Aristotle was the Father of Zoology

Jan 18, 2010Updated 8 months ago

After Plato’s death in 347 BC Aristotle went to the Greek island of Lesvos where he was captivated by the wildlife. He studied the animal life in and around the lagoon, while his friend, Theophrastus, worked on the plants.

Aristotle’s History of Animals

  • Aristotle investigated things for himself, often dissecting animals to try to understand how they worked (sometimes while they were still living!), and ‘History of Animals’ covers over 500 species.
  • Aristotle organised his observations into topics such as: body parts, reproductive methods and breeding habits, feeding, habitat, hibernation, and migration. This was a revolutionary idea at the time.

Spontaneous Generation of Maggots and Eel

While most of what Aristotle said has stood the test of time, he got at least one thing spectacularly wrong – he believed in spontaneous generation.

  • Aristotle thought that maggots grew out of rotting flesh, and then turned into flies and flew away. If it had occurred to him that the flies might have laid eggs on the meat he could have discovered the truth by simple experiment – but this was long before the familiar ‘scientific method’ was invented.
  • Aristotle also thought that eels grew out of the muddy bottoms of lakes, but this misunderstanding would have been much more difficult for him to sort out. It was not until the nineteenth century that it was realised that European Eels only develop their ovaries (or testes) when they return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. Aristotle did actually dissect eels, and when he found that they did not have ovaries or testes, he fell back on the idea of spontaneous generation.

Aristotle’s Lagoon on Lesvos

Armand Marie Leroi narrated a documentary on BBC TV (Jan 2010) about Aristotle’s contribution to biology. He visited Lesvos and the lagoon, and interviewed Greek scholars.

Leroi pointed out that: “Everyone knows him (Aristotle) as the father of logic and philosophy, but people forget that he was the father of biology too”, and he quoted Charles Darwin as saying: “Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys (compared) to old Aristotle.”

The documentary ended with a look at the lagoon environment as it is today, with the effects of overfishing, industrial pollution, and global climate change each having a dramatic effect.

It is ironic that the place where Aristotle invented zoology should be suffering so much from mankind’s modern indifference to the needs of the environment.

Main reference: Aristotle’s ‘ History of Animals ’ - Google Books