The birth of biology: 5th century B.C.

Friday, 03 June 2011 16:57

(by Dr. Calliopi Christofides, biologist)


During the 5th century BC, around the time when Myrtis was alive, there were a number of Greek philosophers interested in examining all living creatures, from the humblest plant to man himself. The term biology, from the Greek words bios (life) and logos (word or discourse), was given to this study of all aspects of natural life. The ancient Greeks were interested in how living things were created, how they developed, how they functioned, and where they were located. The urge to answer these types of questions led the Greeks to begin discovering the basics of life.

Alcmaeon of Croton (born around 510 BC) was one of the first to contribute significantly to biology. He is an early pioneer of anatomical dissection as well as the first to look into the internal causes of illnesses. In his interest to find the whereabouts of human intelligence, he observed that since a blow to the head can affect the mind, this must be where reason lies. In dissecting corpses to pursue this idea, he made the first scientific discoveries in the field of anatomy. He made the earliest observations of the passages linking the brain with the eyes (the optic nerves) and the back of the mouth with the ears (Eustachian tubes).



Taken from: Insignium Aliquot Virorum Icones
(Jean De Tournes, 1559)



Later on, at around 431 BC when Myrtis was 9 years old, the Greek physician and philosopher Empedocles (ca. 490 - 430 BC) originated the cosmogonic theory of the four classical elements (fire, earth, air and water). He then used these elements to describe the human body associating it with the four fluids or ‘humors’: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water). He observed that plants and animals, including man, are created from these elements, which he called «rhizomata» (roots). Mixtures of these four elements describe each organ or part of our body. He wrote that all animals come from randomly generated body parts, and that there is "natural selection" of successful combinations, thus proposing a type of evolutionary biology based on the mixture of the four roots. This belief dominated medical thinking for centuries. These physical speculations were part of a history of the universe which also dealt with the origin and development of life. Overall, his biomedical comments were a precursor of modern biology.



Empedocles, 17th century engraving,
in Thomas Stanley’s ‘History of Philosophy’








Democritus (ca. 460 BC - 370 BC) was an influential pre-Socratic philosopher and pupil of Leucippus, and is well known for formulating an atomic theory for the cosmos. As well as his work on cosmology, he spent much of his life experimenting with and examining plants and animals, and wrote a number of books regarding all aspects of science, including biology and astronomy. Books he wrote related to biology included discussions about the growth of animals, horns, spiders and their webs, and the eyes of owls, amongst others. Many consider Democritus to be the "father of modern science".



100 drachma note
depicting Democritus (1967)





Hippocrates of Kos (ca. 460 BC - 370 BC) was a renowned physician, considered one of the most exceptional figures in the history of medicine. He is referred to as the "father of modern medicine" in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field. The Hippocratic School of Medicine was founded by Hippocrates himself, revolutionizing medicine in ancient Greece, and thus establishing medicine as a profession. He was the first to describe many diseases and medical conditions. He advanced the doctrine of the four humors, whereby disease was supposed to result from an imbalance among the body's four important fluids. Legend has it that Hippocrates aided in the healing of Athenians during the Plague of Athens by lighting great fires as "disinfectants" and engaging in other treatments. As well as his work in the field of medicine, he also brought about influential early theories of heredity. Hippocrates probably had an inkling of Mendelian and genetic factors in heredity (the branch of biology dealing with principles of variation), because he noted not only many of the signs of disease but also that symptoms could appear throughout a family or a community, or even over successive generations. He speculated that "seeds" were produced by various body parts and transmitted to offspring at the time of conception. These ideas were similar to Darwin's later theory on pangenesis (each part of the body is represented in each cell by minute granules, which are the basic units of hereditary transmission material).



Hippocrates and Democritus, by Pietersz Pieter Lastman (1583-1633)
Palais des Beaux-Arts Lille









Ancient Greeks are credited with greatly advancing the systematic study of biology. They helped to lay the foundation of all biological sciences, including zoology, genetics, botany, and anatomy, by contributing many ideas, theories, and discoveries. Myrtis lived in a time when biology, as well as many other scientific disciplines, was just beginning to be established.



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