Are you scoffing because, silly Superprof!, Aristotle is famous as a philosopher, not a biologist - everybody knows that... right? If that is, indeed, your thought, we're both right.
Long before the most renowned polymath, Leonardo da Vinci graced this earth, Aristotle plied his fantastic mind to puzzles big and small, actual and theoretical. No discipline was too extreme; he pondered morality with the same gravitas he gave to mortality... and other biological functions.
He expounded on physics and metaphysics, astronomy and geology, psychology and philosophy and, yes, biology. He made some incredible, intuitive leaps in all of these disciplines and others, most of which have stood the test of time.
Granted, his reputation took some serious hits in the 20th Century but even those naysayers grudgingly agreed that, for a mind so shackled to the thoughts and ideas of his times, he was quite forward-thinking. Most importantly for our thesis, though, is that his work in biology is considered sterling. He continues to influence biologists' studies today.
Let us now put Aristotle under the microscope. Together, we'll examine his life, his studies and the advances he made in biology.
The Aristotle Bio
What scant records there are of Aristotle's early life reveal he was born in 384BC, in Stagirus - not too far from the city we know as Thessaloniki. His father, Nicomachus, was the Macedonian king's personal physician, suggesting that young Aristotle spent a fair amount of time in the royal environment.
Aristotle's name, meaning 'the best purpose' in Ancient Greek, would turn out to be prophetic.
His parents died when he was around 13 years old, leaving him in the care of Proxenus of Atarneus, his older sister's husband. They sheltered and educated him for about four years. He next surfaced in Athens, enrolled in Plato's Academy, where he remained for nearly two decades.
Perhaps he had just grown weary of Academy life or soured on it after his mentor's death - some sources indicate he did not agree with Plato's nephew, who took over the school. Whatever the reason he moved on, we re-find him in Asia Minor, in Hermias of Atarneus' court. After his friend Hermias died, he made his way to Lesvos, where his career as a scientist, biologist and naturalist began in earnest.
Fun fact: Hippocrates, revered as the Father of Medicine, had a father who was a medical man, just like Aristotle's!
Aristotle's Scientific Methodology
Aristotle was the first scientist to conduct empirical research. He started his studies by talking with the natives of Lesvos - the beekeepers and fishermen, the farmers and gardeners. Armed with their knowledge, he set himself the long task of observing what he had been told and drawing conclusions from the evidence before him.
He did not restrict his studies to zoology, as the surviving literature would indicate. To the contrary, he made abundant conclusions about botany, too, as proven by his student's two books on plants.
His vivid - and most accurate descriptions of marine life suggest that, as mariners brought their catch ashore, Aristotle was right there, ready to sift through it all and record particulars. So exacting were his descriptions that, for centuries, many zoologists and marine biologists discredited his theory that the octopus' hectocotylus was a part of its reproductive system... until they discovered that was, in fact, correct.
Aristotle noted that animals' physiology seemed adapted to their environment but stopped just short of advancing any theory of evolution. In fact, he adamantly refused the notion that similar animals could have a common ancestor. If only he could have known about DNA and cell structure!
If Aristotle were alive today, he would likely be considered more a statistician than a botanist, zoologist, biologist or naturalist. He relied almost exclusively on data gathered through observation and conversation, looked for patterns and anomalies and drew conclusions from that analysis.
More often than not, he was at least within shouting distance from fact, if not fundamentally correct.
As Aristotle research methods were primarily passive - he observed rather than set up experiments, what would he have thought of Mendel cross-breeding peas?
Scala Naturae, the Great Chain of Being, was thought by medieval Christians to be ordained by God.
Theology aside, it was Aristotle who first classified beings into 11 different groups. In his hierarchy, vertebrates ranked ahead of invertebrates, those 'with blood' over those 'without blood' and, finally, according to 'quality' - whether they were hot or cold, wet or dry.
He placed humans at the very top of his graded scale. Humans are 'with blood', 2-legged, hot and wet. At the lowest end of his classification system, he placed minerals: no blood and no legs, cold and dry.
Centuries later, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, known as the Father of Taxonomy, would formalise binomial nomenclature. English naturalist Charles Darwin expanded on Linnaeus's basic taxonomy. However, Linnaeus plagiarised Aristotle's work, meaning that we can trace a direct line from Aristotle's work to Darwin's research.
Sharks posed a problem for Aristotle.
Remember that he did not believe in shared DNA (not that he knew anything about it) or common origins of species. He interpreted nature's 'anomalies' as accidents rather than allowing them any evolutionary origin. Therefore, any marine life such as rays and sharks that have placental sacs - meaning the young are born rather than hatched, had to be listed as a group separate from other egg-laying marine life.
There is some evidence that not all of his observations were hands-off. Aristotle described the insides of certain animals - ruminants and birds, in such detail that biologists today are certain he dissected at least a few specimens.
What Aristotle Got Right... and Wrong
Aristotle got many things right. He was the first to grasp the connection between theory and observation and he identified different scientific disciplines. Indeed, many credit him as being the original scientist.
The workings of his hyper-rational mind are in evidence throughout his work, from the way he organised marine, zoological and botanical species to how he set up his university. His Lyceum published a syllabus of lectures - the first ever to do so, and was the original research institute.
For centuries, Aristotle's work in biology and as a naturalist was revered but, in the 20th Century, his work and reputation took a few serious hits. As recently as 1985, British biologist Sir Peter Medawar opined that Aristotle had assembled a "tiresome farrago of hearsay and imperfect observation".
That's a harsh criticism of someone's widely-ranged intellectual pursuits, especially in a time when there were virtually no scientific tools and, indeed, science as a discipline was reviled!
Still, there is a grain of truth to all of the criticism directed at our polymath biologist. Those things he got wrong, he got VERY wrong! They include:
- women: they're deformed, they lack teeth and are generally deficient.
- eels: they have no visible sex organs, therefore they cannot reproduce. Neither can clams, midges, flies or lice.
- bees: he was quite ingenious but absolutely wrong in devising their lifecycle
- evolution: from an evolutionary standpoint, he was an eternalist - all that is is all that was and ever will be
- slaves: apparently, some people deserve to be enslaved; these natural slaves are unable to think for themselves but excel in taking orders!
- gods: Aristotle believed that the stars and planets were elevated life forms; perhaps even gods.
Fun fact: Aristotle's thoughts on the innate coldness of women strongly influenced Galen in his biological research.
Aristotle: End Notes
When contemplating Aristotle's contributions to science in general and biology in particular, we have to remember that his was not a one-track mind. He was neither a pure philosopher nor strictly a naturalist.
Many scientists operate primarily in one realm of science - physics, chemistry or biology. There are sub-specialities, of course. For instance, a microbiologist, a marine biologist and a botanist all share fundamental knowledge of biology but, critically, for each of them, the others' specialities is alien territory.
They don't exactly operate in a vacuum; they just focused on their particular field. The same cannot be said for Aristotle. He wed philosophy to science and presided over centuries of discovery.
As he observed specimens and recorded their particulars, his mind was awhirl with the broader scientific - and, yes, even philosophical implications of what he discovered. His unique, multi-disciplinary views influenced many of his conclusions - his views on females and people of lower intellect, his belief that everything revolved around the Earth and even the rudimentary classification of species.
Would it be too extreme to say that Aristotle was searching for a unifying theory long before the Theory of Everything became associated exclusively with physics?
Unlike other famous biologists throughout history - Hippocrates, Galen and even Darwin, who were brought to medicine by their fathers, Aristotle had no such guiding hand. Being orphaned relatively young and then being shipped off to school after only a few years with a guardian probably provoked his need to rationalise and understand the natural world.
With no tempering parental influence to target his studies, he was free to question everything... so he did.
Is Aristotle your favourite among all the world's famous biologists? Let us know in the comments section...