Tag Archives: science


By Dr. Blake Hestir

The eccentric pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles of Acragas in the mid-Fifth Century B.C.E. heroically wrote in dactylic hexameter of the origin of animals:

 By her [Love] many neckless faces sprouted,

And arms were wandering naked, bereft of shoulders,

And eyes were roaming alone, in need of foreheads. (Trans. McKirahan)

 He continued,

 Many came into being with faces and chests on both sides,

Man-faced ox-progeny, and some to the contrary rose up

As ox-headed things with the form of men, compounded partly from men

And partly from women, fitted with shadowy parts.

 Aside from an interest in surreal barnyard animals—and if sources are correct, a penchant for wearing purple robes, a gold crown, and bronze shoes—Empedocles was an avid intellectual whose poems were well stocked with philosophical insights about the nature of the cosmos and how one ought to live. One of his remarkable views suggests that the sundry species of living organisms did not come about for some natural purpose or end (telos), but because their parts randomly combined to form creatures that could survive and reproduce.

Empedocles thinks the cosmos consists of four elements or “roots,” earth, water, air, and fire, as well as two natural principles or forces, what he calls Love and Strife. By Love what is unlike is attracted to what is unlike, and by Strife like attracts like. Under the influence of these principles, the elements mix randomly over time to form compounds, eventually the parts of animals, which are “fitted together” into various configurations, some amusingly grotesque like the man-faced ox-progeny. Humans, other animals, and plants are those combinations that retained the ability to survive and reproduce due to the fortuitous arrangement of their parts.

Empedocles makes no mention of humans holding any special status over animals and plants, and in fact in his religious writings, he claims that humans return again as animals or plants:

For I have already once become a boy and a girl

And a bush and a bird and a [mute] fish [from the sea].

 And further that justice is universal and extends to all living things:

 But what is lawful for all extends far

Through the wide-ruling aither and through the immense glare.

 There are accompanying prohibitions against eating meat and even some plants. Remarkably also, Empedocles’ view of the generation of animals looks something like a proto-evolutionary view (or perhaps de-evolutionary depending on whether the cosmos is moving towards a dominant period of Strife or Love) with some nod towards something vaguely similar to what we post-Darwinians have come to describe as natural selection. But it would be a long time before Darwin.

Why so long? One significant obstacle to the proliferation of the Empedoclean conception of biological development—aside from its poetic obscurity—was Aristotle, who in the Physics outwardly attacks the randomness at the heart of the Empedoclean cosmogony. Aristotle argues that the random “fitting together” of parts cannot account for the regularity and complexity of nature.

Aristotle replaces randomness or material “necessity”—that things are the way they are exclusively because of their material nature—with what he considers the more plausible and defensible explanation: nature is inherently purposive. Enter the Aristotelian teleological worldview.

In his biological work the Generation of Animals, Aristotle writes, “we must not say that each [of the products of nature] is of a certain quality because it becomes so, rather that they become so and so because they are so and so” (Gen. An. V.1). On Aristotle’s view, nature does not operate randomly as a series of “pushes” by material composition, but rather as a series of “pulls” by essence into proper form. Each type of living being is shaped by its characteristic essence that explains what it is and what it is for. For example, a human is essentially a rational bipedal animal. To reason is our natural purpose, the cause of our existence as human. We are pulled into our fully functional form by our natural telos.

An implication of the Aristotelian view is that although creatures such as humans, lions, dogs, fish, and birds, etc. share the feature of being animals, each species is essentially different from the other species. So, humans are essentially different from other animals—this biological difference amounts to a metaphysical difference. Moreover, Aristotle thinks that the rational faculty is the most divine of all, and so humans are naturally positioned above the other animals to the extent that all those creatures lack the rational faculty.

Aristotle’s response to the materialism of Empedocles, as well as that of the ancient Greek atomists, was important and influential. The strength of Aristotle’s position was due in large part to his rigorous methodological and systematic approach to science. Yet the dominance of the Aristotelian worldview perpetuated an unfortunate speciesist attitude toward animals. In the end, Aristotle’s teleology and accompanying view of animals was to win out over Empedocles’ man-faced ox-progeny, at least for a while. The resurgence of materialism and science during the Modern period marked the beginning of the end of the Aristotelian paradigm. Darwin would deliver the final blow.


Blake Hestir is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Texas Christian University.


Image: Web: http://publishing.cdlib.org/

Aristotle. Generation of Animals. Intro., text, trans. A. L. Peck. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963. Print.

The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. J. Barnes. Princeton, NJ: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1984. Print.

Henry, D. “Generation of Animals.” A Companion to Aristotle. Ed. G. Anagnastopoulos. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 368–84. Print.

Johnson, M. Aristotle on Teleology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Kirk, G.S., J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957/1983. Print.

Lennox, J. Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

McKirahan, R. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.,Inc., 1994. Print.


Living Animals and Dead Humans

By Allen Shotwell

In the sixteenth century life and death, health and disease, animals and humans mixed together in a number of interesting ways. In the pursuit of understanding human anatomy primarily in the service of medicine, anatomists dissected human cadavers and vivisected live animals, but their understanding of the differences between the two was complex and changing. Anatomical questions arising from mixing animals and humans were not always recognized as such, and even when one of the most famous anatomical texts of all time, noted the potential pitfalls of mixing animals and humans, the practice continued.

One of the major claims of Andreas Vesalius in his 1543 De humani corporis fabrica was that Galen, the Greek physician whose work was the primary source of anatomical knowledge for centuries, had never dissected humans, but only animals and had made a number of erroneous claims as a consequence. Although he was not immune from similar mistakes, Vesalius emphasized his own superiority in words and images, sometimes contrasting animal and human body parts in the same picture (Vesalius iv).

But animals still served an important role for Vesalius and other sixteenth-century anatomists. Time and again Vesalius described substituting an animal for a human body because it improved the visibility of one part or another (Vesalius 261). Animals were especially useful for vivisection since cutting open a living human was an obvious impracticability.

Early in the sixteenth-century, vivisection offered a chance to explore what properties of the body changed with death. In 1521, Berengario da Carpi investigated the fluids surrounding the heart and in the ventricles of the brain, dispelling the idea that in the living body they were actually gases by observing the still-beating heart in an animal (Shotwell 2012). Unlike Vesalius, when Berengario uncovered a discrepancy in Galen by observing the human umbilical cord was different than the umbilical cord of a dog, he attributed the problem to the differences in the development of the fetuses rather than the difference between animals and humans (Berengario 260r).

Vesalius employed vivisection to observe the pulse of the heart and the arteries, investigating a problem first described by Galen who also studied it through vivisection. Although in this case Vesalius agreed with Galen’s findings, other anatomists in the sixteenth-century, like Realdo Colombo, came to the opposite conclusion using the same procedures. Vesalius used a pig, Colombo a dog. Colombo ridiculed Vesalius for confusing the fetal anatomy of dogs with that of humans (Shotwell 2012).

All of these anatomists were focused on human bodies. They saw anatomy as primarily a medical subject, useful for diagnosis and treatment. Their various forays into animal dissection and vivisection were not designed for what we would now call comparative anatomy, a systematic attempt at understanding the differences among the bodies of all animals, humans included. Humans and their health was their goal.

By the late sixteenth-century, some anatomists did turn to studying a wide variety of animal bodies for comparative purposes, most notably Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente, but animal dissection and vivisection for the purposes of understanding how the human body worked continued throughout the seventeenth century and beyond.


Allen Shotwell is a professor in Liberal Arts at Ivy Tech Community and a PhD candidate in the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University.


Images: (1) A human skull balanced on the jaw bone of a dog from Andreas Vesalius’s Fabrica.  (2)The Ventricles of the Brain from Berengario da Carpi’s Isagogae Breves.  National Library of Medicine. “Historical Anatomies on the Web”. Web. 7 June 2012.

Berengario da Carpi, Jacopo. Commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super anatomia Mundini una cum textu eiusdem in pristinum et verum nitorem redacto. Bologna, 1521.

Shotwell, R. Allen. “The Revival of Vivisection in the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Biology 45(3), 2012

Vesalius, Andreas. De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel, 1543

Women vs Science

By: Rachel K.

The role of women during the Renaissance is usually viewed within the scope of sexual deviance or purity. There seems to be a failure to see women outside the submissive role of a wife or in the promiscuous role of a whore. This dichotomy  has its place in insuring socially that women are always viewed as less than men. But because of this view women hold a unique place in the development of science.

The rise of dissections and the understanding of the human body owes a debt to women. During the Renaissance there were strict rules against the dissection of human beings. Since the Church saw the body as a sacred temple, it denied the scientific need for dissection. The honor of being dissected was usually  left to those who had garnered sainthood, or those who had the potential to gain sainthood.

However, elite families were able to bypass this illustrious honor by paying private doctors to perform autopsies on their beloved family members. This concept may seem a bit out of place. Who would really want to have an autopsy performed on a family member who, for all intents and purposes, died of natural causes?

It is with that point that women come into play in the progression of science. The autopsies that were performed for the upper echelon occurred in one of two cases. The first case would be if a female, with children, had passed on. It is important to note that she had children because, if she were barren, there was no reason for an autopsy. During the Renaissance it was believed that only women could pass on hereditary diseases. Because of this belief when a wife or mother would die, an autopsy would then be preformed to insure the safety of children, especially the male heirs.

The second reason for an autopsy to be performed would not be for protective measures like in the first. Rather, it happened if a man had died unexpectedly. Many thought that if the untimely demise of a man occurred it was because he had been poisoned. Given the fact that during the renaissance women possessed a great deal of knowledge of housewifery, meaning the knowledge of herbs and their medical usage. It could only be assumed, knowing the fact about women’s knowledge base that if a man died suddenly it was because a woman had killed him. Therefore an autopsy would be performed to insure her guilt.

Both of these reason show that women, while having an effect on medicine and science, were not look on with much respect. If fact the constant supposition that women were the cause of any unnatural deaths or behaviors (in the case of some hereditary diseases) is proof that they were below men and could only cause them strife.


Curth, Louise H. “The Medical Content of English Almanacs 1640-1700.” Journal of

the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60.3 (2005): 255-82.

De Renzi, Silvia. “Medical Competence, Anatomy and the Polity in Seventeenth-Century Rome.” The Society for Renaissance Studies 21.4 (2007): 551-67.

Park, Katharine. “The Criminals and the Saintly Body: Autopsy and Dissection in

Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly 47.1 (1994): 1-33.

Siraisi, Nancy. “Anatomizing the Past: Physicians and History in Renaissance

Culture.” Renaissance Quarterly 53.1 (2000): 1-30.

Insides and Outsides: Blood, Hybridity, and Bodily Anxiety

By Esther W.

According to Kenneth Himmelman, “the body has been, and will continue to be, an important semiotic key to understanding any culture’s conception of the world” (198). In the early modern period, scientific and artistic practice reflected this concern via a shared obsession with depicting and defining the body. So what does early modern depiction of the body reveal about the collective social consciousness of early modern thought? As the title of this article suggests, early modern science and art literally depicted physical bodies, inside and outside. However, in depicting the literal body, early modern science and art also revealed its ambiguity. During the Renaissance, the body is thus both inside and outside definition.

Though images of women having sex with swans might seem a surprising method of representing bodily debates, early modern artists were fascinated with the myth of Leda and the Swan for this reason.  In the tale,  Zeus assumes the form of a swan and has sex with Leda on the same night that she consummates her marriage to Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. Leda conceives and gives birth both to the children of Zeus and those of Tyndareus (in some versions, the children of Zeus hatch from swan’s eggs). This myth was such popular fare that artistic imaginings of their sex and childbirth were reproduced in countless paintings, engravings, and even jewelry.  It is potentially useful here to consider that the swan is a feminized form, and that early modern laws surrounding lesbianism specifically criminalized sexual relationships between women that used penetration. Early modern scientific thought posited that, through the overheating of the blood, women could sometimes transform into men. Physicians also categorized this hybridity with distinct (and indistinct) terms. These women might be, “Female sodomites, tribades, hermaphrodites, or spontaneous transsexuals” (Traub 42). It’s clear that early modern scholars were pathologically concerned with the literal and figurative hybridity of the female body, which is reflected in the scene of Leda and the Swan. Depicting the female body in the act of sex and childbirth illustrates its literal liminality- It exists in hybridity, one can be both inside and outside its space. This hybridity is also figurative- through sex with the feminized swan, Leda’s body exists both inside and outside definition. It is simultaneously feminine and masculine, human and animal. The action of birthing complicated these categories further, as it was often equated with defecation.

While artists gravitated toward complex myths, early modern science debated the practice of corpse medicine, or medicinal cannibalism. In such cases, physicians prescribed “mummy” (embalmed human flesh) to be consumed by patients to treat illness (Sugg, 2078). Epilepsy sufferers were told to suck the blood of open wounds, and would line up after public executions to purchase and drink the hot blood of a freshly hanged criminal (Gordon-Grube, 407). Like Leda and the Swan, medicinal cannibalism also depicts the literal and figurative liminality of the body. Through the consumption of flesh, cannibalism blurs the physical distinction between inside and outside and between bodies. Corpse medicine also exists inside and outside figurative definition, blurring the lines between human and animal, life and death, health and poison, veneration and disgust.
In both the female body and corpse medicine, we find two examples of early modern body hybridity, as well as two sources of intense social anxiety. Liminal space, the absence of polarity and static category, freaks us out, and early modern art and science depicted the body as the ultimate liminal space. This body hybridity is also liminal in the response it creates- in the early modern period, the body was both a source of fear and of fascination.


Image: Bos, Cornelis. Leda and the Swan. Early 16th century. Engraving. British Museum.
Web. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cornelis_Bos_-_Leda_and_the_Swan_-_WGA2486.jpg.

Gordon-Grube, Karen. “Anthropology in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism”. American Anthropologist. 90.2 (1988): 405-409. Print.

Himmelman, Kenneth P. “The Medicinal Body: “An Analyisis of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe, 1300-1700”.
Dialectical Anthropology. 22.2 (1997): 183-203. Print.

Suggs, Richard. “Corpse Medicine: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires”. The Lancelot. 371.9630 (2008): 2078-2078. Print.

Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

NY Times Features Academic Trend: Convergence of Science, Humanities Over Animal Studies

This spring, the NY Times reported that an increasing number of university classrooms are taking on the issue of animal-human relations.  The
courses, which traditionally were limited to science and philosophy classrooms, are spreading quickly in disciplines such as literature and sociology.
Such a trend is promising, as it offers the possibility of cross-disciplinary conversation that can lead to a greater understanding of not only how humans and animals relate genetically, but also how they perceive and express perceptions about their identities and relationships. How have these ideas changed over time, and what are their ethical and political implications? 
Recent conferences in early modern studies have participated in this trend, with numerous seminars and panels on non-human animals occurring at the Shakespeare Association of America (notably that designed by Laurie Shannon and Andreas Hoefele) and Sixteenth Century Studies in 2012 and 2013.

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