Imperial biologist explores legacy of Aristotle’s lagoon in new BBC documentary

Professor Leroi

New BBC4 documentary sees Imperial's Professor Armand Leroi visit the lagoon which inspired Aristotle's ideas on biology. -<em> News</em>

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Wednesday 13 January 2010
By John-Paul Jones

A new BBC documentary, developed and presented by Imperial’s professor of evolutionary developmental biology, Armand Marie Leroi, will reveal the debt modern biology owes to the ancient Greek polymath Aristotle.

Airing on Sunday at 9pm on BBC4 Aristotle’s Lagoon follows the professor in his exploration of the Greek lagoon which inspired Aristotle’s fundamental ideas on biology.

Professor Leroi, from the Department of Life Sciences, answers some questions on the programme below:

Why was Aristotle so important for science?

Well, Aristotle is a remarkable figure. Everyone knows him as the father of logic and philosophy, but people forget that he was the father of biology too. About a third of his surviving texts relate to biology and actually his thoughts on the subject inform his philosophy, his metaphysics and his ideas on a number of topics. In many ways he began it all, in effect developing an entire course on biology, including the classification of animals.

Why have people forgotten Aristotle’s contribution?

Up until the seventeenth century’s scientific revolution, when people spoke about biology they really spoke about Aristotle. His influence on early science was immense. It was so massive in fact that the science revolutionaries felt they had to destroy him during their attack on the old scientific system.

Despite this the impact of Aristotle’s thought endures to this day. Even Darwin remarked: “Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.” What we’re trying to do with this programme is recover Aristotle for biology.

How did your new programme come about?

Ten years ago I was on holiday in Greece. I walked into a second hand bookshop in Athens and bought a copy of Aristotle’s Historia Animalium, or ‘History of Animals’. In the book’s preface the Scots biologist D'arcy Thompson claimed Aristotle did most of his biological work at a lagoon on the island of Lesvos. It just so happened that I was going to Lesvos anyway to visit some Imperial researchers at the university there. I spent two weeks at the lagoon and it really opened my eyes to what an amazing biologist Aristotle was. He had a deep and integrated physiological system for understanding the world around us.

It inspired me to begin working on a book, together with my friend and colleague Richard King (from the University of Glasgow’s Philosophy Department). Having made a Channel Four series based on my book Mutants I went on to make programmes for the BBC and when they asked if I’d like to make another, on a subject of my choice, I chose Aristotle.

Is it useful for scientists to have knowledge of the history of their field?

I don’t think knowledge of the history of science is essential but it does give a more global view and appreciation of the possibilities of science. One also sees echoes of issues we grapple with these days. It’s certainly been useful for me. As an example: Aristotle was insistent that the crucial point of understanding in dissection comes when putting the parts back together to see how an animal works as a whole. This very much chimes with systems biology today.

Another of your BBC programmes was on Charles Darwin and his contribution to science. Of the two, which project did you feel more passionate about?

Darwin is obviously hugely important, and also inspiring. I’d say, however, that this programme is extra special for me because, while everyone knows of Darwin, Aristotle’s contribution is so undervalued. People always say “Thanks to Darwin...” or “Because of Darwin...” and we want them to say “Thanks to Aristotle...”

As a university scientist why is it important for you to reach out to the public at large, through programmes like Aristotle’s Lagoon?

For three reasons: Firstly the public pays for science, so it’s important that we show them what we’re doing. Secondly, there are always anti-scientific forces in society, in various guises, and an ongoing battle. Scientists should always take the opportunity to show people how science is the only way to understand the natural world. Finally, science is a source of stories. These can give us joy and inspiration in what we do, and they have the added quality of being true, or as true as we can know. It’s natural for scientists to want to share these stories.

You revisited the lagoon when filming the programme. Do we know how much it might have changed since Aristotle visited millennia ago?

Aristotle’s work is perhaps the oldest description of a natural habitat in the world but he doesn’t give us a comprehensive diary of his time at the lagoon. Everything he mentioned, however, can still be found at the lagoon, from scallops at the lagoon’s mouth to the fish which travel in seasonally. He actually mentioned that scallop numbers had been high but had dwindled due to overfishing. Speak to a Greek fisherman today and he will say exactly the same thing. It suggests a cycle that’s been going on for thousands of years.

One of the most conspicuous changes is the presence of flamingos there today. They certainly weren’t mentioned by Aristotle but that’s not surprising as it appears they arrived in the last 50 years. They have been steadily moving east due to changes in the marshes that served as their usual habitat. The lagoon hasn’t escaped some environmental degradation either, especially with run off pollution in the water. Despite this, though, the diversity which Aristotle brilliantly recorded can still be found there today.

Aristotle’s Lagoon airs this Sunday, 17 January, at 9pm on BBC4, as part of the channel’s ‘Beautiful Minds’ series.


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