Skip to main content
Select Source:



Biology comes from the Greek word for life, bis, and the Greek word for thought or reasoning, logos. It denotes the science that studies life, the properties and processes that sustain life, the evolutionary history of life, and particular living organisms. It is a science of enormous diversity, breadth, and heterogeneity unified only by the conceptual framework provided by the theory of evolution. Indeed, as famously noted in 1973 by the Russian evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (19001975), "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution"a quote now replicated in so many university-level textbooks that it is almost a dictum in modern biology.

One reason for the diversity of biology comes from the staggering diversity of organisms that can be considered living. These range from viruses, bacteria, and fungi to plants and animals, including humans. Another reason is that life can be studied on various levels in a hierarchy that ranges from the organic-macromolecular level to genes, cells, tissues, organs, and entire organisms. Furthermore, organisms interact in, and can be organized into, families, communities, societies, species, populations, biomes or biota, and perhaps even the global systems (as in the controversial Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the earth itself is a living organism). To a large extent, biological subdisciplines are organized around each of these levels of activity or organization. Thus, for example, cellular biology, or cytology (coming from the Greek word cyto for cell), deals specifically with the study of cells, while ecology (coming from the Greek word oikos for habitat) deals with interactions between populations, species, communities, and biomes and the processes that sustain them. Since biology deals immediately with living organisms and processes, it has a large applied component. It touches on medical and health-related areas, pharmacy, agriculture, forestry, and biological oceanography. In contemporary society, the promises and problems associated with applications of biology are staggering. They range from stem-cell research, the development and use of genetically modified organisms, and the use of biological tools as identity markers (as in DNA "fingerprinting") to the possibility of designer babies and human cloning. Whereas the physical sciences and their applications dominated science for much of the history of science, the biological sciences now dominate both popular and scientific discussions, especially after the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. Viewing the revolution precipitated by the applications of biology to society at the closing of the twentieth century, many commentators anticipate that the new century will be the century of biology.

The Origins of Biology

Though biology is generally regarded as a modern science with late origins in the early to mid-nineteenth century, it drew on varied traditions, practices, and areas of inquiry beginning in antiquity. Traditional histories of biology generally target two areas that merged into modern biological science: medicine and natural history. The tradition of medicine dates back to the work of ancient Greek medical practitioners such as Hippocrates of Kos (b. 460 b.c.e.) and to figures such as Galen of Pergamum (c. 130c. 200), who contributed much to early understanding of anatomy and physiology. The tradition of natural history dates back to the work of Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.). Especially important are his History of Animals and other works where he showed naturalist leanings. Also important is the work of Aristotle's student Theophrastus (d. 287 b.c.e.), who contributed to an understanding of plants. Aristotle and Theophrastus contributed not only to zoology and botany, respectively, but also to comparative biology, ecology, and especially taxonomy (the science of classification).

Both natural history and medicine flourished in the middle ages, though work in these areas often proceeded independently. Medicine was especially well studied by Islamic scholars working in the Galenic and Aristotelian traditions, while natural history drew heavily on Aristotelian philosophy, especially in upholding a fixed hierarchy of life. The Roman naturalist Caius Plinius Secundus (2379), known as Pliny, also had a major influence on natural history during the middle ages, notably through his compendium Natural History (later shown to be rife with errors of fact). Without doubt the most outstanding contributor to natural history in the middle ages is Albertus Magnus (12061280), recognized for his superb botanical studies and for his work in physiology and zoology. A lesser known figure is Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (11941250), whose treatise The Art of Falconry is one of the first serious accounts of ornithology.

Though animals traditionally drew the attention of many naturalists, the study of zoology remained underdeveloped during the middle ages, relying heavily on illustrated books of animals modeled on medieval bestiaries. Botany, on the other hand, flourished in the Renaissance and early modern period. The study of plants was important in medicine, as well as natural history (and in fact constituted one of the few early points of common focus in the two areas), because plants were regarded as materia medica, substances with noted medicinal properties. These medicinal properties drew medical attention to plants. Hence it became standard practice to plant gardens next to primary centers of medical instruction, and professors of medicine were very often experts in materia medica and served as garden curators. Indeed, noted taxonomists of the early modern periodindividuals such as Andrea Cesalpino (15191603) and Carl Linnaeus (17071778), both of whom are considered fathers of modern botany for their work in reforming taxonomywere simultaneously physicians and botanists. An exception was John Ray (16271705), an English taxonomist who also worked with animals.

Also leading to the growing interest in and need for taxonomy and to an unprecedented development of natural history were the voyages of exploration associated with the establishment of colonies from the late fifteenth century. Largely to meet the demand to classify the collections made by explorers and travelers in order to exploit these natural commodities, gardens and museums of natural history were created in European centers associated with colonial conquests, especially Madrid, Paris, and London. A new period of scientific exploration dawned with the first voyage of Captain James Cook, whose expeditions included not only astronomers and artists but also botanists, such as Joseph Banks (17431820). On returning to London, Banks was instrumental in helping to found the Royal Institution of Great Britain, as well as in continuing to expand Kew Garden and the Royal Society. He also encouraged these institutions to serve the interests of both natural history and the expanding British Empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

While botany and medicine were closely linked, anatomy and physiology followed other trajectories. After Galen, the next major figure in the history of anatomy is Andreas Vesalius (15141564) of Belgium. Unlike many anatomists (such as Galen, who relied on dissections of animals such as pigs and Barbary apes), Vesalius drew his knowledge of the human body from detailed dissections on human cadavers. He was unusual for his time in believing that the authority of nature should supercede the authority of ancient texts. His seven-volume atlas of human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), covered skeletal and muscular anatomy as well as the major organ systems of the body. Skillfully illustrated by some of the leading Renaissance artists, the atlas was considered a work of art as well as of anatomical science. Although Vesalius challenged many of tenets held by Galen and his numerous commentators, he nonetheless retained some erroneous conventions present in Galen's anatomy, such as the existence of pores in the septum of the heart and "horned" appendages in the uterus (present in the pig uterus but not in the human uterus). Vesalius's work was shortly followed by the work of anatomical specialists such as Bartolomeo Eustachio (15101574) and Gabriele Falloppio (15231562). Eustachio specialized in the anatomy of the ear, and Falloppio specialized in the female reproductive tract.

Developments in anatomy that turned interest to the parts and organs of the body were accompanied by questions dealing with organ function. In the sixteenth century, physiology, the science that deals specifically with the functioning of living bodies, began to flourish. The major animal physiologist of this period was William Harvey (15781657). Harvey performed numerous dissections and vivisections on a range of animals to determine that blood circulates through the body and is not manufactured de novo, as Galenic tradition had dictated. Harvey's influence was felt not only in medicine, but also in comparative physiology and comparative biology, since he performed his experiments on diverse animal systems. His experiments and major treatise, An Anatomical Disputation concerning the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Living Creatures (1628), are considered one of the first demonstrations of the method of hypothesis testing and experimentation. While Harvey frequently drew analogies between the pumping action of the heart and mechanical pumps, he resisted the idea that the body entirely obeyed mechanistic principles. Unlike his contemporary René Descartes (15961650), who held mechanistic theories of the functioning of animal bodies, Harvey maintained that some kind of nonmechanistic special forces, later called "vitalistic," were responsible for the life processes of animate matter.

The mechanical philosophythe belief that the universe and its constituent parts obeyed mechanical principles that could be understood and determined through reasoned observation and the new scientific methodthus made its way into the history of biology. This engendered a lively discussion between mechanism and vitalism, between the idea that life obeyed mechanistic principles and the idea that life depended on nonmechanistic "vital" principles or somehow acquired "emergent properties." The debate cycled on and off for much of the subsequent history of biology, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century.

During the Renaissance, the mechanical philosophy did gain some proponents in anatomy and physiology, the most notable figure being Giovanni Borelli (16081679), who sought to understand muscle action in animal bodies in terms of levers and pulleys. Some early embryologists, as followers of Descartes, espoused the belief that development too followed mechanistic principles. In what came to be known as preformation theory or "emboitement," the seeds of mature but miniaturized mature adult forms or homunculi were thought to be embedded entirely intact in mature organisms (as though they were encased in a box within a box, hence the name "emboitement"). Prominent advocates of this view included Marcello Malpighi (16281694) and Jan Swammerdam (16371680). This stood in contrast to the idea of "epigenesis," the belief dating back to Aristotle and his commentators that development began from initially undifferentiated material (usually the ovum) and then followed an epigenetically determined path of development after fertilization. One of the more prominent proponents of this theory was Pierre Louis Maupertuis (16981759), who argued that preformationist theories could not explain why offspring bore characteristics of both parents.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, theories of embryology and development were superimposed with theories of sexual reproduction, along with a number of theories on the origins of life, most of which upheld the idea of spontaneous generation. During this period debates raged over spontaneous generation, the idea that life was spontaneously created out of inanimate matter. The popular belief that living organisms propagated from mud in streams, dirt and detritus, or environments such as rotting meat was supported by a number of scholars from antiquity on. William Harvey's research into reproduction, published in 1651 as Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium (Essays on the generation of animals), began to cast doubt on spontaneous generation. Harvey believed that all life reproduced sexually, a view he pithily stated with his famous dictum Ex ovo omnia ("Everything comes from the egg"). In 1668 the Italian physician Francesco Redi (16261697) performed a famous experiment that further detracted from the theory of spontaneous generation. By carefully covering rotting meat so that it was not accessible to flies, he showed that maggots did not spontaneously emerge. The idea that sexual reproduction characterized much of life was further reinforced when Nehemiah Grew (16411711) demonstrated sexuality in plants in 1682. Later, in 1768, the Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani (17291799) offered additional evidence disproving spontaneous generation, and in 1779 he gave an account of the sexual function of ovum and sperm. Despite this accumulating experimental evidence against spontaneous generation, new developments continued to fuel belief in spontaneous generation. In 1740, for example, Charles Bonnet (17201793) discovered parthenogenesis ("virgin birth"an asexual form of reproduction) in aphids, and in 1748 John Turberville Needham (17311781) offered evidence of what he thought were spontaneously generated microbes in a sealed flask of broth (this was later challenged by Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis [16981759]). Finally, the discovery of microbial life supported the idea that living organisms spontaneously emerged from natural environments such as pond water. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries thus witnessed a number of debates that were only resolved much later in the late nineteenth century when distinctions were made between the very different processes associated with reproduction, the origins of life, and embryological or developmental unfolding. Belief in spontaneous generation was finally put to rest in 1860 by the celebrated "swan-necked flask" experiments of Louis Pasteur (18221895).

Other notable developments in the origins of biology came as the result of new instruments and technologies, the most important of which was the microscope. Developed independently by Robert Hooke (16351703) in England and Antony Van Leeuwenhoek (16321723) in the Netherlands, the microscope revealed a previously unseen and entirely unimagined universe of life. Robert Hooke first observed repeating units he described as "cells" in his Micrographia (1665), while Leeuwenhoek observed varied motile organisms he described as "animalcules." While the microscope opened up cytological and microbiological explorations, it also shattered Aristotle's notion that life is organized along a scala naturae (ladder of nature), since new and minute animal forms were not easily located on the ladder of creation. It also fueled the belief in spontaneous generation. Pioneering the use of the microscope and its application to anatomy, Marcello Malphighi (16281694), Italian professor of medicine and personal physician to Pope Innocent XII, drawing on the previous work of Andrea Cesalpino and William Harvey, studied the circulatory and respiratory systems of a range of animals (especially insects). He was one of the first to study major organ groups such as the brain, lungs, and kidneys in diverse organisms.

Modern Biology

Though there is some disagreement among historians of biology about the precise origins, the transition to modern biology appears to have occurred from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. A confluence of developments brought about this transition. In France naturalists reformed taxonomy and began to recognize the extinction of life forms. This progress resulted from the work of natural historians such as the Compte de Buffon (17071788), Georges Cuvier (17691832), Étienne Geoffroy de Saint Hilaire (17721844), and Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (17441829) at institutions such as the Jardin du Roi. New sciences emerged, including comparative anatomy and paleontology, areas in which Cuvier is still recognized as the founding father. French anatomists such as Xavier Bichat (17711802) and physiologists such as François Magendie (17831855), by experimenting on animal systems (sometimes to questionable excess in the case of Magendie), refined and enhanced understanding of fundamental physiological processes, and thereby revolutionized physiological understanding of life. In Germany the insights of natural philosophers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) and Lorenz Oken (17791851) began to generate a serious interest in a unified science of life.

All of this activity was echoed by a number of early references to biology in a number of obscure German contexts beginning in the late eighteenth century. Traditional histories generally pinpoint the first general use of the term biology at 1800 in the medical treatise Prapädeutik zum Studium der gesammten Heilkunst (Propaedeutic to the study of general medicine) by Karl Friedrich Burdach (17761847), who used it mostly for the study of human morphology, physiology, and psychology. It appeared again in 1802 in the work of the German naturalist Gottfried Treviranus (17761837) and in the work of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, the French botanist and early proponent of transmutationism. Although the word gained some currency by the 1820s, especially in the English language, it was largely through the efforts of August Comte (17981857), the French social philosopher, that the term gained its most widespread currency. For Comte, biology, one of the "higher sciences" in his philosophy of positivism, was the discipline of knowledge that organized the study of life and sought the principles of life.

Especially critical to the development of modern biology was the period between 1828, when Friedrich Wöhler (18001882) artificially synthesized the organic compound urea in the laboratory (fueling the debate between mechanism and vitalism), and 1866, the year Gregor Mendel (18221884) published his theory of heredity. During this time the conceptual foundations of the new science were laid, and many of the defining criteria of nearly all the major subdisciplines of biology were established.

The first areas for which groundwork was laid were cytology (now part of the more general discipline of cell biology) and histology (the study of tissues). Advances in optics in the 1830s by workers such as Giovanni Battista Amici (17841863) significantly enhanced the resolving power of the microscope and diminished or entirely eliminated such disruptive phenomena as chromatic aberration. Techniques for selectively dyeing and staining cellular components and enhancements in sectioning that led to thinner and thinner sections further enabled researchers to see more clearly increasingly finer structures. As a result of improvements in microscope technology, a series of plant and animal observations from 1833 led to recognition of a number of cellular structures, beginning with the nucleus, first observed in orchid cells by the English microscopist Robert Brown (17731858). Observations on the cells of plants and animals culminated in the establishment of the cell theory in the late 1830s, the recognition that cells were the basic unit of organization in all living tissues. The establishment of the cell theory resulted from observational work by the botanist Matthias Schleiden (18041881) and by the animal physiologist Theodor Schwann (18101882). Rudolf Virchow (18211902) extended this theory in 1840 to include the observation that all cells come from cells, and in 1858, in his Cellular Pathology, he provided new foundations for understanding disease in terms of cellular disruption. The germ theory of disease, a theory that Louis Pasteur proposed in the 1860s as a result of his work in microscopy, suggested that microorganisms were the causes of infectious diseases. Advances in microscopy in the nineteenth century thus laid the foundations not only of cytology and histology but also of the new science of microbiology (the study of microbial life), which continued to explore smaller and smaller life forms well into the twentieth century.

Yet another area that drew heavily on microscopy was knowledge of heredity (later designated as the science of genetics), especially in the late nineteenth century after structures such as chromosomes were first observed and cellular reproduction was understood in terms of meiosis and mitosis. The chromosome theory of heredity, first proposed by Walter Sutton (18771916) and Theodor Boveri (18621915), largely integrated knowledge of the fine structure and behavior of chromosomes with Mendelian genetics to suggest that chromosomes were the material carriers of heredity. This theory was not articulated until early in the twentieth century, between 1902 and 1903. This development occurred so late because Gregor Mendel's experimental insights into the process of heredity, which had been published in 1866, was not appreciated until its rediscovery in 1900. The modern science of heredity, which William Bateson (18611926) designated as genetics, began in the early years of the twentieth century, with initial inquiry determining the extent to which Mendelian principles operated in the natural world. The second area of interest sprung from the pioneering research of the American geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan (18661945) and his laboratory on Mendelian genetics in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Beginning roughly in the 1910s and peaking in the 1930s, this classic school of genetics worked on the transmission of a number of characteristics by studying mutant forms of Drosophila.

Microscopic techniques also played an active role in other important areas of nineteenth-century biology, areas such as embryology, and brought into relief the interplay between heredity, development, cytology, and evolution. By the late nineteenth century, persistent questions of biological development were being tackled with techniques and insights gleaned from cytology and cellular physiology, leading to a renewal of the debate between mechanism and vitalism. Just when figures such as August Weismann (18341914) had articulated mechanistic theories linking heredity with development and evolution, leading to movements such as developmental mechanics, individuals such as Hans Driesch (18671961) challenged strict mechanism in biology by experimentally demonstrating that almost any part of the cellular constituents of embryonic tissues had the potential to develop into mature forms. Driesch's experimental efforts were rivaled by those of Wilhelm Roux (18501924), the leading advocate of developmental mechanics.

The middle decades of the nineteenth century also witnessed improvements in animal physiology, especially through the efforts of the German school associated with Johannes Müller (18011858) and later through the pioneering efforts of Hermann von Helmholtz (18211894). Increasingly, work in physiology, especially that of Helmholtz, drew heavily on the physical sciences. This research further supported the view that life obeys mechanistic principles and is reducible to such sciences as chemistry and physics. Proponents of this view increasingly dominated physiology, an arch example being Jacques Loeb (18591924), the German-American biologist most associated with mechanistic and reductionistic approaches to biology. His essays in The Mechanistic Conception of Life (1912) summarized this point of view.

Unquestionably, a major development in the critical early period of modern biology was the articulation and acceptance of evolution as based largely on the mechanistic process of natural selection. Drawing on a number of transmutation theories (especially those of Buffon, Lamarck, and Robert Chambers [18021871]), Charles Darwin (18091882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (18231913) independently formulated similar theories of species change through the mechanism of natural selection, jointly publishing their insights in a paper read to the Linnaean Society in 1858. Darwin articulated his theory more fully in his celebrated work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Though the mechanism of evolutionary change continued to resist full understanding by scientists, the fact that life on earth had had an evolutionary history became widely accepted by the late nineteenth century. Because the mechanism remained uncertain, evolutionary theory remained controversial in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Suggested alternative mechanisms included neo-Lamarckism, directed evolution, aristogenesis, and mutation theoryan entirely new theoretical formulation that drew on the new experimental science of genetics. The turn of the twentieth century is frequently known as the "eclipse of Darwin," not so much because he fell into disfavor, but because alternatives to his theory of natural selection were being favored instead.

Between 1930 and 1950 scientists became certain about the mechanism of natural selection by integrating insights into heredity from Mendelian genetics with insights from traditional natural-history-oriented areas such as systematics, botany, and paleontology to formulate what has been called the "synthetic theory of evolution." At this time evolutionary biology was organized as a discipline, in order to study the process of evolution from a range of perspectives. This "evolutionary synthesis"an integration of Darwinian selection theory with the newer Mendelian geneticsis generally recognized as a major event in the history of twentieth-century biology. With the establishment of the synthetic theory of evolution, scientists began to feel that a mature, unified, modern science of biology had emerged. Theodosius Dobzhansky, whose own work in evolutionary genetics served as catalyst for this synthesis, has maintained that evolution went a long way toward unifying biology.

Much of the work of twentieth-century biologists served to integrate biology. In addition, new technologies (such as the first electron microscopes in the 1930s), as well as developments and refinements in existing technologies, led to a staggering range of new discoveries in the twentieth century. In 1895 the Dutch biologist Martinus Beijerinck (18511931) designated what is known now as virusestiny living aggregations of protein and nucleic acidas "filterable agents" because they passed through fine filters that could contain bacteria. It was known that these filterable agents could induce disease, but their structure was unknown until 1935, when W. M. Stanley (19041981) first crystallized the tobacco mosaic virus. This opened up further inquiry into viruses as disease-causing agents, into proteins and nucleic acids as the sole components of this very simple form of life, and into biochemical techniques instrumental for carrying out this research. By the late 1930s molecular biology and biochemistry were gaining traction. The reductionistic, mechanistic approaches of these sciences further pushed biological thinking about life in those directions. There was acute interest in the molecular structure of important proteins such as insulin, whose structure was determined in 1955 by Frederick Sanger (b. 1918), and in the role played by proteins and nucleic acids in reproduction and genetics.

Properties of Living Organisms

A capacity for evolution

A capacity for self-replication

A capacity for growth and differentiation via a genetic program

A capacity for self-regulation, to keep the complex system in a steady state (homeostasis, feedback)

A capacity (through perception and sense organs) for response to stimuli from the environment

A capacity for change at the level of phenotype and of genotype

source: Ernst Mayr, This is Biology: The Science of the Living World (1997).

In 1953 vitalistic approaches and philosophies received two body blows. First, the discovery of the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), by Rosalind Franklin (19201958), Maurice Wilkins (b. 1916), James D. Watson (b. 1928), and Francis Crick (19162004) made the mechanism of the replication of genetic material understandable at the macromolecular level and moved genetics in the direction of molecular genetics. More than any discovery in recent biology, the discovery of the structure of DNA brought forth a revolution in biology, not just because of the theoretical knowledge gleaned, but also because of the potential applications of this knowledge.

The second body blow to vitalism was delivered in the same year by news of the celebrated experiment simulating the origins of life under early conditions on earth by Stanley Miller (b. 1930) and Harold C. Urey (18931981) at the University of Chicago. Miller and Urey enclosed the constituents of the early atmosphere of earth (methane, ammonia, and hydrogen gas) in a glass vessel and applied a high-energy electrical discharge to it, "sparking" it to simulate lightning. A container of boiling water constantly supplied water vapor and heat. The cooling and condensing water vapor simulated rain. After letting the apparatus run for a number of hours and eventually weeks, Miller and Urey collected a brown-red pastelike substance and chemically analyzed it to reveal a number of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and other macromolecules usually associated only with living organisms. The Miller-Urey experiment thus provided evidence that the basic building blocks for life could be generated by the kinds of conditions present in the early atmosphere of the earth. Subsequent experiments simulating conditions on other planets supported the view that life may also have originated in space, on other planets, or wherever similar conditions are found. For this area of study integrating research on the origins of life on earth with research on the existence and specific character of life on other planets, the molecular geneticist Joshua Lederberg (b. 1925) coined the term "exobiology," the biology of organisms outside earth. Its sibling science is esobiology, or earth-based biology.

After World War II, biology boomed, and with it emerged new societies and institutions to organize the growing science. In 1947 the first umbrella organization for the biological sciences, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, was created in the United States. Other institutions, such as the National Science Foundation in the United States, established large divisions (and budgets) to fund research in the biological sciences. Both trends helped shape the direction and character of subsequent biological research. As with many other sciences in the postwar period, the dominant site of activity in the biological sciences had shifted from its older European centers in Germany, France, and England to the United States. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite drove a panicked U.S. government to offer even stronger support of scientific research. The biological sciences, too, benefited from this turn of events and received generous funding for research and biological instruction. Textbooks such as the popular Biological Sciences Curriculum Study drew on a virtual industry of biologists and educators to produce a series of widely read and influential textbooks for American high school students. Research in the United States continued at specialized research centers such as that at Cold Spring Harbor (in 2004 a center for molecular biology) and more traditional research settings including public and private universities, land-grant colleges, hospitals and medical centers, museums and gardens. In university education, biology as a subject area is considered so vital that it has become a requirement for general education programs. It is rapidly becoming one of the most popular majors for university students not just in the United States but worldwide.

Early Definitions of Biology

From Lamarck, 1802: Biology: this is one of the three divisions of terrestrial physics; it includes all which pertains to living bodies and particularly to their organization, their developmental processes, the structural complexity resulting from prolonged action of vital movements, the tendency to create special organs and to isolate them by focusing activity in a center, and so on.

From Treviranus, 1802: The objects of our research will be the different forms and phenomena of life, the conditions and laws under which they occur and the causes whereby they are brought into being. The science which concerns itself with these objects we shall designate Biology or the Science of Life.

source: As translated by William Coleman in Biology in the Nineteenth Century: Problems of Form, Function, and Transformation (1971), p. 2.

Despite arguments for the unity of the increasingly diverse biological sciences, controversies and debates erupt between biologists about fundamental concepts in the biological sciences. Differences are especially pronounced between more reductionistic, physicalist, laboratory-driven, and experimental sciences such as molecular biology and biochemistry and more integrative, field-oriented, observational, and historical sciences such as evolutionary biology and ecology. In the mid-1960s, university biology departments became divided over differences in conceptual foundations, goals, methodology, philosophy, and scientific style. As a result, at locations such as Harvard University, departments of biology formally divided into departments of molecular biology and organismic biology, an area defined as an integrative approach to the biological sciences that includes a strong historical and ecological component. Roughly at this time ecologya science of enormous heterogeneity drawing on a range of approaches, practices, and methodologies and rooted in questions pertaining to adaptive responses to varying environmentsbecame integrated with evolutionary approaches and instituted in departments of ecology and evolution. Often located within ecology and evolution departments are systematics and biodiveristy studies, a newer area concerned with biodiversity, including classification and conservation.

In 1961 the evolutionary biologist, historian, and philosopher Ernst Mayr, reflecting on some of these growing differences between biologists, provocatively suggested that biology in fact comprises two sciences. The first is a biology based on proximate causes that answers questions of function (molecular biology, biochemistry, and physiology). The second is a biology based on ultimate causes that seeks historical explanation (evolutionary biology, systematics, and the larger discipline of organismic biology). While the biology of proximate causes is reductionistic and physicalist, the biology of ultimate causes is historical and is characterized by emergent properties. Much of Mayr's reflections on the structure of the biological sciences has formed the backbone of the history and philosophy of biology and has made its way into some textbooks in the biological sciences. While vitalism is no longer tenable in biology, there is considerable support for the belief that complex properties emerge from simpler strata in biology and for the idea that such emergent properties are useful in explaining life.

See also Evolution ; Genetics ; Life .


Allen, Garland. Life Science in the Twentieth Century. New York: Wiley, 1975.

Appel, Toby. Shaping Biology: The National Science Foundation and American Biological Research, 19451975. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Caron, Joseph. "'Biology' in the Life Sciences: A Historiographical Contribution." History of Science 26 (1988): 223268.

Coleman, William. Biology in the Nineteenth Century: Problems of Form, Function, and Transformation. New York: Wiley, 1971.

Dobzhansky, Theodosius. "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." American Biology Teacher 35 (1973): 125129.

Farley, John. Gametes and Spores: Ideas about Sexual Reproduction, 17501914. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

. The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Lenoir, Timothy. Strategy of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Loeb, Jacques. The Mechanistic Conception of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1912.

Lovelock, James. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth. New York: Norton, 1988.

Mayr, Ernst. "Cause and Effect in Biology." Science 134 (1961): 15011506.

. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

. This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Moore, John A. Science as a Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Morton, A. G. History of Botanical Science: An Account of the Development of Botany from Ancient Times to the Present Day. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

Nordenskiöld, Erik. The History of Biology. New York: Tudor, 1936.

Nyhart, Lynn. Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and German Universities, 18001900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Pauly, Philip J. Biologists and the Promise of American Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

. Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Pinto-Correia, Clara. The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Richards, Robert J. The Romantic Conception of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Smocovitis, Vassilliki Betty. Unifying Biology: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Sterelny, Kim, and Paul E. Griffiths. Sex and Death: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Strick, James E. Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian Debates over Spontaneous Generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Biology." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Biology." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (January 18, 2018).

"Biology." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


44. Biology

See also 16. ANIMALS ; 54. BOTANY ; 72. CELLS ; 244. LIFE ; 302. ORGANISMS ; 319. PLANTS ; 430. ZOOLOGY .

the process of generation of living organisms from inanimate matter; spontaneous generation. abiogenetic, adj. abiogenetically, adv.
asexual reproduction. agamogenetic, adj.
the branch of biology that studies the relation of soil management to the nutrition, growth, and erop yield of plants. agrobiologist, n. agrobiologic, agrobiological, adj.
the living together of two organisms in a relationship that is destructive to one and has no effect on the other.
gradual change in type, usually from a lower to a higher type. Also anamorphosis , (Obsolete) anamorphosy . anamorphic, adj.
connection between parts that have branched off from each other at some earlier point. anastomotic, adj.
a form of reproduction in which dissimilar gametes, often dirfering in size, unite. anisogamous, anisogamic, adj.
any of several processes of asexual reproduction. Cf. parthenogenesis.
1. the central part of an aster, containing the centrosome.
2. the whole aster excluding the centrosome.
the branch of ecology that studies the relation of an organism to its environment. Cf. synecology.
the branch of microbiology that studies the rate of growth or inhibition exhibited by individual organisms in various plateculture media. auxanographic, adj.
growth, especially owing to an increase in cell size. Cf. merisis. auxetic, adj.
the capacity of some substances to decompose readily by biological process. biodegradable, adj.
biogenesis, biogeny
1. the process by which living organisms develop from other living organisms.
2. the belief that living organisms can only develop from other living organisms. biogenic, biogenetic, adj. biogenetically, biogenically, adv.
the branch of biology that studies the geographical distribution of animals and plants.
a theory or doctrine based on a biological viewpoint. biologistic, adj.
the property of some organisms, as fireflies, of producing light. bioluminescent, adj.
biometrics, biometry
1. the calculation of the probable extent of human lifespans.
2. the application to biology of mathematical and statistical theory and methods. biometric, biometrical, adj.
bionomics, bionomy
ecology. bionomist, n. bionomic, bionomical, adj.
the branch of biology that studies the growth, morphology, and physiology of organs. biophysiologist, n.
any of the sciences that deal with living organisms.
that part of the earth where most forms of life exist, specifically, where there is water or atmosphere.
the formation of chemical compounds by living organisms, either by synthesis or degradation. biosynthetic, adj.
biosystematy, biosystematics
the science of the classification of living things. biosystematic, biosystematical, adj.
the science or study of biotypes, or organisms sharing the same hereditary characteristics. biotypologic, biotypological, adj.
degeneration of cells or tissues. cataplastic, adj.
the study of whales. cetologist, n. cetological, adj.
growth or motion in response to a chemical stimulus. chemotropic, adj.
the formation of chiasma, the basis for crossing over or the interchange of corresponding chromatid segments of homologous chromosomes with their linked genes. chiasmatvpic, adj.
Biogeography. the study of organisms, especially their migrations and distribution. chorologic, chorological, adj.
the living together of two organisms in a relationship that is beneficial to one and has no effect on the other. commensal, adj.
a relationship of mutual dependency between two living organisms.
the study of crustaceans. crustaceologist, n. crustaceological, adj.
Medicine. a state in which the signs of life of an organism have weakened to the point where they are barely measurable or no longer measurable. cryptobiotic, adj.
the branch of biology that studies the origin and development of acquired characteristics. ctetologic, ctetological, adj.
the branch of biology that studies the structural basis of heredity and variation in living organisms from the points of view of cytology and genetics. cytogeneticist, n. cytogenetic, cytogenetical, adj.
the branch of biology that studies the structure, growth, and pathology of cells. cytologist, n. cytologie, cytological, adj.
the final stage of prophase prior to the dissolution of the nuclear membrane. diakinetic, adj.
the process whereby colloids and crystalloids separate in solution by diffusion through a membrane. dialytic, adj.
a period of rest or quiescence between phases of growth or reproduction.
successive reproduction by two different processes, sexual in one generation and asexual in the following generation. digenetic, adj.
Zoology. the condition of walking on the toes. digitigrade, adj.
a form of generation characterized by irregularity of constituent parts, which differ in function, time of budding, etc. Cf. eumerogenesis. dysmerogenetic, adj.
the process of shedding skin or other covering, typical of snakes and some insects. Cf. endysis. ecdysial, adj.
ecology, oecology
1. the branch of biology that studies the relations between plants and animals and their environment. Also called bionomics, bionomy .
2. the branch of sociology that studies the environmental spacing and interdependence of people and institutions, as in rural or in urban settings. ecologist, oecologist, n. ecological, oecological, adj. ecologically, oecologically, adv.
the study of electrical activity in organisms and of the effect of electricity on them. electrobiologist, n. electrobiological, adj.
the formation and growth of an embryo. embryogenic, embryogenetic, adj.
endogenesis, endogeny
the formation of cells from within. endogenous, adj. endogenicity, n.
the growth of new scales, hair, plumage, etc. Cf. ecdysis. endysial, adj.
the branch of biology that studies fermentation and enzymes. Also called zymology. enzymologist, n. enzymologie, enzymological, adj.
the state or quality of combining characteristics of both sexes. epicenity, n. epicene, adj.
the biological theory that germ cells are structureless and the embryo develops through the action of environment on the protoplasm. Cf. preformation. See also 46. BIRTH ; 122. DISEASE and ILLNESS ; 179. GEOLOGY . epigenetic, adj.
a supporter of the theory of epigenesis.
generation by unit parts, as in the tape worm, in which each part repeats the one before. Cf. dysmerogenesis. eumerogenetic, adj.
the process of producing milk.
growth or movement of an organism in response to an electric current. galvanotropic, adj.
the process of reproduction by the joining of gametes, a form of sexual reproduction. Also called zoogamy. gamogenetic, adj.
the branch of biology that studies heredity and variation in plants and animals. geneticist, n. genetic, adj.
a branch of biology that studies animals under germ-free conditions.
theories and doctrines of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), German biologist and philosopher, especially the notion ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Haeckelian, adj.
a gamete differing from the gamete with which it unites in sex, structure, size, or form. Cf. isogamete .
1. the condition of being heterogamous, or reproducing sexually and asexually in alternating generations.
2. the process of indirect pollination. Cf. heterogenesis. heterogamous, adj.
1. reproduction by a sexual and asexual process alternately. Cf. heterogamy .
2. reproduction in which the parent bears offspring different from itself. Cf. xenogenesis. heterogenetic, adj.
3. abiogenesis.
the destruction of the cells of one species by the enzymes or lysins of another species. heterolytic, adj.
heterotopy, heterotopia
deviation from the normal ontogenetic sequence with regard to the placing of organs or other parts. Also heterotopism . See also 56. BRAIN . heterotopous, adj.
hexiology, hexicology
the study of the effects of environment on an organisms growth and behavior. hexiological, hexicological, adj.
histogenesis, histogeny
the growth of organic tissues. histogenic, histogenetic, adj.
a treatise or other work on organic tissues, or histogenesis. histographer , n. histographic, histographical, adj.
the disintegration or dissolution of organic tissues. histolytic, adj.
the homology of serial segments. Cf. parhomology.
the normal course of generation in which the offspring resembles the parent from generation to generation. Cf. heterogenesis. homogenetic , adj.
1. similarity of form or structure in two or more organisms owing to common descent.
2. similarity in form or structure between different parts of an organism owing to common origin. Cf. homodynamy. homologous, adj.
a gamete that is not sexually differentiated from the other gamete with which it unites. Cf. heterogamete.
reproduction by means of the union of isogametes. isogamous, adj.
the state or process of deriving from the same source or origins, as different parts deriving from the same embryo tissues. Also isogeny.
production of similar reproductive parts from stocks that are dissimilar, as with certain hydroids. isogonic, adj.
similarity in the form or structure of organisms that belong to a different species or genus. isomorph , n. isomorphic, adj.
a specialty within cytology that studies the anatomy of cell nuclei with emphasis upon the nature and structure of chromosomes. karyologist , n. karyologic, karyological, adj.
1. the genesis of organic structure by kinetic processes.
2. the belief that the structure of animals is determined and produced by their movements. kinetogenetic, adj.
the theories of the 20th-century Russian geneticist Trofim Lysenko, who argued that somatic and environmental factors have a greater influence on heredity than orthodox genetics has found demonstrable; now generally discredited.
the branch of biology that studies longevity. macrobiosis, n. macrobiotist, n.
the study of molluscs. malacologist, n.
the principles or use of Mendels law. Mendelian, n., adj.
any form of growth, especially as a product of cell division. Cf. auxesis. meristic, adj.
the process of segmentation in which similar parts unite and form a complex individual entity from the aggregate of the parts. merogenetic, adj.
alternation of generations across reproductive cycles. Cf. xenogenesis. metagenetic, metagenic, adj.
the biological theory of Ivan Michurin who asserted the fundamental influence of environmental factors on heredity in contradiction of orthodox genetics. Michurinist , n. Michurinite, adj.
the science or practice of preparing extremely thin slices of tissue, etc, cut by a microtome, for study under the microscope. microtomist , n. microtomic, adj.
the ability of some creatures to imitate others, either by sound or appearance, or to merge with their environment for protective purposes. See also 310. PERFORMING . mimic, mimical, adj.
the normal process of cell division. mitotic, adj.
1. asexual processes of reproduction, as budding.
2. development of an ovum directly into a form like that of the parent, without metamorphosis. monogenetic, adj.
the state of being zygomorphic, or bilaterally symmetrie, or divisible into symmetrical halves by one plane only. Cf. zygomorphism. See also 316. PHYSICS . monosymmetric, monosymmetrical, adj.
the study of the form and structure of plants and animals. morphologist , n. morphologic, morphological, adj.
the living together of two organisms in a mutually beneficial relationship.
the scientific study of recently living plants and animals. neontologist, n. neontologic, neontological, adj.
ontogeny. ontogenetic, ontogenetical, adj.
the life cycle, development, or developmental history of an organism. Also ontogenesis. ontogenic, adj. ontogenic, adj.
the union of sexually differentiated reproductive cells. oogamous, adj.
the formative process of the ovum in preparation for fertilization and subsequent development. oogenetic, adj.
observation of the development of an embryo inside an egg by means of an ooscope.
organogenesis, organogeny
the origin and growth of organs. organogenetic, organogenic, adj.
the scientific description of the organs of plants and animals. organographist , n. organographic, organographical, adj.
the study of the structure and organs of plants and animals. organologist , n. organologic, organological, adj.
1. the laws of organic life.
2. the doctrine upon which these laws are based. organonomic, adj.
the nomenclature of organs. organonymal , organonymic, adj.
the property or process of self-fertilization, as in certain plants and animals. orthogamous, adj.
progressive evolution, leading to the development of a new form, as can be seen through successive generations. See also 376. SOCIETY . orthogenetic, adj.
the theory that the female reproductive cell contains the entire organism and that the male cell does not contribute anything, merely initiating the growth of the female cell.
the study of the formation and structure of animal ova. ovologist , n. ovological, adj.
the science that studies live and fossil spores, pollen grains, and other microscopic plant structures. polynologist, n. polynological, adj.
the uniting of two individual organisms or animals anatomically and physiologically, under either experimental or natural conditions. parabiotic, adj.
the living together of two organisms in a relationship that is beneficial to one and destructive to the other. parasitic, parasitical, adj.
the branch of biology that studies parasites and parasitism. parasitologist , n.
the biological process of imitative homodynamy. parhomologous , adj.
parthenogenesis, parthogeny
reproduction without fertilization, as certain ova, seeds and spores, insects, algae, etc. Also called unigenesis . parthenogenetic, parthenogenic, adj.
photoperiodism, photoperiodicity
the effect on the growth and reproduction of plants or animals of varying exposures to light and darkness. Cf. thermoperiodism. photoperiod, n. photoperiodic, adj.
the synthesis of complex organic substances from carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic salts, with sunlight as the energy source and a catalyst such as chlorophyll. photosynthetic, adj.
growth or motion in response to light. phototropic, adj.
the history or science of the development or evolution of vital activities in the individual and the genesis of organic functions; a division of ontogeny. Also called physiogenesis. physiogenetic, physiogenic, adj.
plant biology. phytobiologist, n. phytobiological, adj.
pleomorphism, pleomorphy
the existence of a plant or animal in two or more distinct forms during a life cycle. Also called polymorphism. pleomorphic, pleomorphous, adj.
1. derivation from more than one kind of cell in the generative process.
2. Also called polygenism . the theory that different species have descended from different original ancestors. Cf. monogenesis. polygenic, polygenetic, adj.
polyphagia, polyphagy
the tendency to eat a wide variety of food. polyphagist , n. polyphagic, adj.
the character of being made up of a number of smaller organisms that are acting as a colony. polyzoic, adj.
the theory that germ cells contain every part of the future organism in miniature form, future development being only a matter of increase in size. Cf. epigenesis .
the theory that an organism is fully formed at conception and that reproduction is thereafter simply a process of growth. preformationist, n.
the study of protozoa, especially of those that cause disease. protozoological, adj. protozoologist , n.
1. the branch of biology that studies the interactions of body and mind, especially as exhibited in the nervous system.
2. psychology as studied in terms of biology. psychobiologist, n. psychobiologic, psychobiological, adj.
the formation of new species.
an obsolete biological theory that stated that sperm contained the preformed germ or the embryo. spermist, n.
the science and study of the sponges. spongologist, n.
1. the process of reproduction by means of spores.
2. the formation and growth of spores. sporogenetic, sporogenous, adj.
orientation or movement of an organism in response to the stimulus of a solid object. Cf. stereotropism. stereotactic, adj.
growth or movement determined by contact with a solid. Cf. stereotaxis. Also thigmotropism. stereotropic, adj.
selective breeding to develop strains with particular characteristics. stirpicultural, adj.
a conception occurring during a pregnancy from an earlier conception.
the living together of two dissimilar organisms; the relationship may be beneficial to both (mutualism and symbiosis), beneficial to one without effect on the other (commensalism ), beneficial to one and detrimental to the other (parasitism ), detrimental to the first without any effect on the other (amensalism), or detrimental to both (synnecrosis ). symbiotic, adj.
Rare. the tendency of two separate elements to grow together. symphytic, adj.
the branch of ecology that studies the relation of various groups of organisms to their common environment. Cf. autecology.
the living together of two organisms in a mutually destructive relationship.
the branch of biology that studies abnormal formations in animals or plants. teratologist , n. teratologie, teratological, adj.
the study of the shell-bearing animals. testaceological, adj.
thermoperiodism, thermoperiodicity
the effect on the growth and reproduction of plants or animals of timed exposures to varied temperatures. thermoperiod, n. thermoperiodic, adj.
the study of animals. therologist , n. therologic, therological, adj.
involuntary response or reaction to the touch of outside objects or bodies, as in motile cells. thigmotactic , adj.
stereotropism. thigmotropic , adj.
the submicroscopic, elemental structure of protoplasm. ultrastructural , adj.
parthenogenesis. unigenetic , adj.
the process of gestation taking place in the womb from conception to birth.
xenogenesis, xenogeny
1. abiogenesis; spontaneous generation.
2. metagenesis, or alternation of generations.
3. production of an offspring entirely different from either of the parents. xenogenetic, xenogenic, adj.
gamogenesis. zoogamous, adj.
the state or quality of being bilaterally symmetrical, as certain organisms. Cf. monosymmetry. zygomorphic, zygomorphous, adj.
the biological process of conjugation; the union of cells or gametes. zygose , adj.
the process in which a zymogen becomes an enzyme, as in the fermentation process. zymogenic, zymogenous, adj.
enzymology. zymologist , n. zymologic , adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Biology." -Ologies and -Isms. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Biology." -Ologies and -Isms. . (January 18, 2018).

"Biology." -Ologies and -Isms. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



BIOLOGY. The science of biology as such did not exist in the early modern period; the term biology itself came into use only around 1800. Nonetheless, research in subjects now encompassed by biology was avidly pursued, principally by physicians but also by natural philosophers. The philosopher of science Francis Bacon (15611626) called for intensified descriptive study of physical forms ("natural history") and the analytical study of their functions, classified as part of "physic." Institutional sites for inquiry included the universities, with those in southern Europe dominant earlier and those in northern Europe later in the period. Private individuals often worked with the support of aristocratic, princely, and ecclesiastical patrons. In the seventeenth century omnibus scientific societies were founded in Rome and Florence. The Royal Society of London (founded 1660) and the Academy of Sciences in Paris (founded 1666) were highly influential. Specialized learned societies came into existence only at the end of the period. Instruments were less important than in physical science, but the microscope proved crucial to advances in knowledge. Much inquiry was tied to the pursuit of fine and technical arts (painting and sculpture, optics, printing and illustrating) and to collecting practices ("cabinets of curiosities"). Public gardens and zoological collections were essential to naturalists from the seventeenth century forward.


At the beginning of the period the natural philosophy taught in the universities was dominated by Aristotelianism as recast by the late Scholastics to harmonize with Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Aristotelian philosophy established the linguistic and conceptual framework for inquiry and conveyed specific doctrines such as the "great chain of being," a posited hierarchy of natural forms ranging from the simplest to the most complex. Aside from Aristotelian influence, medicine was dependent on the legacy of the Greek physician Hippocrates (460c. 370 b.c.e.), especially the doctrine of the humors, and of the Hellenistic surgeon and Roman court physician Galen (129/130199/200 c.e.), whose general teleology and specific teachings in anatomy and physiology undergirded universitybased medical training. Competing intellectual traditions derived from Plato (427348/347 b.c.e.) as well as the occult sciences of the cabala, natural magic, hermeticism, astrology, and alchemy.

The greatest master of the occult sciences in medicine was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus (14931541). Paracelsus rejected the study of anatomy, basing pathology and therapeutics instead on the doctrine of correspondences between the macrocosm and the microcosm. His "ontological" theory of disease, which held that the "seeds" of all maladies are present in every organism, undermined humor theory and encouraged the search for specific remedies, especially new ones derived from metals. Paracelsianism spread most rapidly in Protestant lands and Protestant enclaves in Catholic Europe. Its diffusion contributed to the decline of Aristotelianism, which was, however, principally undermined by the emergent "mechanical philosophy." Mechanism, which viewed living bodies as sophisticated machines, was dominant from the later seventeenth century until challenged around 1750 by vitalists who posited a distinctive "principle of life" or individuated vital "forces." By the eighteenth century many investigators rejected all "systems" and embraced a scientific ethos based on observation and experimentation.


European contact with the New World resulted in a challenge to existing conceptions of creation, the lineage of humankind, and the number and types of living creatures. Other influences included the continuing recovery of the heritage of Greco-Roman antiquity; the emergence of centralizing "new monarchies" and elaborated forms of princely and municipal government; and long-term economic revival from the ravages of the pandemic of plague that first struck Europe in 1348. In connection with these changes, new and fuller editions of the works of ancient philosophers and physicians appeared; the arts and sciences enjoyed expanded prestige and public patronage; and new commodities, both natural and manufactured, came into use. The Protestant Reformation destroyed the religious unity of Europe and encouraged challenges to tradition. The absolutist state emergent in the seventeenth century established new guardians of orthodoxy but also provided new resources for learned inquiry. More powerful government, coupled with economic growth and differentiation, encouraged the spread of literacy and the extension of modes of communication and transportation. These combined forces unsettled social hierarchies based on bloodlines, corporate status, and gender. The self-styled "Enlightenment" of the eighteenth century was marked by a commitment to the methods and values of "science," variously defined, and by a heightened critical spirit. Broader historical developments were linked both as cause and effect to changes in the world of learning that, by the period's end, encouraged the emergence of modern life science.


Because in Aristotelian-Galenic medicine the heart was considered central, many Renaissance-era inquirers were drawn to the study of this organ. Aristotle viewed the heart as the center of the body, the seat of the "vital heat" that empowered its functions. Galen delineated the structure and functions of the heart and other organs dominant in three body "centers" of head, chest, and abdomen. In his system, blood flowed only as part of an ebb and flow to and from the dominant organ to peripheral structures; arterial blood produced in the right ventricle of the heart seeped into the left ventricle via "pores" in the septum. In his anatomical atlas De humani corporis fabrica (1543), the anatomist and professor at Padua Andreas Vesalius (15141564) questioned the existence of the septal pores without challenging the overall outlines of Galenic physiology. After Vesalius, other investigators at Padua contributed to the study of the heart. Realdo Colombo (15101559) described the "lesser circulation" (the transit of blood from the right to the left side of the heart via the lungs), and Girolamo Fabrici (15331619) described the valves in the veins. The Padua tradition was crowned by the achievement of William Harvey (15781657), who studied with Fabrici. After taking his medical degree in 1602, Harvey returned to England, where he became a staff physician at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, Fellow of the College of Physicians, and court physician to the Stuart kings.

A committed Aristotelian, Harvey upheld Aristotle's conception of the heart as the vivifying center of the body and the principle of the perfection of the circle. Yet Harvey was also a powerful innovator methodologically and conceptually. He designed and performed experiments using a wide range of cold- and warm-blooded animals. He drew compelling analogies between the work of the heart and vessels and mechanical actions. Most tellingly, he quantified the amount of blood that passed through the body with each beat of the heart. Judging it too great to be produced by nutritional activity, he was convinced that the blood must move in one great circulatory motion throughout the body. This discovery was incorporated in his Anatomical Treatise on the Movement of the Heart and Blood (1628). Although the impact of Harvey's work was delayed because of an entrenched Galenism, in time his findings revolutionized thinking about the heart and blood as well as general physiology. Harvey's work also lent great prestige to the emergent "mechanical philosophy," although Harvey himself was not a mechanist.

The chief intellectual force behind the body-machine analogy was the French philosopher René Descartes (15961650). Descartes's cosmology sought to explain all known physical phenomena, including, in his posthumously published treatise Man (1664), mechanisms of digestion, respiration, reproduction, and other vital activities. Fruitful applications of mechanist thinking were found in works such as Giovanni Alfonso Borelli's On the Motions of Animals (16801681), which explored the mechanics of the human muscular and skeletal systems. Mechanist thinking also had a profound impact on inquiry into the cluster of problems called "generation."


Learned interest in processes of reproduction, including heredity, developed in response both to internal scientific dynamics and to sociocultural pressures for clarity in respect to family lineages, gender roles, and rules for inheritance. Aristotelian teaching posited a union in reproduction of male "form," embodied in semen gathered from throughout the body, with female "matter" (menstrual blood), presenting the male as the "perfect" result while the female was a continuously appearing "monster" of nature. A competing, Galenic account of generation posited two "semens," one male and one female. Inspired by Aristotle, Fabrici and other inquirers at Padua pursued a comparative study of the embryos of horses, sheep, and other animals. Harvey conducted extensive experiments designed to elucidate developmental processes. The most famous was his dissection during and after mating season of does in whom he found no trace of male semen. His Anatomical Treatise on the Generation of Animals (1651) declared that "all living beings arise from eggs." This was the beginning of "ovism," which held that the female alone contributed materially to the embryo.

This view was contradicted by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (16321723), who, using a microscope, identified the spermatozoon ("animalcule") in 1677. Ensuing controversy pitted "ovists" against "animalculists," who held that the male contributed all parts of the embryo. In most cases both ovists and animalculists rejected Aristotle's view that the embryo developed in a process of epigenesis, the progressive elaboration of new structures. Both generally favored the "preformationist" view that each individual exists as a preformed miniature in the matter present at conception and develops through mechanical enlargement. The epigenesistpreformationist debate culminated in an exchange between the Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller (17081777) and the German naturalist Caspar Friedrich Wolff (17331794). Initially a preformationist, Haller converted to epigenesis after studying the discovery by Abraham Trembley (17101784) of the regenerative capacities of the freshwater polyp. He later settled on ovist preformationism, fearing the irreligious implications of epigenesist theories like that of Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon (17071788), who postulated an "interior mold" that shaped development and disregarded the role of the creator. Challenging Haller, Wolff argued for a vis essentialis, or essential force, responsible for patterns of differentiation evident in development. Wolff made extensive use of plants to study development and thus effected a juncture with this branch of natural history.


Early description and ordering of plants and animals was undertaken as an adjunct to both the search for remedies and the humanist effort to identify references in works of the ancients. Herbals based principally on classical, Arabic, and Medieval Latin sources were among the first printed books. Sixteenth-century naturalists such as Conrad Gessner (15161565) began organizing local collecting expeditions. Accurate description and representation of distinctive external characteristics of leaf, flower, and fruit were emphasized. The number of species described steadily increased until, in the 1680s, the English naturalist John Ray (16271705) described some eighteen thousand species.

Interest in the comparative structure of the parts of plants distinguished the work of Andrea Cesalpino (15191603), medical professor first at Pisa and then Rome. Cesalpino sought unifying principles of classification and, after an interval, was followed in that effort by Joachim Junge (15871657), also a medical professor. The quest for a "natural" system of classification culminated in the work of Carl Linneaus (17071778), the Swedish naturalist whose work formed the basis for modern taxonomy.

Animals were similarly the focus of joint artistic and learned pursuits. Leonardo da Vinci (14521519) did his own dissections and compared the structure of body parts in humans, horses, bears, cats, monkeys, and other animals. The humanist lexicographer William Turner (15081568) compiled existing accounts of birds and added observations of his own. French naturalists including Pierre Belon (15171564) and Guillaume Rondelet (15071566) undertook comparative studies of fish. Much seventeenth-century work on the comparative morphology of animals was tied to the investigations into generation discussed above.

The natural history of plants and animals was of keen interest to both trained investigators and the educated public by the late seventeenth century. Religious feeling was central to the popularity of "natural theology." While the mechanical philosophy dispensed with direct intervention in nature by the deity, natural histories such as Spectacle of Nature (17321750), by Noël-Antoine, the Abbé Pluche, drew attention to the marvels of God's creation. The most influential naturalists of the eighteenth century, Linnaeus and Buffon, focused not on religious but scientific themes, especially the problem of how best to approach classification itself. Buffon's Natural History, a general history of the earth and living creatures, was published in many volumes beginning in 1749. Determinedly non-religious, it largely ignored biblical chronology and posited the passage of eons in which natural forms had altered.


Conventional history of science divided the early modern era into the Renaissance (14001550), the scientific revolution (15501700), and the Enlightenment (17001800), and generally treated life science as peripheral to the revolutionary changes under way in physical science. An alternate scheme divides the era into two phases, roughly 14501670 and 16701800, more appropriate to biology, with the break marked by a decisive rejection of both Aristotelian thinking and competing occult traditions in favor of inquiry based first on deductive reasoning and, finally, modern inductive science.

Twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholarship has been much affected by the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (19261984), who overturned traditional labels and periodization. Historians following his lead have questioned presumed continuities with modern science, recovered texts and formulations previously regarded as merely "curious," and investigated the interconnections between learned "discourses" and structures of power. Historical revisionism is also evident in the work of social "constructivists" who emphasize the social creation of knowledge rather than its emergence from autonomous intellectual dynamics.

See also Anatomy and Physiology ; Aristotelianism ; Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc ; Gessner, Conrad ; Haller, Albrecht von ; Harvey, William ; Leeuwenhoek, Antoni van ; Linnaeus, Carl ; Mechanism ; Medicine ; Museums ; Natural History ; Paracelsus ; Ray, John ; Scientific Revolution ; Vesalius, Andreas.


Ackerknecht, Erwin H. A Short History of Medicine. Rev. ed. Baltimore, 1982. A brief account of medical history, with some attention to larger issues in life science.

Butterfield, Herbert. The Origins of Modern Science: 13001800. Rev. ed. London and New York, 1957.

Clark, William, Jan Golinski, and Simon Schaffer, eds. The Sciences in Enlightened Europe. Chicago, 1999. Chapters on biopolitics, monsters, and natural history in the Enlightenment, with emphasis on the social foundations of knowledge.

Crombie, A. C. Medieval and Early Modern Science. Vol. 2, Science in the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: 13th17th Centuries. Garden City, New York, 1959. A standard survey of early modern science.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 11501750. New York and Cambridge, Mass., 1998. A Foucauldian study focused on the place of marvels in conceptions of natural order.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York, 1971. An early work of the French philosopher who has revolutionized intellectual and cultural history.

Hall, Thomas S. History of General Physiology, 600 B . C .to A . D . 1900. 2 vols. Chicago, 1975. Essential account of the history of physiology.

Impey, Oliver, and Arthur MacGregor, eds. The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Europe. Oxford and New York, 1985. A valuable work of institutional history.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, Mass., 1936. Classic study by the master of the "history of ideas."

Magner, Lois N. A History of the Life Sciences. 2nd ed. New York, 1994. Places early modern developments within the larger history of biology from the ancients to the era of genetics and molecular biology.

Roger, Jacques. The Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought. Edited by Keith R. Benson. Translated by Robert Ellrich. Stanford, 1997. Translation of Les sciences de la vie dans la pensée française au XVIIIe siècle: La génération des animaux de Descartes à l'Encyclopédie. Magisterial work on the problem of generation, chiefly but not exclusively on French inquirers.

Elizabeth A. Williams

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Biology." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Biology." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (January 18, 2018).

"Biology." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



What role do computers play in the study of biology? Most people understand that computers produce spreadsheets, help analyze data, graph results of experiments, and prepare final reports for presentations. Although computers are workhorses in these areas, computers and the Internet are considered vital in other ways to many different fields of biology and research. In some cases, computer science and biology (along with chemistry, physics, and mathematics) are woven so tightly together they have become inseparable.

Scientific Organizations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, is a U.S. government agency headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. The goal of the CDC is to protect the health and safety of U.S. citizens at home, work, and abroad through the detection, treatment, and prevention of health-related issues. The CDC has an integral role in the tracking of infectious diseases and uses computers in a multitude of ways.

This is illustrated by the Division of Parasitic Diseases (DPD), a branch of the CDC. The DPD extends knowledge and control of parasites and parasitic diseases primarily through the use of the Internet and extensive computer databases. At the agency's Internet web site, thousands of known parasites can be viewed (including microscopic slides). This aids in the identification of parasitic organisms and the diseases they cause.

Through the web site, the DPD supplies information to health care workers on how to recognize and treat possible cases of parasite-caused disease. Health care professionals can also find out how to get and submit samples for a diagnosis. Experts at the DPD will answer e-mailed questions and review digital images of slides of suspected parasites. Confirmed cases of parasitic infection are reported back to the DPD and are added to its extensive databases. Through the use of statistical analysis, trends of parasitic infections are tracked. Armed with this information, experts at the CDC are able to identify populations vulnerable to parasites. Steps can then be taken to find infected individuals for treatment and limit exposure to others, keeping people healthy.

Originally, the CDC was founded to eliminate malaria. It now tracks a multitude of infectious diseases, from AIDS to the common flu. In 2001, the CDC was engaged in building a National Electronic Disease Surveillance System, which through the Internet creates a broad-based and comprehensive system linking local and national health departments regardless of differing computer platforms and software. This new system will allow faster detection of and more rapid intervention against public health threats.

The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, is another U.S. agency that extensively uses computers and the Internet in its collection and application of biological information. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a subdivision of the NIH, maintains expansive databases on their computers, including known gene sequences, for molecular biology researchers all over the world. The largest biomedical research facility in the world, the NIH is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.


One field that has proved essential to gene sequencing is bioinformatics. Researchers in this field develop algorithms and software to allow enormous amounts of biological information to be processed. Bioinformatics is essential to molecular biologists working on "breaking" genetic codes.

With only ten percent of the world's bacteria identified, gene sequencing is also being used to examine the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of various bacteria. Scientists expect to use this method to identify previously undiscovered bacteria in what have always been considered inhospitable environments around the world, such as thermal springs, oil fields, or areas deep under the Earth's crust. Research on this amazing diversity of life contributes to humankind's knowledge of biological processes, and holds much promise for future researchers.

Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering

Bioengineering is a new study that brings the science of engineering into the science of cell and molecular biology. Bioengineers use computers to study the structure and processes of living cells and organisms. The advances from bioengineering are seen in fields as diverse as manufacturing, chemical industries, defense industries, electronics, and agriculture. For example, through bioengineering one can detect harmful pollutants in the environment and harmful microorganisms in food.

Biomedical engineering, however, draws from many fields of engineering, such as electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineering. It is used to advance medicine and health care. Computers are used to analyze the functions of cells, and then to design mechanical reproductions to master that function. Computers are needed to use the components that result. One well-known example of biomedical engineering is the artificial heart.

Another result of biomedical engineering is the mechanization of lab tests. Routine lab tests used to be conducted by hand. The process of, for instance, checking a complete blood cell count required several time-consuming steps. Frequently the test was repeated to rule out possible lab error. Through biomedical engineering, the testing processing is done quickly, efficiently, and with very little likelihood of lab error. A blood sample is marked with the patient's bar code moments after the blood is drawn from the patient. Once it is put in the automated machine, the computer takes over the processing. In some tests, computerized image analysis is used for a definitive diagnosis. The computer then directs the test results where needed. The use of automated lab tests lowers costs while vastly increasing efficiency, speed, and accuracy.

Environmental Biology

Computers are also valuable in environmental studies. Conservation agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, use computers in several ways. One key to successful conservation efforts is effective communication with local conservation groups, state officials, and local legislative bodies (who frequently decide upon important zoning issues). Through the Internet, a variety of educational materials are easily accessible.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's goal is to standardize equipment and provide reference material and electronic communication within the service, particularly to remote field offices, these efforts are seriously hampered by lack of funding for equipment upgrades. In other conservation efforts, computers are being used to model natural ecological systems for study. Satellite remote sensing, such as imagery and telemetry , make regional and landscape mapping easier, more accurate, and cost effective. This helps environmental biologists gather information more effectively.

With the growing sophistication of research needs and resources and the increased use of the Internet to gather, share, and analyze scientific data, evidence suggests that computers will continue to play a vital part in the study of biology in its many applications.

see also Molecular Biology; Physics; Scientific Visualization.

Mary McIver Puthawala and Anwer H. Puthawala

Internet Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web Site. <>

"DPDxIdentification and Diagnosis of Parasites of Public Health Concern." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. <>

Massey, Adrianne. "What Is Biotechnology?" Biotechnology Industry Organization. <>

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Biology." Computer Sciences. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Biology." Computer Sciences. . (January 18, 2018).

"Biology." Computer Sciences. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



Biology (from the Greek bios, meaning "life") is the scientific study of all forms of life, including plants, animals, and microorganisms.

Biology is composed of many fields, including microbiology, the study of microscopic organisms such as viruses and bacteria; cytology, the study of cells; embryology, the study of development; genetics, the study of heredity; biochemistry, the study of the chemical structures in living things; morphology, the study of the anatomy of plants and animals; taxonomy, the identification, naming, and classification of organisms; and physiology, the study of how organic systems function and respond to stimulation. Biology often interacts with other sciences, such as psychology. For example, animal behaviorists would need to understand the biological nature of the animal they are studying in order to evaluate a particular animal's behavior.

History of biological science

The history of biology begins with the careful observation of the external aspects of organisms and continues with investigations into the functions and interrelationships of living things.

The fourth-century b.c. Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with establishing the importance of observation and analysis as the basic approach for scientific investigation. He also organized the basic principles of dividing and subdividing plants and animals, known as classification. By a.d. 200, studies in biology were centered in the Arab world. Most of the investigations during this period were made in medicine and agriculture. Arab scientists continued this activity throughout the Middle Ages (4001450).

Words to Know

Classification: The system of arranging plants and animals in groups according to their similarities.

Genetic engineering: Altering hereditary material (by a scientist in a lab) by interfering in the natural genetic process.

Germ theory of disease: The belief that disease is caused by germs.

Microorganism: An organism that cannot be seen without magnification under a microscope.

Molecular biology: A branch of biology that deals with the physical and chemical structure of living things on the molecular level.

Natural selection: Process by which those organisms best adapted to their environment survive and pass their traits to offspring.

Scientific investigations gained momentum during the Renaissance (a period of rebirth of art, literature, and science in Europe from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century). Italian Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci (14521519) and Michelangelo (14751564) produced detailed anatomical drawings of human beings. At the same time, others were dissecting cadavers (dead bodies) and describing internal anatomy. By the seventeenth century, formal experimentation was introduced into the study of biology. William Harvey (15781657), an English physician, demonstrated the circulation of the blood and so initiated the biological discipline of physiology.

So much work was being done in biological science during this period that academies of science and scientific journals were formed, the first being the Academy of the Lynx in Rome in 1603. The first scientific journals were established in 1665 in France and Great Britain.

The invention of the microscope in the seventeenth century opened the way for biologists to investigate living organisms at the cellular leveland ultimately at the molecular level. The first drawings of magnified life were made by Francesco Stelluti, an Italian who published drawings in 1625 of a honeybee magnified to 10 times its normal size.

During the eighteenth century, Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (17071778) developed a system for naming and classifying plants and animals that replaced the one established by Aristotle (and is still used today). Based on his observations of the characteristics of organisms, Linnaeus created a ranked system in which living things were grouped according to their similarities, with each succeeding level possessing a larger number of shared traits. He named these levels class, order, genus, and species. Linnaeus also popularized binomial nomenclature, giving each living thing a Latin name consisting of two partsits genus and specieswhich distinguished it from all other organisms. For example, the wolf received the scientific name Canis lupus, while humans became Homo sapiens.

In the nineteenth century, many explorers contributed to biological science by collecting plant and animal specimens from around the world. In 1859, English naturalist Charles Darwin (18091882) published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in which he outlined his theory of evolution. Darwin asserted that living organisms that best fit their environment are more likely to survive and pass their characteristics on to their offspring. His theory of evolution through natural selection was eventually accepted by most of the scientific community.

French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur (18221895) showed that living things do not arise spontaneously. He conducted experiments confirming that microorganisms cause disease, identified several disease-causing bacteria, and also developed the first vaccines. By the end of the nineteenth century, the germ theory of disease was established by German physician Robert Koch (18431910), and by the early twentieth century, chemotherapy (the use of chemical agents to treat or control disease) was introduced. The use of antibiotics became widespread with the development of sulfa drugs in the mid-1930s and penicillin in the early 1940s.

From the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth century, the amount of research and discovery in biology has been tremendous. Two fields of rapid growth in biological science today are molecular biology and genetic engineering.

[See also Biochemistry; Botany; Ecology; Evolution; Genetics; Molecular biology; Physiology ]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Biology." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Biology." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . (January 18, 2018).

"Biology." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



Biology is defined as the science of living organisms. The diversity of activities contained within the field of biology is immense, and includes research into the origins, functions, and interrelationships of organisms, as well as the technological application of biological knowledge.

The idea that living forms gradually emerged through a process of evolution from much simpler forms in a branch-like system is no longer a contested issue in biology. Research into the fossil record, or palaeontology, and other subdisciplines of biology, such as comparative anatomy, biogeography, embryology, and genetics, have helped to trace patterns of common descent, including those between humans and primates. Charles Darwin's (18091882) theory of natural selection forms the basis of evolutionary theory, though other processes such as genetic drift and molecular drive have been proposed in addition. The relative pace of natural selection continues to be the subject of ongoing debate. The dynamics of genetic change in a population include mutation rates, migration of individuals from one population to another, genetic drift, and natural selection. The anatomical and behavioral differences within and among known hominid species can be traced. Other extinct species of humans have been discovered, though the consensus seems to be that Homo sapiens has a single original ancestor, who probably lived in Africa.

Ecology has enabled scientists to study more closely the way living organisms relate to each other. While early ecologists believed that ecosystems were stable and in equilibrium, this thesis has gradually given way to a more dynamic view, where contingency is predominant. Ecology includes not just the relationship between local communities of living things, but also extends to wider global and planetary systems. Some ecologists emphasize the idea of self-regulation within living systems, or autopoiesis, as well as the idea of emergence, understood in terms of properties that cannot simply be explained by upward causation from molecular mechanisms. Biosemiotics applies concepts from semiotics to elaborate the specific emergence of meaning, intentionality, and a psychic world. The latter can be compared to sociobiology, which tries to explain particular aspects of animal and human behavior by envisaging a shared biological and genetic origin.

The use of biological research to address specific human needs through biotechnology was given a radical boost following the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in the 1950s. The ability to move genes from one species to the next has opened up the possibility of even more radical human intervention in the evolutionary process. The most controversial changes are those that manipulate the human species. Nonetheless, changes in the nonhuman world also raise questions that are of concern to environmentalists. The general increase in technological and industrial activity has put considerable strain on the planet, which many biologists consider to be near its carrying capacity in terms of its ability to support the human population. Loss of species through, for example, habitat destruction, climate change, or direct exploitation has promoted a growing concern for an environmental ethic among secular and religious communities. Such questions move biology outside the realm of pure science into the realms of the politics and the economics of poverty, posterity, and social justice.

See also Biosemiotics; Evolution; Life, Origins of; Life, Religious and Spiritual Aspects; Life Sciences; Sociobiology

celia deane-drummond

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Biology." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Biology." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . (January 18, 2018).

"Biology." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



Biology is defined as the "study of life." The term life refers to all organisms (plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and protists) inhabiting Earth and its atmosphere. Both scientists and laypeople are drawn to biology because it seeks to answer the question of how life began. All of the acquired evidence points to a single origin for all living things.

The study of evolution shows that there are significant similarities among organisms that are not obviously related. Virtually every organism uses the same genetic code to builds its proteins , from the tiniest bacterium to the blue whale and the giant sequoia. A fungus and a horse break down sugar to release energy using (more or less) the same enzymes . Indeed, evolution, the gradual change in a population over time, serves as a unifying concept in biology.

The more related two species of multicellular organisms are, the more similar their anatomies in almost all cases. Species that rely heavily on one another for life evolve in response to each other's habits and characteristics. Researchers use animals closely related to humans in order to predict the effects of new drugs or surgical techniques on human subjects, taking advantage of evolutionary relationships that yield similar anatomies and physiologies in different organisms.

Biology's Subdisciplines

Biology encompasses many diverse subdisciplines. Systematics is the study of the diversity and classification of organisms. Cell biology is concerned with the structure and function of cells but also includes the interactions that occur between cells (for example, the signaling that occurs among different cells of the human body). The field of ecology considers interactions among organisms that inhabit the same area. For example, ecologists might study the changes in population size of a group of birds in response to the presence of a predator, or the impact of pollution on frog populations. Someone interested in medicine would need a solid background in anatomy, the study of the structure of the bodies of animals and how different components of the body relate to one another.

Physiology, which is closely related to anatomy, describes the mechanisms by which these different components perform. One might also study the anatomy and physiology of plants to learn how different tissues within a plant perform and interact. Microbiology, a field driven largely by the study of disease, is concerned with the structure, function, and interactions of microorganisms. Genetics is concerned with the inheritance of characteristics from parents to offspring, and the expression of genes to create the living organism.

Much emphasis in biology is in biotechnology, the use of organisms to create products. This field opens unimaginable possibilities for the diagnosis and treatment of hereditary diseases, production of drugs, and advancement of agriculture. At the same time, these prospects will challenge scientists with serious ethical considerations in the years to come, as the use of biotechnology requires scientists to manipulate the course of evolution.

see also Biodiversity; Biotechnology; Ecology; Evolution

Karen Gunnison Ballen


Krogh, David. Biology: A Guide to the Natural World. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Biology." Biology. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Biology." Biology. . (January 18, 2018).

"Biology." Biology. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


biology, the science that deals with living things. It is broadly divided into zoology, the study of animal life, and botany, the study of plant life. Subdivisions of each of these sciences include cytology (the study of cells), histology (the study of tissues), anatomy or morphology, physiology, and embryology (the study of the embryonic development of an individual animal or plant). Also included in biological studies are the sciences of genetics, evolution, paleontology, and taxonomy or systematics, the study of classification. The methods and attitudes of other sciences are brought to the study of biology in such fields as biochemistry (physiological chemistry), biophysics (the physics of life processes), bioclimatology and biogeography (ecology), bioengineering (the design of artificial organs), biometry or biostatistics, bioenergetics, and biomathematics. Evidences of early human observations of nature are seen in prehistoric cave art. Biological concepts began to develop among the early Greeks. The biological works of Aristotle include his observations and classification of his large collections of animals. The invention of the microscope in the 16th cent. gave a great stimulus to biology, broadening and deepening its scope and creating the sciences of microbiology, the study of microscopic forms of life, and microscopy, the microscopic study of living cells. Among the many who contributed to the science are Claude Bernard, Cuvier, Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Lamarck, Linnaeus, Mendel, and Pasteur. See marine biology.

See T. Lenoir, The Strategy of Life (1989); C. A. Villee et al., Biology (3d ed. 1989); N. A. Campbell, Biology (3d ed. 1993).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"biology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"biology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (January 18, 2018).

"biology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


bi·ol·o·gy / bīˈäləjē/ (abbr.: biol.) • n. the study of living organisms, divided into many specialized fields that cover their morphology, physiology, anatomy, behavior, origin, and distribution. ∎  the plants and animals of a particular area: the biology of Chesapeake Bay. ∎  the physiology, behavior, and other qualities of a particular organism or class of organisms: human biology. DERIVATIVES: bi·ol·o·gist / -jist/ n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"biology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"biology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (January 18, 2018).

"biology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


biology Science of life and living organisms. Its branches include botany (plants), zoology (animals), ecology (habitats and species' interaction), physiology (structure of living things), cytology (cells), genetics (inheritance), taxonomy (classification), embryology (embryos), and microbiology (microorganisms). These sciences deal with the origin, history, structure, development, and function of living organisms, their relationships to each other and their environment, and the differences between living and non-living organisms.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"biology." World Encyclopedia. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"biology." World Encyclopedia. . (January 18, 2018).

"biology." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


biology (by-ol-ŏji) n. the study of living organisms including their structure and function and their relationships with one another and with the inanimate world.
biological (by-ŏ-loj-ik-ăl) adj. —biologist n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"biology." A Dictionary of Nursing. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"biology." A Dictionary of Nursing. . (January 18, 2018).

"biology." A Dictionary of Nursing. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


biology The study of living organisms, which includes their structure (gross and microscopical), functioning, origin and evolution, classification, interrelationships, and distribution.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"biology." A Dictionary of Biology. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"biology." A Dictionary of Biology. . (January 18, 2018).

"biology." A Dictionary of Biology. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


biology •haji • algae • Angie •argy-bargy, Panaji •edgy, sedgy, solfeggi, veggie, wedgie •cagey, stagy •mangy, rangy •Fiji, gee-gee, squeegee •Murrumbidgee, ridgy, squidgy •dingy, fringy, mingy, stingy, whingy •cabbagy • prodigy • effigy • villagey •porridgy • strategy • cottagey •dodgy, podgy, splodgy, stodgy •pedagogy •Georgie, orgy •ogee • Fuji •bhaji, budgie, pudgy, sludgy, smudgy •bulgy •bungee, grungy, gungy, scungy, spongy •allergy, analogy, genealogy, hypallage, metallurgy, mineralogy, tetralogy •elegy •antilogy, trilogy •aetiology (US etiology), amphibology, anthology, anthropology, apology, archaeology (US archeology), astrology, biology, campanology, cardiology, chronology, climatology, cosmology, craniology, criminology, dermatology, ecology, embryology, entomology, epidemiology, etymology, geology, gynaecology (US gynecology), haematology (US hematology), hagiology, horology, hydrology, iconology, ideology, immunology, iridology, kidology, meteorology, methodology, musicology, mythology, necrology, neurology, numerology, oncology, ontology, ophthalmology, ornithology, parasitology, pathology, pharmacology, phraseology, phrenology, physiology, psychology, radiology, reflexology, scatology, Scientology, seismology, semiology, sociology, symbology, tautology, technology, terminology, theology, topology, toxicology, urology, zoology • eulogy • energy • synergy • apogee • liturgy • lethargy •burgee, clergy •zymurgy • dramaturgy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"biology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"biology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (January 18, 2018).

"biology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from