loomed large in the undergrowth of prophetic belief. He’s an expert on the astragalus, a minor foot bone used as a die by gamblers and prophets. If Aristotle did indeed get some of his data from sources like this, then he kept the anatomy but ditched the prophecies. Plato did the reverse.A prophetic manual also probably supplied quite a bit of ethology. ‘This is where diviners get their terminology of “alignment” and “non-alignment”: animals at war are “non-aligned” while those at peace count as “aligned”.’ He goes on to describe how eagles fight vultures (and snakes, and nuthatches and herons); how hunting wasps and geckos fight spiders; how snakes fight weasels; how wrens fight owls and so on for pages in a war of nature that is almost Darwinian in its violence. There’s a lot of low-quality data here. That wrens, larks, woodpeckers and nuthatches feed on the eggs of other birds would come as a surprise to ornithologists. And if, in Aristotle’s day, the ass was at war with the lizard because ‘the lizard sleeps in his manger and gets up his nostrils and so stops him eating’, then modern asses can rest easy for modern lizards appear to have given up this nasty habit.Should he have included such material? Perhaps not. Aristotle’s sense of empirical reality is as firm as any modern scientist’s, and soothsayers’ manuals seem unlikely sources of facts. But before we censure him we should pause and consider the difficulties that he faced. Popular culture was steeped in myth; the medical schools knew little human anatomy; country folk were a rich mine of misinformation about the animals that they daily saw. As he constructed the empirical foundation of his science he must have gleaned, and silently suppressed, vast amounts of dubious data.There is, in his books, only a hint of the thickets of fable and myth that he hacked through. He rejects, or at the very least doubts, tales – the word he uses is mythoi – about cranes that carry stones for ballast and that, when vomited, can transmute ordinary matter into gold; lionesses that eject their wombs when giving birth; Ligyans (from Western Greece) who have only seven pairs of ribs; and heads that continue to talk after having been severed from their bodies. In the third century AD, Aelian would fill books with this sort of stuff.The way in which Aristotle deals with the last of these questions – the talking heads – is instructive. Many people, he says, believe that a struck-off head can talk, and they cite Homer in support. Also, he says, there is an apparently credible description of just such a case. In Caria (Anatolia) a priest belonging to the cult of Zeus Hoplosmios was decapitated. The grounded head named its murderer as one Cerides. A Cerides was accordingly found and put on trial. Aristotle does not comment on the fate of the man, nor even on the possible miscarriage of justice, but he dismisses the story on the grounds that: (i) when barbarians chop people’s heads off the heads don’t speak; (ii) when animals get their heads chopped off, their heads don’t make any sounds, and given that, why should human heads be able to do so?; (iii) speech requires breath from the lungs via the windpipe, which it can hardly supply to a severed head. All of this is admirably sane. We should never take such sanity for granted.XVIIISEVERED HEADS MAY not vocalize, but fishes certainly do. In a section devoted to animal sounds Aristotle says that the kokkis and the lyra (both gurnards) make a kind of grunting sound, while the khalkeus (John Dory) makes a kind of piping sound. He then goes on to explain that since fish don’t have lungs, these sounds aren’t a ‘voice’ of the sort that birds or mammals have; rather the sound is caused by the movement of some internal parts that ‘have air or wind inside them’.*KHALKEUS – JOHN DORY – ZEUS FABERHistoria animalium is filled with fishy facts, some of them rather recondite. Athenaeus of Naucratis, who wrote a guide to civilized dinner-table conversation circa AD 300, a surprising amount of which apparently revolved around fish, waxed sarcastic:But frankly, I’m amazed at Aristotle. Just when did he learn it all? And from whom? Some Proteus or Nereus who’d come up from the depths? What fish do, how they sleep, how they spend their time – that’s the sort of stuff he’s written about. All so he can amaze the idiots, as the comic poet said!There was nothing to marvel at: Aristotle’s Nereus was simply some fisherman. Aristotle himself doesn’t scorn popular wisdom. He often says that we should begin investigations by considering what most people think, for they are often right. The problem is that people are prone to telling tall tales. Some fishermen say that fish fertilize their eggs by eating sperm. That can’t be right, says Aristotle, since it doesn’t fit with their anatomy (any sperm they ate would just get digested); they’re just describing some courtship behaviour. He doesn’t say what fish do this, but my friend David Koutsogiannopoulos, who knows everything about Greek fishes, tells me it must be a wrasse, probably Symphodus ocellatus, and sent me a picture to prove it.Fishermen’s tales. Here are three that I heard from one who wanted to amaze me. First, that the monk seal that lives at the entrance to the Lagoon tracks the local fishermen and then plunders the fish from their nets. Second, that the seagulls of Vrachonisida Kalloni, a local islet, feed their chicks with olives instead of fish. Third, that the crows of Apothika drop walnuts in front of passing cars in the hope that they, the nuts, will be crushed beneath their wheels. Should the car miss, the crows retrieve their nuts and try again.Amazed I duly was and said so. But, as Aristotle says, the problem is that fishermen don’t really observe nature carefully, since they don’t seek knowledge for its own sake. Popular lore may be a good place to start, but investigation of the natural world requires expertise, not only a general kind of expertise of the sort that enables us to evaluate rational arguments, but also expertise specific to a given subject. Experts, he says, will spot things easily missed by other people – for example, the shrivelled spermducts of out-of-season dogfish. And, reports of tool-use in New Caledonian crows notwithstanding, I’d like to hear from a behavioural ecologist with a season in the field behind her before I believe that the crows of Apothika really are that smart. Aristotle’s scepticism is the first stirring of scientific authority – the authority that has grown rampant in our day. He would surely marvel to see how in our day there is no topic, however arcane, that doesn’t have its own caste of experts, authorized by PhDs and university posts, and primed with statistics, ready to trump popular opinion. He would relish it.XIXARISTOTLE’S COYNESS ABOUT his sources extends to his own research. He never says, ‘I have seen this – that’s why it’s true,’ so it’s hard to know which of his myriad facts on, say, reproductive behaviour come from personal observation. Yet, reading between the lines, it’s clear that he did much empirical research. This, for example, has the stamp of personal authority:The appearance of the chameleon’s body is, in general, like that of a lizard, though its ribs descend and converge towards the underbelly like that of a fish: its spine also sticks upwards like a fish’s. Its face is very like a ‘pig-ape’s’, but its tail is very long, descends to a point and is usually coiled up like a leather strap. It stands higher off the ground than a lizard but its legs are bent like a lizard’s. Each foot is divided into two parts whose relative position (thesis) resembles the opposition (antithesis) of thumbs in humans to the rest of the hand. Each part [foot] immediately divides into toe-like structures: the inside of the front feet is divided into three; the outside into two while the inside of the back feet is divided into two and the outside three. The feet have claws, as on a bird of prey. The whole body is rough, like a crocodile’s. The eyes, very large and round, are covered in skin like the rest of the body and located in a cavity: in the centre is a small hole through which it sees and which is never covered by skin. Instead, the chameleon twists its eyes round, changes its line of sight in any direction and views whatever it wishes. Its change in colour occurs when puffed up, when its colour is actually black, not unlike a crocodile, or green like a lizard with black spots like a leopard. The same change occurs throughout the body including the eyes and tail. In movement the chameleon is dreadfully sluggish, like a tortoise. And when it is dying it turns green, keeping this colour after death. The oesophagus and windpipe are located as in a lizard, with no flesh anywhere except near the head and jaws and around the very base of the tail. Blood is located only round the heart, the eyes, the spot just above the heart, and, fanning out from them, the veins: the amount of blood in these is minuscule. The brain is linked to the eyes but located a little above them. In the eyes, after the external skin is drawn aside, something like a thin glinting copper ring is visible. Extending through most of its body, more than in other animals, are many strong membranes. Even after it has been cut open completely, the chameleon continues to breathe for a long time and a tiny motion remains around the heart. Though it is in the area of the ribs that the greatest contraction is visible, this occurs also in other parts of the body. There is no sign of a spleen. It hibernates, like a lizard.It seems that he dissected, indeed vivisected, the chameleon, that beautiful and amiable creature that still lives in the olive groves of Samos.XXIN HIS ZOOLOGICAL WORKS Aristotle mentions the following mammals: ailouros (cat), alōpēx (fox), arktos (bear), aspalax (Mediterranean mole), arouraios mys (field mouse), bous/tauros (oxen), dasypous/lagos (hare), ekhinos (hedgehog), elaphos/prox (deer), eleios (dormouse), enydris (otter), galē (beech marten), ginnos (ginny), hinnos (hinny), hippos (horse), hys (pig), hystrix (porcupine), iktis (weasel), kapros (boar), kastōr (beaver), kyōn (dog), leōn (Asian lion), lykos (wolf), lynx (lynx), mys (mouse), mygalē (water shrew), nykteris (bat), oïs/krios/probaton (sheep), onos (ass), oreus (mule), phōkē (seal), thōs (jackal), tragos/aïx/khimera (goat).All of these species are, or were, native to Greece and Asia Minor, so it is natural that he should do so. More surprisingly, the number of species that he mentions, but that are native to the Nile delta, the Libyan desert and the plains of Central Asia, is not much smaller: alōpēx (here the Egyptian fruit bat), boubalis (hartebeest), bonassos (European bison), dorkas (gazelle), elephas (elephant), hyaina/trokhos/glanos (striped hyena), hippelaphos (nilgai), hippos-potamios (hippopotamus), ichneumōn (mongoose), kēbos (monkey), kynokephalos (baboon), onos agrios/hēmionos (wild ass or onager), onos Indikos (Indian rhinoceros), oryx (oryx), panthēr/pardalis (leopard), pardion/hippardion (giraffe?), pithēkos (barbary ape), kamēlos Arabia (dromedary), kamēlos Baktrianē (Bactrian camel) – to which we can add creatures such as the ibis (sacred ibis), strouthos Libykos (ostrich), krokodeilos potamios (crocodile) and various African snakes. ‘Always something new from Libya’, says Aristotle – and, to judge by this list, the East too.Where does Aristotle’s exotic zoology come from? He was hardly ever out of sight of the Aegean Sea, so he could not have collected it himself. The Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder gave an answer. As so often with Pliny’s assertions, it has a fantastical air. He said that Alexander the Great supplied it.King Alexander the Great, inflamed with a desire for discovering the natures of animals, entrusted this task to Aristotle, a man outstanding in every department of knowledge. Several thousand men in the whole region of Asia and Greece were put under his command – all those who made their living from hunting, bird catching and fishing as well as those who had in their care animal collections, herds of cattle, beehives, fish-ponds, aviaries. The idea was that nothing anywhere in the world might be overlooked by him. It was as a result of his thorough questioning of these men that he composed some fifty famous and distinguished volumes about animals.In 343, while still in Lesbos, Aristotle was summoned to the Macedonian court. He had reason enough to go. Macedon was, after all, home, and it was no longer the backwater that he had left behind nearly a quarter of a century previously. Amyntas was long dead; Philip II had succeeded to the Macedonian throne, had raised an army and was flexing his military muscles. In Athens, Demosthenes warned the citizenry, in ever more apocalyptic tones, of the danger brewing on their doorstep. They ignored him – to their cost.Philip wanted a tutor for his son: someone to rub the rough edges off the boy and give him the philosophical education befitting a prince. Did Aristotle make the boy into the man he would become? Or did he try to temper his natural powers? We long to know, but do not. For Aristotle’s teenage pupil was not just any spoilt princeling, but Alexander himself, future King of the oikoumenē, the Known World.It is one of the most remarkable conjunctions in history: one of history’s greatest thinkers has, for a few years, the whip hand over one of her greatest military leaders – and then unleashes him on the world. (Pierre-Simon Laplace merely examined Napoleon for admission to the École Militaire.) Writing four centuries later, Plutarch sets the scene:For their study and leisure Philip gave them the Nymphaion at Mieza: even today people point out to you the stone seats and shaded walks of Aristotle. It is likely that Alexander did not study just ethics and politics here but also those secret and more profound teachings (those so-called private lectures and special mysteries were not published or shared with the masses).Those same shady walks and stone seats can still be seen.In 336 Philip was murdered. Alexander became king. He began by reducing Thebes, second among Greece’s cities, to rubble. In a letter Aristotle counsels him to be a leader to the Greeks and to look after them as if they were ‘friends or relatives’, but Alexander sold Thebes’ citizens into slavery. He later crucified all of Gaza’s men. That was a bit more Aristotelian: in the same letter he tells Alexander to be a despot to barbarians and to ‘treat them as if they were beasts or plants’. As the young general rampaged across the known world, he carried with him a copy of the Iliad in Aristotle’s edition. In 335 Aristotle, his work done, returned to Athens, now under Macedonian hegemony, where he established the Lyceum. It is also where, if Pliny is to be believed, he dissected Alexander’s zoological largesse.XXIPLINY’S STORY IS charming. Alexander, no mere kohl-eyed sensualist or megalomaniacal conqueror, loves plants and animals too, and, recalling his old tutor’s interests, affectionately lays the biological booty of an empire at his feet. Writing a century or two later, Athenaeus says that Alexander gave Aristotle 800 talents for his research, and so turns the King into a Macedonian National Science Foundation. There is a whiff of romance about these tales. Eight hundred talents was several times Macedon’s annual GDP; and in his biological works Aristotle says nothing about subsidies, a zoo nor even Alexander himself.It is also clear that Aristotle got some of his exotic zoology from travel books. Ctesias of Cnidus, a fifth-century Greek physician to the Persian court, wrote several books about Persia and India that Aristotle felt he could neither ignore nor trust.None of these kinds [genē] of animals [live-bearing tetrapods, i.e. mammals] has a double row of teeth. Well, there is one, if Ctesias is to be believed. He claims that a beast that the Indians call the martikhōras has a triple row of teeth, resembles a lion in size, is just as shaggy and has the same sort of feet. It has a face and ears like a man’s, blue eyes, vermilion colouring and a tail like a scorpion’s. It has a sting in the tail, shoots spines like arrows, and has a voice halfway between a shepherd’s flute and a trumpet. It runs as fast as a deer, is savage and a man-eater.Behind the thicket of fable that is Ctesias’ martikhōras lurks a tiger (the Persian is martijaqāra, literally ‘man-eater’). Elsewhere, ‘What Ctesias has written about the elephant’s sperm [that it is as hard as amber] is false.’ ‘And in India, so Ctesias claims, there are no wild or tame pigs, but the bloodless and scaly animals are all large.’ This is a reference to Ctesias’ ‘Indian worm’ that lives in trees and devours domestic animals and is obviously a large python.The wretched Ctesias is also the source of one of the classic problems in Aristotelian zoology. Aristotle refers to two kinds of animals that have a single horn. One, the onos Indikos (literally ‘Indian ass’), has a single hoof (i.e. is a Perissodactyl, specifically, a horse), the other, the oryx, has a cloven hoof (i.e. is an Artiodactyl, probably an antelope). He’s cautious about the onos Indikos and rightly so. Since at least the nineteenth century, scholars have supposed that it is a garbled description of the Indian rhinoceros, and that the oryx is the Arabian oryx glimpsed side on and far away. But of course that’s far too late: sceptical though he was, Aristotle could not stop unicorns creeping into his books.If Aristotle always suspects Ctesias of making things up, he’s much more inclined to believe Herodotus (fl. 450 BC), borrowing from him often and with confidence. After all, Herodotus himself claimed he preferred to believe things that he’d seen for himself. Historia animalium is full of unattributed Herodotean facts: that the menopausal priestesses of Caria (Anatolia) grow beards; that camels fight horses; that in all of Europe lions are only found between the rivers Acheloos and Nestos (Macedonia); that in autumn cranes migrate from Scythia (Central Asia) to the marshlands south of Egypt where the Nile has its source; that Egyptian animals are larger than their Greek congeners, and so on. Sometimes, when the facts strike Aristotle as dubious, he will preface them with ‘there are said to be’, as in ‘there are said to be certain flying serpents in Ethiopia’. Flying serpents may strike us as fantastical, but Herodotus claims to have seen their skeletons in Arabia, reports their vicious mating rituals and adds that each year they invade Egypt only to be beaten back by flocks of sacred ibises. Given this, Aristotle’s tentative comment is admirably restrained. He simply ignores Herodotus’ talk of gold-digging ants and griffins and refutes, without naming him, his belief that each hind leg of a camel has four knees. Indeed the only time that Aristotle names the historian – and you can hear the exasperation – is when he catches him saying something truly absurd: ‘Herodotus is wrong when he says that the Ethiopians ejaculate black sperm.’Since Ctesias and Herodotus account for only a small part of what Aristotle knew about Asia’s and Africa’s fauna, he must have raided the reports of other travellers as well. But the most puzzling aspect of his exotic zoology is how he manages to combine exact knowledge with profound ignorance. For example, Aristotle often refers to the elephant. Now he could have learnt something of the elephant’s general appearance and habits – that it is big, has a trunk, tusks – from someone like Ctesias. But how did he know that the elephant does not have a gall bladder, that its liver is about four times the size of an ox’s, that its spleen is rather less, and that its internal testicles are lodged near its kidneys?Anatomical data like this are hardly the stuff of fourth-century travelogues. They are the sorts of surprising facts that have kept the tale of Alexander’s largesse alive. Perhaps, then, Alexander captured one of Darius III’s war elephants when he defeated the Persians in 331 at Gaugamela and dispatched it to Athens, a journey of about two thousand kilometres, where Aristotle dissected it in the shade of the Lyceum’s Peripatos. L. Sprague de Camp, a minor science-fiction writer, wrote a curious novel, An Elephant for Aristotle (1958), based on just this premise and some scholars have not thought it absurd either. But even if we postulate this – prodigiously peripatetic – pachyderm, we may still wonder why, if Aristotle saw, and cut up, an elephant, does he say that its hind limbs are much shorter than its forelimbs?*The rest of Aristotle’s exotic zoology is equally erratic. Summarizing Aristotle on the Asian lion, William Ogle, one of the philosopher’s most sympathetic translators and an expert zoologist himself, tartly observes: ‘It is plain that Aristotle was not himself acquainted with the lion; for nearly all his statements about its structures are erroneous.’ He’s thinking, in particular, of Aristotle’s claim that the lion has only one bone in its neck (it hasn’t; like all mammals it has seven cervical vertebrae). The error is all the more peculiar since Aristotle could have seen lions without venturing far; in his day the Asiatic lion still skulked in Macedon’s remoter valleys.* He gives a good description of the European bison, but then says that it fires caustic dung at its pursuers.* In the same way, his description of the ostrich is convincing except that he mistakes its (admittedly impressive) claws for hooves. He does better with the camel for he knows that it has a ruminant’s multi-chambered stomach, that it has cloven feet and, surprisingly, that the cleft of the hind feet is deeper than that of the front. And he gives a very good description of the hyena’s genitals.XXIIIN THE GENERATION OF ANIMALS, Aristotle says that one Herodorus claimed that the hyaina has both male and female sexual organs, and that they take turns mounting each other in alternate years; that it is, in short, a hermaphrodite. Herodorus came from Heraclea, a Black Sea port, about which he wrote a History and where he fathered Bryson the Sophist, who tried to square the circle. His hyaina must be the striped hyena, Hyaena hyaena, for it is the only member of the family found there or anywhere else in the Hellenic world. Aristotle says that Herodorus is talking nonsense. The hyena isn’t a hermaphrodite – but it does have an odd-looking undercarriage.In Historia animalium Aristotle tells us more. When following his account, one must know that hyenas of both sexes have large glands that form a pouch around the anus; they explain the description he gives. I interpolate the modern terms:The hyena is wolf-like in colour but is more shaggy and has a mane along the whole of its spine. The claim that it has both male and female genitals is false. That of the male [the penis] is like a dog’s or wolf’s. That which resembles a female’s [anal gland] is underneath the tail and, though its structure is similar to that of a female, it has no passage. What lies below it is the passage for residual matter [anus]. The female does indeed have what resembles what is claimed to be the female’s genital organ [anal gland], but, like the male, it has it below the tail and no passage. After it comes the passage for residual matter [anus], and below it is the real genital organ [vagina]. The female hyena has a uterus, just like other female animals of that type. It’s rare that one gets hold of a female hyena. A huntsman told me out of eleven hyenas that he had caught only one female.A diagram shows the cause of the confusion: the invaginations formed by anal glands could easily be mistaken for vaginas. Aristotle, however, gets it right. But he doesn’t say that he’s seen all this; he says that ‘it has been observed’. Someone else evidently looked between a hyena’s legs to see what he could find.HYAINA – STRIPED HYENA – HYAENA HYAENA LEFT: MALE GENITALIA. RIGHT: FEMALE GENITALIA AS – ANAL SAC; R – RECTUM; S – SCROTUM; P – PENIS; V – VAGINAIndeed, it does not seem likely that Aristotle saw any of the exotica that he describes. His accounts of their anatomy and habits simply lack the comprehensiveness, detail and accuracy that we would expect if he had – and that he gives when reporting on the anatomy of, say, a cuttlefish. The tale of Alexander’s largesse is almost certainly a late invention designed to soften the conqueror’s image – or boost the philosopher’s. Instead, Aristotle seems to begin with travellers’ tales – the various early Histories – which he vets as best he can, discarding the implausible, attaching cautionary phrases to the possible and keeping the probable. He then interweaves this material with fragmentary, but more scientifically sophisticated, reports sent by someone else. There is an unknown collaborator at work: someone who travelled, who knew anatomy and who sent Aristotle information about what he saw.There are several candidates for the Unknown Collaborator. The most plausible of them is Aristotle’s great-nephew, Callisthenes of Olynthos. The two men were not only kin, for Callisthenes was a student at Plato’s Academy in Athens when Aristotle taught there. It is also likely that, when Aristotle left the Academy in 346/7 to go to Hermias’ court at Assos, Callisthenes followed. When Hermias was tortured and executed by the Persians, he wrote, as Aristotle did, a hymn in the Tyrant’s praise. Further tradition has it that Callisthenes followed Aristotle to Lesbos, and then, a few years later, to Macedon. Although a few years older than Alexander they may have been students together at Mieza. What is certain is that by the time Alexander came to power, Callisthenes had already made his reputation as an historian, having written the Hellenica, a ten-book history of Greece; and that, when Alexander crossed the Hellespont in 334 to conquer the East, Callisthenes went with him to record the campaign.And to send reports to Athens of the army’s progress. Alexander, still untested, just one petty monarch among many, wanted to make sure that the Athenians knew of his triumphs. But Callisthenes was no mere propagandist. He was also a natural philosopher capable of explaining the cause of the Nile’s annual flood as the result of moisture-laden clouds hitting the Ethiopian massif. This was doubtless inspired by Alexander’s swift traverse through Egypt in 332–1; Alexander may even have sent him south, towards the Sudan, to search for the great river’s sources. Callisthenes also recorded Babylonian astronomical lore and proposed a theory of the causes of earthquakes. A fragment says that he sent information to Aristotle, though what about we do not know.Callisthenes followed Alexander’s battle train for seven years. He was present at the sack of Tyre and of Gaza, the entry into Oasis Siwa, the battles of the Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela and the epic pursuit of Darius across the deserts of Central Asia. He traversed Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Persia, Media, Hyrcania and Parthia. He skirted the Caspian Sea, the Kir Desert and the Sistan Marshes, climbed the Rock of Aornus and crossed the Hindu Kush. All of this is rich zoological territory, so we may wonder why Aristotle, drawing on all that Callisthenes saw, does not tell us more about the East than he does. That question is, however, easily answered: Aristotle never saw his nephew again. Somewhere in Bactria, modern-day Afghanistan, Alexander had the historian arrested and executed. The ancient sources disagree about why Callisthenes was killed and how, but concur that his death was a nasty one.Alexander died in 323. Many said that he had been poisoned by Antipater, his Viceroy at Pella and Aristotle’s friend. In his writings, which are entirely devoid of political and personal passions, Aristotle says nothing about his nephew’s fate, but Theophrastus, the plant collector, mourned Callisthenes and wrote a dialogue in his name.THEANATOMIES ESTHIOMENON EKHINOS – EDIBLE SEA URCHIN – PARACENTROTUS LIVIDUSXXIIIARISTOTLE REFERS TO the internal anatomy of about 110 different kinds of animals. For about thirty-five of them his information is so extensive or accurate that he must have dissected them himself. The quality of his work, at its best, can be judged by what he says about the anatomy of the cuttlefish. With one in hand his account is easily followed.We place our cuttlefish – flaccid, pale, glutinous – on the table. We begin, as he does, with the external parts: the mouth, its two sharp jaws, the eight arms, two tentacles, mantle sac and the fins. We then have to get inside the thing. Aristotle doesn’t tell us how. He may have just grasped the tentacles in one hand, and the mantle in the other, and ripped it apart – that’s what a Greek housewife would do. We should not credit him with the skill, patience and fine instruments of a modern anatomist, but he was surely more careful than that. Elsewhere he describes cutting away the skin of a mole’s face in order to reveal the stunted eyes beneath.That being so, we slit the mantle lengthwise from tentacles to tail. A ventral incision reveals the reproductive organs; a dorsal one reveals the cuttlebone and, beneath that, a large, red, structure that he calls the mytis and the digestive system. We won’t follow his anatomy in all its details, but merely note two remarkable things that he does.First, that between the eyes with their iridescent argentae and black-slitted pupils, there is a cartilage. Shave it carefully away to reveal two small, soft, yellowish bulges: they’re the cuttlefish’s brain. It is very easy to miss or immolate, but he finds it. Once seen, the texture of neural tissue is unmistakable.Second, we follow the alimentary tract. We start at the mouth, follow the oesophagus through the brain and through the mytis to the stomach that Aristotle aptly compares to a bird’s crop. Then there’s another sack, the spiral caecum, that he says looks like a trumpet snail’s shell. The intestine emerges from the caecum but, where in most animals it runs posteriorly, here it doesn’t. Instead it loops forward so that the rectum exits by the funnel. He’s noticed one of the strangest features of cephalopod anatomy: that they defecate on their heads.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for The Lagoon“For several years in his middle age, Aristotle lived on the island of Lesbos, where he studied the creatures in an inland sea known as Kolpos Kalloni. It was here, Leroi argues in this vivid travelogue and scientific history, that the philosopher pioneered a method of thinking about the natural world that amounted to the invention of science. Breaking with the speculative theories of his naturalist predecessors, Aristotle insisted on rooting claims about the purposes and causes of living beings in observation. The vast catalogues that resulted from his work are messy and filled with unassimilated data, but, as Leroi, a biologist, demonstrates, their basic methodology has filtered down through the ages.” —The New Yorker   “Armand Marie Leroi’s reappraisal of [Aristotle], The Lagoon, is one of the most inspired and inspiring I have read . . . Leroi’s ambitious aim is to return Aristotle to the pantheon of biology’s greats, alongside Charles Darwin and Carl Linnaeus. He has achieved it.” —Nature   “The Lagoon is an intellectual homage—an admiring, deeply researched and considered reconstruction of Aristotle’s thinking about living things . . . marvelous . . . a work as important to a historian and philosopher of science as it is informative to a biologist and entertaining to the general reader. As compelling as Stephen Jay Gould’s best work, it will long outlast most nature writing of recent years.” —New Scientist   “A fascinating new book . . . Leroi argues that Aristotle developed many of the empirical and analytical methods that still define scientific inquiry . . . . Leroi is a brilliant guide to the history of science. He traces the history of ideas with skill and care, and he avoids the smug certainty of many contemporary science writers.” —The Daily Beast   “A remarkable recovery of an ancient thinker’s daringly original enterprises—and mind-set.” —Booklist (Starred Review)   “Leroi calls on his expertise and his experience as a BBC science presenter to explain why Aristotle’s writings on science are still relevant today . . . A wide-ranging, delightful tour de force.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)   “Leroi lovingly rescues the reputation of Aristotle’s alternately meticulous and bizarre studies of animal behavior from the ruins left in the wake of derision during the Scientific Revolution. Leroi brings modern sensibility to, yet evokes an air of timelessness with, his gorgeous descriptions.” —Publishers Weekly  (Starred Review)   “Leroi clearly adores Greece and he uses his detailed local knowledge to splendid effect, evocatively re-creating the experiences of the peripatetic philosopher . Leroi is absolutely right to say that even those sections of Aristotle’s work we no longer believe to be correct have affected the knowledge that we have today.” —Literary Review   “In this lush, epic and hugely enjoyable book, biologist Armand Marie Leroi explores the idea that it was another ancient Greek giant whose shoulders we may all stand upon. Leroi is a beautiful writer and it’s been too long, a decade, since his last outstanding book.” —Observer   “Brilliant. Not just a charismatic book, but one that places Aristotle in a freshly Aegean context. Above all, Leroi shows, science today trawls through reams of data for patterns and explanations, in precisely Aristotle's manner.” —Sunday Times   “Leroi takes us through Aristotle’s work, finding hints of modern thinking everywhere. The Lagoon bubbles with enthusiasm for its subject, making an absolutely gripping read out of what might have seemed the most unlikely material.” —The Times (London)   “Compelling, sometimes contentious, and always thought-provoking. It celebrates what is most admirable in the Aristotelian tradition: its appreciation of what is actually there.” —Financial Times   “How Aristotle nearly beat Darwin to a theory of evolution. Brilliant.” —Sunday Times Must Reads   “Whether Aristotle is exploring the meaning of existence, the structure of the human heart or the souls of cuttlefish, Leroi is an enthralling and irreverent guide to ‘the first scientist’.” —Independent   “A look at some of the great Greek’s most startling, yet often overlooked, ideas.” —Observer   “Magnificent . . . . This book is powerful, graceful and charming. Leroi’s prose is as blue-white bright as an Aegean sky reflected from a whitewashed wall. . . beautifully designed and deftly illustrated.” —Guardian   “Leroi says that Aristotle’s writing is a ‘naturalist’s joy’; the same can be said for Mr. Leroi’s . I admire this entertaining, insightful and felicitously written book.” —International New York Times   “Scintillatingly argued.” —James McConnachie, Spectator Books of the Year   “Leroi reconstructs Aristotle’s studies of wildlife at the Kalloni lagoon on Lesbos more than 2,300 years ago. Entertainingly, he builds up the thesis that the great Greek philosopher was the world’s first systematic biologist.” —Financial Times Books of the Year   “In the History of Animals, [Aristotle] speaks of the reproduction of lice, the mating habits of herons, the sexual incontinence of girls, the stomachs of snails, the sensitivity of starfish, the dumbness of the deaf, the flatulence of elephants and the structure of the human heart: his book contains 130,000 words and 9,000 empirical claims’. Leroi’s own uncompromising investigation gives us a flavour of his subject’s indefatigable explorations. Leroi does not upstage Aristotle’s descriptions with modern anatomical illustrations, though his attractively illustrated discussions draw on much scholarship that has been expended on editing and interpreting Aristotle’s ideas about nature. Leroi’s scholarship is impeccable and consistently generous. Only an expert biologist with broad cultural sympathies and a deep feeling for history could have created such a compelling reappraisal of Aristotle’s place in the history of science. What’s in a name, indeed; in marshalling the facts and ideas that support Aristotle’s scientific credentials in exuberant detail, Leroi must be accounted the king.” —Times Literary Supplement   “Armand Marie Leroi opens Aristotle’s classical cabinet of curiosities to discover the genesis of science inside. In elegant, stylish and often witty prose, he probes the near-legendary, almost primeval lagoon, which inspired the ancient Greek’s Historia Animalium and animates it anew with his own incisive observations. From snoring dolphins to divine bees, Leroi shows us how Aristotle invented taxonomy two and a half millennia before Linnaeus. That, in fact, out of poetry and metaphysics, blending the mythic with the mundane, Aristotle foresaw our contemporary dilemmas of definition and description. The Lagoon is a heroic, beautiful work in its own right, an inquiring odyssey into unknown nature and the known world, which science has created out of it.” —Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan, or The WhaleFrom the Hardcover edition.