115. On the Generation of Animals (De Generatione Animalium) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Aristotle now goes into more detail on the reproductive anatomy, behaviour, embyrology, and development of animals.

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:  I might mention in passing that I have given each of my Aristotle posts the Latin name of the work as well as the English. Of course Aristotle was Greek, but the works are well known since Roman times by scholars using these titles. They also have  a numerical cataloguing system called Bekker numbers which indicate page numbers across the entire surviving works, but I haven’t used them. (It seems like Aristotle may have written works on botany as well, but they have either been lost or never started)

The great misconception this work is probably remembered for is Aristotle’s belief that some lower animals are spontaneously generated from “decaying earth and excrements” rather than sexual reproduction. These are the ones that change their forms (e.g. maggots into flies) as Aristotle reasons that true parents would naturally give rise to offspring that looked like themselves whereas these creatures do not. This belief in apparent spontaneous generation is perhaps understandable from a botanic point of view – after all, fungi grow on dead trees without apparent seeds.

Some of the other things Aristotle got slightly wrong:

  • Birds and terrestrial reptiles lay “perfect” eggs (having a hard covering or shell) by internally heating the egg to remove the moisture from the membrane, requiring some part of the female to heat up inside,
  • Both males and females produce semen,
  • Men must hold their breath before ejecting semen, (well, maybe 🙂 )
  • Anatomically he missed the ovaries entirely

But he did get some things right despite popular beliefs of his contemporaries to the contrary. For instance, other natural philosophers (including Hippocrates) thought semen was produced in all parts of the body (pangenesis), allowing children to look like their parents by direct inheritance of traits such as facial features copied from the original in situ.  Aristotle rejected this on several grounds. He also seemed to grasp that the inherited parts provided by both parents were potential traits rather than actuals.

He also conjectures that the male semen acted on the purest part of the female’s menstrual flow (which is her imperfect semen) to create an embryo. (Unflatteringly he compared the action to rennet acting on milk causing it to curdle). He gradually comes to the conclusion that the female provides the elements required for  a “nutritive soul” (life force) which strives to feed and grow, while the semen carries a “vital heat” or spirit which provides the initial spark or movement to generate the new life, and provides the “sensitive soul” element,  meaning the potentiality for the development of the senses.

Aristotle’s guiding mantra is “Nature makes nothing in vain”, which to me is the reverse side of the same coin – as Darwin might have said –  “Nature allows nothing to continue in vain” (with the exception of the human appendix!)

Favourite lines/passages:  On the mating of hedgehogs ….

“… their union must be quick, for the hedgehog does not …. mount upon the back of the female, but they conjugate standing upright because of their spines”          page 257

(OK I checked this on YouTube and its not always true – they do mate as other mammals, and not that quickly either. Love – or at least sex – knows no limits!)

and a nice summation of the entire series of biological lectures:

“it is impossible .. to be eternal as an individual …. but it is possible for it as a species”  page 272

Personal rating:  Only a 3. I grew tired of this by halfway and admit I skimmed the second half rather brutally.  Inevitably some of Aristotle’s theories are built on conjectures, and building one conjecture on top of another creates a sense of disinterest in the whole exercise. And probably some 21st century arrogance as well. 🙂

The sanity in between: I have badly hurt my foot somehow and been spending a lot of time resting. Oddly I haven’t done much reading of the classics with all this enforced rest, but spent quite a lot of time browsing my collection of walking guides for long distance paths in Britain – some irony there somewhere I’m sure.

Next : Now that the zoology is finished, where to next?  WIth only four days of March remaining, perhaps a change of pace and have a stab at Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics?


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