Plot: A very detailed and thorough textbook of zoology from the 4th century BC. I must confess to reading the first two-thirds but only skimming the last third, but enough to get the gist and write this post.
My copy is from the 2 volumes of the works of Aristotle which form part of the series Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952.
My thoughts: Aristotle must have taken a long time to research and write this work, and it is interesting to see the range of species he had access to for observation and dissection from his base in Greece : elephants, lions, seals, dolphins, bears, bison (the European species obviously), hippopotamus, monkeys, swordfish, crocodiles, sea snakes and chameleons to name the most frequently mentioned just in the opening pages. He also includes the many of the major groups of invertebrates.
I cannot fault the majority of his comments on anatomy – he obviously took great care in his studies, and it seems churlish to mention the occasional mistake amongst such a wealth of knowledge and effort. As he progresses onto more behavioural considerations, more errors arise but generally I was impressed with how much he got right rather than the clangers – he even teeters on the idea of genetics, as he muses on an infinitesimally small organ which can make enormous changes to the animal. He also ventures into theories of biogeography, and ecological strategies such as competition, migration and hibernation, and specific diseases of various species.
“The elephant, which is reputed to enjoy immunity from all other illnesses, is occasionally subject to flatulence” Page 130.
For the modern reader who isn’t fascinated with the accuracy of ancient biological study, the intriguing bits are when Aristotle is completely wrong : the inclusion of the mythical beast the man-eating martichoras (manticore) with the body and legs of a lion, the face of a man with three rows of teeth, and a scorpion tail that can shoot spines like arrows (although in fairness, Aristotle does admit this description is from Ctesias, a Greek physician living in Persia, and hinting that this creature may not be correctly described); or how some creatures are spontaneously generated from leaf litter, slime or dung, fire or snow or rainwater, and not the result of sexual reproduction : the hermit-crab, the eel, various grubs, worms and parasites. And as for nursing human mothers giving forth milk from their armpits as well as their breasts ….????
I also enjoyed his attempts to classify the vast variety of species into some sort of order, largely on their number of limbs and method of giving birth, but succeeding in recognising mammals (although not named as such), birds, fishes, insects, molluscs, crustaceans, etc.
He also seems to waver between chapters in his opinion on whether dolphins and other cetaceans are fish or not, and whether grubs or maggots give rise to adult insects or not, which may lead credence to some belief that part of this was written by other teachers or students at Aristotle’s academy.
“The hyaena … will lie in wait for a man and chase him, and inveigle a dog within its reach by making a noise that resembles the retching noise of a man vomiting. It is exceedingly fond of putrefied flesh, and will burrow in a graveyard to gratify this propensity.” Page 120
“Serpents have an insatiate appetite for wine …. men hunt for snakes by pouring wine into saucers … and the creatures are caught when inebriated” Page 120
“The weasel has a clever way of getting the better of birds, it tears their throats open” page 138
More new words …
Frangible: able to broken into fragments
Wind-eggs : unfertilised birds’ eggs
Personal rating: More read as a curiosity than enjoyment or education, I will give it a 4.
Kimmy’s rating: Dissection in general does not sit well with Kimmy so she politely declines to comment.
Next : De partibus animalium (On the parts of animals) – more zoology by Aristotle.