Aristotle’s Lantern

At a time when there’s an almost universal attack on the natural world, it helps to remember Aristotle, the fourth century BCE Greek natural philosopher. He remains a model of intelligence to our day.

Aristotle studied all nature, indeed the cosmos. His preference was the natural world, especially animals because, as he put it, we live in their midst.

He urged us to be curious even about the lowest of the animals because all animals are beautiful. They illuminate the why and causes of natural things. Nature is full of purposefulness, he said. There is nothing accidental in animals, fish, wildlife and plants.

There’s both human perfection and almost divine insight in the work of Aristotle. No other scholar or scientist approaches the genius of Aristotle.

He invented zoology as a science while setting the foundations of all other sciences, politics and philosophy.

Aristotle did field studies for several years all over the Greek world, including the island of Lesbos, the home of his best science pupil, Theophrastos.

Aristotle worked with meticulous care, defining, organizing, describing and evaluating animals.

For example: he observed sacks a little larger than grapes coming down the Hypanis River in the Cimmerian Bosporus – the straits linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov – at the time of the summer solstice.

He noticed a winged animal with 4 legs coming out of the sacks. The insect, Aristotle wrote, lives and flies all over until the evening. But with the setting of the sun it dies, living but one day, which is why we call it the ephemeron.

He also studied and reported on the “ichneumon” wasps, which are smaller than typical wasps. These tiny wasps cut the heads off the spiders they kill and then they carry their bodies to a hole in a wall that they smear with mud after they lay their grubs in it. The developing young eat the dead spider bodies and become hunter-wasps.

The biological studies of Aristotle include dozens of such observations.

He studied the life of honeybees, their remarkable organization as societies of extremely useful insects, each honeybee devoted to a specialized function, most gathering nectar and pollen from flowering plants and trees for making honey, others caring for the grubs, and others guarding the hive. Aristotle was impressed by the cleanliness and purpose of honeybees coexisting with humans.

Aristotle also studied the sea urchin. He left us a remarkably accurate and fascinating account of the anatomy and physiology of this secretive animal, using its spines like feet. Aristotle likened the sea urchin to a “lantern” because its surrounding skin is missing. The mouthparts of the sea urchin are still known as Aristotle’s lantern.

Aristotle did not do his studies for the sake of research alone. He often used his data to support his theoretical vision. He admitted that when evidence was not sufficient, he withheld judgment until more observations created the necessary knowledge for the support of theory. He stressed the seminal importance of facts in science, not allowing theories to obscure research unless those theories agreed with the facts.

He was the first who approached nature with a thorough program of empirical research, fully expecting data for an explanation of the phenomena he studied.

He studied something like 500 animals. His keen observations and insights on the embryology, physiology, anatomy and behavior of animals are original and largely accurate. They constitute the greatest contribution any human being has ever made to science. About a third of the surviving Aristotelian texts deal with animals and the natural world. Aristotle had a large footprint on Greek and Western culture, especially science.

Aristotle founded his Lyceum in 335 BCE in Athens. For about thirteen years, 336 to 323 BCE, Aristotle taught hundreds of students the rigors and beauty of science and philosophy. He created a library and a Mouseion in his school.

Mouseion was the house of the goddesses of learning, which Aristotle made into a school of advanced studies in science, philosophy and the natural world. These two great traditions, one of having a library and the other of the Mouseion for the encouragement of scientific studies, made possible the scientific revolution of the Alexandrian era in the third century BCE.

Reading the biological works of Aristotle, one has the impression Aristotle was the precursor of modern biology. “I have rarely read anything which interested me more,” Charles Darwin said about Aristotle’s biological work. “[Carl] Linnaeus and [Georges] Cuvier have been my two gods… but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.”

Linnaeus, 1707-1778, was a Swedish botanist, and Cuvier, 1769-1832, was the French father of modern comparative anatomy and paleontology. They were two of the best scientists of Europe.

Cuvier praised Aristotle to the heavens, making him a benefactor of mankind and one of the immortals. He had no doubt Aristotle, “discovered and demonstrated more truths and did more scientific work, in one life of 62 years than 20 centuries after him.”

No wonder medieval Christians and Arab Moslems adored him. Medieval Christians considered Aristotle “the master of those who know.” And Arab Moslems called Aristotle “the Philosopher.” The first European universities (those of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford) came into being to study Aristotle.

In general, Aristotle was the apotheosis of the scientific and philosophical spirit of the Greeks. The golden age of Greek science, including Euclid and Archimedes, would be inconceivable without his guidance.

It was that Aristotelian tradition of Greek science, and love of nature, that made our world. The time has come to return to the principles of that pro-nature science and civilization.