The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science

Armand Marie Leroi

Bloomsbury 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016
The Lagoon is primarily a study of Aristotle as a scientist and specifically as a biologist (Leroi's own profession), but it also provides the biographical and historical context needed to understand his science. And it includes some personal material, describing Leroi's encounters with Aristotle's works and the locations associated with him, especially around the lagoon on Lesbos where he lived for some years and which provides the title.

Leroi considers what Aristotle knew about the natural world and how he knew it, not trying to summarise or even catalogue his extensive writings on the subject, but giving a feel for his breadth of interest and exploring a few topics in depth.

"Dolphins, Aristotle says, are supremely swift swimmers and voracious hunters. He says that they copulate and give birth to one or two live young and that they suckle via ventral slits. ... Sleeping dolphins to, however, snore — or so it's said. They live in male and female pairs for up to thirty years. We know this because fishermen nick their tails and then release them again — which seems to be an account of history's first mark-recapture study. Sometimes they strand themselves for no obvious reason at all.
Most of this is accurate. That dolphins snore is dubious, but perhaps we'll let it go since they do, apparently, vocalize in their sleep. Some scholars think Aristotle must have dissected a dolphin. I don't for he also makes some serious mistakes. ..."

At the core of The Lagoon is an attempt to explain and evaluate the theories about the living world which Aristotle built on this detail.

"Of all the things in the world that he might have studied, that he might have devoted his life to, Aristotle identified living things as most worthy of his attention. Nearly all the rest — his metaphysics, system of causal explanation, physics, chemistry, meteorology, cosmology, politics, ethics, even his poetics — bear the mark of that decision."

"He rarely expresses doubts or speaks of struggles, but almost always projects the confidence of a man who has a grip on the phenomena and a good explanation for them. Sometimes, however, we do glimpse Aristotle in two, or even three, minds. He seems unable to decide whether the porphyrai — the muricid snails of the Lagoon's muddy bottom — generate spontaneously or not."

"Here, as so often, Aristotle's technical vocabulary is underdetermined. He's very reluctant to coin new terms even when he badly needs them".

"[Aristotle's developmental biology] seems quite strange [but] you have to admire the sheer audacity of his system. It's all there — a mechanistic account of the most mysterious process in all of biology — how apparently raw matter comes to be a living thing".

"Reading Aristotle, it's easy to suppose that he is struggling towards, or even has, a theory of evolution. He isn't and hasn't. ... Aristotle never made the evolutionary leap."

Leroi avoids anachronistic readings in this, placing Aristotle's ideas in their historical context, but does include comparisons with others — notably with Darwin, who took a similar bottom-up approach, driven by and drawing on a mass of detail — and considers his place in the broader history of biology.

"Aristotle, by contrast [to Darwin], gives most informal variation to the direct effects of the environment. ... Aristotle's own model of inheritance is a triumph of speculative biology... one of his most mature theories. ... Aristotle's was wrong too, but survey the admittedly dispiriting history of early genetics and one can conclude that until 1865 there was no better theory than his."

There's some restrained speculation in this — about, for example, what Aristotle would have made of evolutionary theory.

Interspersed with this are some almost poetic descriptions of nature.

"Seventy days after the winter solstice, some time in early March, the ornithiai anemoi, the bird winds, begin to blow. That is when the migrants begin to appear in Lesbos. In the marches and pools between Skala and the mouth of the Vouvaris, where the Lagoon melds softly into the land, they flutter among the reeds and wade in the shallows, while far above the raptors stream over from Africa."

Even shorn of glossary, appendices, notes, bibliography and index, The Lagoon is 380 pages long. But its sixteen chapters, on broad themes, are easily digestible, and they are in turn broken up into over one hundred short, punchy sections each tackling one idea. The result is easy to read and quite accessible.

In "At Erato" Leroi describes his personal encounter with Aristotle and his biology, and touches on problems of translation. "The Island" introduces us to Aristotle's life, to his predecessors and contemporaries, notably Plato and his colleague botanist Theophrastus, and to the island of Lesbos. And "The Known World" explores Aristotle's sources and background knowledge, especially of zoology, and his connection with Alexander the Great, who he tutored.

"The Anatomies" explores Aristotle's knowledge of animal and human anatomy, looking at the heart, catfish, the paper nautilus, and embryos of the smooth dogfish, among others. "Natures" explains how different Greek ideas of "nature" were, and the shift from speculative philosophy to an actual research programme: "Upon Plato's unnatural teleology Aristotle built a functional biology." And "The Dolphin's Snore" looks at Aristotle as a taxonomist and systematist: "He pulls his data together and weaves a vast causal web that has a single purpose: to discover the true natures of living things."

"The Instruments" focuses on Aristotle's scientific methodology, arguing that: "For all its limitations, Aristotle's theory of demonstration is a genuine scientific method. It is part of ours." And "The Bird Winds" considers his teleological arguments for why animals have the different parts they do, arguing for the importance of his auxiliary arguments based on parsimony and "economy".

Looking at goal-directedness, "The Soul of the Cuttlefish" argues that Aristotle's "soul" can be seen as the structure of the metabolic network: he was hampered by poor chemistry but came close to the idea of a cybernetic system. And "Foam" turns to developmental biology.

"The Valley of Sheep" evaluates Aristotle's concepts of variation and inheritance. "Recipe for an Oyster" describes his puzzling belief in spontaneous generation, "even though the animals that he knows best all have parents... even though he has to distort his own theory of development... even though it contradicts his metaphysics". And "Figs, Honey, Fish" looks at his ideas about life cycles and the problems posed by figs and bees, among other organisms.

"The Stone Forest" considers why Aristotle failed to envisage evolution — Theophrastus went further — and looks at what he shared with and where he differed from Darwin (who didn't read Aristotle till just before he died). "Kosmos" looks at how humans fit into Aristotle's biology and how it connects with his politics and ethics, and at how his teleological "household analogy" for natural order can be reconciled with his other ideas; one hole in his work is the absence of any behavioural ecology. And "The Strait of Pyrrha" surveys Aristotle's works and considers his legacy, rebutting claims, going back to the Scientific Revolution and most notably Francis Bacon, that his approach was intrinsically anti-scientific.

The notes and the glossaries of Greek terms are probably just for the specialists, but the appendices include some attempts to summarise key ideas diagrammatically ("this diagram summarizes Aristotle's vision of the metabolic system, how nutrition is taken up, transformed and allocated to its various ends").

I found the Lagoon a lovely mix, of close reading of Aristotle and exposition of his theory, of biology and the history of science, and of detail and digression. Leroi does a good job of addressing a potentially diverse audience — scientists with no background in classical literature or ancient history, perhaps, or classicists with no background in biology, or readers with no specialist knowledge — and I was never bored or frustrated when he was presenting already familiar information. The Lagoon was also just a pleasure to read.

October 2016

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%T The Lagoon
%S How Aristotle Invented Science
%A Leroi, Armand Marie
%I Bloomsbury
%D 2014
%O hardcover, glossaries, appendices, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9781408836200
%P 501pp