The history of biology gives Aristotle a privileged position as the founding father of biology, zoology, systematics, comparative anatomy, and ethology.1 But an illusory idea of the linear development of biological sciences, still active in most reference books, presents Aristotle as “a boring obscurantist, leader of a philosophy that, for centuries to come, would taint the biological sciences”2 and thus removes him from the historical and cultural context in which he worked. In the past three decades this view has been largely overtaken by the now well-established “historical history of science” which, by turning to archaeological finds and primary, unpublished, and archival sources has allowed the traditional view to be redrawn and enabled a correct understanding of the development actually followed by technical and scientific thought. But, as Andrea L. Carbone has so capably argued in the Afterword to the Italian translation he edited of the Historia Animalium, it is still possible to read highly limiting reconstructions of the Stagirite’s work which, in acknowledging him as the founding father of early attempts at systematically classifying living organisms, declares his failure, altering the true scope of his writings by subjecting them to ahistorical standards of reasoning.3 Such reconstructions deny the entire Aristotelian system any solid empirical and experimental basis, highlighting the gap between the formulation of a rigorous theory of scientific argumentation based on demonstration on the one hand and, on the other, Aristotle’s recourse to a set of fanciful notions, to the use of a variety of forms of argumentation which are distant from and unrelated to the axiomatic status of science. As another example of this kind of approach, Carbone cites the Aristotle entry written in 1983 by the Nobel Prize biologist Peter Brian Medawar and Jane Shinglewood Medawar,4 in which Aristotle’s biological works are defined as “a strange and generally speaking rather tiresome farrago of hearsay, imperfect observation, wishful thinking and credulity amounting to downright gullibility”.5
This limited and misleading interpretive position, which is based on the inappropriate imposition of contemporary conceptual grids on a fourth-century B.C. speculative system has been challenged by the extraordinary growth of critical studies and translations of Aristotle’s biological works in the last 40 years, which have shed new and more sympathetic light on them. Over the last decade, Andrea L. Carbone’s own studies and translations of Aristotle’s work6 have made possible the development of a new interpretation of Aristotelian biology which is of particular interest and fascination.
In the book reviewed here, Aristote illustré. Reprèsentations du corps et schématisation dans la biologie aristotélicienne, Carbone demonstrates the existence of pensée visuelle, visual thinking, in the Stagirite’s theoretical and methodological system, which operates alongside discursive thinking and allows him to develop a description of the spatial organization of living bodies. According to Carbone, visual thinking is an observational technique, an ability to see, accompanied by a theoretical structure, which permits an observer to establish a series of complex relationships between the structure and the place of the constituent parts of a body inside the body and the functions they represent – and to consider synoptically the differences that exist between the same parts in different animal species. For this reason, pensée visuelle contributes significantly towards the biological research required by Aristotle both to determine genera through a variety of differences, and to determine the causes of those differences.
A living body, according to Carbone, is defined by Aristotle not as a simple set of component parts, but as a unit made unique by the position of its parts – precisely the kind of differentiation that the modern scientific view assumes in exploring variety among living bodies. It appeals to a body plan, a schematization of the spatial arrangement of the parts that make up living beings, arranged according to polar axes that permit to establish their symmetry, general layout and boundaries, allowing the enumeration of relevant portions and having recursive structures as a particular reference.7 According to Carbone, the systematic schematization of the way in which living beings are organised, and the axonometric definition of a reference model for the comparison of their morphology was developed for the first time by Aristotle. Indeed, in Carbone’s opinion, this constituted his most important contribution to the development of comparative anatomy.
For Aristotle, the human body is a regulatory model for studying the entire living world. His schematization essentially consists of: (a) polar coordinates, known as dimensional axes (right/left, forward/backward, up/down); (b) opposition between center and periphery; and (c) the distinction between different types of parts and regions of the body defined from a spatial and functional point of view. (The latter involves the identification of three organizational levels to classify: (i) the parts of the body: simple elements, homoeomerous and non-homoeomerous parts; (ii) the limbs and major sections – head, neck, trunk, upper and lower extremities; and (iii) the casing needed to contain the components essential for the maintenance of vital functions.) As an example of this Carbone, mentions the use of the geometric concept of point used by Aristotle in zoology. In that content, the concept of point is conveyed with a new meaning centered on the analogy with the point of flexion of the limbs, which Carbone suggests calling an organic point.
This concept expresses better than any other the sense of the schematization present in Aristotle’s work regarding biology, as it clearly provides a more appropriate sense of unity to the living organism, simultaneously unique and diverse like the flexional orientation of an animal’s limbs: concave upper flexion and convex lower flexion in humans; concave lower flexion in birds; and convex upper flexion and concave lower flexion in quadrupeds.8 The book is divided into nine chapters ( Voir les différences, Le regard sur le corps, Les modeles de la schématisation, Découper et diviser, La schématisation du plan d’organisation du corps comme principe de la biologie, La schématisation mise en œuvre: le corps humain comme modèle, La schématisation à l’œuvre: les animaux autre que l’homme, La schématisation à l’œuvre: la marche des animaux, Conclusion: la schématisation et l’unité du vivante).
A suitable Bibliographie, a useful Index Locorum and an essential Table des illustrations conclude the work.
1. In particular, see books VIII (VII) and IX (VIII) of Aristotle’s Historia Animalium.
2. E. Alleva and N. Francia, Prefazione to Aristotele, Vita, attività e carattere degli animali. Historia Animalium libri VIII (VII)-IX (VIII), Italian translation edited by Andrea L. Carbone, Palermo, :duepunti edizioni, 2008, p. i.
3. Aristotele, Vita, attività e carattere degli animali. Historia Animalium libri VIII (VII)-IX (VIII), Italian translation edited byAndrea L. Carbone, Palermo, :duepunti edizioni, 2008.
4. Medawar P.B. – Medawar J.S., Aristotle to Zoos. A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology, Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 28.
5. Andrea L. Carbone, Le radici dell’immaginario zoologico, in Aristotele, Vita, attività e carattere degli animali. Historia Animalium libri VIII (VII)-IX (VIII), Italian translation edited byAndrea L. Carbone, Palermo, :duepunti edizioni, 2008, p. 156.
6. See Andrea L. Carbone, Da Aristotele all’Evo-devo e ritorno, Intersezioni. Rivista di storia delle idee 30 (2010), 27-44.
7. In contemporary evolutionary developmental biology (Evo-devo), one of the main objectives is to understand the genetic basis of morphological evolution, that is, to trace to common ancestors the variety of body plans of distinct taxa, reconstructing an evolutionary history that has resulted in the variety of more recent organic forms from a relatively limited and highly conserved set of genes in a phylogenetic view.
8. For Aristotle the human body is the basic unit as the straight line is in geometry. The organic point ( the point of flexion of the limbs) is for Aristotle a primitive notion as in geometry a spatial point is a primitive notion with reference to which upon other concepts may be defined. The organic point is the crucial element which allows one to recognize in zoology the different living organisms. For example, the convex lower flexion identifies humans, the concave lower flexion identifies birds.