“Heraclitus once said that ‘Nature loves to hide.’ Not from Aristotle. He writes as though nature is living next door and running a taverna.” This summary judgment—at once engaging, elegant, and thoughtful—typifies Armand-Marie Leroi’s The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (Viking-Penguin, 2014). Equal parts pilgrimage, idyll, and polemic, The Lagoon is a marvelous invitation to think about questions of philosophical and scientific method that are both perennial and highly contemporary.
Leroi’s journey begins in a used bookstore in Athens, where years ago he stumbled upon the History of Animals in D’Arcy Thompson’s translation. An evolutionary biologist by trade, Leroi was soon captivated. Aristotle, he writes, “had evidently walked down to the shore, picked up a snail, asked ‘what’s inside?’; had looked, and had found what I found when, twenty-three centuries later, I repeated the exercise.” Sharing with Aristotle a common interest in aquatic life and common experiences of the Aegean Sea and its islands, Leroi knew he had found a friend, one who was similarly moved by nature’s intelligible beauty. “It seems possible,” he tells us, “that something might be gained from reading him as a fellow biologist.” Read him he did, the whole biological corpus and many of his other works besides, and with humility. “This is a cautionary tale,” Leroi warns, “to determine the veracity of Aristotle’s observations would take a squadron of zoologists, deeply versed in his thought and able to read ancient Greek, many years.”