What a philosopher Aristotle was

Aristotle as a biologist : The philosopher and the calamari

Two months before his death, in February 1882, Charles Darwin received a copy of Aristotle's book "De partibus animalium" (From the parts of animals). The sender was his friend William Ogle, who had just translated the work. As a thank you, Darwin wrote, “I already had a high opinion of Aristotle's merit, but I had no idea what a wonderful person he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier were - in very different ways - my two gods, but compared to the old Aristotle they were mere schoolboys ”.

The fact that Darwin held “De partibus” in his hands on his deathbed can safely be counted among the legends that have grown up around him. What is certain today, however, is that Aristotle founded biology with this and other works. He was not only one of the great philosophers, but also the first biologist. After all, half of the texts he has handed down are devoted to scientific topics. His main interest was zoology. Aristotle's "Historia animalium" is more than twice as extensive as his second largest text "Politics" and four times as long as his "Metaphysics". An extensive "atlas" with anatomical drawings and sketches that Aristotle created is unfortunately completely lost.

Aristotle fled the Persians to Lesbos

In addition, what we really know about him is quickly reported. Aristotle was born in 384 before the beginning of the Christian era in Stagira near today's Thessaloniki, where his father was the personal physician of the Macedonian king. At 17 he was sent to Athens to the academy directed by Plato, the most important idealistic philosopher of antiquity, where he stayed for two decades, first as a student and then as a teacher. Either because he was not put in charge of the academy after Plato's death or because he was to avoid life-threatening political disputes (research disagrees on this), he first went to Assos on the coast of Asia Minor in 348 or 347, where he also married.

When the Persians conquered Assos in 345, Aristotle fled with his young wife and his student Theophrastus (who founded botany) on his home island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean. There an elongated bay, Kolpos Kalloni, which cuts the island deeply from the south, forms a kind of inland sea. Thanks to the entry from the rivers of the surrounding hills, the bay is extremely rich in nutrients.

Hardly anywhere in the Mediterranean is the marine fauna more diverse and rich in shapes than in this Lesvos lagoon. Sea urchins, sea squirts, sea cucumbers, starfish, snails and swimming crabs, bream and perch, oysters and anemones, tunicates and octopuses inspired the philosopher and turned the island into Aristotle's Galapagos.

He was the first to be interested in the blueprint of sea worms

In exile on Lesbos, he began to fathom and map the world of the living. This is where his most important zoological studies and writings were written. Aristotle was one of the first to be interested in the blueprint of sea worms and cephalopods, in the "degree of perfection" of their physique and in the way of life of other invertebrates, in the functioning of snail stomachs, in the structure of the human heart and blood circulation, but also in the dance language of Bees, herons mating, and parental care of dolphins.

Aristotle wanted to know how living things develop from the egg, why some live longer than others, why we die. His tool was the observation and dissection of animals, sensual perception became the source of objective knowledge for him. At the same time, he established the scientific systematics of organisms in extensive works. The animal population in Aristotle's writings, the basis of which is the fauna of the Aegean Sea, includes around 580 different forms. In addition to the rich coastal fauna, the fishermen of Lesbos also provide him with numerous representatives of the high and deep seas.

Ten years later, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded his own scientific school, the Lykeion, which he directed until 323. Once again he had to avoid unfavorable political circumstances and went to the island of Evia, where he died the following year. His studies found no direct continuation in antiquity. His zoological writings, however, were preserved thanks to Latin translations at the end of the Middle Ages and were among the earliest scientific texts printed in Europe.

The Aristotelian animal system

Rediscovered with the Renaissance, the Aristotelian animal system remained the basis for the classification of animals until the 18th century - and thus for natural history thinking in modern times.

But while the biology established by Aristotle has grown, his descendants have all but forgotten about him. For a long time only scant attention was paid to his work and activity. That is changing now. The Koblenz philosopher Martin F. Meyer recently dedicated his habilitation thesis “Aristotle and the Birth of Biological Science” (Springer Spectrum, Wiesbaden 2015) to the life science thinking of the great Greeks and his biology in the context of ancient natural sciences. And at the same time identified a special epistemic status for biology, as a science not of life but of living beings.

After all, until Aristotle it was by no means a matter of course to speak of living beings at all. It is only with him that “animals” and “plants” gain format and contour as terms. "It is one of the founding acts of biology that Aristotle no longer understands 'life' in mere opposition to 'death', but in contrast to inanimate natural things," says Meyer. What he still formulates as a specialist text for the theorists of science, Armand Marie Leroi, who has won multiple awards in Great Britain for his non-fiction books, is now doing in his book “The Lagoon or how Aristotle invented the natural sciences” (Theiss Verlag, Darmstadt 2017. 528 pages, 38 euros ) also accessible to a larger audience. Leroi, full-time professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College in London, takes us on a journey to Lesbos, to the shores of that great lagoon where Aristotle began systematically exploring nature and life two thousand years ago.

Only now is the importance of the philosopher for biology being rediscovered

“Of all the places in the eastern Aegean where Aristotle lived, Lesbos is the most enchanting. Going to the harbor wall on a spring morning in one of the villages on the Kalloni coast is like seeing Historia animalium come to life, ”Leroi writes.

"The Lagoon" explores the sources of biology, which not only constitute the most important part of Aristotle's work, but to which he was the first to devote a large part of his life. “He mapped the area, he invented this science,” Leroi is convinced. "You could even say that he invented science itself."

In fact, unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle worked empirically; for him it was not just words that counted, but observations. He acquired zoological knowledge through his own research and clarified anatomical issues. On the other hand, he criticized the earlier thinkers for not paying attention to the facts and not considering the real causes. While Plato's students, free from the constraints of empirical evidence, have a weakness for theorizing and mathematical modeling to this day, the roots of biology as an empirical science laid by Aristotle were often ignored.

In "The Lagoon" Leroi makes the ideas and research of the great scholar accessible again and clearly shows that Aristotle's biology was not a tentative foray into a new field, but a complete science. On Lesbos, this laid the foundation stone for that biology whose claim is now not only autonomy from physics and chemistry, but also one of the leading science of the 21st century.

Lerois Aristotle is a real rediscovery that whets your appetite - not least for grilled fish and calamari or salted sardines, which are best washed down with an ouzo.

- The author is professor for animal biodiversity and founding director of the Center for Natural History at the University of Hamburg.

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