Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 65–85 | Cite as

Galen's criticism of Aristotle's conception theory

  • Anthony Preus


Conception Theory 
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  1. 1.
    Peri Spermatos, in C. G. Kühn, Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia (reprinted Hildesheim, 1964), IV, 512–651. I know of no translation other than Kühn's Latin.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Erna Lesky, Die Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehre der Antike und ihre Nachwirkung (Mainz, 1950), has the most complete account of pre-Aristotelian theories of sexual generation. Joseph Needham, A History of Embryology, 2nd ed. (New York, 1959), is often cited, but is very incomplete by comparison.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Herophilus (3rd century B.C.) gets the credit for the Greco-Roman discovery of ovaries (Galen, On Seed, p. 596; Needham, History of Embryology, p. 62), although the History of Animals (hereafter cited as HA) IX.50, 632a21, describes ovariotomy in sows for increased growth and in camels for increased strength and endurance; — in both cases as a contraceptive device. Elsewhere, Aristotle shows no knowledge of the existence and especially of the function of ovaries, which would indicate that the philosophically oriented texts available to him did not think of ovaries as reservoirs for seed. Nevertheless, the report in HA IX.50 does indicate popular knowledge of ovaries in some part of the Mediterranean world, antedating Herophilus; this interpretation is supported by the fact that Xanthus, in his History of Lydia (quoted by Athenaeus XII.515e), says that the ancient Lydians practiced ovariotomy. N. E. Himes, A Medical History of Contraception (reprinted New York, 1970), notes this passage, and adds (perhaps relying on Strabo XVII.284) that the ancient Egyptians also performed ovariotomy on human females.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Needham, History of Embryology, pp. 163 ff. for modern preformationism.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See A. L. Peck's note at GA IV.1, 763b34, in the Loeb Aristotle, for comment on the passages from Aeschylus and Euripides. J. S. Morrison, in “Four Notes on Plato's Symposium,” Class. Quart., 14 (1964), 42–55, argues for a preformationist interpretation of the Symposium passage. See also Needham, History of Embryology, p. 43.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    A. E. Taylor, in A Commentary on Plato's Timaeus (Oxford, 1928), points up the unclarity of the passage, but does understand the “small animal” as the adult in miniature (p. 640). Erna Lesky, in Die Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehre, pp. 18–20, argues that Plato's position in the Timaeus is nevertheless not a complete preformationism, since the animalcule does go through a process not only of development but even of differentiation. See also my “Science and Philosophy in Aristotle's Generation of Animals” in J. Hist. Biol., 3, no. 1 (1970), 1–5, and my Science and Philosophy in Aristotle's Biological Works (Hildesheim, 1975), pp. 52 ff. Taylor, incidentally, supposes that Plato should not be a preformationist in the Timaeus because he makes much of the female's eros for the male; I do not see that argument carrying much weight. Why should not the womb, being empty, desire a filling with child? But perhaps Timaeus is really supporting a two-animal theory, like that of Empedocles: both the man and the woman produce animalcules, and these two first merge, then separate again (see Tim. 9ld, and below on Empedocles).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Superfetation 31, in E. Littré, Hippocrate: oeuvres complètes, VIII, 501.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Aphorisms V.48; Epid. VI.2.25, Littré V.290.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    A. L. Peck, in his edition and translation of GA IV.1, misreads 765a4–22, in that he supposes that Aristotle is talking about the Anaxagorean preformationist theory at 765a4, when Aristotle is really discussing the theory that the right and left sides of the womb determine sex differences. Consequently 765a17–22, which Peck suggests deleting, are properly left just as they are. At a22, Aristotle turns to the Leophanes theory, which does have Anaxagorean tendencies. For a complete discussion of the influence of right and left sides in generation, see G. E. R., Lloyd, “Right and Left in Greek Philosophy,” J. Hell. Stud., 82 (1962), 56–66; Owen Kember, “Right and Left in the Sexual Theories of Parmenides,” J. Hell. Stud., 91 (1971), 70–79; G. E. R. Llyod, “Parmenides' Sexual Theories: A Reply to Mr. Kember,” J. Hell. Stud., 92 (1972), 178–179. The last, although brief, is also enlightening for Galen. See also G. E. R. Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy (Cambridge, 1966).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Fragment 65 (DK), quoted by Aristotle in GA I.18, 723a25; this is Peck's translation. Empedocles does not explicitly support the right/left theory, but he does speak of “the separated harbors of Aphrodite” (fragment 66, DK).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Besides GA IV.1, see the testimonia, DK 68A139-152, translation available in M. C. Nahm, Selections from Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd. ed. (New York, 1964).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Cf. HA V.5, with Peck's note, and Conway, Zirkle, “Animals Impregnated by the Wind,” Isis, 25 (1936), 95–130.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Hippon, DK 38A14: “If the seed conquers, male; if the food, female.” Cf. Lesky, Die Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehre, pp. 27–28.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See GA I.18, 722b11; IV.1, 764b4; Empedocles, fragment 63; with W. D. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, 1900), II, 217–219.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See Lesky, Die Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehre, pp. 9–13; cf. Aristotle HA VII.1, 581a12, which says that the development of secondary sexual characteristics is caused by sperma going from the brain to the various parts of the body.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    For the use of this theory in attempts to control fertility, see my “Biomedical Techniques for Influencing Human Reproduction in the Fourth Century B.C.,” Arethusa, 8, no. 2, (1975), 237–263, especially p. 242. The Hippocratic Epidemics I.1 notes that the disease which we call mumps causes swelling behind the ears, swelling of the testicles, and occasional infertility; this could be the source of the theory that semen flows past the ears on its way to the testicles.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Hippocrates On Seed 3, Littré VII.474; a translation of this treatise is available in Hippocrates, On Intercourse and Pregnancy, trans. Tage U. H. Ellinger (New York, 1952).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Cf. Aristotle GA I.17, 721b30.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    These books are so closely related that Littré prints them continuously; Ellinger's translation stops at the end of On the Nature of the Child, omitting On Diseases IV. Lesky (like other German scholars) calls this series “Cnidian” in distinction from the “Coan” AWP and Sacred Disease; I do not see that there is much difference in point of view. In On Seed 1 (Littré VII.470), seed comes from “all the fluid in the body;” in 3 (474), from both hard and soft parts, which is very similar to AWP 14; in 8, pangenesis is defended with appeal to the inheritance of resemblance; in 11, the four humors are used to explain cases of inheritance of crippled characteristics, but with skepticism. Chapt. 6 is discussed below. On the Nature of the Child deals with embryological development; the humors are noted, but there is much else besides; at Diseases IV, or Littré's On Seed 32 (VII.542), discussion returns to the four humors and pangenesis in earnest.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    DK 68A141; cf. the other testimonia before and after this one, and Lucretius, De rerum natura IV.1020.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    On Seed 6. A cross between the On Seedtheory of sexual determination and the Democritean theory results in an explanation of the generation of hermaphrodites, On Food I.28, Littré VI.502 (this treatise has a treatment of embryology, I.9–10, 26–32, emphasizing the mixture of fire and water in the processes).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    E.g., G. Verbeke, L'évolution de la doctrine du pneuma (Paris, 1945); only pp. 6–7 mention the possibility.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Airs Waters Places, Sacred Disease, see above, n. 19; On Seed 11 is not convinced that mutilations may be inherited.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    For a discussion of this notion, see my Science and Philosophy pp. 61, 290.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See GA IV. 1, 764b5, for Empedocles' “symbolon” theory, poetically so reminiscent of what one sees in the processes of meiosis and mitosis of the chromosomes. See also GA I. 18, 722b10 ff.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    See Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy, pp. 51 ff.; my Science and Philosophy, pp. 218 ff. After all, right and left are part of the nature of things, though perhaps not entirely as Aristotle and his predecessors thought; electrons have right and left spin, organic molecules have right-and left-hand forms, for example. For the dating of the biological treatises, see Science and Philosophy, pp. 43 ff.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    I have analyzed Aristotle's theory of sexual generation in detail in “Science and Philosophy in Aristotle's Generation of Animals,” pp. 1–52, and in Science and Philosophy, chapt. 2 and 3. This current section is a very rapid summary only.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    On the Natural Faculties (trans. A. J. Brock, in the Loeb series); and On the Usefulness of the Parts (trans. M. T. May; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968).Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    According to Helmut Leitner, Bibliography to the Ancient Medical Authors (Vienna, 1973), p. 31, Phillip de Lacy is working on a new edition of De Semine for the Corpus Medicorum Graecurm.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Nature of the Child 2; cf. my “Biomedical Techniques” p. 254.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    On Seed p. 622; cf. my “Biomedical Techniques,” pp. 254–256, and n. 3, above.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1977

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anthony Preus
    • 1
  1. 1.State University of New YorkBinghamtonUSA

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