On the Parts of Animals

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


Viviparous quadrupeds, as a rule, present no great variety of form in the organ of smell. In those of them, however, whose jaws project forwards and taper to a narrow end, so as to form what is called a snout, the nostrils are placed in this projection, there being no other available plan; while, in the rest, there is a more definite demarcation between nostrils and jaws. But in no animal is this part so peculiar as in the elephant, where it attains an extraordinary and strength. For the elephant uses its nostril as a hand; this being the instrument with which it conveys food, fluid and solid alike, to its mouth. With it, too, it tears up trees, coiling it round their stems. In fact it applies it generally to the purposes of a hand. For the elephant has the double character of a land animal, and of one that lives in swamps. Seeing then that it has to get its food from the water, and yet must necessarily breathe, inasmuch as it is a land animal and has blood; seeing, also, that its excessive weight prevents it from passing rapidly from water to land, as some other sanguineous vivipara that breathe can do, it becomes necessary that it shall be suited alike for life in the water and for life on dry land. just then as divers are sometimes provided with instruments for respiration, through which they can draw air from above the water, and thus may remain for a long time under the sea, so also have elephants been furnished by nature with their lengthened nostril; and, whenever they have to traverse the water, they lift this up above the surface and breathe through it. For the elephant’s proboscis, as already said, is a nostril. Now it would have been impossible for this nostril to have the form of a proboscis, had it been hard and incapable of bending. For its very length would then have prevented the animal from supplying itself with food, being as great an impediment as the of certain oxen, that are said to be obliged to walk backwards while they are grazing. It is therefore soft and flexible, and, being such, is made, in addition to its own proper functions, to serve the office of the fore-feet; nature in this following her wonted plan of using one and the same part for several purposes. For in polydactylous quadrupeds the fore-feet are intended not merely to support the weight of the body, but to serve as hands. But in elephants, though they must be reckoned polydactylous, as their foot has neither cloven nor solid hoof, the fore-feet, owing to the great size and weight of the body, are reduced to the condition of mere supports; and indeed their slow motion and unfitness for bending make them useless for any other purpose. A nostril, then, is given to the elephant for respiration, as to every other animal that has a lung, and is lengthened out and endowed with its power of coiling because the animal has to remain for considerable periods of time in the water, and is unable to pass thence to dry ground with any rapidity. But as the feet are shorn of their full office, this same part is also, as already said, made by nature to supply their place, and give such help as otherwise would be rendered by them.

As to other sanguineous animals, the Birds, the Serpents, and the Oviparous quadrupeds, in all of them there are the nostril-holes, placed in front of the mouth; but in none are there any distinctly formed nostrils, nothing in fact which can be called nostrils except from a functional point of view. A bird at any rate has nothing which can properly be called a nose. For its so-called beak is a substitute for jaws. The reason for this is to be found in the natural conformation of birds. For they are winged bipeds; and this makes it necessary that their heads and neck shall be of light weight; just as it makes it necessary that their breast shall be narrow. The beak therefore with which they are provided is formed of a bone-like substance, in order that it may serve as a weapon as well as for nutritive purposes, but is made of narrow dimensions to suit the small size of the head. In this beak are placed the olfactory passages. But there are no nostrils; for such could not possibly be placed there.

As for those animals that have no respiration, it has already been explained why it is that they are without nostrils, and perceive odours either through gills, or through a blowhole, or, if they are insects, by the hypozoma; and how the power of smelling depends, like their motion, upon the innate spirit of their bodies, which in all of them is implanted by nature and not introduced from without.

Under the nostrils are the lips, in such sanguineous animals, that is, as have teeth. For in birds, as already has been said, the purposes of nutrition and defence are fulfilled by a bonelike beak, which forms a compound substitute for teeth and lips. For supposing that one were to cut off a man’s lips, unite his upper teeth together, and similarly his under ones, and then were to lengthen out the two separate pieces thus formed, narrowing them on either side and making them project forwards, supposing, I say, this to be done, we should at once have a bird-like beak.

The use of the lips in all animals except man is to preserve and guard the teeth; and thus it is that the distinctness with which the lips are formed is in direct proportion to the degree of nicety and perfection with which the teeth are fashioned. In man the lips are soft and flesh-like and capable of separating from each other. Their purpose, as in other animals, is to guard the teeth, but they are more especially intended to serve a higher office, contributing in common with other parts to man’s faculty of speech. For just as nature has made man’s tongue unlike that of other animals, and, in accordance with what I have said is her not uncommon practice, has used it for two distinct operations, namely for the perception of savours and for speech, so also has she acted with regard to the lips, and made them serve both for speech and for the protection of the teeth. For vocal speech consists of combinations of the letters, and most of these would be impossible to pronounce, were the lips not moist, nor the tongue such as it is. For some letters are formed by closures of the lips and others by applications of the tongue. But what are the differences presented by these and what the nature and extent of such differences, are questions to which answers must be sought from those who are versed in metrical science. It was necessary that the two parts which we are discussing should, in conformity with the requirements, be severally adapted to fulfil the office mentioned above, and be of appropriate character. Therefore are they made of flesh, and flesh is softer in man than in any other animal, the reason for this being that of all animals man has the most delicate sense of touch.


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Chicago: Aristotle, "16," On the Parts of Animals, trans. William Ogle in Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0 (Irvine, CA: World Library, Inc., 1996), Original Sources, accessed April 20, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKUHE4ZPBAP4PYS.

MLA: Aristotle. "16." On the Parts of Animals, translted by William Ogle, in Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0, Irvine, CA, World Library, Inc., 1996, Original Sources. 20 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKUHE4ZPBAP4PYS.

Harvard: Aristotle, '16' in On the Parts of Animals, trans. . cited in 1996, Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0, World Library, Inc., Irvine, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 20 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKUHE4ZPBAP4PYS.