113. De partibus animalium (On the parts of animals) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot: Not as all encompassing as Historia animalium, this work examines the internal composition of the parts of animals on three levels – the elemental, the homogenous and the heterogeneous, so perhaps the first writings devoted to histology – the study of the cells, tissues and organs of the body.

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: A more turgid read than the previous works on zoology by Aristotle. The three levels of composition start with the elemental, preserving the concept of earth, fire and air and water as the base constituents of cells. The next higher levels divides organs and tissues into homogenous (all made from the same material) which includes flesh, blood, and most internal organs, and heterogeneous (the eyes, hands, face) made from a variety of materials.

Aristotle can see the overall picture of the skeletal, circulatory and digestive systems, although he only recognises blood as delivering nutrients through the body but not the need for oxygen transport. The heart is the seat of all sensation, with the various senses reporting directly to it. The brain is only a cooling mechanism to stop overheating of the blood, as is the breathing in of air by the lungs.

The various adaptations observed in animals (different beak shapes in birds, presence of tusks/horns in some animals, etc.) are given to them by Nature depending on what the animal needs and can use best – a topsy-turvy way of looking at the evolution of traits. In passing it is interesting that no divine presence is named other than Nature, and yet she is routinely named as the active agent in assigning such characteristics to each species, and I am unclear if Aristotle is using this name in a direct or indirect sense.

Favourite lines/passages:

The ideal start to any book on zoology, pulled from the last chapter of book 1, and worth the price of admission alone:

“Having already treated of the celestial world, as far as our conjectures should reach, we proceed to treat of animals, without omitting, to the best of our ability, any member of the kingdom, however ignoble. For if some have no graces to charm the sense, yet even these, by disclosing to intellectual perception the artistic spirit that designed them, give immense pleasure to all who can trace links of causation and are inclined to philosophy …..  we therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals : every realm of nature is marvelous …. so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful”                                                                              page 168-169

and for sheer fun, something to ponder

“Nature, who makes nothing in vain, has given no eyelids to fishes”                 page 184

Personal rating: Saved from a 2 by the two above quotes. 3.

Next :  Continuing with Aristotle’s biological treatises, On the motion of animals (De motu animalium)

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