Important Figures in the History of Natural History: Aristotle

This post is the first in a short blog series featuring important figures in the history of natural history.

Though he is often thought of as a biologist, Aristotle was actually interested in the study of the soul and the cosmos. At his time, it was thought that celestial bodies on the heavenly plane (i.e. stars) were perfect, and that organisms on the terrestrial plane were imperfect imitations of these perfect heavenly bodies. Aristotle wanted to study the stars but could not observe them except at a distance; because he could not study the stars, he chose to study animals instead.

One of his most famous works is the History of Animals. Aristotle believed that everything on the terrestrial plane was composed of the 4 elements: earth, wind, fire and air. As a result, the History of Animals is full of descriptions and classifications of animals as “hot”, “cold”, “wet” or “dry”; this is related to their elemental composition, as in how much “earth” or “wind” is in the animal. Though it may seem odd today, Aristotle’s way of thinking set the foundation of how the natural world was studied for hundreds of years.

Aristotle studied sexual reproduction in depth, especially in domesticated animals and humans, but he believed smaller animals, including insects, were the product of spontaneous generation. He wrote of the “king” honey bee in hives and observed bee larvae, but he believed that honey bees gathered their larvae from flowers and brought them back to the hive to care for them. He was not aware of pollination, and believed that bees gathered honey from the air, where it occurred in droplets so small that only bees were able to collect them.

Raphael’s “The School of Athens”, showing Aristotle on the right, walking next to his teacher Plato. Photo by NASA Blueshift (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

This entry was posted in news. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *