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Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle discovered that there is an octopus with a detachable penis—the hectocotylus. The arms—octopuses have arms, not tentacles—are augmented by a detachable arm-like penis that independently swims to the female and impregnates her; often, females are found with several “arms” inside them (insert joke). It is not true that Aristotle fully described this process—as fussy late-Victorian gentleman scholars pointed out—but he got the gist; he understood that the arm functioned as a means to impregnate a mate.


However, this observation was discounted for several hundred years—especially after Aristotle fell out of fashion. In medieval times, Aristotle became “the philosopher”—everything was referred back to his observations; complete deference. The rise of modern science was partly a reaction against Aristotle and the Scholastic theologians who utilised his system in the realm of ideas. You still see the faint outline from their concerns when people worry about the absence of teleology in modernity—for Aristotle, everything had a purpose and direction (today we make no assumptions—part of modern science). So Aristotle was out—after being very, very in—and so he came to be regarded as irrelevant, the father of old-fashioned science.


Yet Aristotle was a thorough observational scientist; and if you read his works on biology you will be surprised just how much the ancient Greeks knew—although it was hidebound because it was not dynamic knowledge, just observations and classifications (not true experiment). Nonetheless, for centuries Aristotle’s correct observations about the octopus were dismissed as fable and myth—until Georges Cuvier vindicated him in the 1820s. Accordingly, we should be cautious as regards other so-called “myths and fables”—Plato’s Atlantis, Hyperborea, the life of Jesus—that we are confidently told, from a scientific perspective, constitute metaphors or mistakes by the ancients; just as silly old Aristotle thought that the octopus has a special arm to impregnate its mate, so too some people think Atlantis is real and Jesus rose from the dead.

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