Prophet of comparative anatomy

In focusing on the similarities between creatures, Pierre Belon laid the groundwork for a new branch of science, writes Richard Collins

Prophet of comparative anatomy

IN L’Histoire de la Nature des Oyseaux (‘The Natural History of Birds’), published in 1555, there is a drawing of human and bird skeletons, viewed from the front, side by side. The corresponding bones are indicated and named. The creator of this prophetic illustration was a gifted Renaissance man, the 500th anniversary of whose birth occurs this year.

Pierre Belon was born in 1517 in a village near Le Mans, France. Of humble origin, he became apprenticed to an apothecary. His exceptional talents soon came to the attention of a wealthy patron whose support enabled him to study in Germany.

He went on to train as a doctor in Paris, rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of his time. Three years were spent in the Middle East, as a member of a delegation sent there by the king of France. His account of what he saw, with detailed descriptions of places plants and animals, became what nowadays would be called a bestseller. The subjects covered in his various writings included everything from exotic fish and Egyptian pyramids to the funerary customs of antiquity.

Belon penned the first scientific description of a giraffe. Based on his own dissections, he recognised that dolphins had air-breathing lungs. About 200 species of birds were grouped into six orders based on their habits and habitats. In the dispute as to whether swallows spend the winter submerged in mud at the bottoms of ponds or flew to warmer climes, he favoured the migration hypothesis.

Excellent anatomical drawings had long existed. Galen, the great Greek physician of ancient Rome, produced accurate ones in the 2nd Century and those of Andreas Vesalius, an exact contemporary of Belon, were so accurate that they continued in use for centuries. What was new about the Frenchman’s work was the perspective he adopted; his was a generic approach in which human anatomy is not treated as unique but closely related to that of other animals. “Each animated substance”, he wrote, “employs the same faculties and qualities that give animals security on land, in the air and in water”.

In focusing on the similarities between creatures, Belon laid the groundwork for a new branch of science. Ivan Pavlov, of conditioned reflex fame, would describe him as “the prophet of comparative anatomy”.

Although he emphasised the remarkable similarities between them, Belon didn’t try to explain why the skeletons of humans and birds are so alike.

Nor did he suggest that we shared common ancestors with other creatures. But the thought must surely have occurred to a man of such genius. To the medieval mind, people and animals were not at all related. To suggest that they were would have angered the all-powerful religious establishment and that could be fatal; heresy was not tolerated. A few years previously, even a farmyard cock had been burned at the stake in front of a large crowd in Basel. The unfortunate rooster seemed to have laid an egg and so was assumed to be a witch.

By juxtaposing drawings of the human and bird skeletons, was Belon deliberately expressing an idea too dangerous to be put into words?

His illustration anticipated the transformist ideas that fellow Frenchman, Jean Batiste Lamarck, would put forward three centuries later. These, in turn, would be taken up by Darwin and Wallace. With The Origin of Species, published in 1859, the idea that man and beast were fundamentally different was finally put to rest.

Belon had lodgings in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris. One evening in April 1564, while on his way home through the wood or perhaps collecting specimens, he was attacked robbed and killed. This seminal figure in the history of anatomy was only 47 years old.

Alan Cutler gives an interesting account of Belon’s life and work in The Great Naturalists, edited by Robert Huxley. 2007.

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