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No interpretation of the idea of nature is good for all people in all places at all times. The interpretive position here reflects pivotal conceptual developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Charles Darwin's century brought home forcefully the reality of time, of evolutionary process that ultimately transforms all things. Darwin's contemporary T. H. Huxley believed that evolution forced the question of our place in nature upon us. Twentieth-century science posed a further interpretive challenge. We have reached the end of credible claims to certainty concerning nature. Given uncertainty, open-ended inquiry becomes the hallmark of rationality, and the idea of nature remains inevitably in flux. A third interpretive factor emerges at the intersection of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The present cultural trajectory is on a collision course with the evolved biophysical scheme. The interpretive challenge is to account for the predicament of a naturally evolved species whose cultural evolution has led to maladaptive ideas of nature that must be transformed in order to avert biophysical catastrophe.

Nature before Literacy

Arguably, the nineteenth-century discovery of the Paleolithic, the period of human development stretching from about two million to about ten thousand years ago, is exceeded in significance only by the discovery of biological evolution. Ensconced within cultural cocoons of literacy and technology, we believe that paleo-people were stupid savages since they were not literate and possessed only rudimentary technology. There are two rejoinders to such notions. First, the paleo-strata unequivocally confirm that the historical epoch of literacy is a mere moment in a human past stretching across several hundred thousand years. And second, the assumption that we monopolize intelligence and genius is untenable. Our paleo-ancestors were capable of imaginings that rival those of the greatest minds of history.

Nevertheless, any reconstruction of Paleolithic ideas of nature remains conjectural. Interpretation depends on reading "texts" that, rather than being alphabetic, are material artifactsstone points and knives, cave paintings and megalithic constructions, and tens of thousands of other artifacts. Additional evidence comes from paleo-notions of nature that resonate in surviving aboriginal cultures. Collectively these materials support three conjectures. First, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers realized that there was an order to the world that they inhabited. While the pattern varied seasonally, there was regularity in the movement of animals, in the growth of plants, in the presence or absence of water. Second, paleo-people believed the inherent order of nature was cyclical, since the world moved in repeating cycles. Third, paleo-people believed their role was to harmonize with rather than change the circumstances of existence.

These conjectures can be challenged across multiple fronts. For example, there is evidence of climatic upheavals that through natural selection eliminated all but the most behaviorally adaptable hominid bands. How, then, could paleo-people believe in a cyclical nature? And yet evidence from the Neolithic strata suggests that the myth of the eternal return and the belief in the Magna Mater (the Great Mother) were foreshadowed during the Paleolithic.

Nature in Antiquity

Antiquity is defined here as a zone of cultural transition at the boundary between the Old and the New Stone Age, the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. Climate change is increasingly accepted as the environmental driver that ended the era of the great hunt. Whereas utility vanished at the margin of portability for paleo-people, the Neolithic brought profound changes to material culture and thus to notions of nature. Sedentarism, the cultivation of cereal grasses, and the domestication of animals transformed human relations to nature. Forests were cleared for fields and building materials. Crops were planted and tended. Rivers were diverted into canals to support irrigated agriculture. Permanent habitation was constructed. Wild creatures, such as bears and wolves, formerly totems with which humans empathically identified, became predators.

Materials for the conceptual reconstruction of ancient ideas of nature can be found in texts marking the passage from orality into alphabetic literacy, such as the Sumerian-epoch Gilgamesh and the Old Testament, the latter a primary source for prevailing if conflicting Western notions of nature. The Old Testament manifests two antagonistic ideas of nature. One reflects agriculture, where humankind increasingly asserts its dominion over the earth while paying the price of great toil. The other is that of a world of milk and honey where humans wandered the earth freely, living in an Edenic condition. On either account a creator god is posited as the agency of creation. A cosmos is constructed and populated, culminating on the sixth day with the arrival of Adam and Eve. Life is good, until the original pair fall into temptation and sin. The consequence was expulsion from the Garden, arguably a remembrance of a deep past free of the woes of agricultural existence.

Pre-Socratic Ideas of Nature

Alphabetic literacy changed the way that humans thought of nature. It is the pre-Socratics, the Greeks, and to a lesser extent the Egyptians and Romans, who in their theorizing of nature appear as our kindred spirits, even if we believe their theories are mistaken, in their commitment to rational explanation. A clear line separates pre-alphabetic from post-alphabetic accounts of nature; the mythical accounts of antiquity become topics of derision. Nature increasingly becomes a conceptual entity known only through rational inquiry.

The pre-Socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides laid down two basic channels in which contemporary ideas still flow. According to Heraclitus (c. 540c. 480 b.c.e.), reality is a moving river into which humans cannot step twice. And yet, since total chaos would defeat knowability, he posits the strife of opposites as a limit on chaos. Hot becomes cold, wet becomes dry, winter gives way to summer. The wise person behaves according to these basic insights into evanescence and its limits. Heraclitus's notions resonate with contemporary evolutionary thinkers, systems ecologists, and chaos theorists. Chaos theorists celebrate Heraclitus as the conceptual source of a second scientific revolution in the twentieth century. We can also recognize Paleolithic resonances in Heraclitus, including his notion of nature as a cyclical process with which humans should exist in harmony.

Heraclitus's conceptual antagonist was Parmenides (born c. 515 b.c.e.), who argued that reality does not move since "all is one." The apparent motion of nature was for him just that: appearance and not reality. His immediate followers, such as Zeno, devised the famous paradoxes of motion, such as the tortoise and the hare, that conceptually defeated all challenges until the twentieth century. If the tortoise, however slow, starts ahead of the hare, however fast, and if in any given unit of time the hare closes one-half of the distance to the tortoise, the hare can never pass the tortoise because there will always remain an unclosed interval between them. The appearance, then, that the hare catches and passes the tortoise is a deception"the way of seeming," as Parmenides termed it, and not the "way of truth." The conceptual truths of nature deny perceptual appearances.

The best-known successors to Parmenides are the atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. Perhaps the first truly modern theorists, they corrected Parmenidean conceptual excess. The variety and phenomena of nature were constituted by the arrangement of many "ones"that is, the atoms themselves. The perceptions of a changing world could now be admitted without undercutting nature's conceptual knowability. Atomic theory today traces its roots to Leucippus and Democritus.

Nature in Greek Rationalism

All these thinkers pale in comparison with Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), the greatest classical theorist. Aristotelian ideas of nature dominated Western civilization until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So pervasive is his influence that some believe Western intellectual history is little more than footnotes to his work. Only a partial description showing Aristotle's continuing influence can be included here.

First, Aristotle introduced the category of cause as a key explanatory feature for theorizing nature. He understood the diverse phenomena and different kinds in nature in terms of four causes: the formal, material, efficient, and final. Aristotle's account of causation surpasses the theories of his predecessors. For example, his notion of material cause chimes with the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus, and yet the atoms themselves are neither a final cause, since they have been set into original motion, nor an efficient cause, since they can be rearranged by other factors, including human agency.

Second, Aristotle argued that all motion is a consequence of an original, unmoved mover. Without the unmoved mover any causal sequence would entail an infinite regress. Aristotle's notion of an unmoved mover, while driven by his logical commitment to avoiding motion that cannot be explained, resonates not only with earlier Hebraic conceptions of a creator god but also with Parmenidean commitments to a final rational explanation for all that is, was, or ever will be. It also resonates with the Heraclitean stream of influence: natural processes and creatures move.

Third, Aristotle offered a theoretical account of living nature manifesting a sensitivity to the explanatory and descriptive requirements of the behavior of plants and animals. These motions could not be explained in the same way as those of inanimate objects. While not an evolutionary thinker in modern terms, he recognized the diversity of natural kinds with their characteristic patterns of reproduction and growth.

The theoretical legacy of the Greeks is highly significant. While it is an exaggeration to say that the period between the fall of Rome and the Middle Ages was a conceptual wasteland, and while descriptive accounts of nature flourished (in astronomy, for example), there were few developments beyond Aristotelian ideas. The Middle Ages brought some conceptual refinements, but no paradigmatic breakthroughs. For example, William of Ockham (c. 12851349?) deduced that a simpler explanation was to be preferred to a more complicated explanation when the explanatory power was equala logical principle of parsimony known as Ockham's razor. But it is the theorizing of classical Greek civilization that lives on, even if implicitly.

Nature during the Scientific Revolution

Facilitated in part by advances in instrumentation, such as the telescope and microscope, the scientific revolution brought paradigmatic change to the idea of nature. When Galileo Galilei (15641642) observed moons orbiting Jupiter on a predictable schedule, the consequences were enormous. Earth could no longer be conceived as the center of the cosmos, as the focal point of a godly creation. Bacteria were first observed by the Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek (16321723) in 1683 (although the science of bacteriology had not yet arrived). As with Galileo, so with Leeuwenhoek: the apparent reality of nature visible to the naked eye was not what it seemed.

Changes in instrumentation were accompanied by changes in the powers of mathematical analysis. Working independently, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) and Sir Isaac Newton (16421727) developed what is now called the calculus. The move into conceptual abstraction that began with the Greeks was radically transformed by such mathematics. The scientific idea of nature was more and more represented in terms of equations and laws, devoid of so-called secondary qualities such as color and sound. There was an increasing commitment to Parmenidean tendenciesthat is, the reduction of nature to permanence through mathematically described mechanical relations. The hallmark of rationality thus continued in the tradition of Parmenidean Onenature as an unchanging and therefore totally knowable singularitywhile admitting to diverse mathematical characterization of natural phenomena.

The scientific revolution is often thought of as culminating in the work of Newton and the view of nature according to what is now termed "classical physics." But Newton is best understood as both an original thinker and a synthesizer. The work of three other thinkers is indicative of his precursors.

The first of these thinkers was Francis Bacon (15611626), aptly characterized as the man who saw through time because he straddled the medieval and modern ages. A practicing scientist, his scientific discoveries are less significant than his radical new ideas concerning nature itself. Science, he realized, was powerpower over the natural world. And that power could lead human beings to a second world fashioned according to their wants and desires. Much of the utopian character of our own time, the belief that through the advance of theoretical knowledge and its technological application all problems might be solved, was first articulated by Bacon. His arguments effectively became a legitimating rationale for societal support of the natural sciences. While our rationales are primarily economic, his were ethical. He addressed the ancient problem of the fall into sin, which effectively sundered godly relations between humankind and nature. Toil and suffering, the ruined earth, affliction with drought and storm, insects and disease, were the consequences of the Fall. On the Baconian view a New Jerusalem could be had through the power of science to set nature right again, returning humans to an Edenic condition. Contemporary studies, including those based in critical, feminist theory, argue that the Baconian view of nature reflected an intensely hierarchical and patriarchal society. "Man" (meaning, the male members of the human species) would wrest scientific knowledge from an unwilling and unruly natural world, and through such knowledge gain power over "her."

The second was Galileo, an Italian physicist and astronomer famous for his encounters with the Inquisition, whose work in physics fundamentally undercut Aristotelian physics. Building on the theoretical work of Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), who overturned geocentrism, Johannes Kepler (15711630), who first theorized the laws of planetary motion and the sun's influence on planetary orbits, and Tycho Brahe (15461601), who had achieved unparalleled accuracy in measuring the motions of the heavens, Galileo brought a new mathematical precision to the description of planetary motion (ironically, believing wrongly that the motion was circular rather than elliptical) and to falling material objects. Through his many experiments and observations, Galileo realized that there was but one kind of motion in nature, whether celestial or terrestrial, not two as the Greeks had believed.

Third, the work of the Frenchman René Descartes (15961650) had a profoundly important influence on physics. Descartes invented analytical geometry, a technique that allowed the precise description of the trajectories of material bodies in motionlater refined by Newton. His further work on methodology (the method of analysis) was likewise crucial. He argued that the way to understand complex physical phenomena was to reduce them to simpler components until reaching the level of irreducibility. Finally, Descartes argued that the new science of physics, built on mathematical description and prediction, would make humankind the master and possessor of nature.

Isaac Newton's Nature

While the advances made by Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes were considerable, history's judgment is that Newton revolutionized Western thinking, dominating his age much as Aristotle did that of the Greeks. Many of his notions, such as the absolute nature of space and time, were repudiated in the twentieth century. And yet Newtonian ways of thinking rule today's culture, lying at the heart of our notion of human dignity as control over nature. We have institutionalized notions that nature is little more than atoms in mechanical and therefore predictable motion. So construed, nature becomes nothing but raw material awaiting technological conversion into goods of economic value.

Newton himself was not concerned with such derivations from his ideas, but with nature as matter in motion, especially the movements of the heavenly and terrestrial bodies. His invention of the reflecting telescope, the calculus (which he called his "fluxional method"), and the laws of motion coalesced in an ability to describe physical systems mathematically and thus to make accurate predictions. For Newton material atoms were the fundamental characteristic of nature, bound together by the force of gravity. Newton theorized the law of planetary attraction, which he argued varied inversely to the square of the distance from the sun. However, Edmond Halley (16561742) did more to popularize the Newtonian idea of nature than Newton himself. Using a Newtonian reflector and Newtonian physics, Halley calculated the orbit of what is now called Halley's Comet, accurately predicting its appearance in the night sky in the year 1758.

Classical science, as Newton's science is now called, and the scientific picture of the world and humankind's relation to it, became the way that Western civilization understood nature. But several problems with the classical view soon appeared. For one, nowhere in the cognizable world picture did human beings appearas if nature was devoid of human presence. Further, the Newtonian notion of nature facilitated naive realism, the notion that nature was known without interpretation, as if Newton had given us a "God's eye" view of nature as the way it was and forever would be. These conundrums continued throughout the twentieth century and remain with us today.

Nature in Darwin's Century

Classical science assumed that objectivity depended upon the separation of the knowing observer from the world of nature. Charles Darwin's (18091882) theory of evolution upset that assumed separation forever, reinserting humankind into a cognizable view of nature. Darwin's penetrating insights into the nature of our own humanityand the importance of languageare effectively a Copernican revolution in our self-understanding of the idea of nature itself. Humankind can no longer be thought of as separate from the cognizable world picture. The status of humankind as something apart from, rather than a part of, nature becomes, after Darwin, increasingly incomprehensible (consider, for example, Werner Heisenberg [19011976], who makes clear that not only are humans embedded within biophysical systems but that our observations themselves profoundly color what can be known).

As with Newton, so with Darwin's precursors, who framed the stage upon which he stood. First, the work of scientists in disparate disciplines, such as geology and paleontology, combined with Darwin's work in natural history, led to what can be termed the discovery of time in four crucial dimensions, beginning with geological time. Irish Archbishop James Ussher (15811656) had calculated the age of the Earth, based on biblical interpretation, as no more than 6,000 years. Charles Lyell (17971875) heralded the arrival of a scientifically informed grasp of the enormity of geological time. Lyell's theory of very slow but uniform change in the Earth upset the dominant theory of catastrophismthe notion of a ruined Earth as God's punishment for sin. Geological inquiry expanded the notion of time over almost unimaginably large temporal scales: Ussher's estimate was off by nearly six magnitudes.

Second, paleontology disclosed through the discovery of successive layers of the fossil record a continual transformation of the forms of life. The natural world could no longer be rationally understood as frozen into eternal forms, but only as a ceaseless flux. The work of Georges Cuvier (17691832) drew in part from the geological law of superposition. Fossilized life forms found in lower strata were necessarily older than those lying above. Cuvier also observed that the various strata themselves had characteristic life forms, suggesting a coming and going of great epochs of life.

Third, Darwin's own studies made clear that the process of natural selection had not only shaped but continued to shape the flora and fauna. His five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle provided the data that were soon interpreted as evidence for natural selection over biological time. The adaptive radiation manifest in his famous finches, whose beaks illustrated the evolutionary diversification of forms through adaptation, became an exemplary case study. While Darwin lacked any knowledge of the genetic basis for inheritance of advantageous characteristics, discovered by Gregor Mendel (18221882), he clearly understood that natural selection was governed by the principle of survival of the fittestan idea that the economist Thomas Malthus (17661834) had developed in relation to human populations.

Finally, near the end of the century, archeologists discovered the Paleolithic strata, a clear record of cultural transformation as successive generations of humans adapted their lives to the natural world. However dimly, these discoveries coalesced in a dawning awareness that humankind is a naturally evolved species that has moved into culturea symbolically mediated space from where nature is increasingly and continuously theorized. The ongoing inquiries of prehistoric archeology and paleoanthropology have fundamentally changed both the ways we think of ourselves and our ideas of nature.

Nature in the Twentieth Century

Reflecting the dominant notion of nature as nothing more than atomsin motion subject to mechanical laws, an unparalleled fusion of science, technology, and market capitalism colored the twentieth century. During the eighteenth century the Newtonian worldview was translated into an economic theory of marketplace capitalism by Adam Smith (17231790). Market societies of the twentieth century believed they possessed the power to bend nature to any and all human purposes. The rational exploitation of nature for human benefit was publicly and privately institutionalized. Wild rivers were tamed, deserts made to bloom, old-growth forests harvested. The apparent mastery of the atom heralded an era of nuclear energy in which power would be too cheap to meter. Modern chemistry promised better living. The "green revolution" offered agricultural plenty to the hungry masses. There would be no Malthusian limits to the growth of human population nor to its steady economic advance. Mirroring the dreams of Bacon's New Jerusalem, cultural progress seemed to be virtually a law of nature.

But perhaps the greatest changes were in the life sciences, especially biology and ecology. Both were profoundly affected by the molecular revolution and the Cartesian belief that complexity must be reduced to analytical simplicity. James D. Watson's and Francis Crick's discovery of the double helix as the structure of DNA in 1953 promised mastery over life itself. Molecular biology, supported by advances in scientific instrumentation, combined with market capitalism to offer the promise of organisms better than those produced by nature. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) became the rage in the late twentieth century. Biotechnology reinvigorated the Baconian dream of a second world. And yet, as the twentieth century wound down, scientific and other critics raised fundamental questions about the sustainability of a cultural trajectory built around the ideas of the scientific revolution. Classical physics, while theoretically useful, was neither the one, true view of nature nor the final word.

Twentieth-Century Ideas

There is no definitive twentieth-century idea of nature. The turn of the century marked the beginning of a virtual revolution in the work that collectively constitutes the new physics. Albert Einstein's (18791955) theory of special relativity challenged the Newtonian notion of absolute space and time. And yet Einstein's theories did not support conceptual relativism. He was a Parmenidean in modern guise. God, in his account, did not play dice with the universe. Einstein dedicated the last half of his life to discovery of what came to be known as God's equationa mathematical expression of the fundamental reality that explains all that there is, was, or will be.

The middle of the twentieth century might be represented through the work of Werner Heisenberg (19011976). If Einstein is a Parmenidean, then Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy and quantum theory manifest a Heraclitean vision. In his account, the very activity of the observation of nature made a profound difference in what was observed. Physical sciences could achieve relative precision in one measurement only by sacrificing certainty in another. Heisenberg's insights into the atom were equally brilliant. The particles within atoms did not, Heisenberg demonstrated, behave according to Newtonian mechanics. While the picture of nature offered by classical physics remains useful in certain domainsfor example, calculating the trajectories of flying objects or predicting the motions of planets and starsthe Newtonian view has lost intellectual hegemony.

The latter decades of the twentieth century can be represented by work of another Nobel laureate, Ilya Prigogine (19172003). Prigogine and many others constitute a rapidly growing epistemic community studying the phenomena of nature that are in disequilibriumincluding life itself. After embracing chaos theory, the possibility of definitive description disappears, as does the notion that complex phenomena can be disassembled into constituent parts and then reassembled. Biological and ecological scientists in particular have challenged reductionistic mechanism. The principle of superposition, which underlies the description and explanation of linear phenomena, has been repudiated by the life sciences, where nonlinearity rules.

The implications of such accounts for our idea of nature, as well as the conceptualization of our place in nature, are enormous. The belief that humankind has sure and certain knowledge of nature is untenable. While remaining useful assumptions at some scales of inquiry, atomism, reductionism, and mechanism are not absolutes. Laplacian determinism, the notion that, given sufficient knowledge of nature, sure and certain prediction of the future is possible, has been discredited. Radically new perspectives on the nature of nature and the cosmos itself have started to emerge. Time itself has clearly been recognized as a fourth and absolutely essential dimension of any comprehensive idea of nature.

The notion that humankind has dominion over the evolved world has also been discredited. Our knowledge of nature is limited, more contingency and probability than necessity and certainty. Increasingly the lack of equilibrium in the natural world gives evidence that our present interactions with it are unsustainable over biologically and ecologically meaningful scales of time. Political and economic temporal scales are known to be discordant with nature's temporal horizons. The fragility of humankind's dominion is clearly manifest in multiple dysfunctional relations between cultural and natural systems. Despite the received idea of nature, nature profoundly acts on culture. The idea of nature as a passive material world over which humankind has dominion has failed, gravely intensifying the question of humankind's place in nature. Conceptual developments in areas such as cosmology also lead to a chastened view of our place in nature. The visible material cosmos is a very small portion of reality. Dark matter, as it turns out, while unseen, is as consequential in understanding the cosmos as visible matter.

As the twentieth century ended, the notion of a discord between the culturally dominant idea of nature and nature itself gained credence. The cultural system, which had given birth to and nurtured the idea of nature as passive matter in motion, subject to reductionistic explanation and technological control, began to experience pervasive environmental dys-functions. The anthropogenic depletion of stratospheric ozone, collapse of oceanic fisheries, deforestation of Amazonia, disruption of global weather patterns, and extinction of biodiversity posed ominous warnings as well as major conceptual challenges that can only be met by articulating alternative ideas of nature and humankind's place therein.

Nature in the Third Millennium

Clearly, the idea of nature is semantically and conceptually conflicted. If we think of nature as meaningful across multiple temporal and spatial scales, from the cosmic to the subatomic, then we can also understand that our dysfunctional relations are due in part to our lack of either the ability or the commitment to integrate knowledge of nature across scales. Contemporary thinkers argue that the hold of ancient dreams, especially the return to the Garden, must be put behind. And the failed idea of nature inherited from classical science must be replaced by alternative ways of conceptualizing nature and our place therein.

Some of these emerging ideas were first broached in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by alternative voices such Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, and then more vigorously in the latter part of the twentieth century by Ilya Prigogine and Edward O. Wilson. Thoreau argued that the best humankind could hope for was a sympathy with the intelligence of nature rather than sure and certain knowledge. Leopold, observing the destruction of nature at an unprecedented scale, argued that humans should think of themselves as citizens of the land community rather than as the conquerors of nature. Near the end of the century Prigogine argued that humankind must, for the first time in its history, engage the evolved complexity of the natural world in dialogue, as a conversational partner. And Wilson made clear that humankind's actions over the first few decades of the new millennium would have profound consequences for the future of life.

As a linguistically reflexive, naturally evolved yet culturally self-conscious species, we might yet find our way into more tenable and less destructive notions of nature. But the challenge is enormous. How might we break free of the notion that we are the dominators of a brute, blind, material world of nature into an idea that leads us to restore some sense of ourselves as natural creatures, living in harmony with nature, while also retaining our distinctive cultural identity? There is no ready answer. Perhaps we will come to know the idea of nature more fully when we have come more fully to realize the enormity of time and our own historicity. There are reasons to think, as we enter the twenty-first century, that humankind might come to embrace an idea of nature that includes ourselves as cognizing subjects within it while not reducing ourselves to it.

See also Aristotelianism ; Biology ; Development ; Ecology ; Evolution ; Life ; Life Cycle ; Natural History ; Naturphilosophie ; Newtonianism ; Organicism ; Physics ; Science, History of ; Scientific Revolution ; State of Nature .


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Max Oelschlaeger

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NATURE. Nature is often taken to be the reality of the physical and material world. It is placed in opposition to culture, the product of human intervention and production. Yet historians recognize that nature is actually a product of human culturea complex concept that has changed according to the views of particular individuals and cultures in history. Nature can be thought of in terms of its componentsfor example, the cosmos or material substancesand it can be conceptualized as an entity in itself. In both respects the early modern era marked numerous controversies concerning the nature of nature and concerning the makeup and behavior of its constituent components.


Any investigation of the idea of nature in the early modern era must take into account the Aristotelian framework that was defended well into the seventeenth century. Aristotle explicated his views on nature (physis in Greek) in the second book of Physics, in the seventh book of Metaphysics, and in the first book of Parts of Animals. He considered the natural and the artificial to be distinctly separate entities. Animals, plants, and the four Aristotelian elementsearth, air, fire, and waterexist by nature. A natural thing has an essence that makes it a genuine kind of species. It possesses the principle of movement or change and rest within itself. This principle can entail local motion, that is, growth and shrinkage, or qualitative changes, that is, modifications. Nature is the distinct form of things that have within themselves the principle of motion. That form moves toward its final cause or goal, for the sake of which it exists. In contrast, art can imitate nature but can never be natural. Artificial things do not have a principle of motion. Any change to a fabricated object is accomplished by the actions of an external agent. A tree grows by nature, whereas a house must be built by a builder. Art is separate from nature and is always inferior to it.

The Aristotelian natural world, described most completely in Aristotle's On the Heavens, was made up of two spheres, the sublunar and the supralunar. In the sublunar sphere matter consisted of four elementsearth, air, fire, and watereach of which had a tendency to move to its natural place. Earthly bodies, for example, tended to move down toward the center of the Earth, whereas fiery bodies tended to move up. Motion contrary to such natural motion, as when a stone (made of the element earth) was thrown upward, was unnatural or violent. The region above the Moon was made up of the quintessential element that was entirely different from the four sublunar elements. This fifth element was unchanging and perfect. Its natural motion was circular. Aristotle argued that the elements that made up the cosmos were eternal, rather than created. Matter was continuous. The universe was not infinite but limited, the cosmos was circular, and the Earth was at rest in the center.

Early modern scholars and natural philosophers were thoroughly schooled in the principles of the Aristotelian natural world and in the complex traditions of commentary and discussion that surrounded it. The Aristotelian corpus provided the foundation of the university curriculum. Natural philosophy, which included both the physical and the life sciences, was particularly emphasized in the Italian universities, where it was considered prerequisite to the study of medicine.

Particular discoveries or interpretations that arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries undermined the entire Aristotelian edifice of nature. The heliocentric system of Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543) provided an alternative to Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology but also subverted the Aristotelian doctrine of the natural place of the element earth. Galileo Galilei's (15641642) comparison of the surface of the Moon to that of the Earth and his discovery of the moons of Jupiter suggested that the supralunar realm was identical to the sublunar. Observations of comets and sunspots suggested novelty in the heavens rather than the presence of an unchanging quintessential element.


Renaissance humanism entailed an intellectual movement focused on moral philosophy, history, and rhetoric that included an intense interest in antiquity and the desire to restore Latin to the language of Cicero. By the late fifteenth century humanists had begun to influence the university curriculum. In their rediscovery and extensive study of ancient texts, they reedited the works of Aristotle and brought other ancient works into view. For example, Lucretius's atomism, explicated in the newly discovered On the Nature of Things, could be set against the Aristotelian doctrine of continuous matter. The many Neoplatonic texts that became available from the late fifteenth century provided a basis for the development of new philosophies of nature.

In the Theologia Platonica (1482; Platonic theology) Marsilio Ficino (14331499) posited the universe as a hierarchy of being in which a rational soul (that included the human soul within it) was at the center of the universe between the perceptible corporeal world and the noncorporeal intelligible one. Ficino believed that the cosmos and its forces exhibited numerous correspondences among all the different levels. Other natural philosophers, influenced by Ficinian Platonism, developed innovative visions of the natural order. Bernardino Telesio (15091588) postulated that the principles of heat and cold constituted the causes of all earthly processes, while the Sun, a unique natural fire, provided the underlying motive force. Telesio's system of nature was characterized by "the living character of everything and the consequent connections between man and the cosmos" (Ingegno, p. 252). Giordano Bruno (15481600) endorsed the Copernican system of Earth moving around the Sun but went beyond Copernicus in his description of an infinite universe of innumerable solar systems in which the elemental processes were everywhere the same. Francesco Patrizi (15291597) wrote an immense encyclopedia of natural philosophy, Nova de Universis Philosophia (1591; New philosophy of universes), in which he suggested that the illumination of the world proceeds from the first divine light. This illumination, which is both corporeal and noncorporeal, fills all space and motivates all heavenly and earthly processes. It is a hierarchical universe in which soul is intermediary between the corporeal and noncorporeal realms.

The new philosophies of nature often placed the individual human soul in contact with the divine and with the spirits of the noncorporeal cosmos. Many such philosophies included a doctrine of correspondences in which things within both physical and noncorporeal realms reflected and influenced one another. The belief in the ability to exert influence from a distance through correspondence underlay magical outlooks wherein the magus or magician could manipulate divine powers for material ends. Renaissance nature philosophers were often anti-Aristotelian, and they were vulnerable to charges of using demonic magic and of heresy. Patrizi's vast encyclopedia was put on the Index of Prohibited Books by the Roman Inquisition. Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.


Lorraine Daston has noted that early modern views of nature can be investigated only if the modern dichotomy between nature and culture is put aside. The early modern period instead utilized a variety of categories defined vis-à-vis the natural. The super-natural was a category largely created by Thomas Aquinas (12251274) in the thirteenth century. He viewed miraclessupernatural eventsas God's intervention in the natural order and therefore above that order. A second category, "preter-natural," described events that were highly unusual, "beyond nature," but not supernatural. Examples include monstrous births, bizarre weather, the occult powers of plants and minerals, and other deviations from ordinary natural events. A third category, the artificial, comprised objects fabricated by humans that could imitate nature but could never become part of the natural world. Finally, the unnatural was a moral category used to describe acts, such as patricide and bestiality, that transgressed the natural order ordained by God.

During the early modern era the boundaries that defined these categories were increasingly called into question. Miracles as events brought about by supernatural intervention became contested territory in the context of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic reform movements. A religious movement labeled "enthusiasm" developed in northern Germany, England, and the Netherlands in which members of Quaker and other Pietist religious groups claimed direct experience of the Divine as a result of enthusiastic inspiration. Yet the enthusiasts were condemned as a threat to political order and religious orthodoxy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enthusiasm and miracles in the present (as opposed to the distant past) became increasingly unacceptable within established political and religious orders.

The category of the preternatural presents a complicated history. From the sixteenth century through the mid-seventeenth century natural philosophers, such as Girolamo Cardano (15011576), Pietro Pompanazzi (14621525), and Francis Bacon (15611626), focused on preternatural events, such as celestial aberrations, monstrous births, and other odd occurrences. Such events became a significant focus of the early scientific societies as even the briefest perusal of the Transactions of the Royal Society attests. By the 1720s, however, these wonders of nature came to be largely ignored. Preternatural phenomena had been subsumed under the natural.

Substantial evidence points to a further developmentthe disappearance of the boundary between the natural and the artificial. Objects of nature and objects of art came to be interchangeable. In the 1490s Leonardo da Vinci (14521519), in his treatise on machines and mechanics, Madrid Codex I, made analogies between natural and constructed objects as a way of trying to understand the workings of each. Little more than a century later Bacon and René Descartes (15961650) each insisted upon the identity of the essential attributes of the artificial and the natural. Such identity and interchangeability was evident in the great collections naturalists accumulated in the seventeenth century. These collections displayed a mixed conglomeration of natural specimens, preternatural wonders, and objects made by humans. Human artifice had gained in status, taking its place beside and becoming interchangeable with the myriad objects of the natural world.


Attitudes toward nature were influenced by the growing importance of material objects within society and by the exchange of those objects within commercial relationships that extended across Europe and beyond. Early modern Europeans exhibited a growing interest in conspicuous consumption as well as a fascination with novelty, including objects and marvels from lands recently discovered and colonized. The makers of objectsartisans and men and women skilled in craftsenjoyed increased cultural status that developed as a result of the growing positive valuation of practice and hands-on experience. Artisans began to value their practices as generative of a kind of knowledge derived from direct and intimate experience with materials and with nature. Artisan-trained individuals and others of various backgrounds wrote books in which they validated their own experience by means of the authority of nature. For example, the potter Bernard Palissy (15101589) described his many experiments to find a formula for a new glaze and repeatedly endorsed the value of practice over theory. The physician Paracelsus (14931541) not only railed against the book learning of contemporary medicine in the universities but also endorsed direct experience with nature as essential to knowledge concerning the natural world, including knowledge of health and disease. Reading the "book of nature" for Paracelsus entailed experiencing it directly and thereby being able to read God's "signatures," external signs that revealed the internal nature of things.

Bacon's empirical approach envisaged a vast cooperative project of collecting the facts of nature. Bacon hoped to create detailed descriptions of natural phenomena and of processes of the "mechanical arts," such as metallurgy and glassmaking. From such histories, Bacon advocated the creation of axioms that would allow humans to read the "book of nature." For Bacon this book was authored by God. Humans could know God's works through its operations, to be had through the senses. Words are not "reliable signs of things." Rather, things provide "the only reliable criteria for shaping words properly" (Bono, pp. 218220). The "secrets" of nature can be discovered initially through the collection of sense data and through controlled experiments. Simple data collection is insufficient, however. Careful creation of axioms and an attempt to understand the relationship of diverse things to each other would allow the book of nature to be understood.

Increasingly the observations of particulars and the positive valuation of individual experience gained credibility as a way of knowing the natural world. Individual experience and observation could be used in a variety of waysthe investigation of plants and animals, the gathering and study of objects both natural and fabricated in collections, or the dissection of human bodies. Individuals from a variety of backgrounds undertook to discover the "secrets" of nature, sometimes characterizing their pursuit as a kind of hunt. Perhaps, as one scholar has suggested, a traditional view of natureas an inviolable, feminine entity to be protected from curiosity and aggressive explorationdeclined.

Especially from the late sixteenth century investigators began to construct special kinds of individual experiences known as experiments. Experimentation developed as a great variety of practices designed to test and validate knowledge claims about the natural world. The experimenters were compelled to defend their methods against the Aristotelians. The Aristotelian term common experience referred to experience agreed upon by everyone. In contrast to the evident and universal premises of Aristotelian experience, experimenters claimed knowledge as a result of specialized, contrived experience using often complex apparatus or instrumentation. Much investigation in the history of science has been devoted to analyzing specific experiments to understand what was done, how the experiment was taken to verify particular claims about the natural world, and the ways in which the experiment was "legitimated." Often in the early modern era the reports of reliable "witnesses" lent credibility to the claims of the experimenter.

An important development was the application of mathematics to physical phenomena. This took many forms, from Galileo's analysis of balls rolling down inclined planes to Isaac Newton's (16421727) experiments in geometric optics. The new "physico-mathematics" of the seventeenth century rejected Aristotelian assumptions that made mathematics a self-referential discipline irrelevant to the material world and physics nonmathematical. It also either implicitly or explicitly assumed that nature itself was in some way mathematical. Descartes removed mind and spirit from the physical world and defined physical matter as extension. If the world comprised geometric extension, it could be understood by analyzing the mathematical relationships within it.


Descartes developed a view of nature and its workings called "the mechanical philosophy." For Descartes the world consisted of particles of matter that move whenever necessity forces them to move. Matter was extension in three dimensions. Natural philosophy consisted of describing the mechanisms of moving particles as they produced all the variable phenomena of nature. The universe was a plenum. Motion was possible because the entire mass of matter moved together. The universe consisted of a huge number of immense particle whirlpools called vortices. Particulate matter in motion explained all phenomena in nature. The mechanical philosophy developed by Descartes was highly influential. Although Descartes's successors modified the particulars of his system, it dominated European thought by the end of the seventeenth century.

Descartes first formulated physical laws that could be expressed mathematically and that were valid for all physical phenomena. Appearing in chapter seven of The World (16291633), they concerned inertia, collusion, and a law stating that particles of matter tended to move in a straight line. Later philosophers, such as Christiaan Huygens (16291695) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), criticized some of Descartes's specific conclusions but continued to describe the physical world in terms of laws that governed matter in motion. Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) included the three laws of motion that laid the foundation for classical physics. Newton's laws described the motion of bodies and the mathematical relationships between the forces that governed those motions.

In the eighteenth century, the "Age of Enlightenment" as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) first called it, the notion prevailed that a scientific revolution had occurred in the prior century and that it was ongoing. The two key words of the Enlightenment were "reason" and "nature." The laws of reason had become synonymous with the laws of nature. Experimentation had become the way of reasoning about nature. Enlightenment philosophers and the public alike made Newton into a hero. They attempted to find further natural laws that would predict natural events completely and accurately. They sought greater determinism in nature. Although they did not fully succeed, most Enlightenment natural philosophers believed that experiment would continue to augment the progress that had occurred in understanding the natural world.

See also Bacon, Francis ; Bruno, Giordano ; Copernicus, Nicolaus ; Descartes, René ; Earth, Theories of the ; Enlightenment ; Galileo Galilei ; Huygens Family ; Kant, Immanuel ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Leonardo da Vinci ; Newton, Isaac ; Paracelsus ; Scientific Method ; Scientific Revolution .


Primary Sources

Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. 2 vols. Rev. Oxford translation. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, 1984.

Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology. 3 vols. Edited by James Hankins and William Bowen. Translated by Michael J. B. Allen and John Warden. Cambridge, Mass., 20012003. Translation of Theologia Platonica.

Galilei, Galileo. Sidereus Nuncius; or, The Sidereal Messenger. Translated by Albert van Helden. Chicago, 1989. The best English translation.

. Two New Sciences Including Centers of Gravity and Force of Percussion. 2nd ed. Translated by Stillman Drake. Toronto, 1989. The best English translation.

Newton, Isaac. The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Translated by I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999. Includes an extensive and useful guide by Cohen.

Secondary Sources

Bono, James J. The Word of God and the Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern Science and Medicine. Vol. 1, Ficino to Descartes. Madison, Wis., 1995.

Daston, Lorraine. "The Nature of Nature in Early Modern Europe." Configurations 6 (1998): 149172.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 11501750. New York, 1998.

Dear, Peter. Discipline & Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago, 1995.

Eamon, William. Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton, 1994.

Grendler, Paul F. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore, 2002.

Hankins, Thomas L. Science and the Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Hattab, Helen. "Laws of Nature." In Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton, edited by Wilbur Applebaum, pp. 354357. New York, 2000.

Ingegno, Alfonso. "The New Philosophy of Nature." In The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, edited by Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner, pp. 236263. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco, 1980.

Osler, Margaret J., ed. Rethinking the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air- Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, 1985.

Smith, Pamela H. The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago, 2003.

Smith, Pamela H., and Paula Findlen, eds. Merchants & Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. New York, 2002.

Pamela O. Long

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Nature refers to the source out of which something has come into being. The word nature is derived from the Latin natura (birth) or nasci (to be born). A similar meaning is found in the Greek physis, which means growth. The concept of nature holds a variety of meanings, depending on the relation in which it is understood. In a political setting, nature is often seen in contrast to custom, culture, and law. In religious terms, nature is often opposed to grace and spirit. Viewed philosophically, nature can be understood in contrast to history and freedom. Nature can also be seen as: (1) the object of scientific observation and enquiry; (2) a normative notion, such as the question of "natural" behavior; (3) an essential notion, such as human "nature"; and (4) a notion concerning evidence, as in the exclamation "naturally!" These different meanings can be taken either as a sign of the philosophically problematic use of this notion or its need of specification.

Historical overview

Several of these concepts have their roots in ancient Greek philosophy. In pre-Socratic philosophy nature was seen in contrast to relativism. Cultures varied, but nature was considered constant and was therefore regarded as ethically normative. Aristotle, who understood nature in teleological terms, carried the notion of the normativity even further. The essence (form) of natural beings carried with it a certain purpose that determined the good life. The morally good life was believed to be in accordance with nature, an understanding further developed in Stoic philosophy, which argued for life in accordance with nature.

These concepts of nature had an enduring impact on theological and philosophical thought during the Middle Ages. During this period, however, a contrast between nature and the supernatural was increasingly endorsed. Nature was distinguished from the divine. For the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), however, nature was not opposed to the divine. Aquinas maintained an analogy of being (analogia entis ) between eternal law (lex aeterna ), the constitutive law of being that is identical to divine reason, and natural law (lex naturalis ), which is understood as the participation of the rational being in eternal law.

During the sixteenth century, nature could also be set in contrast to divine will. Consequently, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, nature became increasingly understood as morally neutral. As physics became identified with mechanics during the scientific revolution, nature came to be understood in mechanistic terms, as something that could be described with physical laws. This change in the role of the sciences, and the corresponding change in the understanding of nature, implied a different relation to nature. Nature became understood as that which was different from human beings and that which humans, as rational beings, were to control. The natural sciences served this purpose as knowledge about nature was regarded as power over nature.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) had an enduring impact on the scientific understanding of nature. According to Kant, the different objects of nature could not be known in themselves, but could only be known as appearances determined by the epistemological categories of space and time. Consequently, Kant's transcendental philosophy implied that in the apprehension of nature human beings were structuring the very same nature. Kant became influential for his emphasis on the interrelation between nature as an object and the formative impact of the human apprehension of nature.

Another fundamental turn in the scientific understanding of nature was the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). According to Darwin's theory of evolution, new species originated from other species, and natural life was formed according to the principles of variation and natural selection. This view of nature has often been seen as opposed to a theological understanding of nature as designed by God. As a consequence, nature was no longer considered as good in itself, but as morally ambiguous.

Modern scientific concepts of nature

In a contemporary setting, the diversity of the notions of nature is as varied as in previous epochs, with a host of holistic, religious, and ecological understandings in play. Karen Gloy has demonstrated how an organicist notion of nature has been in use since the Renaissance. The ecological mode is present in environmental ethics. The philosopher J. Baird Callicott argues that nature is to be seen as a biotic community. Based on evolutionary theory, nature is regarded as an interrelated, interdependent, ecological web of life, which raises the ethical implication that the good is defined as that which furthers the stability of the biotic community. Jürgen Moltmann endorses a theological understanding of evolution in which evolutionary theory is not contrary to the doctrine of creation. Like Callicott, Moltmann argues that the ecological community of life serves as the basis of the moral demand to preserve nature. Furthermore, both Callicott and Moltmann endorse the connection between a holistic and normative notion of nature.

In other theories, nature is seen as self-organizing. Niels Henrik Gregersen views nature in the light of autopoietic systems theory. It is argued that the Christian theology of creation is not contrary to an understanding of nature as self-productive. God's self-consistency and self-relativization in exchange with nature is endorsed. God not only sustains nature but is also seen as a structuring cause. Michael Welker challenges the traditional concept of creation. Often creation is understood as a unique act of bringing into existence, but Welker argues that God is not simply active but also reactive in the creation of the world. The act of creation is an interaction between God and the activity and productivity of nature. Both Gregersen and Welker argue for the self-productivity of nature.

Nature continues to be a fundamental religious, philosophical, and scientific concept. The variety of meanings and aspects to this notion is perhaps one source of its continuing appeal to various discourses of enquiry.

See also Autopoiesis; Kant, Immanuel


callicott, j. baird. in defense of the land ethic. essays in environmental philosophy. albany: state university of new york press, 1989.

darwin, charles. on the origin of species (1859). new york: bantam, 1999.

gloy, karen. das verständnis der natur. i die geschichte des wissenschaftlichen denkens. munich, germany: verlag c. h. beck, 1995.

gloy, karen. das verständnis der natur. ii die geschichte des ganzheitlichen denkens. munich, germany: verlag c. h. beck, 1996.

gregersen, niels henrik. "the idea of creation and the theory of autopoietic processes." zygon 33, no. 3 (1998): 333367.

moltmann, jürgen. god in creation: a new theology of creation and the spirit of god, trans. margaret kohl. san francisco: harper, 1985.

soper, kate. what is nature? culture, politics and the non-human. oxford: blackwell, 1995.

welker, michael. "what is creation?: reading genesis 1 and 2." theology today 48, no. 1 (1991): 5671.

ulrik b. nissen

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Mathematics is widespread in nature, and mathematical concepts are essential to understanding the biosphere, the rocks and oceans, and the atmosphere. This article explores a few examples.

The Fibonacci Series

In 1202 a monk in Italy, by the name of Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci, wanted to know how fast rabbits could breed in ideal circumstances. Suppose a newly born pair of rabbits, one male, one female, are put in a field. Rabbits are able to mate at the age of 1 month. So at the end of its second month, a female can produce another pair of rabbits. Suppose that these rabbits never die and that the female always produces one new pair (one male, one female) every month from the second month on. The puzzle that Fibonacci posed was: How many pairs would there be after 1 year?

  1. At the end of the first month, they mate, but there is still only one pair.
  2. At the end of the second month the female produces a new pair, so now there are two pairs of rabbits in the field.
  3. At the end of the third month, the original female produces a second pair, making three pairs in the field.
  4. At the end of the fourth month, the original female has produced yet another new pair, the female born two months ago produces her first pair also, making five pairs.

The resulting series of numbers, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, , is known as the Fibonacci series. Fibonacci's experiment is not very realistic, of course, because it implies that brothers and sisters mate, which leads to genetic problems. But the Fibonacci series is puzzlingly common in nature.

Bees. The Fibonacci series is evident in generations of honeybees. For instance, in a colony of honeybees there is one special female called the queen. There are many worker bees who are female too, but unlike the queen bee, they do not produce eggs. Then there are drone bees who are male and do no work. Males are produced by the queen's unfertilized eggs, so male bees have only a mother but no father. In contrast, females are produced when the queen has mated with a male, and so females have two parents. Females usually end up as worker bees but some are fed with a special substance, called "royal jelly," which makes them grow into queens ready to start a new colony when the bees form a swarm and leave their hive in search of a place to build a new nest.

Let's look at the family tree of a male drone bee ("he").

  1. He had one parent, a female.
  2. He has two grandparents, since his mother had two parents, a male and a female.
  3. He has three great-grandparents: his grandmother had two parents but his grandfather had only one.
  4. How many great-great-grandparents did he have?

Here is the sequence:

Number of parents: grand parents: great-grand parents: great, great grand parents: gt, gt, gt grand parents:
of a male bee: 1 2 3 5 8
of a female bee: 2 3 5 8 13

Flowers and Other Plants. Another example of the Fibonacci series is the number of petals of flowers: lilies and iris have three petals; buttercups have five petals; some delphiniums have eight; corn marigolds have thirteen petals; some asters have twenty-one whereas daisies can be found with thirty-four or fifty-five petals. The series can also be found in the spiral arrangement of seeds on flowerheads, for instance on sunflowers, and in the structure of pinecones. In both cases the reason seems to be that this forms an optimal packing of the seeds (or cone studs) so that, no matter how large the seed-head (or cones), they are uniformly packed, and about the same size.

The Fibonacci series also appears in the position of a sequence of leaves on a stem. It should be noted that among plants there are other number sequences and aberrations. In other words, the Fibonacci series is really not a universal law, but only a fascinatingly prevalent tendency in nature.

The Golden Number (Phi)

If we take the ratio of two successive numbers in a Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, ), dividing each number by the number before it, we will find the following series of numbers:

The ratio seems to be approaching a particular value known as the golden number, or Phi (ϕ ). It has the value of 1.61804. The golden number is an amazingly universal constant. It turns out that ϕ = 1 + 1/ϕ, or ϕ 2 = ϕ + 1.

Plants grow from a single tiny group of cells right at the tip of any growing plant, called the meristem. There is a separate meristem at the end of each branch or twig and it is here that new cells are formed. Once formed, they grow in size. Cells earlier down the stem expand and so the growing point rises. These cells grow in a spiral fashion, as if the stem turns by an angle and then a new cell appears, turning again and then another new cell is formed and so on. These cells may then become a new branch, or perhaps on a flower become petals and stamens.

The amazing thing is that a single fixed angle can produce the optimal design no matter how big the plant grows. If this angle is an exact fraction of a full turn, for example, (120°), then leaves of a vertical branch will be on top of each other. The fraction needs to be an irrational number. It turns out that if there are ϕ (or approximately 1.6) leaves per turn, then each leaf gets the maximum exposure to light, casting the least shadow on the others. This also gives the best possible area exposed to falling rain so the rain is directed back along the leaf and down the stem to the roots. For flowers or petals, it gives the best possible exposure to insects to attract them for pollination. And this angle optimizes the seeds on a sunflower. The Fibonacci numbers merely form the best whole number approximations to the golden number, ϕ.

see also Chaos; Fibonacci, Leonardo Pisano; Fractals; Golden Section.

Bart Geerts


Garland, Trudi H. Fascinating Fibonaccis: Mystery and Magic in Numbers. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymore Publications, 1987.

Mandelbrot, Benoit B. The Fractal Geometry of Nature. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1984.

Schneider, Michael S. A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

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na·ture / ˈnāchər/ • n. 1. the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations: the breathtaking beauty of nature. ∎  the physical force regarded as causing and regulating these phenomena: it is impossible to change the laws of nature. See also Mother Nature. ∎  the countryside, esp. when picturesque. ∎ archaic a living thing's vital functions or needs. 2. [in sing.] the basic or inherent features of something, esp. when seen as characteristic of it: helping them to realize the nature of their problems | there are a lot of other documents of that nature. ∎  the innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal: it's not in her nature to listen to advice | I'm not violent by nature. See also human nature. ∎  inborn or hereditary characteristics as an influence on or determinant of personality. Often contrasted with nurture. ∎  archaic a person of a specified character: Emerson was so much more luminous a nature. PHRASES: against nature unnatural or immoral. someone's better nature the good side of a person's character; their capacity for tolerance, generosity, or sympathy: Charlotte planned to appeal to his better nature. call of nature used euphemistically to refer to a need to urinate or defecate. from nature (in art) using natural scenes or objects as models: I wanted to paint landscape directly from nature. get (or go) back to nature return to the type of life (regarded as being more in tune with nature) that existed before the development of complex industrial societies. in the nature of similar in type to or having the characteristics of: the promise was in the nature of a check that bounced. in the nature of things 1. inevitable: it is in the nature of things that the majority of music prizes get set up for performers rather than composers. 2. inevitably: in the nature of things, old people spend much more time indoors. in a state of nature 1. in an uncivilized or uncultivated state. 2. totally naked. 3. Christian Theol. in a morally unregenerate condition, unredeemed by divine grace. the nature of the beast inf. the inherent or essential quality or character of something, which cannot be changed. ORIGIN: Middle English (denoting the physical power of a person): from Old French, from Latin natura ‘birth, nature, quality,’ from nat- ‘born,’ from the verb nasci.

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nature the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations; the physical force regarded as causing and regulating these phenomena, especially as personified as Dame Nature, Mother Nature.

Nature is also used for the basic or inherent features of something, especially when seen as characteristic of it; the innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal. In the Middle Ages, and since in some theological use, these features were seen as given by God and arising out of his creation.

Recorded from Middle English (denoting the physical power of a person), the word comes via Old French from Latin natura ‘birth’.
against nature unnatural in a way perceived as immoral.
go back to nature return to the type of life (regarded as being in tune with nature) that existed before the development of industrial societies.
Nature abhors a vacuum proverbial saying, mid 16th century; the Latin phrase, natura abhorret vacuum, is quoted in Rabelais' Gargantua (1534) as an article of ancient wisdom.
nature and nurture heredity and environment as influences on, or the determinants of, personality or behaviour; there has been a long debate on which, if either, is dominant. The phrase in this form is recorded from the late 19th century, but Shakespeare's Tempest juxtaposes the concepts in the description of Caliban.
the nature of the beast the (undesirable but unchangeable) inherent or essential quality or character of the thing; an expression recorded from the late 17th century.
Nature red in tooth and claw a ruthless personification of the creative and regulative physical power conceived of as operating in the material world; the phrase is originally from Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850).

See also balance of nature, you can drive out Nature with a pitchfork.

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290. Nature

See also 133. EARTH ; 142. ENVIRONMENT

the study of the sources and formation of amber. ambrologic, ambrological, adj.
the assignment of a humanlike soul to nature. anthropopsychic, adj.
the study of inanimate nature.
the quality of chemical activities, properties, or relationships.
a person who advocates the conservation of the natural resources of a country or region. conservational, adj.
etiology, aetiology
the science of the causes of natural phenomena. etiologic, aetiologic, etiological, aetiological, adj.
the worship of nature. physiolater, n. physiolatrous, adj.
the body of wisdom about nature.
1. the principle or concept of growth and change in nature.
2. nature considered as the source of growth and change.
3. something that grows or develops.
1. the assignment of a physical form to a god.
2. the deification and worship of natural phenomena; physiolatry.
produced by natural rather than divine or human forces.
a dissertation on the wonders of nature. thaumatographic, adj.

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nature essential qualities or innate character of; vital powers of XIII; inherent power dominating one's action; creative and regulative power in the world XIV; material world XVII. — (O)F. — L. nātūra, f. pp. stem of nāscī (see NATAL).
So natural XIV. Earlier naturel — (O)F. naturel, †natural. — L. nātūrālis. naturalize XVI. — F. naturaliser. naturalism system of morality having natural basis XVII; extreme form of realism XIX. — F.

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"nature." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

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"nature." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from


naturecatcher, dacha, focaccia, patcher, scratcher, snatcher, stature, thatcher •facture, fracture, manufacture •capture, enrapture, rapture •flycatcher • oystercatcher •archer, departure, kwacha, marcher, starcher, viscacha •pasture •etcher, fetcher, fletcher, lecher, sketcher, stretcher •conjecture, lecture •sepulture •denture, misadventure, peradventure •divesture, gesture, vesture •texture • architecture • nature •magistrature •bleacher, creature, feature, headteacher, Katowice, Nietzsche, preacher, screecher, teacher •schoolteacher •ditcher, hitcher, pitcher, stitcher, twitcher •Chibcha •picture, stricture •filcher • simcha •cincture, tincture •scripture •admixture, commixture, fixture, intermixture, mixture •expenditure • forfeiture •discomfiture • garniture •primogeniture, progeniture •miniature • furniture • temperature •portraiture • literature •divestiture, vestiture

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