Origin of the Term Aristotle's Lantern for Sea Urchins

About the origins of the term Aristotle's Lantern for sea urchins, history and description of the echinoderm.


Aristotle's Lantern. "The name applied to the bony mouth structure of sea urchins (Echinoderma), 1st described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) in his great work on natural history, the Historia Animalium.

"Echinoderm means prickle skinned, an appropriate term for the unlovely sea creature that looks like an oversized chestnut burr. Legless, living mouth downward on the ocean floor, the sea urchin depends for food on whatever is swept its way by the lowest currents. It belongs to the same family as the starfish, and when dissected, shows the same 5-branched configuration. An outer skin covers a thin, globular shell divided into 5 sections. The prickles are attached to the shell by a ball-and-socket joint, and are used primarily for protection, sometimes for locomotion, occasionally for urging bits of food toward the mouth.

The urchin has 5 hollow teeth inside [observed Aristotle], and in the middle of these teeth a fleshy substance serving the office of a tongue. . . . The mouth-apparatus of the urchin is continuous from one end to the other, but to outward appearance it is not so, but looks like a horn lantern with the panes of horn left out.

"Aristotle came upon the little creature during a 2-year sojourn on the island of Lesbos. The philosopher, then some 40 years old, had left Plato's Academy in Athens and was engaged in a series of investigations into 'these beings that are the work of nature,' the 1st time anyone had systematically gone about sorting, taking apart (hardly dissecting, as we know it), identifying, and classifying. With the large number of facts thus assembled, he reasoned, it would then be possible to search out common attributes, to generalize, to discover the universals embodied in the particulars.

"There is scarcely a field of classical learning to which Aristotle did not make a unique contribution. Logic and metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics, physics, astronomy, and the nature of dreams, he studied them all, and his writings continually reflect the enthusiasm and delight with which he examined his world. 'In all nature there is something of the marvelous,' he wrote in De Partibus Animalium. '. . . we should study every kind of animal without hesitation, knowing that in all of them there is something natural and beautiful.' Even the legless sea urchin."

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