“Heraclitus once said that ‘Nature loves to hide.’ Not from Aristotle. He writes as though nature is living next door and running a taverna.” This summary judgment—at once engaging, elegant, and thoughtful—typifies Armand-Marie Leroi’s The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (Viking-Penguin, 2014). Equal parts pilgrimage, idyll, and polemic, The Lagoon is a marvelous invitation to think about questions of philosophical and scientific method that are both perennial and highly contemporary.
Leroi’s journey begins in a used bookstore in Athens, where years ago he stumbled upon the History of Animals in D’Arcy Thompson’s translation. An evolutionary biologist by trade, Leroi was soon captivated. Aristotle, he writes, “had evidently walked down to the shore, picked up a snail, asked ‘what’s inside?’; had looked, and had found what I found when, twenty-three centuries later, I repeated the exercise.” Sharing with Aristotle a common interest in aquatic life and common experiences of the Aegean Sea and its islands, Leroi knew he had found a friend, one who was similarly moved by nature’s intelligible beauty. “It seems possible,” he tells us, “that something might be gained from reading him as a fellow biologist.” Read him he did, the whole biological corpus and many of his other works besides, and with humility. “This is a cautionary tale,” Leroi warns, “to determine the veracity of Aristotle’s observations would take a squadron of zoologists, deeply versed in his thought and able to read ancient Greek, many years.”
This book is the record of his attempt at that task. It is named The Lagoon in honor of the Kalloni estuary on the island of Lesbos where Aristotle did much of his own first-hand observational work, and where Leroi followed in his footsteps, collecting amid sand and tide, chatting with fishermen, sampling the offerings of fish taverna, and conversing with Greek experts on the local flora and fauna. Although the book is organized thematically by topic as Leroi progressively explores Aristotle’s biological thought, it is interspersed throughout with tales about the animals of Lesbos, and beautifully adorned by an illustrator who has imitated Renaissance folios in the attempt to communicate something of the wonder of these creatures. There is most appropriate admiration here, both for nature and for the achievement of nature’s first great student: “To go down to the quay of one of the villages that dot the shores of Kalloni on a spring morning is to see Historia animalium spring to life.”
The Lagoon is more than wandering and wondering, it is also an argument. Aristotle is defended against the Bacons and Descartes of the world who absurdly dismissed his inquiry into nature as “the boyhood of knowledge” and so many unclear and indistinct ideas. Aristotle’s patient labor of cataloguing, dissecting, and arranging his findings cannot be so easily dismissed, and Leroi even provides an appendix in which he translates some of those findings into the kinds of charts and graphs recognizable from today’s textbooks. He admires his hero’s empirical achievement so much that he cannot resist the occasional jab at Plato’s expense: “The Timeaus is a drawing-room monologue that delivers, with bland assurance, one implausible assertion after another.”
Just where the argument of The Lagoon is meant to take the reader, however, is somewhat difficult to say. Part of Leroi’s animus against Plato stems from his status as the ancestor of intelligent design arguments, from William Paley’s to those of the present day. He admirably conveys Aristotle’s understanding of the organism as a self-regulating whole, and he rightly bristles at the thought that each organism is an artifact or machine that owes its form and functioning to an extrinsic maker. Moreover, he successfully communicates Aristotle’s conviction that the form of the living thing is the proximate cause of its life and activity. Yet his own preoccupations carry him to a place where some readers will think he has departed from what the text allows him to say: “From fourth-century Attica to twenty-first-century Kansas, the Argument from Design has never lost its appeal. Aristotle and Darwin, however, share the more unusual conviction that though the organic world is filled with design, there is no designer.” And again: “When Aristotle speaks of the divine he is not … invoking a divine craftsman for none exists; rather, he is telling us that immortality is a property of divine things and that reproduction makes animals a little bit divine.”
However much they may admire Leroi’s determination to “reopen the investigation” of the “antique accusations” of Aristotle’s irrelevance and confusion, some readers will think him to have faltered in his attempt. It is on the heights of the ascent to the knowledge of God that Aristotle climbs ahead and Leroi is unable to follow. He seems, like many before him, to have been dazzled by Aristotle’s description of God as thought thinking itself. He finds it appealing, even beguiling, but he badly misunderstands it. “This is a God who knows neither love nor hate, who neither creates nor destroys, who does not save, condemn or even judge; this is a God utterly indifferent to Earthly affairs, yet upon whom, ironically, the very existence of the universe depends.” Aristotle’s God, to Leroi, is “the life of reason” perhaps even “the scientific life,” and he suggests, revealingly, that he “cannot help but think” that Aristotle “did not so much search for God as reconstruct Him in his own image.” But are we really to admire Aristotle for his relentless pursuit of the knowledge of the causes of things and yet think him to have been persuaded by such an account or liable to such self-deception? It is a dull mind that is unaware of and unconcerned about the things that it has brought into being. Is Leroi indifferent to the fate of the child of his mind, this book?
Leroi, however, ought not to be slighted for his inadequate reading of the Metaphysics: dozens of other commentators have lost their way in those high places. Yet one suspects that he may have made his assault on the summit without enough conditioning at lower altitudes. For instance, he credits Aristotle with the invention of the demonstrative syllogism, but half-heartedly, saying that “it was his greatest technical achievement and dominated the subject for millennia even if it was incomplete and, in parts, wrong.” Now, the point may indeed be argued, but it ought to be argued well. On the following page, Leroi offers a syllogism of his own:
All lake sticklebacks lack pelvic spines;
All sticklebacks that lack pelvic spines have a Pitx1 mutation, therefore,
All lake sticklebacks have a Pitx1 mutation.
The argument is valid, but Leroi incorrectly writes that “Aristotle would point to the middle term of the syllogism—the Pitx1 mutation—as the causal link.” But the Pitx1 mutation—causal link or no—is not the middle term of this syllogism, because it is not the term common to the two premises or propositions; it is in fact the major term, for it is the predicate of the conclusion. Should such an error be sharply censored? Perhaps not, but then again, when one is attempting to take the measure of Aristotle’s mind, one should be fully aware of the requirements of the task.
The argumentative shortcomings of The Lagoon are not limited to the form taken by demonstrations. Aristotle asked the question “what is life?,” says Leroi, and, he continues, “At first he gives the conventional list of properties: ‘By life we mean the capacity for self-nourishment, growth and decay.’ But that doesn’t really capture the terms in which he analyses the problem. He’s after a much more abstract description of what it is that separates the living from the dead. His deeper answer is that living things, uniquely, have a soul.” There is much of merit in Leroi’s ensuing discussion of the principle of life, but the small error at the beginning here is a telling one. Leroi has seemingly missed that Aristotle began by identifying how we speak about life, what we say the word “life” means. Only after he had answered that question did he then ask what is life’s cause. Indeed, some contemporary followers of Aristotle will likely be frustrated by Leroi’s failure—here and elsewhere—sufficiently to attend to the meaning of the terms he employs and the mode in which we human beings come to understand things.
These shortcomings, though real, are not offered in an attempt to dissuade potential readers from making the journey to The Lagoon, which is simply an astonishing achievement. For an evolutionary biologist to admit that he longs to “see the world afresh” and that he has picked up Aristotle in an attempt to do so is not much shy of a miracle. All that is left to hope for is that he will realize that Aristotle stands on higher ground and continues to beckon him to ascend to a still more capacious and satisfying view.
Editor’s note: This review first appeared January 29, 2015, on the AD Gentes page of the Augustine Institute website.