Armand Marie Leroi’s rewarding study of Aristotle’s science

Adam Rutherford in The Guardian:

DownloadIn this lush, epic and hugely enjoyable book, biologist Armand Marie Leroi explores the idea that it was another ancient Greek giant whose shoulders we may all stand upon. In his mid 30s, around 346 BCE, Aristotle exiled himself from Athens to islands in the Aegean, where he spent time thinking and writing about nature, possibly near a lagoon on Lesbos. We primarily know him as a philosopher, but here, Aristotle's biological output was titanic: he dissected dozens of species and compiled the first biology textbook, Historia Animalium. It is this body of work that Leroi argues continues to percolate through scientific thought today.

There's great temptation in analysing historical scholars to suggest that their insights were in some way vatic, or to use that horrid phrase, they were “anticipating” things to come. Leroi does a splendid job of avoiding hagiography of his hero, and never springs that inviting trap. Aristotle's contention that seals are mutated quadrupeds is true in a purely Darwinian sense: they are mammals, evolved from terrestrial four-legged mammals. But Leroi points out that this is not Aristotle's thinking. The idea that mutation from common ancestors was the cause of species is not present in any of Aristotle's work. He was not predicting evolution, nor did he once consider that Darwinian truth.

More here.