Embryological Models in Ancient Philosophy

Phronesis 50 (1):1-42 (2005)
Historically embryogenesis has been among the most philosophically intriguing phenomena. In this paper I focus on one aspect of biological development that was particularly perplexing to the ancients: self-organisation. For many ancients, the fact that an organism determines the important features of its own development required a special model for understanding how this was possible. This was especially true for Aristotle, Alexander, and Simplicius who all looked to contemporary technology to supply that model. However, they did not all agree on what kind of device should be used. In this paper I explore the way these ancients made use of technology as a model for the developing embryo. However, my purpose here is more than just the historical interest of knowing which devices were used by whom and how each of them worked; I shall largely ignore the details of how the various devices actually worked. Instead I shall look at the use of technology from a philosophical perspective. As we shall see, the different choices of device reveal fundamental differences in the way each thinker understood the nature of biological development itself. Thus, the central aim of this paper is to examine, not who used what devices and how they worked, but why they used those particular devices and what they thought their functioning could tell us about the nature of embryological phenomena.
Keywords Aristotle  Embryology  Use of Models
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DOI 10.1163/1568528053066951
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