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Friday, June 10, 2016

The Unsung Hero of Western Science | The Atlantic

The Invention of Nature:
Alexander von Humboldt's 

New World

Chasing Venus:
The Race to Measure
the Heavens
Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature,
and the Shaping of the American Nation

Follow on twitter as @andrea_wulf
Andrea Wulf, writer based in London. She is the author of The Invention of Nature, Chasing Venus, and Founding Gardeners summarizes, "A friend and pupil of Aristotle, Theophrastus isn’t always credited for launching botany, and much else." 

Photo: Theophrastus
Kupferstich / Leipzig University Library 

In 345 B.C.E., two men took a trip that changed the way we make sense of the natural world. Their names were Theophrastus and Aristotle, and they were staying on Lesbos, the Greek island where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have recently landed.

Theophrastus and Aristotle were two of the greatest thinkers in ancient Greece. They set out to bring order to nature by doing something very unusual for the time: they examined living things and got their hands dirty. They turned away from Plato’s idealism and looked at the real world. Both Aristotle and Theophrastus believed that the study of nature was as important as metaphysics, politics, or mathematics. Nothing was too small or insignificant. “There is something awesome in all natural things.” Aristotle said, “inherent in each of them there is something natural and beautiful.”

Aristotle is the more famous of the two men, but Theophrastus deserves equal bidding in any history of naturalism. Born around 372 B.C.E. in Eresos, a town on the southwestern coast of Lesbos, Theophrastus was 13 years younger than Aristotle. According to Diogenes Laërtius—a biographer who wrote his Eminent Philosophers more than 400 years afterwards but who is the main source for what we know about Theophrastus’ life—Theophrastus was one of Aristotle’s pupils at Plato’s Academy. For many years they worked closely together until Aristotle’s death in 322 B.C.E. when Theophrastus became his successor at the Lyceum school in Athens and inherited his magnificent library.
Many historians neatly divide them up with Aristotle doing zoology and Theophrastus doing botany, but that’s not quite true—both wrote about plants and animals, but those books have not survived. Chance, or the vagaries of history, have handed us Aristotle’s Historia animalium (Enquiries into Animals) and Theophrastus Historia Plantarum (Enquiry into Plants).
We can imagine them on a warm summer’s day walking through the forests of Lesbos, collecting plants or rubbing soil between their fingers. With 1,400 species, Lesbos’ flora is manifold and diverse because of the island’s close proximity to Asia Minor. Its eastern side is lush and fertile—oaks grow on the mountainous slopes and further up, they would have found sweet chestnut and pines. In the valleys were olive groves and Asian rhododendrons. Cutting through the middle of the island is an inland sea—often called a lagoon—which is rich in nutrients and marine life. Oysters, algae, breams, bass, sea urchins, crabs, and many bird species offered rich pickings for Aristotle and Theophrastus. There must have been many days when they rose early to meet the fishermen who unloaded their haul in order to select, say, a cuttlefish or a John Dory for their investigations. Imagine them sitting at a table in their lodgings picking apart leaves, examining the tendrils of a vine, or dissecting a snail to describe its stomach. Theophrastus and Aristotle were interested in everything, and enquiring endlessly. How are these similar? What are the differences? What’s inside? How do they reproduce?
Only two of Theophrastus’ botanical books have survived—Historia Plantarum and De Causis Plantarum—but they mark the beginning of what we understand as botany today because they are based on systematic empirical methods.  

Source: The Atlantic