The ‘Scientific Revolution’ in Biology


Accounts of the Scientific Revolution focus on the rise of mechanics, the new mathematical account of the physical world, and the dismissal of Aristotelianism. But we have left open the question of whether there was also a ‘scientific revolution’ in biology.

The foundations of present-day medicine and biology were laid at the same time as those of mechanics. The pioneering work of modern anatomy, the Seven Books on the Fabric of the Human Body by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564),1 was published in the same year (1543) as Copernicus’s book. During the century that followed, approaches to learning changed fundamentally across the entire range of ‘sciences’ from mechanics to medicine. But there was a crucial difference. Bacon, Galileo, Descartes and Gassendi rejected the Aristotelian account of the inanimate universe entirely, but Aristotelianism was expunged from medicine and biology – if it has ever been completely expunged – not in a few confrontational decades but after a war of attrition that persisted into the 19th century. Why, and what were the consequences? We shall start to answer these questions, which will dominate much of the rest of this book, in the following pages.

William Harvey (1578–1657), who gave us the theory of blood circulation, was a contemporary of Bacon and Descartes, but he did not share their antipathy to Aristotle; his explicit target was Galen. Harvey’s revolution and the background to it illustrate the process by which scientific ideas change. When we compare Harvey’s writings about physiology with those of Descartes, we see how the Scientific Revolution was connected to the study of life. At the same time, we start to understand why Aristotelianism persisted in biology and medicine and gave rise to long-lasting debates.


Right Ventricle Right Atrium Scientific Revolution Venous Valve Left Auricle 
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