Natural History

views updated May 18 2018


NATURAL HISTORY. Columbus's first voyage to the Americas in 1492 transformed natural history perhaps more than any it did other early modern science. The ensuing development of European maritime empires of trade and commerce opened new routes for the acquisition of specimens, supplied museums of natural history with countless new species, and ultimately shaped natural history itself into a science intimately embedded within European systems of colonial governance over non-European peoples, floras, and faunas.

Natural history, as a discipline, had existed since classical times, and fifteenth-century Europeans were very familiar with Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis (4079 c.e.; Natural history). Throughout the early modern period, natural history continued to be acknowledged as the science that described the three kingdoms of the natural world: animals, plants, and minerals. Many other types of enquiry and interpretation would be undertaken under the umbrella term natural history between 1450 and 1789, but natural history as an enterprise of acquisition and description was mirrored in the sites in which it was practiced: collections. The early modern museum, cabinet, Wunderkammer ('chamber of wonders') or studio ('study') developed out of the medieval treasury and other settingsusually princely or ecclesiasticalin which rare, precious, and exotic items were amassed. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, collections continued to be largely the province of princely owners, making visible not only their personal wealth, but also their ability to gain access to unique objects from other parts of the world. Universality and comprehensiveness was the leading characteristic of these collections, which were designed as microcosms of the whole world, and in which natural rarities and works of artifice were not separated. Early modern collections were both showpieces that displayed power and repositories that preserved value.


Sixteenth-century natural history was part of the humanist tradition of learning with its literary and artistic orientation, typified by the writings of the Dutch scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536). The study of the natural world in the early modern period was first and foremost a philological pursuit. Authors of new publications plundered earlier manuscript and published works of natural history for descriptions, anecdotes, and proverbs concerning natural objects, including many that would today seem quite foreign to a scientific approach. The Milanese jurist Andrea Alciati's Emblemata (1522) configured animals as literary puzzles, with an obscure image and motto that the reader could decode by means of an epigrammatic poem. Emblematic texts of natural history accumulated literary materials rather than observations: fables, emblems, proverbs, allegories, sympathies. This emblematic tradition emphasized the symbolism of animals alongside their uses, rather than their anatomy or classification; it continued to dominate natural history until the very end of the sixteenth century, exemplified in the writings of naturalists such as the Lutheran Joachim Camerarius the Younger (15341598).

By the end of the sixteenth century, learned men across Europe collected natural history objects and advanced explanations for their nature, types, and transformations. Massive publication projects were often associated with collections like the famous studio of the "Bolognese Aristotle," Ulisse Aldrovandi (15221605). The great collections of individuals like Aldrovandi, the Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato (15501631) or the Dane Olaus Worm (15881654) were famous throughout Europe, visited by princes and noblemen, and documented in printed descriptions and catalogs such as the Museum Wormianum of 1655 in Leiden. Collections continued to play a central part in princely and scholarly identity, as in natural historical practice, throughout the early modern period, although the principles of their construction varied over time. In his many writings, the English philosopher Francis Bacon (15611626) called for the ejection of philology from natural history and for greater attention to wonders and monsters, the exotic and the rare. By the 1660s, museums were theaters of marvels, where the scholarly observer was encouraged to contemplate the philosophical issues raised by the juxtaposition of neighboring objects, which might reveal contrasts or similarities, the variety or the uniformity of nature. The wondrous natural or artificial object served as a basis for philosophical analysis, natural theology, and reflection on the role of the human observer, both as part of the natural world and as the transformer of its materials by art. Such studies always had a theological purpose as well: museums of natural history were described as "books of nature," which the scholar could read alongside the great book, the Bible, for pious purposes. This natural theological approach was typified by the writings of the Cambridge botanist John Ray (16271705).


A number of important institutions of European science were founded during the Renaissance, supported by rulers, nobles, universities, and municipal authorities. Alongside observatories, laboratories, and anatomy theaters came the first botanical gardens: Padua (1546) and Pisa (1547). Andrea Cesalpino (15191603), professor of philosophy, medicine, and botany at Pisa (15551592) and director of the botanical garden (15541558), was also the creator of one of the first herbaria and the inventor of botanical systematics. Cesalpino's classificatory system was an attempt to bring natural history within the purview of scholastic philosophy, with its logical categories and formulae. This exercise in conferring scholarly prestige upon an activity hitherto largely limited to medical herbalism enshrined botany within the universities and gave it the status of a science. Up until the end of the eighteenth century and beyond, natural historical classifications, such as that invented by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (16561708), professor of botany at the Jardin du Roi in Paris (founded 1635; since 1793, the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle), continued to draw on Cesalpino's work. Of all the subdisciplines of natural history, botany was the first to be formalized independently and to be practiced within institutions dedicated to its pursuit. Classification demanded not only the generation of logical categories based on a philosophical system, but also the material and practical enterprise of sorting, preserving, identifying, naming, distributing and, sometimes, propagating specimens from the three kingdoms of nature, animals, plants, and minerals. Botanical specimens far outstripped other natural history specimens such as animal carcasses or mineral samples in their portability and ease of preservation. By contrast, animal classification was contested, and reliable methods of preservation did not emerge until the very end of the seventeenth century at the hands of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (16381731). Minerals, with the exception of gemstones and precious metals, were less amenable to transportation or exploitation, although they were well represented in collections devoted to local natural history.

Natural history as a cumulation of objects and observations provided both factual certainty and greater knowledge of God, but it also had economic outcomes. Europe's botanical gardens were important centers for the acquisition, propagation, and distribution of new species derived from voyages of discovery and conquest undertaken with increasing frequency towards the eighteenth century. The potential of replicating useful plants, including coffee, potatoes, pineapples, and nutmeg, was explored throughout the early modern period, but more systematically after the formation of the first colonial botanical gardens in the late seventeenth century. Scientific participation in the proceeds of imperialist enterprises increased substantially during the eighteenth century as naturalists presented the organized pursuit of useful plants, animals, and minerals to rulers and patrons as indispensable to national wealth. Curious natural history thus coexisted with a repertoire of activities and practicescultivation, exchange, consumptionthat would transform the flora, fauna, foods and other natural resources of western Europe forever. Such an approach to natural history as a science of resources, peaking in the eighteenth century, required extensive cooperation among naturalists as well as vast financial support. A resource-oriented approach to natural history also justified the publication of local natural histories itemizing the flora, fauna, and mineral wealth of one province or state, especially in England and the German lands.


The distinction between private and public collections, or between curious and useful, was rarely clear-cut in botanical gardens, academies, or princely collections. Even naturalists wholly lacking institutional affiliations depended for their collecting upon the growth of European commerce and exploration. Natural history specimens ranked alongside valuable works of art from porcelain to paintings in the households of wealthy collectors and fetched nearly as much in the marketplace. The Dutch Republic was a center for fashions in the collection of natural objects, from tulips in the 1630s to shells in the 1710s. Both depended on the wide global reach of Dutch trade and colonization to supply new specimens. From a private collector's viewpoint, there was no categorical distinction to be made between beautiful objects of nature and art; seventeenth-century collectors admired the artifice of nature in decorating flowers or butterflies in much the same way as they appreciated the artistry of antique coins or sculpture. Natural objects acquired value within the marketplace, and their meaning was often controlled by wealthy connoisseurs of the fine arts and by the merchants who sold to them. This commercialization of natural history affected even rulers. As part of his attempt to westernize Russia by founding scientific institutions, Peter the Great of Russia (ruled 16821725), entered into negotiations with several naturalists to buy a collection worthy of his nation, finally succeeding in purchasing that formed by the Dutch apothecary Albert Seba (16651736). Although institution-based naturalists called for the separation of natural history objects from other types of collectables and the formation of collections dedicated exclusively to the natural world, such goals were not systematically pursued anywhere before 1789.

As were most sciences of the period, natural history was largely a male pursuit, with women collectors, such as the German artist Maria Sibylla Merian (16471717), greatly in the minority. Because imported specimens were rare and costly, early modern collectors were usually rich. The Dutch turn toward fashions in collecting was the start of a bigger Europe-wide transformation in natural history that paralleled the growth of a middling market for books and luxury items. By the eighteenth century, natural history publications, specimen sales, and public, pay-on-entry collections proliferated. Critiques of the pursuit of luxury among the middling sort accordingly hit hard at certain versions and practitioners of natural history. Private collectors were castigated for unscholarly amassing of natural objects as a means to display their personal wealth, and rulers were exhorted to support enterprises for a useful, rather than spectacular, natural history.

The lack of formal methods for accrediting scientific expertise meant that early modern naturalists in institutions were effectively on a par with unaffiliated private collectors. In early modern Europe there were no university degrees in natural history and no formal training programs or diplomas in the natural sciences. Individuals entered posts in princely or municipal institutions through personal patronage from social superiors. Often they acquired their knowledge and skills through a sort of informal apprenticeship under renowned naturalists, by participating in botanizing journeys or at the dissecting table. To acquire renown and scientific authority as a naturalist in the early modern period was thus no easy task, involving extensive social interaction and material manipulation, much of which has left little historical trace. If any one category of individuals had a privileged relationship with the objects of natural history, it was licensed medical practitioners. Apothecaries routinely dealt with large masses of animal, plant, and mineral material, and physicians often had a working knowledge of botany and anatomy. Thus many prominent early modern naturalists were also physicians, from Ruysch in Amsterdam to Sir Hans Sloane (16601753) at the Royal Society in London. Right up to the mid-eighteenth century, this privileged relation between medicine and natural history persisted, and it is only from 1750 onwards that the beginnings of its unraveling can be seen in the filling of natural historical posts by non-medically trained individuals.


In combining an emphasis on the literary and stylistic description of nature with a concern for its experimental and instrumental investigation, early modern natural history challenges preconceptions about linear progress in the history of scientific activity in the West such as are frequently represented in histories of the "scientific revolution" and the Enlightenment. The history of natural history relates to the history of display, order, and power for the early modern period, as well as to the history of early modern commerce and consumption. It was characterized by a close relationship with language, philology, and art, but, like other disciplines, it was transformed by the emergence of specialized institutions across Europe and by the rise to prominence of experimentation and observation as principles of practice in the scientific study of nature from the mid-seventeenth century. It was a science typified by social practicescorrespondence and exchangeas much as by texts, objects, and classifications. More than almost any other scientific activity, it was also shaped by the dependency of collections upon the gradual process of global scientific conquest. The transformation in natural history between 1450 and 1789 was dramatic. Emblems had vanished, fabulous beasts were vilified, and naturalists boasted less of their literary skills than of their powers of accurate observation. Whole groups of animals had disappeared from natural history, from the mermaid and unicorn to the hippogriff and basilisk, and others, such as the molecular animals (microorganisms), had entered it, symbolizing a shift in attention from texts to instruments, experiments, and observation.

Thanks to the new forms of experimental natural philosophy characterizing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific activity, natural history was gradually ceasing to be a science of words and objects alone. From the 1660s onwards, European naturalists investigated animal and plant physiology, opening up new domains of interpretation for natural beings, as for example the inquiries into plant sexuality pursued by Sébastien Vaillant (16691722) in Paris and the English botanist Nehemiah Grew (16411712). By the end of the eighteenth century, experiment had a prominent place in natural history, matched only by ambitious and labor-intensive networks of communication that gave naturalists access to specimens from around the world. Old and new traditions alike were evident in the activities of the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, better known as Carl, or Carolus Linnaeus (17071778), who drew upon Cesalpino's scholastic logic to create his sexual system, a classification based entirely on the sexual parts of the plant. The system, first published in Systema Naturae (1735; System of nature) and propagated by a European network of proselytizing Linnaean students, would earn lasting renown for its author as the "Prince of Botanists." Less well-known are Linnaeus's extensive experiments on naturalizing animals and plants within Sweden, and his close connections to supporters of cameralist politics there. His natural history was both a classificatory and an economic enterprise, grounded in a concern to understand the workings of Providence in distributing resources for mankind across the globe.

On the face of it, nothing could have been more different than the radical classificatory skepticism advanced by Linnaeus's archrival, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (17071788), the head of the Paris Jardin du Roi, in the famous Histoire naturelle (17491788, 1789; Natural history). Utterly different from Linnaeus's dry, aphorismic style, Buffon's poetic descriptions sketched cosmogonies and sweeping portraits of man's past, present, and future place in nature. Yet he was as active as Linnaeus in supporting a global program of acquisition and acclimatization of natural productions at his institution. More secular and more radical than Linnaeus, Buffon, the "French Pliny," concerned himself primarily with animals, opening the way for his institution to become the leading European center of natural history by 1800, and for zoology to become the nineteenth century's model of natural historical enquiry.

See also Academies, Learned ; Biology ; Botany ; Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc ; Linnaeus, Carl ; Marvels and Wonders ; Medicine ; Museums ; Scientific Classification ; Zoology .


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

Drayton, Richard. Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the "Improvement" of the World. New Haven and London, 2000.

Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1994.

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.

Jardine, Nicholas, J. A. Secord, and E. C. Spary, eds. Cultures of Natural History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Pinault, Madeleine. The Painter as Naturalist: From Dürer to Redouté. Translated by Philip Sturgess. Paris, 1991. On the art of natural history.

Pomian, Krzysztof. Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice, 15001800. Translated by Elizabeth Wiles-Portier. London, 1990.

Smith, Pamela H., and Paula Findlen, eds. Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science and Art in Early Modern Europe. New York and London, 2002. Numerous helpful essays on preservation, commerce and the problems these created for natural historical knowledge.

Stemerding, Dirk. Plants, Animals and Formulae: Natural History in the Light of Latour's Science in Action and Foucault's The Order of Things. Enschede, 1991.

Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 15001800. New York, 1996.

E. C. Spary

Natural History

views updated May 23 2018


Natural history, the study of natural objects, has been a feature of all literate civilizations. In the Western tradition, starting with Aristotle, natural history has engaged scholars and has been an important feature of Western literature. The perspective with which writers have approached natural objects, and the aspects of interest to them, have varied as much as their cultures. Natural history has been written about as a form of philosophy, as entertaining literature, and as a form of didactic lesson. Aristotle, Pliny, Albertus Magnus, and Ulisse Aldrovandi's "natural histories" in many ways have little in common other than the objects about which they wrote. In addition, non-Western civilizations have rich literatures that go back centuries, on plants, animals, and minerals. And, anthropologists make the claim that numerous non-literate peoples have developed sophisticated conceptions of the natural world and its objects.

As a scientific discipline, however, natural history has a more restricted domain. When the term natural history is used today, it is most often in reference to the subject as it emerged in the mid-eighteenth century. In this modern form, natural history is the systematic study of natural objects (animals, plants, minerals)that is, naming, describing, classifying, and searching for their overall order. As such, it has been at the heart of the life sciences. The modern scientific discipline of natural history that emerged in the middle of the eighteenth century was closely tied to the careers of two individuals: Carolus Linnaeus and Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon.

Naturalists, particularly those interested in plants, faced a serious problem at the time. An enormous quantity of material had come into Europe from areas recently explored by colonial powers. Naming and classifying the new plants presented a challenge because they did not fit easily into previously established systems. The Swedish naturalist Carlus Linnaeus (17071778) created a classification system for plants that placed them into twenty-four classes according to their number of stamens (male part) and their relative positions. The classes, in turn, were broken down into sixty-five orders primarily on the basis of the number and position of the pistils (female part). He used other characteristics to break the orders into genera and species. Overall, the system was simple, easy to remember, and easy to use.

Of equal importance, Linnaeus also provided a set of rules for naming plants. Before his reform of nomenclature, the scientific names of plants consisted of two parts, a word or set of words that identified a group of plants, and then a string of words that distinguished the characteristics of the plant from other plants. As a result, the scientific name was awkward, and because various writers had used different characteristics to distinguish different plants, considerable confusion existed. Linnaeus proposed a simple reform that made plant names like human names, a single name common to all the species in a genus, and a second specific name that distinguished the species from others in the genus. He used this binomial nomenclature in his Species plantarum (1753; The species of plants) and recorded all the known species of plants in it. Later he extended his approach to animals. His reform quickly caught on and is the basis for contemporary nomenclature.

Although Linnaeus's main goal was the naming and classifying of natural products, he described them as part of a divine order, a balanced and harmonious system. In his mind, every plant and animal filled a particular place in a balanced order and functioned to help maintain it. Carnivores, for example, daily destroyed animals that if not checked would reproduce at a rate that would outstrip their source of food in short order.

While Linnaeus labored in Sweden, to the south, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (17071788), worked on a more secular vision of nature, and in a somewhat different manner. Louis XV of France had appointed Buffon as director of his royal garden in Paris. The Jardin du Roi was an institution that provided public lectures in natural history, cultivated a large public garden, and housed the royal collection of natural history objects. Buffon had a brilliant career there: he expanded the physical space to double its former size, increased the collections, and helped make it into the foremost institution for the study of the living world. More important, Buffon set out to prepare a catalog of the royal natural history collection, a standard practice in most large collections. But instead of planning a mere annotated list of the curiosities and rare objects in the collection, Buffon envisioned a much grander project: a complete natural history of all living beings and minerals. Over a period of almost fifty years he published thirty-six quarto volumes containing a theory of the earth, and natural histories of human beings, minerals, quadrupeds, and birds. (The rest was completed by a team of specialists in the two decades after his death.)

Buffon's Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (17491789; Natural history, general and particular) comprises an encyclopedia that reflects the goals of the French Enlightenment. In his introductory essays, he elaborated a general philosophy that stressed the importance of observation and claimed that through empirical investigation naturalists might uncover the order in nature. He had little use for the work of people like Linnaeus who devoted their attention to naming and arranging specimens. In contrast, Buffon envisioned natural history to be a general survey of the natural world and an attempt to summarize all available knowledge about it. Also unlike Linnaeus, Buffon did not conceive of natural history as a hand-maiden to Christianity, but rather for him nature is a creative natural power responsible for the harmony, balance, and fullness of life. Natural history should be the portrait of nature. Like the physical world, so well described by the Newtonian physical scientists of his day, the living world follows natural laws that investigation would reveal. Buffon's secular vision provided an attractive alternative to Genesis and explains the importance of his reputation in the French Enlightenment.

Collections and the Growth of Natural History

Buffon and Linnaeus, although different in perspective, each contributed to molding natural history and inspiring others. They had each relied primarily on natural history collections for their work, rather than going out into the field in search of information. The fourteen thousand species of plants and animals described by Linnaeus, and the extensive accounts of quadrupeds, birds, and minerals that comprise Buffon's thirty-six volumes, reflected the extensive empirical base of knowledge available in private and public collections in the later half of the eighteenth century. But as impressive as the collections were compared to those of the previous century, they were just the beginning. An enormous expansion of natural history collections took place in the early nineteenth century and completely transformed them as well as natural history. Explorers, colonial officials, traveling naturalists, and commercial natural history houses had supplied collectors in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, however, a new wave of European colonial expansion began, one reflecting the vast industrial and commercial revolutions that had been taking place in western Europe. Merchants and governments increasingly sought international markets and commercial products, and with these new developments there came what must have seemed like limitless opportunities for the collection of plants, animals, and minerals. The resulting new collections were not only larger, but they were more scientifically valuable because trained collectors in the field were instructed in what was of scientific interest. They knew how to adequately preserve specimens and how to label them with appropriate information.

Combined, the new opportunities to collect on a global scale made a new sort of natural history collection possible. Until the end of the eighteenth century, most natural history collections had been primarily amateur ones whose owners were not scientists and who did not publish anything other than the occasional catalog. The reorganization during the French Revolution of the royal garden into a national museum of natural history provided a new model and led to the establishment of the leading natural history collection in the world for many decades. The new public and semi-public museums that were inspired by the Paris museum had professional curators who were active scientists.

Not only did the nature of the collections change in the early nineteenth century, but the number of individuals involved in the study of natural history increased dramatically. In large part, this reflected the many new opportunities that became available for those interested in the subject. Not only were more museums created, with curator positions, but also private companies supplied paid positions for those willing to travel to exotic places to collect specimens. The increase in literacy and the revolution in printing created new markets for those interested in writing for the general public. As a consequence, more people came to be engaged in the study of natural history, and the subject became, overall, more rigorous and more specialized.

Although the specialization in natural history created new specialized subdisciplines, such as ornithology and entomology, the legacy of Linnaeus and Buffon continued to guide researchthat is, description, classification, and the search of a general order in nature. New empirical data raised interesting new questions. The carefully collected and labeled specimens that poured into European collections showed interesting patterns of distribution of animals and plants. Fossils from local and exotic quarries led researchers to ponder the relationship of extinct forms to contemporary ones. And the immense number of specimens showed that even within a species there was an astonishingly large amount of variation. What did it all mean?

Maturity of Natural History

The nineteenth century was rich in new theoretical approaches that attempted to explain the vast diversity in nature and the patterns that were emerging. On a more practical level, international commissions were established and worked to produce agreed-upon standards in nomenclature, bringing Linneaus's goal of unity in naming closer. Museum curators developed taxidermic techniques that eliminated the threat of insect pests and pioneered new methods of display that would culminate in the wonderful dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Biological Museum in Stockholm, and in the hundreds of other large museums that were established. Natural history museums became standard institutions in all major cities, and the new museums were large, well funded, and well attended. By 1900, there were 250 natural history museums in the United States, 300 in France, and 150 in Germany. Beyond the United States and Europe there were museums from Melbourne to Bombay, from Buenos Aires to Montreal. Along with the development of museums, there was a parallel development of zoological and botanical gardens that displayed and did research on living specimens. These were extraordinarily popular: In its first year, 1828, the Zoological Gardens in London's Regent Park had 130,000 visitors, and over the following decade that number swelled to a quarter of a million a year. By the 1880s, the garden attracted more than 600,000 people a year. With size and public support, the zoological and botanical gardens played new and important roles other than public entertainment and scholarly research. Kew Garden, outside London, functioned in an important manner in the global agricultural network that linked British interests to the transfer of important economic plants such as rubber plants and cinchona trees (important for quinine) throughout the empire. The New York Zoological Society Park pioneered the preservation of endangered species.

Important as these institutional and technical developments were, they have been somewhat overshadowed by the major intellectual synthesis provided by Charles Darwin (18091882). His theory of evolution by means of natural selection resolved the leading questions in natural history and also provided an intellectual structure that has proved to be the unifying theory of the life sciences. Like other naturalists of the nineteenth century, Darwin had been struck by the enormous diversity in nature and the interesting patterns of distribution that he and others observed. He was, similarly, curious about the relationship of fossils to living forms, and like many of his contemporaries who were trying to classify large groups, he attempted to sort out the differences between varieties and species. He approached the study of natural history with a secular perspective and sought natural explanations for the questions he asked. In an interesting sense, he combined and synthesized the traditions stemming from Linnaeus and Buffon. He sought the key to a classification and nomenclature system, and was searching for a secular vision of the order in nature. His Origin of Species (1859) has served as a model for how to envision and study nature.

Not that everyone agreed with his conclusions or his methods. For several decades scientists debated Darwin's theory. Some, like Louis Agassiz (18071873), did not want to break the tie between natural history and religion, while others were disturbed by numerous scientific problems: the age of the earth was not believed to be old enough for the process to have occurred, the theories of inheritance did not adequately explain how variation arose or how it could be transmitted in a way that supported the theory. Those in the medical sciences had been making great strides in investigations by using the experimental method and were elaborating a theory of the body based on an understanding of the cell. It was not clear how Darwin's science fit with that body of research. This latter issue was of special importance because many universities and other institutions were tending to see natural history as "old fashioned" by the end of the century and sought a new synthesis for the life sciences in the exciting research stemming from the experimental sciences that were elucidating how the body functions.

Modern Synthesis and Contemporary Natural History

Life scientists in the late nineteenth century were agreed that life had evolved over time, but there was considerable disagreement over how that evolution had taken place. Darwin's emphasis on natural selection was thought to be problematic, and a variety of alternatives were proposed. The research on genetics in the early decades of the twentieth century provided tools for a new examination of the subject. Starting with Theodosius Dobzhansky's (19001975) Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), naturalists were able to bring together several different lines of research to construct a new theory of evolution, one based on natural selection and the genetics of population change. Like Darwin's earlier theory, the modern synthesis, as the new theory is called, proved widely synthetic. Dobzhansky once wrote that nothing made sense except in the light of evolution, and this very well sums up the tremendous generalizing power of the modern theory. It has brought an evolutionary perspective on traditional subjects like the study of fossils and distribution, or the foundations of classification and nomenclature, as well as subjects like animal behavior, ecology, and conservation biology. With techniques and information from molecular biology, the theory of evolution has been extended to an understanding of evolution on the molecular level.

With contemporary interest in molecular biology, and especially the potential medical applications that it promises, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of natural history today. The unifying theory of the life sciences is still the theory of evolution that emerged from the naturalist tradition and is deeply rooted there. Contemporary naturalists like Edward O. Wilson argue that natural history still provides the vantage point from which to stand back and conceptualize the general order in nature. By studying a particular group from its molecular aspects to its widest ecological dimension, Wilson contends, we can go beyond much of the narrow research and discover general features of life. On a more practical side, natural history provides the tools for examining environmental issues and has been central in the call for preserving the bio-diversity of the planet.

Natural history has been at the heart of the life sciences for over two centuries and remains a powerful set of ideas about the study of nature and its order. It has given rise to the major unifying theory of the life sciences, and it remains the repository of what we know about natural objects on the earth.

See also Biology ; Ecology ; Environment ; Nature ; Science .


Allen, David Elliston. The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

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

Barrow, Mark V., Jr. A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Blunt, Wilfrid. The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York: Viking, 1971.

Browne, Janet, Charles Darwin: Voyaging. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

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

Farber, Paul Lawrence. Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Gunther, Albert E. A Century of Zoology at the British Museum through the Lives of Two Keepers, 18151914. London: Dawsons, 1975.

Jardine, N., J. A. Secord, and E. C. Spary, eds. Cultures of Natural History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Mayr, Ernst, and William B. Provine, eds. The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Rothfels, Nigel. Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Shteir, Ann B. Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England, 17601860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Paul Farber

Natural History

views updated May 21 2018


Natural history—encompassing a suite of subjects now considered distinct, including botany and zoology, paleontology, geology, mineralogy, and ethnography—was the most American of sciences during the early national period and the first in which American scientists other than Benjamin Franklin attained international stature. It also served as a means for European Americans to conceptualize racial differences.

European gardeners and botanists were eager for specimens of the flora and fauna from exotic North America, and some American botanists exploited this opportunity for tidy profits from the wilderness. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Quaker botanists John Bartram (1699–1777) and his cousin Humphry Marshall (1722–1801) were scouring the colonies from Florida to New York for rare plants for use in agriculture, gardening, and science; were studying Indian uses of plants for new uses in medicine; and were using religious, commercial, and social networks to distribute plants and seeds abroad. Though initially viewed as little more than merchants, Bartram gained respect for his acuity in introducing and describing new species, and Marshall for employing the high science of Linnaean systematics (the Linnaean system of classification) in his Arbustrum Americanum (1785), the first treatise on American trees written by an American. Indeed, for most practitioners in early national America, natural history was largely a utilitarian exercise, with taxonomy (rarely systematics) enjoying the greatest prestige but economic utility providing the impetus.

As a result of the influence of Bartram and Marshall, Philadelphia became a center of botanical interest and education. In 1789 the University of Pennsylvania appointed Benjamin Smith Barton (1766–1815) as professor of materia medica and later professor of botany, becoming the first American institution of higher learning to dedicate a position to the natural sciences. Barton's students and peers created an extensive network of researchers based on correspondence and exchange of specimens, and supported by the botanical gardens founded by David Hosack (1769–1835) in New York and André Michaux (1746–1802) in New Jersey and South Carolina, as well as by private collections such as William Hamilton's in Philadelphia. Natural history continued to attract Americans. According to many practitioners, natural history offered peculiar advantages over other sciences, requiring little in the way of complex apparatus or theoretical acuity. Moreover, Americans enjoyed a proximity to nature unavailable in settled Europe, and these scientists took the botanical description of America as a national project and point of national pride. Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), naturalists as well as explorers, collected some of the most distinctly American plants of all, yet ironically and to the dismay of American botanists, the German botanist Frederick Pursh (1774–1820) absconded with some of Lewis's specimens and published descriptions of them in London, scooping his American colleagues.

The wilderness exerted a formative, though not always positive, influence on the American character. Americans' daily lives brought them into contact with both American Indians and Africans—a situation made possible by slavery and continental conquest and providing a unique empirical basis from which to explore racial biology. Indeed, by the 1790s, race had become a central concern of American natural history. Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), Samuel Stanhope Smith (1750–1819), Charles Caldwell (1772–1853), and Samuel George Morton (1799–1851) systematically delineated how and why different racial types differed, and they used anatomy and behavior to order the races on a linear gradient of social and cultural "development." In the generations of natural historians extending from Rush to Morton, the center of gravity of scientific opinion shifted from viewing phenotypic differences as a product of the environment to viewing them as an innate and unalterable division marked in body, mind, and character.

See alsoBotany; Environment, Environmental History, and Nature; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Medicine; Patent Medicines .


Cronon, William, ed. Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995.

Gamez, Alicia M. "Making American Nature: Scientific Narratives of Origin and Order in Visual and Literary Conceptions of Race in the Early American Republic." Dissertation, Stanford University, 2000.

Porter, Charlotte M. The Eagle's Nest: Natural History and American Ideas, 1812–1842. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982.

Welch, Margaret. The Book of Nature: Natural History in the United States, 1825–1875. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Robert S. Cox

Natural History

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Natural History


Animals, Plants, and Minerals. An investigation of the medieval study of nature provides an interesting glimpse into how scientists of the period organized their knowledge and why they undertook their study. In some cases their investigations were academic, while in others they were seeking to elaborate and explain scripture, and in still others they had extremely practical goals. To document their studies they produced manuscript herbals, which illustrate plants and their medicinal properties; lapidaries, which show stones and their physical, magical, emblematic, or medicinal qualities; and bestiaries, which depict animals and describe their habits. In all these manuscripts mythical lore, Christian tradition, travelers’ tales, workmen’s knowledge of their crafts, and direct observations might mingle and intertwine to produce, in some cases, encyclopedic descriptions of the natural world.

Albertus Magnus. One of the most proficient and prolific medieval natural scientists was Albertus Magnus, a thirteenth-century Dominican administrator and teacher in west-central Germany. More than any other medieval scholar, Albertus was responsible for recovering and, most important, legitimizing Aristotle’s works on animals and plants, as well as works on those subjects by Arab writers. The teaching of Aristotle’s natural science had been condemned by the church in 1210, for these works by a pagan philosopher were considered dangerous, and hence wrong. (The existence of many scientific works by Arab scholars, who were non-Christians as well, also cast suspicion on the study of natural history.) Although the ban was lifted in 1234, most Christian scholars were not immediately favorable to Aristotle or the field of natural science. Albertus almost singlehandedly changed this attitude. Although today many of the natural phenomena that he reported seem odd or ludicrous, even when he claimed that he saw them himself, Albertus insisted that experience and theory must coincide, an idea that seems largely missing from the scientific writings of earlier authors. Among his many and impressive contributions to the physical sciences, his observations in botany, zoology, and geology are particularly notable. He compiled massive treatises listing hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of different plants, animals, or minerals. His remarkably complete descriptive passages are frequently complemented by his perceptive theoretical groupings or explications of causal relationships (as, for example, in the generation or evolution of plants and animals, the ecology of a region, or the uses of stones)—most derived from firsthand observations or reports from sources he trusted, not preconceived overarching theories. In particular, he rejected the ancient idea that fossils were created as they presently existed, accepting instead the idea of Arabic philosopher Avicenna (Abū ’Alī al-Hussayn ibn ’Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā), who said they were petrified animals that had once been living.

Albertus’s Limitations. While Albertus’s works are masterful, the entries in them often seem fanciful to the modern reader. In many cases his descriptions confuse substances that are now known to be separate entities. Though the descriptive aspects of his works are similar to the entries found in modern guides to animals, plants, or minerals, Albertus’s writings are not simply descriptive. To the medieval natural scientist, description was only the first step in interpreting and determining the significance of an object. Entries for plants, animals, or rocks frequently start with where the substance is found and what authorities verify its existence or properties, but then they include information that surely cannot be verified by empirical observation. Like many people of his time, Albertus seems to have accepted that many stones have magical properties. Since institutions such as museums did not exist in the Middle Ages, and travel was difficult and severely limited, Albertus often relied on reports of faraway—and usually exotic—places. He took many things on faith from them, even when descriptions began with comments such as “It is said” or some other qualifying phrase. In many cases Albertus allowed the good reputation of the person who wrote the report to override com-monsense skepticism. Still, Albertus and other medieval writers on stones, plants, and animals made a valuable contribution to modern natural science by codifying information from antiquity and adding to from direct or indirect contemporary observations. They bequeathed to later ages a body of “facts” that form the foundation for the modern sciences of geology, botany, and zoology.


Albertus Magnus, The Book of Minerals, edited and translated by Dorothy Wyckoff (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

Albertus Magnus, On Animals, translated and annotated by Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr. and Irven Michael Resnick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

James A. Weisheipl, ed., Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1980 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980).

natural history

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nat·u·ral his·to·ry • n. 1. the scientific study of animals or plants, esp. as concerned with observation rather than experiment, and presented in popular rather than academic form. ∎  the study of the whole natural world, including mineralogy and paleontology.2. Med. the usual course of development of a disease or condition, esp. in the absence of treatment: the natural history of cancerous tumors.DERIVATIVES: nat·u·ral his·to·ri·an n.

natural history

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natural history
1. The study of living organisms in their natural habitats.

2. The study of all natural phenomena.

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