501 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations, tables
In the Eastern Aegean lies an island of forested hills and olive groves, with streams, marshes and a lagoon that nearly cuts the land in two. It was here, over two thousand years ago, that Aristotle came to work.
Aristotle was the greatest philosopher of all time. Author of the Poetics, Politics and Metaphysics, his work looms over the history of Western thought. But he was also a biologist – the first.
Aristotle explored the mysteries of the natural world. With the help of fishermen, hunters and farmers, he catalogued the animals in his world, dissected them, observed their behaviours and recorded how they lived, fed, and bred. In his great zoological treatise, Historia animalium, he described the mating habits of herons, the sexual incontinence of girls, the stomachs of snails, the sensitivity of sponges, the flippers of seals, the sounds of cicadas, the destructiveness of starfish, the dumbness of the deaf, the flatulence of elephants and the structure of the human heart. And then, in another dozen books, he explained it all.
In The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science, acclaimed biologist Armand Marie Leroi recovers Aristotle's science. He goes to Lesbos to see the creatures that Aristotle saw, where he saw them, and explores the Philosopher's deep ideas and inspired guesses – as well as the things that he got wildly wrong. Leroi shows how Aristotle's science is deeply intertwined with his philosophical system and how modern science even now bears the imprint of its inventor.
"[...] The Lagoon is an intellectual homage – an admiring, deeply researched and considered reconstruction of Aristotle's thinking about living things. The effort to get inside his head seems driven by a heartfelt sympathy, a sense of wonder about life on Earth shared across 2300 years, and by the modern scientist's urge to give credit where credit is due. [...] The prose is so lively, the thinking so lucid, and the use of such devices so artful, one might not notice it all adds up to a 500-page systematic analysis of a massive, dry, sometime jumbled philosophical corpus from a profoundly alien society. That many readers will come away entertained, and with even a slightly better understanding of Aristotle would be a major literary feat even if the book did not offer significant original contributions. [...] As compelling as Stephen Jay Gould's best work, it will long outlast most nature writing of recent years."
- Nicolas Rasmussen, New Scientist, 22 September 2014
"In elegant, stylish and often witty prose, he probes the near-legendary, almost primeval lagoon which inspired the ancient Greek's Historia animalium and animates it anew with his own incisive observations [...] The Lagoon is a heroic, beautiful work in its own right, an enquiring odyssey into unknown nature, and the known world which science has created out of it"
– Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan or, The Whale and The Sea Inside
"Leroi clearly adores Greece and he uses his detailed local knowledge to splendid effect, evocatively re-creating the experiences of the peripatetic philosopher [...] Leroi is absolutely right to say that even those sections of Aristotle's work we no longer believe to be correct have affected the knowledge that we have today"
– Literary Review
"In this lush, epic and hugely enjoyable book, biologist Armand Marie Leroi explores the idea that it was another ancient Greek giant whose shoulders we may all stand upon [...] Leroi is a beautiful writer and it's been too long, a decade, since his last outstanding book"
"Brilliant [...] Not just a charismatic book, but one that places Aristotle in a freshly Aegean context [...] Above all, Leroi shows, science today trawls through reams of data for patterns and explanations, in precisely Aristotle's manner"
– Sunday Times
"Leroi takes us through Aristotle's work, finding hints of modern thinking everywhere [...] The Lagoon bubbles with enthusiasm for its subject, making an absolutely gripping read out of what might have seemed the most unlikely material"
– The Times
"Compelling, sometimes contentious, and always thought-provoking [...] It celebrates what is most admirable in the Aristotelian tradition: its appreciation of what is actually there"
– Financial Times
"How Aristotle nearly beat Darwin to a theory of evolution. Brilliant"
– Sunday Times Must Reads
"In the History of Animals "[Aristotle] speaks of the reproduction of lice, the mating habits of herons, the sexual incontinence of girls, the stomachs of snails, the sensitivity of starfish, the dumbness of the deaf, the flatulence of elephants and the structure of the human heart: his book contains 130 000 words and 9 000 empirical claims". Leroi's own uncompromising investigation gives us a flavour of his subject's indefatigable explorations [...] Leroi does not upstage Aristotle's descriptions with modern anatomical illustrations, though his attractively illustrated discussions draw on much scholarship that has been expended on editing and interpreting Aristotle's ideas about nature [...] Leroi's scholarship is impeccable and consistently generous [...] Only an expert biologist with broad cultural sympathies and a deep feeling for history could have created such a compelling reappraisal of Aristotle's place in the history of science. What's in a name, indeed; in marshalling the facts and ideas that support Aristotle's scientific credentials in exuberant detail, Leroi must be accounted the king"
– Times Literary Supplement
– Irish Daily Mail
– Mail on Sunday
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Armand Marie Leroi is Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College London. He studied in Halifax, Canada, and Irvine, CA, and did post-doctoral work at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. As well as many technical papers, he is the author of Mutants: On the Form, Variety and Errors of the Human Body (2003), which has been translated into nine languages and won the Guardian First Book Award. He lives in London.