Review: The Lagoon by Armand Marie Leroi

The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science

by Armand Marie Leroi

New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2014.

512 pp. $29.95 (hardcover).

In the study of history, one is often pleasantly surprised to find that the genius of some of mankind’s greatest thinkers cannot be contained by the limits of one field. Biographies often reveal that beneath the image of a master scientist was also a skilled businessman; within the novelist was a profound political thinker; or behind the statesman was a creative inventor. In The Lagoon, author Armand Marie Leroi challenges us to consider one such legacy and to look at one of history’s greatest thinkers in a new light as he relates to us the story of Aristotle—mankind’s first scientist.

Widely recognized alongside Plato as one of the most important philosophers in human history, Aristotle is emblematic to students of philosophy with a belief in the power of reason and a positive, efficacious view of man as a being capable of knowing and mastering the world around him. The ways in which Aristotle’s philosophy diverges from those of his predecessors, developing for the first time a conscious and formalized system of logic, establish the prerequisites for science. Leroi’s book, however, convincingly makes the case that Aristotle’s studies of the anatomy of plants and animals entitle him to credit for not only articulating the logical principles that make science possible but for originating science itself.

In studying Ancient Greek thought on any subject—science, politics, religion, etc.—it is often difficult to appreciate the radical novelty of ideas that would seem to us commonplace, even self-evident. Great writers on that era are almost invariably those who can place their readers in the shoes of these thinkers as they lay the foundations of philosophy and intellectual pursuits. Leroi does this skillfully, detailing for his reader the intellectual chaos from which Aristotle’s scientific thought emerged.

“Aristotle not only produced a new system of explanation [of the world], but also applied it. His predecessors viewed the world as if from Olympus. It lay far below them blurred by distance or obscured entirely by mist, and speculation filled in what they could not see. Aristotle, however, went down to the shore. He observed, applied his causes to his observations and wove them together in the books that make up his Great Course in Zoology . . . By the time he was done matter, form, purpose, and change were no longer the playthings of speculative philosophy but a research programme.” (p. 92)

The lagoon from which the book draws its name is a small one, set on the Greek isle of Lesvos, where Aristotle first set out to catalog and compare the various species of marine life he found drawn in by the tides to mate or feed. There, Leroi tells us, he proceeded to spend his days collecting, examining, and even dissecting every species he could gather: shellfish, octopus, cuttlefish (for which he had a distinct affinity), and many more. As his research expanded, Aristotle would examine dozens of species—marine and land, animal and plant. In the process, through the conscious application of an analytical method to the great questions of life, Aristotle was gradually cultivating the approach of a natural scientist in a manner that set his findings far above those of any Greek thinker before him. Leroi explains,

“Aristotle . . . faced the problem of securing causal knowledge from observation, but he faced it alone. Behind him lay generations of speculative theories about the causes of the natural world; at his feet stretched the world itself. He saw, and saw as no one before him had, the need for a way to connect them. So he developed one . . . In Book I of Historia animalium . . . he says, we have to get the facts about the different features of animals, then we have to work out their causes. Doing things in that order, he continues, will make the subject and target of our demonstrations clear. It seems like a rather banal introductory statement. It isn’t. For, when Aristotle talks of ‘demonstration’, he means an intellectual structure . . . whose foundations are sunk in metaphysical bedrock and whose pillars are constructed of steely formal logic. He means his scientific method.” (p. 123)

Leroi’s ultimate verdict on Aristotle qua father of science is favorable, but to merely accept that conclusion and set the book down is to forego a great experience. Leroi is frank in his appraisals, giving a full portrayal of the philosopher’s scientific work—the good (his recognition of the purposeful nature of biological processes and their synchronization into ever broader systems), the mixed (his writings on embryology and inherited traits, which suffer from several arbitrary, almost mystical ideas inherited from earlier philosophers), and the bad (his frequent, indiscriminate presentation of fantastical rumors about mythical species alongside empirical evidence on observed specimens). Even in his criticisms, however, Leroi cannot hide his respect for Aristotle’s passion and genius. Those who ascribe to Aristotle’s philosophical views will no doubt enjoy his sharp critiques of Plato and his contrasts of the two men’s works. “Plato,” Leroi writes, “invites us to the world of abstractions, Aristotle to the world of tangible things . . . [A]pprehension, Aristotle says, is the gift of reason and the beginning of science. It is also where true beauty lies.” (p. 378)

To look at his biography, Leroi, a professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College in London, might seem a likely candidate to write the sort of intellectually valuable but esoteric prose that too often walls off good non-fiction books from the general public. The Lagoon, however, is anything but. With elegant, witty writing and a fast-paced structure, the book is easy to be captivated by, and the reader is likely to find himself repeating the words ‘just one more chapter’ time and again before it is through. Leroi’s accounts of his journeys to the same sites where Aristotle first conducted his studies give a personal touch to the work, and the author’s fascination with both Aristotle and his scientific research are inspiring.

If The Lagoon can be said to have flaws, it is only when held up to the most discriminating standards. As he details Aristotle’s findings and explores the good and bad in his research, one begins to feel that Leroi’s fascination with the scientific questions that Aristotle addresses starts to divert from his focus on the central theme of the work. He departs for too long from the historical, philosophical question of whether Aristotle can truly be called the first scientist, tending repeatedly back toward investigations of particular errors in Aristotle’s biology and zoology—points that are intriguing but somewhat peripheral to his case. The layman to evolutionary biology learns a great deal in the course of Leroi’s analyses but at the cost of some of the momentum built up in the first half of the book. Nonetheless, this is a mild criticism that the book more than compensates for in its other virtues.

The Lagoon is a pleasure to read and should be welcomed by scholars and amateurs in philosophy, science, history, and classics. In reading about a figure whose life and works have been written of for centuries, it is refreshing to find that there is still so much about Aristotle to be told and admired. Given the story of how a heroic subject undertook and accomplished an intellectual feat that would change man’s way of understanding the world in which he lives, perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Leroi is: he has done his subject justice.


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