Hudson County Community College Ancient Science Discussion

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Ancient Science (Aristotle)Make a grand argument: what is the difference between theory and practice in ancient science? Which was the most important element of Greco-Roman science: theory or practice?

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History 124: History of
Ancient Science
Dr. Maria Americo
Nota bene: This is an interactive presentation! Questions I’d like you to
help me answer will appear in red!
In-Class Journal
What is the difference between
scientific theory and scientific
practice? (Or any sort of theory
and practice?)
Today we will…
•Continue our discussion of ancient
•Take a closer look at some empirical
practices and research in ancient
•Learn about another important
ancient scientist, Theophrastus…
Theophrastus: Following in
the Footsteps of Aristotle
• Theophrastus (who is reported to have had quite a long life!: 371287 BCE) was born on the island of Lesbos…
• …where, you may recall, Aristotle went during the end of his
period of study with Plato to undertake biological research.
• It is said that the two scientists did research together there, and
that Theophrastus did for botany (the study of plants) what
Aristotle did for the study of animals. One of our Discussion
Master texts is from his Περὶ φυτῶν αἰτιῶν, or On the Causes of
Plants, a work on the growth and properties of plants.
Theophrastus: Following in
the Footsteps of Aristotle
• The two were also colleagues in Athens, where both Aristotle and
Theophrastus studied under Plato at the Academy. Aristotle then
left Athens for a time, but when he returned, he founded his own
school, called the Lyceum. After Aristotle left Athens (for the second
time, because of anti-Macedonian feeling after the death of
Alexander), Theophrastus became the head of the Lyceum.
• Remind us why there might have been some anti-Macedonian
feeling after Alexander’s death?
• And why Aristotle would have cared about that?
The Practice of Ancient Biology
• Last week we focused more on some theories behind Aristotle’s
biology; today we take a closer look at practice.
• Before I share with you some more background about Aristotle,
Theophrastus, and ancient methods of studying and writing about
biology, I’d like to hear your take on it… especially those of you who
have read Aristotle as Discussion Master!
• How did Aristotle “do” biology?
• Think about the kind of information that you find in Aristotle’s Parts
of Animals. How do you think he discovered all of this information?
• Whom do you think such ancient works of biology might have
benefited? What was their audience? For whom were they written?
The Practice of Ancient Biology
• One of the reasons for the survival and popularity of the
works of Aristotle and Theophrastus (especially Aristotle,
of course!) is all the evidence they contain of eyewitness
observations (even including dissections—ask me about
this interesting topic!).
• Could someone help me with examples of evidence for
eyewitness observations from Aristotle?? What did he
say in Parts of Animals that shows he observed the parts
of animals himself?
The Practice of Ancient Biology
• Here is the most frequently cited example showing that
Aristotle practiced dissection of animals. Many scholars
have noted that there’s just no way Aristotle could have
possibly known this much about fish embryos (before their
birth!) had he not dissected them:
“The so-called smooth dogfish have their eggs between [the
parts of] the uterus… If you cut the embryo open, even if it
no longer contains the egg, the nourishment in it is egg-like
in substance. Each embryo has… membranes of its own
around it, just as in quadrupeds.”
The Practice of Ancient Biology
• I will share with you some more famous examples of
empirical biological research in Aristotle and
• Aristotle undertook much of his biological observation on
the Greek island of Lesbos, also studying the marine life in
the island’s lagoon at Pyrrha.
The beautiful island of Lesbos today!
The harbor at Lesbos
The Practice of Ancient Biology
• As we’ve just learned from the quote a few
slides ago, Aristotle reported that the embryo of
the dogfish (which indeed is common on
European coasts) grows inside its mother’s body
attached to a sac like a placenta.
• This was thought to be untrue until verified by a
German zoologist named Johannes Peter Müller
in 1842 (see how long Aristotle’s works
continued to be influential!).
A pregnant dogfish with yolk sac
The Practice of Ancient Biology
• Aristotle also wrote that the mayfly, a summer insect with
a very short lifespan (hence the name!) walks on four legs.
• However, due to a mistranslation of Aristotle’s text, for
centuries people thought he wrote that all flies walk on
four legs (which is not true—most flies have six legs). But
eventually the error was discovered, and Aristotle
vindicated (at least in this instance…)
The mayfly, indeed walking on four legs
The Practice of Ancient Biology: Limits
and Quirky Tendencies
•Theophrastus shows similar eyewitness knowledge of
various types of plants, and is also familiar with their
•However—there were limits to this “empirical” nature
of ancient biology.
1) Even Aristotle made some notable errors, or
neglected to observe or record certain information.
Let’s take a look at a famous example…
The Practice of Ancient Biology:
Limits and Quirky Tendencies
Aristotle famously wrote that all females of all species have fewer
teeth than the males.
• This is not true—even if the female human beings with whom
Aristotle was familiar tended to have fewer teeth than the men he
knew (which would not have been unlikely in antiquity, considering
that women generally had poorer diets than men), if Aristotle had
done some closer observations of animal teeth, he would have seen
that this is not true.
• Why did Aristotle make this mistake? Before I tell you the scholarly
world’s consensus opinion, what do you think??
The Practice of Ancient Biology:
Limits and Quirky Tendencies
•Well, scholars have hypothesized that Aristotle,
because of his well-known belief in the constancy and
purposefulness of nature, tended to generalize from
one species to another:
•if female humans had fewer teeth than male humans,
then it was safe to say (in his opinion) that all female
animals have fewer teeth than their male
•Okay, Aristotle…
The Practice of Ancient Biology: Limits and Quirky Tendencies
2) Our ancient biologists Aristotle and Theophrastus also tended to record
secondhand information they received from others (generally experts of some
kind in their fields, though not always) without testing such information for
• Aristotle consulted with fishermen and beekeepers for some of his
information, professionals we would not today term “biologists,” and whose
knowledge of biology concerned practical, not scientific, purposes.
• Theophrastus, as a colleague of Aristotle (who, you’ll recall, was tutor to
Alexander the Great) got reports from those who had traveled to distant
places with Alexander about plants that grew in the East, such as cotton,
cinnamon, pepper, myrrh, and frankincense, which Theophrastus himself
likely never saw in his life.

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Ancient Science

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