What Were Aristotle’s Contributions to Biology?

Aristotle is a well-known philosopher, but the fourth-century thinker also left his mark on the scientific community.

Feb 10, 2024By Natalie Noland, BS Politics, Philosophy, and Economics
aristotle contributions to biology

 

Aristotle, a fourth-century BCE thinker, is most well-known as a significant figure in philosophy, remembered for his contributions to ethics, metaphysics, and politics. He was a student of Plato and taught Alexander the Great; he touted virtue, moderation, and knowledge. His works — such as “Nicomachean Ethics” — are still influential. But while Aristotle was a major influence on philosophy, he also impacted science. From early attempts at species classification to observing life under the sea, here are five ways Aristotle’s work paved the way for modern-day biology. 

 

Aristotle Laid the Foundations for Understanding Biological Processes

aristotle homer painting rembrandt
Aristotle with a bust of Homer, Rembrandt, 1653. Source: The Met Museum

 

As a philosopher, Aristotle spent his life contemplating how to live the best life possible—but his work on the biological purpose of life left a mark on the scientific community. He used his philosophical mindset to inject meaning into life, positing that each living organism has a purpose interconnected with its form, functioning according to a natural set of rules inherently given. This perspective was central to Aristotle’s thinking, impacting not only his biology works but also his writings in other scientific fields — such as ​​physics, cosmology, and meteorology — as well as theology, political science, and ethics. Aristotle’s views eventually became known as teleology, the study of evidence of design in nature, and his beliefs on the subject are still discussed by biologists today. 

 

His Work in Classifying Animals Was Very Influential

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being. Source: Wikipedia
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being. Source: Wikipedia

 

Scala Naturae — or the great chain of being — was first conceptualized by Aristotle in his work History of Animals. He took his observations of living things and began to rank them based on complexity. He started by putting animals above plants since animals can move and have an awareness of their surroundings and continued by creating a hierarchy for animals themselves, separating them based on reproduction processes (live births ranked above eggs) and blood (warm blood was higher than cold which was higher than seemingly bloodless invertebrates). Although the scientific concept of Scala Naturae eventually took on a religious connotation, Aristotle’s work was an early attempt to classify animals that influenced biology for centuries. 

 

Aristotle Theorized About the Beginning of Life

leonardo da vinci embryo
A diagram of an embryo. Source: Cove Collective

 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

For as long as humans have been contemplating life, they have also been contemplating how life begins — whether it’s theories of divine intervention or tales of storks dropping off a precious package. In the time of Aristotle, a popular belief was spontaneous generation, the idea that life could be created from non-living matter. Although Aristotle was a proponent of this, he also proposed ideas foundational for embryology. He formed theories on the origin and formation of life, and his belief that organisms evolve from different forms paved the way for further study in developmental biology. 

 

He Documented Life Under the Sea

“Angry Puffer Fish and Others” by Louis Renard, via Forbes
“Angry Puffer Fish and Others” by Louis Renard, via Forbes

 

Aristotle’s scientific interest wasn’t just limited to the land; he was extremely interested in ocean life, and although he lacked the accuracy of contemporary science, his contributions laid the groundwork for marine biology. He was particularly interested in the anatomical features of marine organisms. He documented his observations of octopus, cuttlefish, crustaceans, and many other sea creatures, most of which were remarkably accurate and helped form the basis for early anatomical knowledge of marine biology. And his influence in marine biology doesn’t stop there. Many of his other scientific contributions — such as embryology and species classification — also impacted the field. 

 

Aristotle’s Observations Were a Precursor to the Scientific Method

The anatomy of a dog, 19th century study. Source: Ernest Thompson Seton
The anatomy of a dog, 19th century study. Source: Ernest Thompson Seton

 

It wasn’t just Aristotle’s written works that helped develop the field of biology. The way he came by the content of the works had an impact as well. A student of Plato — a philosopher well-known for his systematic approach to learning and meticulous writings — Aristotle was taught the importance of hands-on learning, and his empirical methodology was revolutionary for the scientific community of the time. He advocated for naturalists to closely observe and even dissect organisms to understand their inner workings fully, setting a precedent for scientific study. His practices became a core framework of the scientific method. 

Author Image

By Natalie NolandBS Politics, Philosophy, and EconomicsNatalie is a freelance writer from Rhode Island. She has a BS in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Northeastern University with a minor in Writing. Her academic interests include ancient philosophy, logic, and game theory. She enjoys reading, watching movies, and kayaking in her spare time.