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BIO Magazine - Aristotle and the Bio-environment Δεκέμβριος 2015
Δεκέμβριος 2015 No38

BIO Environment

Aristotle and the Bio-environment
Aristotle and the Bio-environment

I would like to begin this presentation in a rather unconventional manner, by referring to an ancient Greek myth with an environmental theme. It refers to the creation of the Universe and comes from Genesis of the World - Theogonia, the well known poem by the poet Hessiod. What follows is a free, translation:

"Once upon a time, there was the Earth, the everlasting basis of everything, and Love, the most beautiful being among the immortal Gods and humans, the one who touches the soul and makes us forget our worries. First of all the Earth bore the Sky, full of stars, which was equal with her, and then she fell in love with him, to create the whole world."

....." But the one who first and foremost focused on the study of the environment was Aristotle 

Examples from Aristotle's Work on Nature and Animals

Aristotle is well known mainly for his philosophical works, such as Poetry, Oratory, and The Athenian Republic. Even though he used to say that "Philosophy is an ornament in happiness and an escape in unhappiness," he devoted a great deal of his time to scientific work. He wrote over 400 works, of which only 143 are known to us today, with the help of his students, at his school, "The Lyceum," in Athens. A quarter of those 143 texts are biological studies. Aristotle looked at nature with wonder and explained Ouden anef physeos gignetai that is "Nothing can be done without nature." He set about dealing with everything that impressed him in his surroundings. Some of his titles include: On the Heavens, Meteorology, On the World, On Nature, On Animals, On Plants, On Animal Motion, On Animal Parts, On Animal Generation, On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, On Breathing, On Minerals.

He virtually used anthropomorphic language to express the way nature works.Here are some references from his book On Animal Generation: "Nature, like a good housekeeper, throws nothing useful away. Nature does nothing in vain, and nothing useless. Nature acts as if she foresees the future."

His work on biology is very extensive and innovative. He described about 500 species of animals, based on information collected from hunters, fishermen and travellers of his era. He also personally performed anatomical studies. It is said that Alexander the Great financed Aristotle's studies with considerable sums of money, as an expression of gratitude to his teacher.

The philosopher from Stagira, a small village in northern Greece, was the first to attempt a taxonomy of animals. He created two basic categories of animals, "those with blood," and "those without blood," a classification scheme which was practically the same as that adopted by scientists in the 19th century. It is worth mentioning some of the findings described by Aristotle in his works:

  • the mating procedure of the male octopus
  • the operation of the 4-chambered stomach of the goat
  • the characterisation of dolphins and seals as animals distinct from fish and the attribution of the name cetaceans, a term currently still in use for the dolphin family
  • the distinction of fish which have a bony skeleton from those which do not
  • the life-cycle of the bee - described in fascinating detail
  • climatic and environmental effects on animals
  • seasonal migration patterns of birds and fish

Examples from Aristotle's Views on Conserving Water

Protection of water resources was a major preoccupation for Athenians, who even elected individuals to be specifically responsible for the fountains in the city. One of the ancient Athenian leaders, Pisistratos, built many fountains in Athens, but prohibited the construction of pools, in order to save water. Attica, the region where Athens is located, has always had limited water resources, and this led to sophisticated water recycling installations, examples of which are found in the ancient metallurgical workshops at Lavrion, near cape Sounion, south of Athens. Having spent many years in Athens, Aristotle was sensitive to the value of water and its rational use. He first referred to the need for construction of "secondary water supply networks" in The Athenian Republic.Here is a free translation of the relevant text :

"The city should have within its defence walls water from natural sources, in adequate quantities, or, if that is not possible, big storage tanks to collect water from rain, particularly in case of siege. First priority should be given to the health of people, which depends on land, climate and water. The major determinants of health are those like air and water, which are used every day. If water is scarce, or if there is a variety of water quality, it is advisable to separate the drinking water from the other waters which can cover other needs."

Today, Aristotelian concepts concerning secondary water supply networks, are starting to be applied in large cities that have a great need to conserve water.Tokyo has already constructed such infrastructure, in later city development and, in Berlin, water recycling pilot systems have been applied to gauge the efficiency of the process. 


One could mention several other examples from Aristotle's extensive work on the Environment. It is really amazing how many issues, and at what depth, he dealt with. An absolute admiration of Aristotle is reflected in the following statement by Darwin, with which I would like to close this presentation: "My two professors were in a way my gods, but they were just simple pupils of Aristotle."

Efstathia Valiantza is a leading consultant on environmental matters in Greece, currently with the Ministry of Environment and Public Works. Her areas of expertise include environmental engineering design and project management, environmental impact assessment and occupational health and safety design.She has been Advisor to various governmental departments and international organisations, Head of the Environmental Pollution Control Project - Athens, and General Director of the Occupational Health and Safety Sector of the Greek Ministry of Labour. She has also given many seminars on environmental issues.


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