Aristotle on Innovation

It is said that the Greeks were reluctant to innovate. The prime example given is the steam engine (aeolipile) of Hero of Alexandria. It was a steam turbine, where steam from a boiler was fed into a ball on pivots; the ball had vents for the steam, the ejection of which caused the ball to rotate. It was treated as a novelty and a feat of ingenuity but never used by the Greeks to do any practical function. Yet, when we look at the architecture and art, we can see small constant refinement in methods and tools. The changes in language and ideas over the centuries show curiosity and openness, even if the technology remained fairly stable. While scientific and philosophical ideas developed rapidly in Greece, we find evidence that innovation is different from science. Innovation is tinkering; it is the spotting of certain phenomenon and characteristics of materials or mechanisms and adapting and combining those into new machines or procedures.

The question of change applies in all fields. Innovation in the field of weaponry can allow a city to defeat another. Innovation in agriculture may lead to better harvests or the cultivation of previously unproductive land. Innovation in the way a city is governed can lead to discord and instability. Innovation in religion may lead to heresy and collapse in faithful observance. Change in itself is neither good nor bad though it may do good or bad.     

In the latest selection from the classics, published by Princeton, Armand D’Angour has selected, translated and introduced texts by Aristotle (384-322 BC), Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. C150-250 AD) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90-30 BC).

Diodorus is quoted on Dionysius of Syracuse assembling a uniform army and attracting armourers of the highest ability. Aristotle is quoted on the subject of change, criticising the proto-socialism of Socrates and authoritarianism of Plato. He suggests that citizens be able to own personal property and guard the privacy of their families, allowing that some common property (such as land) may be shared to mutual benefit. Aristotle sets out the foundations of liberalism: “A state is not made up only of many people, but of a variety of kinds of people; a state cannot simply be constituted of similar individuals. It’s not like an alliance, whose usefulness depends simply on numbers, not on different kinds, of men.” He refutes common ownership of everything but leaves open the door to a fragmented society, where factions compete for power and favour. This extract from Aristotle’s Politics (book 2) will make interesting reading for those interested in finding a balance between common good and private autonomy.  

The most famous anecdote from Greece is of Archimedes solving the problem of how to calculate the amount of gold used in the creation of a crown. The complexity of the form (and the possibility of hollows) meant that it was difficult to ascertain how much gold had been used in the object and whether it had been adulterated with other metals. Archimedes sank into his bath and saw his body displaced water and he realised that displacement and weight could be used to determine the mass of the crown. This could then be compared to the weight of pure gold of an established volume – to be multiplied up to the volume of the crown. Any discrepancy would indicate the use of non-gold in the crown, thus revealing any deceit on the maker’s part. Comprehending the solution, Archimedes arose from the bath, yelling “Eureka!” (Gr: I have it!).

Archimedes was a naval architect. From Moschion (via Athenaeus) comes an account of Archimedes designing the Syracusia, a warship for Hieron Syracuse. “Hieron arranged for wooden pegs, belly timbers, rib timbers, and whatever material was needed for other uses come partly from Italy and partly from Sicily. He procured esparto from Spain for cables, hemp and pitch from Rhone valley, and other necessary materials from many different places.” He outlines the elaborate construction, including bronze rivets, later sheathed in lead to protect them from corrosion. Archimedes used a windlass of his own design to get the ship into the sea. The huge vessel had space for multiple levels of oarsmen, a garden, library, gymnasium, a fish tank and temple with a stone floor. The ship was a warship, and had battlements, watchtowers, grappling hooks and a baluster. An Archimedes screw was the bilge pump. Hieron gave Syracusia as a gift to Ptolemy II of Alexandria. It was the only voyage it made.   

Diodoros describes the innovative tactics that allowed the Thebans to defeat the mightiest army in Greece at the Battle of Leuctra. Due to general Epaminondas’s uneven distribution of forces in his line, the Spartan phalanx was twisted – one side advancing fast and the others held back. Out of position, the Spartans were attacked from behind, breaking their formation. “Epaminondas’s corps pursued those fleeing, cutting down in large numbers any who resisted, and gained for themselves a most glorious victory. For since they had engaged the strongest of the Greeks and, though fielding a smaller force, had miraculously overcome many times their number, they won a great reputation for their heroism. The highest praises were accorded to the general Epaminondas, who chiefly by his own valor and by his brilliant strategy had defeated in battle the hitherto invincible leaders of Hellas.”

The short introductions are handy guides and the choice provides a broad range of aspects to innovation. The quoted texts are given in English and the original Greek; the other material is in English only.

Aristotle, Armand D’Angour (trans., ed.), How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardcover cloth spine, 138pp + xxi, Greek/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 069 121 3736

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit

Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

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[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929), University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, is one of the world’s leading biologists. Damage to his eyesight during childhood led him to study insects, which is why he became a myrmecologist (a scientist specialising in ants). His research led to breakthroughs in understanding of the social structures of ants and wildlife more widely. He has taught and written on entomology and biology and won numerous awards and prizes during his distinguished career. It is his book BioDiversity (1988) that is credited with introducing the phrase “biodiversity” into scientific and general usage.

The Diversity of Life was first published in 1992. This Folio edition is a republication of the second edition (2010), with a new foreword by Bill McKibben, renowned environmentalist author. This issue – as is usual with Folio Society books – contains unique visual elements, discussed at the end of this review.

Wilson’s thesis is that although life is vigorous and multifarious, it is also delicate. Ecosystems are dynamic but depend upon multiple factors, with relatively small changes to a few species causing a great knock-on impact. Wilson starts by outlining the rich diversity of life in the tropical rainforest, before outlining the impact of the eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa), in the Indonesia archipelago. The famous eruption – more properly volcanic explosion – in 1883 destroyed all life on the small island. The event destroyed most of the island and left the remainder desolate. Naturalists realised this was a test bed for biological study: as flora and fauna returned to the land, observations could be made about the evolution of ecosystems. New species arrived – to thrive or die off and sometimes old species never returned to the island. Forest regrew on the island but to this day none of the species of rainforest giant trees have arrived on the island.

Wilson explains the thorny issue of inter-subspecies hybridisation. It is possible to interbreed lions and tigers in captivity. That being so, why do we not see natural hybridisation? In other words, why do we have two distinct groups at all? One reason is that the subspecies are separated geographically (though this has not always been the case) and the second is that in terms of social structure and preferred climate, the subspecies are dissimilar and therefore would have little in common and thus rarely mix. Plants in temperate regions hybridise more than those in tropical regions.

Division into subspecies can come about by the environment changing (leading to a local population diverging by developing unique deviations from its original form), isolation (a population being suddenly separated by a flood, earthquake or volcanic activity) or by colonisation (waifs being translocated to islands and subsequently evolving). (“The 10,000 known endemic species of insects in Hawaii are believed to have evolved from only about 400 immigrant species.”) The use of subspecies as a taxonomical classification is tricky. Wilson points out that these classifications can be relatively arbitrary, only denoting how much scientific attention a widely distributed species has attracted, for many such species could be broken down into numerous subspecies. Exactly what markers denote a population to be worthy of assuming the status of a subspecies is flexible.

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[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Some species develop distinct characteristics faster than others, with insects of short lifespans evolving fastest. In Lake Victoria, a family of freshwater fish called cichlids evolved into a variety of unique species with specialised physiognomies, diets and behaviour in only 200,000 years. “If evolution can occur rapidly, with the number of species quickly restored, why should we worry about species extinction? The answer is that new species are usually cheap species. […] Great biological diversity takes long stretches of geological time and the accumulation of large reservoirs of unique genes. The richest ecosystems build slowly, over millions of years.” In the case of the chichlids, they are rapidly approaching extinction because of the predation of the Nile perch, a non-native species introduced by man as a sport fish. This giant predator has adapted well to Lake Victoria and could well outcompete the specialised and isolated chichlid species.

The author introduces technical discussions where necessary but does this sparingly, allowing the non-scientist to follow is discussions easily and pleasurably. He finds apt examples to demonstrate points. The explain how absence of competition can lead to parallel evolutions in separate species, he chooses Hawaii. The honeycreeper is a family of bird species native to the islands of Hawaii. They have developed beaks and behaviour that resemble woodpeckers, albeit in inefficient forms. Wilson points out that had woodpeckers migrated to the islands, honeycreepers would never have developed their woodpecker-type features because they would have been competing with a much more efficient family that would have exploited the ecological niche already, outcompeting for associated resources. The absence of woodpeckers allowed the honeycreeper space to evolve woodpecker-style behaviour and physiological forms.

The sheer variety of life forms defies scientific understanding, with potentially millions of species, ranging from microbes to viruses, fungi, lichen, advanced plants, insects and mammals. The precautionary principle suggests we should beware of destroying species and environments of which we are not even aware, in case their removal leads to significant consequences for the ecosystem. When the sea otter was hunted to near extinction in the Aleutian Island, the sea urchins they preyed upon – now largely unpredated – decimated the kelp forests. The subsequent barrenness severely reduced the biodiversity of the environment. Thus, a single apex predator can shape an ecosystem.

Wilson is honest about the impact of human migration on reduction of biodiversity – as many non-indigenous apex predators have upon ecosystems. He discusses the extinction of the moa (a giant flightless bird in New Zealand) at the hands of the Maori and the damage done by species introduced by Western colonists. He shows sharp declines in numbers of species in recent eras match the expansion of Homo sapiens. An alarming map of reducing forest in Ecuador gives a graphic warning of the impact of man-made habitat change. The case is put for the practical benefits species preservation has for humanity, in the form of medicines or crop hybridisation derived from life forms not yet studied. A couple of fascinating lists give native species that could be reared as potential crops and animals for human consumption, all of which might prove superior in their native environs the imported Western staples. The book ends with some positive steps that are being taken and avenues for future activity to prevent loss of biodiversity.

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[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Edward O. Wilson is a gifted communicator, full of enthusiasm. The clarity and vigour of Wilson’s prose is a great pleasure to read. The importance of his warnings is as relevant now as when The Diversity of Life was originally published. Wilson’s personal encounters (sometimes as part of field experiments) add touches of personal experience – elegiac but lacking false sentimentality. The book contains footnotes, a glossary and an index.

The Folio Society edition boasts a full-colour iridescent hardback cover, protected by a slipcase. The cover was designed by Jamie Keenan. The complex, demanding and precise process that was used to apply the special holographic film over the cover is described in a Folio Society blog post here. This edition includes maps, charts and graphs with attractive ornamentation. The line and stipple ink drawings by Amy Bartlett Wright are concise and attractive, acting as visual aides and enriching the reading experience. There are plate sections of 24 colour wildlife photographs, featuring close-ups that showcase the beautiful variety of flora and fauna. The simple textured board used to make the protective slipcase has a pleasing eco-friendly feel to it.

The Folio Society edition of The Diversity of Life is an ideal gift for a child over 14 or young adult interested by science and for anyone delighted by the natural world. The visual touches enhance the message and the content in a sympathetic and considered manner. Highly recommended.


The Folio Society edition of Edward O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life, with foreword by Bill McKibben and preface by the author, with extensive Folio Society picture research, is available exclusively from The Folio Society.

Edward O. Wilson, Bill McKibben (foreword), The Diversity of Life, The Folio Society, 2019, hardback, 448pp, 24 col./47 mono illus., slipcase, £49.95


© Alexander Adams 2020

To view my books and art visit:

Getting into Hemingway’s Head

“On the morning of 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway took his favourite shotgun and shot himself in the head at his home in rural Idaho. He had finally done it. He had threatened suicide, described the suicides of others and even play-acted it with empty guns. He had been talked out of suicide, and physically restrained from doing it, twice before. Dogged by declining health, difficulty in writing and now a chronic writer’s block, Hemingway chose death. He was haunted by the knowledge that his father had shot himself. Two of Hemingway’s siblings would later commit suicide, with suicide being the suspected cause of death for another sibling. Suicide was a hereditary risk for the Hemingways.

“In Hemingway’s Brain, Andrew Farah, a clinical psychiatric practitioner, has analysed the causes of the mental decline that precipitated Hemingway’s suicide and has come up with a new diagnosis.

“Born in 1899, Hemingway lived a life that was physically precarious. Sometimes due to accident, sometimes by placing himself in dangerous situations, Hemingway courted danger and death. This was in his character and it underpinned a heroic persona that found its way into his writings. As a boxer, deep-sea angler, big-game hunter, trainee bullfighter, war correspondent and hard-drinker, Hemingway lived a life that transcended the macho and became epic.

“During the First World War in northern Italy, Hemingway was wounded by a mortar explosion and hit by machine-gun bullets. He suffered shrapnel and bullet wounds and experienced concussion…”

Read the full review online on Spiked website, 28 July 2017, here:

Gilbert Stuart: Pathology of Genius

“Can you name the artist whose work has been reproduced more often than that of all other artists in history combined? The chances are that the artist’s name, Gilbert Stuart, won’t leave you any the wiser, yet it is Stuart’s portrait of President George Washington that adorns every US one-dollar bill. Stuart (1755-1828) was the most renowned portraitist in early American history. He painted the first six presidents and his work was admired and sought after by high society.

Yet despite this acclaim, there were contemporary comments about the uneven quality of Stuart’s work. While some portraits are vivid and lifelike, combining observed reality and flattering idealisation, others seemed awkward and cold. People observed how inconsistent Stuart’s style could be, even within single pictures, which led to suspicions that a pupil or one of Stuart’s children was responsible for poorly painted areas that conflicted with Stuart’s known competence. Bitter disputes arose between art historians over attribution of paintings ascribed to Stuart, and works once deemed authentic were relegated to museum basements as fakes…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 28 March 2014 here:

Sean B Carroll: Brave Genius (Camus & Monod)

“When Albert Camus died in a car accident in 1960, the Nobel Laureate was mourned not only as a creative artist but also as a moral philosopher. Camus championed moderation, dialogue and the inalienable dignity of the individual at a time when – in France – partisan loyalty to nation and party often led people to advocate and defend acts of barbarity. Camus refrained from becoming too publicly involved in the debate over Algeria, first in the grip of civil unrest then wracked by civil war, but instead worked to influence events behind the scenes. Acutely sensitive to the suffering of fellow Algerians, he knew his pleas for clemency from the French government and moderation from FLN insurgents would draw condemnation from both ends of the political spectrum.

Even Sartre, Camus’s ally-turned-opponent, admitted he was ‘an admirable conjunction of a person, an action, and a work’.

One of those most deeply touched by Camus’ death was Jacques Monod, a leading microbiologist at the Pasteur Institute…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 22 November 2013 here: