BMCR 2001.06.12

Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science

, Aristotle's philosophy of biology : studies in the origins of life science. Cambridge studies in philosophy and biology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xxiii, 321 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0521650275 $22.95.

Jim Lennox is one of a group of scholars who in the second half of the twentieth century have put our understanding of Aristotle’s biological works, and of his conception of biology as a science, on a firmer foundation than it has been since antiquity. In ch.5, ‘The Disappearance of Aristotle’s Biology: a Hellenistic Mystery’, L. argues that no one after Theophrastus and before Albert the Great grasped what Aristotle was trying to do—not even Galen, which L. rightly suggests should give us pause before using him as a source for writers whose works are now lost. As L. emphasises, many biologists since Albert have learned from Aristotle’s practice in scientific enquiry. It took longer for those whose primary concern was to study Aristotle himself to appreciate what he was doing in the biological works. The present volume, which includes thirteen of L.’s papers, is important not only for specialists in the history of science but also to students of Aristotle in general because of the connections between Aristotle’s biology and his physics (in relation to chance and the spontaneous) and his metaphysics. The bringing together of the papers into a single volume not only makes them easier to consult but also highlights L.’s distinctive views and contributions and brings with it the benefit of a single subject-index. One paper (ch.7, ‘Kinds, Forms of Kinds, and the More and Less in Aristotle’s Biology’) is new, though drawing on earlier work (cf. p.160 n.). In addition, the volume develops L.’s views in a short general introduction and in a systematic introduction to each group of papers.

The papers are divided into three groups. The first group, “Inquiry and Explanation” (chs. 1-5) considers the relation between Aristotle’s account of scientific understanding in the Posterior Analytics and his actual practice in the zoological works. Pierre Pellegrin has argued1 that the Historia Animalium is to be understood not in terms of a Linnaean-type classification of animals by genera and species, a goal which it signally fails to achieve and clearly had no intention of achieving, but as an investigation of the characteristics that differentiate living creatures, for example, different means of respiration or of defence. L., along with Allan Gotthelf,2 argues (ch.1, ‘Divide and Explain: the Posterior Analytics in Practice’; ch.2, ‘Between Data and Demonstration: the Analytics and the Historia Animalium; ch.4, ‘Putting Philosophy of Science to the Test: the Case of Aristotle’s Biology’) that this investigation is undertaken by Aristotle with a view to correlating different features so that some may function as co-extensive middle terms in the syllogistic explanation of the others, in the way prescribed in the Posterior Analytics; for example, deer alone shed their horns because deer alone have solid horns (28). It is this, L. argues (63), that explains why certain creatures with unusual features are mentioned repeatedly but only for those features.

This interpretation of the relation between the Analytics and what actually happens in the zoological treatises has not been universally accepted, and L. in the introduction to this volume rightly recognises that the fit between the two is not exact (xxii-xxiii). He observes that Aristotle faced a mismatch between, on the one hand, biological inquiry and, on the other, a philosophy of science based in Platonic fashion on mathematics, a mismatch not unlike that between biology and modern philosophy of science based on physics (108-109). His response is to point out (5-6) that even in the case of mathematics Aristotle’s point is not that proofs are or should be expressed syllogistically, only that the claims they make and the reasons they give are of such a sort that they could in principle be expressed syllogistically. One might then think that the common description of the Analytics as an account of scientific method should be replaced by its description as a philosophy of scientific enquiry (cf. L. 4-5); but the relationship between theory and practice is methodological in the sense that the theoretical structure influences the search for correlations (cf. 30-31). Perhaps then we should just insist that “method” need not imply a detailed prescription to be followed mechanically. Important too is L.’s emphasis on the need to consider the Posterior Analytics as a whole and not just the theory of demonstration in its first six chapters (41). The concern for explanation marks the difference between dialectical problems and problems in scientific enquiry (ch.3, ‘Aristotelian Problems’, at 77-82).

The second main section, “Matter, Form, and Kind” (chs.6-9), examines the ontological status of animal species for Aristotle. L.’s answer to the question posed in the title of ch.6, ‘Are Aristotelian Species Eternal?’, is carefully nuanced. Aristotle rejects the coming into existence of new species (154-156); further, his view that mortal creatures achieve a sort of eternity through reproduction carries with it the implication of a distinction between features essential to membership of the species and the incidental features of individual members, for it is, arguably, only the former and not the latter that can be preserved forever through reproduction.

It might seem that the points in the preceding paragraph already imply that the form of (e.g.) human being is eternal, existing forever through the succession of individuals in which it is instantiated. L. however argues rather that it is the members of a kind that achieve eternity in form though not as individuals (146). As L. notes, it is the genos —and not the eidos —of human beings that exists for ever (134-135).3 The form of an enmattered compound is thus for L. not itself the sort of thing concerning which the question whether or not it is everlasting is appropriate; similarly, “forms cannot be said to be numerically one or one in any other way; rather…forms are what make natural and artificial objects one, both numerically and formally” (142: emphasis mine in the first clause, L.’s in the second).

L. follows Balme in rejecting “essentialism” for Aristotle if essentialism is understood in Neoplatonic fashion in terms of eternally existing forms, albeit enmattered ones (127); but in recognising the fixity of species (155) his Aristotle recognises a distinction between what is essential and what is not (cf. also 173, “he maintains the notion of sub-groups within kinds which are formally identical, which I take to be a sort of essentialism”: emphasis L.’s.), though rightly insisting that the dividing line between what is essential and what is not cannot be specified in general and abstract terms (144-146, 174-177). In particular (ch.7), variations in degree may both distinguish kinds and be found within kinds, at any level of generality, and this is why the features that identify a kind and those that distinguish its sub-kinds are not arbitrary and not unrelated to one another (169).

In ch.8, ‘Material and Formal Natures’, L. argues that ‘nature’ as an explanatory principle in Aristotelian biology includes both formal and material nature—the latter being neither completely derivable from the former nor related to it only contingently (183)—but not nature as a separate agent distinct from these; the claim that “nature does nothing in vain” is a general principle (indeed, as ch.9 ‘Nature does Nothing in Vain’ argues, a first principle of biological inquiry, in the Posterior Analytics‘ sense of a first principle) that applies to the operation of the formal natures of things (183-184), not an account of the behaviour of some cosmic force.

The third section, “Teleological Explanation” (chs. 10-13) continues the theme of the last chapter of the previous section. But while that was concerned with the status of teleology as a principle of enquiry, the essays in part 3 are concerned with the extent and nature of teleology in Aristotle’s thought. In ch.10, ‘Teleology, Chance, and Aristotle’s Theory of Spontaneous Generation’ L. attempts to reconcile Aristotle’s belief in the spontaneous generation of some lower types of animal with his account of “spontaneous” happenings (those due to to automaton) in Physics 2, the problem (237) being (a) that spontaneous generation occurs regularly and (b) that it produces distinct types of creature, not those that are also produced by sexual (or asexual: 232) generation from a parent. L. replies to (a) by pointing out that even if the generation occurs regularly its precise cause will be different in each case (242), and to (b) by arguing that even if (e.g.) sea urchins are for Aristotle always produced spontaneously, still the production is something that might have happened in a non-spontaneous way in so far as the generation of living creatures generally happens in a non-spontaneous way. L. indeed then goes on to say that for Aristotle to claim that certain kinds of creatures are regularly produced spontaneously weakens his own argument against Empedocles’ view that living creatures arise by chance (243). But may we not defend Aristotle by pointing out that he does have the other paradigm cases of natural generation to appeal to, as in the reply to (b) above, while Empedocles, interpreted as arguing that all natural generation is by chance, does not have this opportunity? Ch. 11, ‘Aristotle on Chance’, considers the treatment in Physics 2.4-6 of chance events as “for the sake of something” (reiterated, it may be remarked, by Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Fate IV 168.18), and argues that it is to be defended, not with Porphyry by arguing that the chance event was for the sake of something other than the actual result, but with Simplicius that it is “the sort of thing that is typically achieved by goal-directed activity” (256). It follows that als ob teleology applies not to the products of nature but to those of chance (251, 258).

In ch.12, ‘Theophrastus on the Limits of Teleology’, L. argues that Theophrastus in the last chapter of his Metaphysics is criticising the implausibility of some of Aristotle’s teleological explanations, and his use of the principle that nature arranges things in the most honourable way, but insists (cf. 226-227 here, rejecting misinterpretations of the paper when first published) that Aristotle does not apply such explanations to all biological phenomena without distinction. Finally, ch.13, ‘Plato’s Unnatural Teleology’, shows that Aristotle is fundamentally opposed to Plato’s understanding of nature on the analogy of craft production (cf. xxi).4 It was a teleology that was based in natural theology and ultimately Platonist in origin that formed the background to Darwin’s thought (228, 281); Aristotle and Darwin are, L. argues, closer together on the issue of teleology than is commonly thought.5 As L. states in his introduction (xx), to understand Aristotle we need to think away both the connection between teleology and divine agency and the “Christian-Cartesian” (and perhaps also itself ultimately Platonist?) contrast between “inert material body and active, immaterial soul”.

One minor criticism:6 no bibliographical details—not even dates of publication—are given for the papers that have been previously published, only an acknowledgement to the publishers by name (and, in the case of ch. 1, where the previous publisher was also Cambridge University Press, not even that). Those who know, for example, that Academic Printing and Publishing are the publishers of Apeiron or Transaction of Rutgers Studies will at least have a starting-point for identifying the original locations, but it is hard to see why the full details have not been given. In the interests of historical accuracy those who cite the papers will want to give the original publication dates; and, even though the book transcends the original separate articles both by the very fact of bringing them together and by providing systematic introductory discussions, nevertheless, in the practical conditions of university life, where libraries contain both journals and books and the number of students always exceeds the number of available copies, teachers will want to refer in bibliographies both to the original article and to the reprint.

In sum, this collection of papers will be essential reading and an essential resource for everyone interested in Aristotelian biology both for the new and revised material it contains and because of the ease with which it makes it possible to consult L.’s work. I shall certainly be adding it to the reading lists for courses both on Greek Science and on Aristotle and be referring to it regularly in my own research.


1. P. Pellegrin, Aristotle’s Classification of Animals (transl. A. Preus). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

2. A. Gotthelf, ‘ Historiae I: Plantarum et animalium‘, in W.W. Fortenbaugh and R.W. Sharples, eds., Theophrastean Studies. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1988 ( Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities, 3) 100-135.

3. genos is not to be understood here as a Linnaean genus contrasted with its subordinate species, any more than it is to be so understood elsewhere in Aristotle’s biology, as L. emphasises at 64.

4. One may however question L.’s claim (291-292) that necessity in the Timaeus is always subordinate to purpose; cf. the reference in 81bd to the weakness of the fundamental triangles. And while Republic 530a6 refers indeed to the divine craftsman who produced the heaven, it may be questioned whether any of the passages from Republic 10 cited at 300 n.28 have the same reference; they refer either to a supposed divine producer of the Forms (597bc) or to the imitative artist (596ce; tonde in 596b12 refers forward to 596c2, not back to 596b9-10).

5. L. refers in this connection to his paper ‘Darwin was a teleologist’, in Biology and Philosophy 8 (1993) 409-422; perhaps it would have stretched the scope of the present book too far (and at least necessitated a change in title), but one might wish, especially since the book appears in a series Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology, that this and some of the other papers by L. cited in the bibliography had also been included. Significantly, L. suggests that Theophrastus’ criticisms of Aristotle may have relevance to the dangers of circularity in present-day evolutionary explanations (260, 272, 275)—while also noting that “some of Aristotle’s” (ancient) “admirers, like some of Darwin’s, had a tendency to throw the teleological baby out with the panglossian bathwater.”

6. I also noted a very few misprints. At 124 n.10 “Matlock 1967” should presumably be “Mattock 1987”. In 221 n.9 “caveates” should be “caveats”. At p.286, 9 lines up, “feature” should be “features”.