BMCR 2001.08.18

Biologie. Geschichte der Mathematik und der Naturwissenschaften in der Antike, Band 1

, , Biologie. Geschichte der Mathematik und der Naturwissenschaften in der Antike ; Bd. 1. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1999. 284 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9783515073899. DM 88.00.

This volume on the theories, knowledge and research of biological matters from Homer to late antiquity is the first in an envisioned series on the history of science and mathematics to be published by Steiner Verlag under the editorial leadership of Prof. Georg Wöhrle of the University of Trier. (A second volume on geography edited by W. Huebner appeared in early 2001; three further volumes on mathematics, astronomy, and physics and technology are in preparation.) Its coverage and chronological arrangement suggest that it is intended as a basic handbook, a state-of-the-art survey of the topic that will be of interest to historians of science outside the field of classics as well as to classicists seeking a general introduction to the topic. Most of the contributors are authorities in their fields, who synthesize and explain various lines of inquiry taken by themselves and others, especially in recent decades. As one might expect, the contributions vary quite a bit in originality, ranging from description of the contents of ancient texts to summary of current scholarly consensus to new insights into the nature or purposes of texts or genres. At the same time, a consistent orientation towards Aristotelian biology as well as a set of recurring themes gives the volume a unity. The volume is not targeted to an Anglophone audience: the one contributor from an English university (van der Eijk) writes in German, though two contributions are in French. Therefore, it is likely that among Americans only serious classicists will ever encounter it. Since to my knowledge no equivalent recent book or series on ancient science exists in English, those in need of such an overview will want to consult this volume. Language aside, one might compare the Cambridge companions to authors and topics, the Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy (1999), or the originally Italian volume by M. Grmek translated as Western Medical Theory from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Harvard 1998, also published in German in 1996). Although this volume is probably not destined for translation, it sets a standard for the kind of book that can be useful at the interface between classics and a general intellectual readership.

The book is arranged as eleven articles in an undifferentiated sequence, but Wöhrle’s introductory remarks on the importance of Aristotle, who set the terms for biological inquiry which lasted well into modern times, suggest a natural set of subheadings. The first three contributions (76 pp.) cover the ground from the beginning of recorded Greek thought to Plato, focusing on the Pre-Socratics, the Hippocratic doctors, and Plato’s Timaios. The next three (68 pp.) handle Aristotle and Theophrastus. The remaining five articles (127 pp.) include two on Hellenistic work, two on Roman work in the first century, namely, that of Pliny and Dioscorides, and one final contribution on biology in late antiquity, mostly as embedded in Christian writers. Given that many of the contributors are mapping evidence for biological thought in texts that are not primarily biological in their genre or aim, the most surprising omission from the volume is any real treatment of biological thought in post-Aristotelian medical writers. There are no indices and no general bibliography; most individual authors provide a bibliography, which is of variable length and specificity. I will briefly summarize each of the eleven articles, since each can be consulted as an independent piece, and conclude with further comments on the volume as a whole.

Bernhard Herzhoff (“Das Erwachen des biologischen Denkens bei den Griechen”) discusses selected fragments of Thales, Anaximander, Empedocles and Anaxagoras which show various kinds of “scientific” biological thinking; i.e., they sought unified and generally valid principles to explain the facts of nature without the references to divine forces prevalent in Near Eastern myth. The Milesians developed a “biomorphic” model of the Cosmos; Empedocles and Anaxagoras also enunciate a physics which is basically biological but also look at the construction of individual living bodies; Democritus’ lost αἰτίαι may have been the first properly systematic biological text. Herzhoff’s rich and comprehensive article does not fail to consider, albeit briefly, the background of practical agricultural knowledge probably collected in sub-literary tracts and reflected in the stories about Thales as well as the knowledge presupposed by the audience of Homer.

Philip van der Eijk (“Hippokratische Beiträge zur antiken Biologie”) considers the problems involved in extracting a biology from the varied body of Hippocratic texts composed before systematic biology had been “thematized” but was still embedded in physics and medicine. He explains what the Hippocratics tended to mean by two terms that later became central in biology, φύσις and αἰτία, and surveys the epistemological methods of the doctors and their basic approaches to anatomy, physiology, pathology and embryology. In a few passages, which he notes but does not discuss, we find analogies or catalogues which seem to be relics of a lost, pre-Aristotelian biological literature; it is unclear whether or not this literature presupposed a system of biological classification that Aristotle’s writings eventually eclipsed.

Herwig Görgemanns (“Biologie bei Platon”) situates biological questions within Platonic ontology and epistemology, noting that, although the Theory of Forms minimizes the importance of the world of change in the early and middle dialogues, the theory of soul in Phaedrus as the intermediary between the rational structure of the cosmos and the changeable world opens the door in Timaios to an investigation of the causes in the created world. Identifying four biological themes close to those of van der Eijk—the basic anatomy of humans, the sensory organs, physiological functions, and pathology—he gives a clear exposition of the theories to be found in Timaios and their likely sources and assesses favorably P.’s accomplishment in weaving together insights from the doctors, the atomists and other physicists with his own commitments to teleology and doctrines of soul.

Christian Hünemörder (“Aristoteles als Begründer der Zoologie”) describes the contents of the five Aristotelian texts that are today considered his biological corpus (in distinction to ancient awareness, on which the following contributions have more to say) and focuses on A.’s purposes in the Historia animalium, largely by implicit or explicit contrast with ways in which these have been misunderstood. Although the Historia has been understood since late antiquity as the earliest of A.’s biological works, the collection of facts on which the investigations of causes in the other works were subsequently based, H. argues, from the chronology of A.’s travels to the Troad and Lesbos and from the selection and arrangement of material within the Historia, that it was in fact the latest. Nor was it a mere assemblage of material but was driven by a theoretical purpose, to devise a general system for classifying all animals. It did not aim to provide a comprehensive catalogue of all zoological information known to A. nor does its taxonomic scheme in any sense anticipate the modern scheme devised by Linnaeus. Here H. adds fire to a position already established by Pellegrin and Balme,1 though Pellegrin is not cited and Balme is only in reference to his restoration of the traditional order of the last four books of the Historia. H. argues more briefly against the belief that passages from the Historia can be understood as A.’s endorsement of the scala naturae, an interpretation represented most famously in the American tradition by A. O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being (1936). In contrast to the previous three contributions, this one seems far more invested in promoting a certain thesis about the material than in introducing it.

The importance of this thesis becomes clearer when one turns to the subsequent article by Wolfgang Kullmann (“Aristoteles’ wissenschaftliche Methode in seinen zoologischen Schriften”), the first of two contributions in the volume from this influential, if retired, German authority on Aristotle’s scientific method and works. Reducing arguments laid out more fully in his previously published work,2 K. posits that A.’s biological program was an application of the theories about the structure of a science pronounced in Posterior Analytics : in a preliminary stage (sc. Historia Animalium) the facts were established, and at a second stage (sc. de Partibus Animalium, de Generatione Animalium) the facts were used to derive causes and explanations. K. flatly rejects Balme’s arguments (p.108 n.13) and characterizes Pellegrin’s view of A.’s classification scheme as “anders” (p. 115 n. 26): the reader using this volume as an introduction to A.’s biology is offered no negotiation between the positions represented by Hünemörder and Kullmann but is left to judge the question independently. K. goes on to describe, in his characteristically clear and certain manner, further aspects of A.’s method, including the classification by functional parts, the role of the various “causes” in his explanations, and the ways A. compromises his most general biological principles in the face of contradictory evidence. He concludes with brief summaries and rebuttals of two recent non-traditional interpretations of A.’s biology: the functionalist interpretation inspired by Hilary Putnam, and Frede and Patzig’s theory that A. held a concept of individual biological forms.3

Suzanne Amigues (“Les traités botaniques de Théophraste”) turns us to the botanical work of Theophrastus, whose possible Greek predecessors in the field of botany (writers of Mycenean tablets, Hippocratics, Pre-Socratics, Aristotle) she first considers. After some thoughts on T.’s historical opportunities to observe plants and on the precision and detail of his descriptions, she gives summary accounts of his two great surviving works, Historia plantarum (of which she has published a 3-volume edition) and De causis plantarum, explaining strategies of analysis and principles of organization. In concluding sections, drawing on her previously published articles, she compares T.’s work to modern sciences, not only botany but also ecology and cecidiology (the study of parasites), and discusses its usefulness as material for modern evolutionary biology and the archaeology of ancient craft and technology. Finally, she contrasts T.’s brand of teleology with what she calls the anthropocentrism of Aristotle and suggests (quoting G. Senn) that “Theophrastus abandoned the philosophy of nature and inaugurated the science of nature.” This comprehensive yet engaging introduction to Theophrastus is illustrated with four black-and-white photographs of plants discussed in the text.

Jochen Althoff (“Biologie im Zeitalter des Hellenismus (ca. 322-31 v. Chr.)”) describes the decline of systematic biological thought in Hellenistic times among the Peripatetics and other philosophical schools, namely the Stoics and Epicureans. A. reviews the remnants of four third- and second-century Peripatetics who seemed to interest themselves in collections of biological facts, especially marvelous stories of animals who showed psychological traits of humans, then considers the theories of perception, thinking and reproduction among the Epicureans and Stoics. Subordinated to his discussion of Strato, the last of the Peripatetics treated, is a short section on the Hellenistic doctors Praxagoras, Herophilus and Erasistratus: A. seems to accept the 1893 argument of Diels that Strato may have influenced the Hellenistic doctors’ belief that the soul was centered in the brain, not the heart.4 Otherwise, the rich field of Hellenistic medicine is excluded from A.’s treatment from the outset, apparently because medicine is considered a field different from biology (p.155). One might wonder why philosophy is not also different from biology, especially after Amigues’ remarks on Theophrastus, or why Nicander’s poems on poisons, with which the chapter concludes, are a better source for an implied biology than the fragments of the Hellenistic doctors, which have been so accessibly prepared by von Staden and others.5

Kullmann in his second contribution (“Zoologische Sammelwerke in der Antike,” the single essay in the volume republished from a previous collection),6 gives a persuasive and original account of the reorganization of Aristotle’s biological writings into handbooks organized to serve the Hellenistic readership. Noting that Aristotle refers to his own Historia animalium as a written work, K. characterizes this as the first biological handbook, then goes on to argue that its organization according to characteristics and functional parts of animals rather than by species of animal was unsuited to the readership’s interests in facts about various kinds of animals. Using the surviving Byzantine epitome of the zoological handbook of Aristophanes of Byzantium as the central specimen, K. considers the possibilities regarding the ancient generations of biological handbook, taking us to Pliny, Aelian, and the sermons of Basil and Ambrose and thus setting the course for two of the remaining essays in the volume. Among westerners between the time of Aristophanes and the Latin translations of the Renaissance, K. posits, only Galen made direct use of Aristotle’s own texts. If not for the boundary already established between biology and medicine, one might then be surprised that Galen’s name is hardly mentioned again between the covers of this volume.

Alf Önnerfors (“Biologie in Rom (insbesondere Plinius)”) introduces his outline of the contents of books 7 to 19 of the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder with a brief survey of P.’s unsystematic Roman predecessors in zoological and botanical writings, especially those whose work survives. He then proceeds, book by book, to report and comment on P.’s sources in each case, to list the contents, and to note passages which demonstrate P.’s tendencies in judgment (and skepticism) and compositional techniques, without settling on any single characterization of the work, except that it was encyclopedic. The writings of Juba II of Numidia on “foreign” wild animals are underlined as important among P.’s sources, although P. himself does not acknowledge Juba in his table of sources in book 1.

Alain Touwaide (“La botanique entre science et culture au 1er siècle de notre ère”) uses the text of Dioscorides, of which he has prepared a five-volume edition (published so far as a thesis, but to appear partially in the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum), to argue that both science and non-scientific culture influenced the ways botany was conceptualized in the first century CE, the time of Pliny. T. analyzes the “descripteurs” and “paramètres” by means of which D. describes and distinguishes his plants (which comprise about 80% of the text) and arrives at a multi-leveled structure of the text and the thought behind it, from an evolutionary model at the macro-level, representing an implied scala naturae, to a botanical model, to a therapeutic or practical model at the most local level. Crossing these structures of textual arrangement are structures of cultural hierarchy which assign values to polar oppositions such as female and male, light and dark, foreign and native. Although the values in these oppositions may be reversed from time to time, we can discern overall a kind of “centrisme,” indeed, an “ethnocentrisme.” T.’s analysis can be taken to support his opening claim that D. was not essentially a medical writer but (since botanical arrangement supervenes over pharmacological arrangement) was equally a naturalist, botanist, zoologist, etc.; his identity as a medical writer was a post-Galenic reading, sealed by the illustrations in the sixth-century Vienna manuscript of his περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς (T. argues that the title is also late). Furthermore, T. claims at the end of his lengthy contribution, the work was composed not in books, but as a continuous assemblage of independently composed passages (“fiches”) whose descriptors and parameters determine their place in the overall scheme; the systematic introductions to the books, which have helped to convince scholars that the divisions are organic, were added by a later editor. This is one of the most challenging and original pieces in the volume, even if one’s immediate feeling is that it is out of step with the other contributions.

Sabine Föllinger (Biologie in der Spätantike) concludes the volume with a survey of the biological knowledge embedded in a number of late-antique texts, especially Christian writers. (The Physiologus and medical and veterinary writers such as Oribasius and Pelagonius are mentioned briefly.) F. highlights themes such as the distribution of intelligence along the scala naturae, teleology, and the nature of reproductive seed and the possibility of asexual reproduction in her discussion of tracts and homilies on the first chapters of Genesis (i.e., the Hexaemeron), the creation, and the nature of man, primarily those of Basil, Nemesius, Ambrose, Augustine and John Philoponus. She introduces the term “break-off formula” (Abbruchformel) to signify the strategy whereby an author rejects further scientific inquiry or explanation into a difficult problem or phenomenon in deference to divine mystery and notes its use across the corpus. This deference to divine mystery, together with whatever causes underlie the Hellenistic epitomizing of Aristotle’s books, explains the lack of development in biological thinking in late antiquity. The lingering mystery of this volume for this reviewer, as I have several times suggested, is its omission of the Hellenistic doctors, Galen, and indeed the late antique doctors and veterinarians whose texts e.g. Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, Föllinger’s and Althoff’s colleague in Mainz, has elucidated in recent years.7 Hints are dropped each time a contributor justifies either the inclusion (van der Eijk, Touwaide) or the exclusion (Althoff, Föllinger) of medical texts: it seems that “practical” or “applied” science is different from pure science, at least once pure science has come to be. Yet the purely scientific ancient texts on biology are few, as the contributors frequently note, and studying texts in a genre of applied science does not restrict one to studying applied science any more than studying philosophical or poetic texts restricts one to studying philosophy or poetry (and in the sense that this limitation does exist, most of the contributors have already committed the error). Perhaps the exclusion of post-Aristotelian medicine is to be explained merely by the previous existence of Grmek’s volume mentioned above and several times referenced by the present authors (though it includes only one German contributor, Gotthard Strohmaier of Berlin, who covers the Arab and Byzantine worlds). At any rate, no separate volume on medicine is planned for this series. The range of Hermann Diels, who traveled easily from philosophy to medicine to philosophical poetry and remains a giant in the history of at least the former two fields, seems not to be an important precedent today, when most scholars of ancient medicine specialize in that and most others leave it to them.

Although individual chapters in this book differ greatly in tone, specificity and originality, and all can stand alone as independent pieces, the reader who takes in the book from cover to cover will appreciate both the consistency and the variety in the recurrence of several themes. The nature of biological classification comes up in many of the articles, often in contrast to the modern, Linnaean binomial system. Several authors explicitly compare and contrast ancient and modern science also in other ways, though usually with reference to Darwin or evolutionary theory. The idea of a scala naturae is discussed in different contexts and under different guises; concepts of anthropocentrism and teleology and theories of soul and reproduction also recur. The careful reader will notice conflicting positions among the authors, not only on the order of Aristotle’s biological corpus, but on, for example, the interrelations of science and philosophy or the intellectual connections between one writer and another. In the worst case such conflicts might confuse a newcomer to the subject, but in the best case they serve as stimuli to further thought and research. For almost all topics, even the medical topics which are held aside, the book offers enough footnotes and bibliography to initiate a deeper study. These are not well organized for quick reference, but they are there for those who read through the book.


1. P. Pellegrin, La classification des animaux chez Aristote (Paris 1982), trans. by A. Preus as Aristotle’s Classification of Animals (Berkeley 1986); D. Balme, “The place of biology in Aristotle’s philosophy,” in A. Gotthelf and J. G. Lennox edd., Philosophical issues in Aristotle’s biology (Cambridge 1987) 9-20, repeated in his introduction to the Loeb edition of History of Animals. Books VII-X (1991). Compare also James G. Lennox, Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science (Cambridge 2001), reviewed by R. Sharples, BMCR 01.06.12.

2. Especially Wissenschaft und Methode (Berlin 1974) and Aristoteles und die moderne Wissenschaft (Stuttgart 1998).

3. M. C. Nussbaum and H. Putnam, “Changing Aristotle’s Mind,” in M. C. Nussbaum and A. O. Rorty edd., Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima (Oxford 1992) 27-56; M. Frede and G. Patzig, Aristoteles Metaphysik Z. Text, Übersetzung und Kommentar, 2 vol. (Munich 1988).

4. H. Diels, “Über das physikalische System des Straton,” Sitzungsberichte der Kgl. Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 1893, 101-127 (repr. in Kleine Schriften (Hildesheim 1969); argument rejected by L. Repici, La natura e l’anima: Saggi su Stratone di Lampsaco (Turin 1988), whom M. Vegetti follows in Grmek, ed., Western Medical Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, MA 1998), p. 81 and p. 366 n. 33.

5. Especially H. von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria (Cambridge 1989). Althoff does refer to von Staden, to Steckerl’s edition of the fragments of Praxagoras (Leiden 1958), to Vegetti’s article as in n. 4, and to F. Solmsen, “Greek Philosophy and the Discovery of the Nerves,” Museum Heleveticum 18 (1961) 150-197.

6. Originally in W. Kullmann, J. Althoff, M. Asper edd., Gattungen wissenschaftlicher Literatur in der Antike (ScriptOralia Bd. 95) (Tübingen 1998) 121-139.

7. Much of Fischer’s work is textual, or very specialized. Föllinger’s bibliography includes what are probably his most accessible articles, entries in R. Herzog’s handbook of Latin literature (Munich 1989) on Pelagonius, the so-called Mulomedicina Chironis, the so-called Medicina Plinii, and medical literature in general.